Saturday, May 15, 2010

Classic Sports Debates, Part 1: Elite Tennis Players

Politics has been the main centerpiece of this blog's recent revival, but if you poke around the archives (the title of this blogsite means something, after all), you'll find plenty of sports content. Moreover, since Twitter - in all its grand diversity - is almost always the inspiration for new posts here, it only makes sense that we not limit ourselves to political conversation. (Besides, religion sometimes finds its way into the mix, and we'll revisit that for our politico-religious crowd before too long).

Therefore, it's worth taking a timeout from Democrats and Republicans and progressives and libertarians to deal with two debates inspired by a tweet exchange with the regularly thought-provoking Juan Jose, a friend from the TennisWorld blog and one of the most compelling voices on Twitter. Sometimes hard-edged but faithfully thoughtful, J.J. brings a welcome soulfulness to sports, and he has a 100-percent success rate in terms of stretching my mind when we talk about the fascinating arena of athletic competition.

Let's cut to the chase.

Thursday night, we debated whether Nikolay Davydenko was an elite tennis player or not. Human beings will have different definitions of "elite," much as people at different places on the political spectrum will carry different definitions of various other terms which color not only their lexicon, but their understanding of the world. (In fact, the definition of the word "elite" - when used in a political or socioeconomic context - is actually something that the Left and the Right would both do well to re-examine. But I digress... this is about sports more than anything else.)

What this sports-based post can (and should!) do for us is to help us lay out the parameters of our views. What shapes our opinions? Do we hold them in proper balance and proportion in accordance with everything else in our lives? If we don't, is there a good reason for such a divergence, a reason we can clearly articulate and then integrate into the rest of our larger perspective? I will try to establish a basic framework for my views, and I would invite Juan Jose - either in the comments section here or on Twitter - to share the intellectual structure or foundation which undergirds his understanding of this issue.

So, the question before this sports debate panel is: Should Nikolay Davydenko be considered an elite tennis player?

J.J. will have his own definition of elite (which will naturally have a lot to say about his arguments and conclusions), but here's mine:

Being "elite" as a professional athlete [not a collegiate one; huge difference!] involves three basic characteristics (in my mind, of course):

1) Achievement at a consistently high level, relative to one's abilities but also in connection to the standards one sets over the course of a professional career.

2) Achievement at a level elevated enough to command the highest degree of respect from one's peers. Performances over the course of whole seasons, extended over time, should merit status not just as an overachiever, but as a competitor of the first order. A pro athlete should be able to say that s/he maximized the opportunities that were given to him/her. This doesn't (necessarily) mean winning a majority of huge matches, but it does mean that on the days when events and circumstances were favorably aligned, openings were seized to full effect.

3) A track record of results in big tournaments/situations that is at least somewhat similar to second-tier or "regular season" outcomes.

A short summary: 1) Consistency. 2) Not just any kind of consistency, but particularly high-quality consistency. 3) Bringing the A-game in an appreciable percentage of big tournaments.

For me, Davydenko did not pass the test. It's fair to say that he meets part one of the requirements of an elite professional athlete (in this case, a tennis player), but he fails by a small to modest margin in part two. Part three destroys him.

Davydenko, given his skill set, has gotten almost everything he can out of a less-than-imposing body. One of the worker bees of men's tennis, "Kolya" found a way to make constant effort his friend in much the same way that Ivan Lendl did. Lendl said during his career that if he ever stopped playing tennis for periods of time, his rhythm and feel would evaporate; that seems to be the mindset Davydenko has applied to a career which rarely took breaks. The Russian would play in tournaments such as Tashkent while the other big dogs on the ATP Tour chose to rest. Was this a smart strategy? Maybe not, in light of persistent injuries that have kept Davydenko sidelined for much of the past 18 months. However, Davydenko's tennis has continuously rounded into form after each of his injuries. He just needs the court time needed to consolidate his improvements.

I find Davydenko, on balance, to be an admirable figure with a positive story to tell. Players with 100 times as much talent have achieved little better than Kolya has. The Nikolay Narrative is a happy one in the bigger picture, much as one could say that being a top-10 regular qualifies a tennis player as "elite" in the bigger picture.

However, I'm not really speaking in the bigger picture, and this is where things can become confusing.

While I definitely treasure, cherish and promote the achievements, virtues and values of many professional athletes, I also carry rigorous standards to certain debates. If I feel that a tennis player does not rise to the level of an elite performer, that doesn't mean I lack admiration for the man (or woman) in the arena. Nikolay Davydenko represents a success story in the tennis community, but that doesn't earn him an automatic ticket to the pantheon of elites in the sport's history.

This is all another way of saying, "Being a bleeding heart liberal in one's view of athletes and teams is not the equivalent of going all soft and gooey on the matter of standards, and relaxing restrictions/qualifications for certain distinctions and honors."

Davydenko's recent (multiple) runs of Masters Series titles, plus his ability to defeat Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the same tournaments, have shown how well this upper-tier player can wield the stick inside a tennis rectangle. Davydenko's boatload of major-tournament quarterfinals certainly marks him as a man with more credentials and scalps than 98 percent of the rest of the men's tour. If you attached these metrics to the notion of what it means to be "elite," then you're right to view Kolya as such.

I simply think the bar needs to be set higher.

Precisely because he has reached so many quarterfinals (10), plus a number of major semifinals (4), Davydenko - while never the best player in any Big Four event he's entered - has had a fair amount of chances to find his magic moment and, at the very least, make a major final. Yet, this tremendous Masters Series player and weekly worker has never stood on court for the trophy presentation at a Grand Slam showcase... not even for the runner-up trophy.

Yes, he just wasn't good enough to beat Roger Federer in the 2006 U.S. Open semifinals, but he had Fed on the ropes in the first set of the 2007 semis, and let Federer get away in what was a sloppy match. (Andrew Burton would know. :-)

Yes, Davydenko tightened up against Federer in the 2007 French semis, so we can allow for some nerves there, but then why did Kolya not close the door on Mariano Puerta in 2005 at Roland Garros? It's fair to expect Kolya to make at least one major final, and ideally two, before we dare to accord him that laurel of laud and praise known as "elite men's tennis player." The man who works his tail off and squeezes so much success from his talents has to get past the fear of triumph in tennis's biggest and most man-making motivational moments.

Davydenko's absence of poise when in sight of prosperity and paradise is legitimately breathtaking. This sad yet undeniable reality was evinced most clearly when - in total control of that Federer fellow in the 2010 Australian Open quarters - Kolya allowed one bad shot at net to hijack his concentration, form, body language, and holistic well-being. He regrouped and briefly showed flashes of the fearsome form that carried him to the 2009 ATP World Tour Finals championship, but just when the possibility of a comeback seemed legitimate in the fourth set, Davydenko flinched one more time and faded into the background.

Overachiever? Yes.

Better on a career level than another non-elite player, David Nalbandian? Yes. (We could talk about Nalbandian's elite (non-)status in the comments section if we wanted to.)

Elite men's professional tennis player? No.

Not yet, anyway.

We have standards to uphold here, you know. Make a major final, Kolya, and then we can begin to revisit this discussion.

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