Opportunities that come and go
LONDON -- Joe Morgan, the great Hall of Fame second baseman, once grew tired of the poetic waxing and mythologies surrounding the game and decided it was time to pour a bucket of cold reality on the game.
"Baseball is only fun if you're good at it, if you're a star," Morgan told me. "If you're not, if you're the 25th man constantly trying to make a roster, it's hard. There's nothing glamorous about it. It can be terrible, day to day, waiting to be sent down, not having the talent to have security to enjoy being in the big leagues. If you don't have star-level skill, you play the game every day just to survive."
With many seeded players upset or retiring from injuries, a similar underside of tennis - the lower-ranked player whose primary function isn't winning Grand Slams but just to survive in the game at far-flung challenger events and tournament qualifying rounds - was on display this week at Wimbledon.
For the writers, the television commentators and fans, these surprise names added a spark and feel-good element to a Grand Slam dynamic in which Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have won 31 of the past 33 majors (Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro won the other two), but injuries for and shocking upsets of Nadal and Federer have created a wide-open draw and, in return. opportunity for an unknown to make a real statement here -- and the folds the past two days have been as spectacular as the upsets themselves.
Sergiy Stakhovsky, who beat Federer by charging the net 96 times, playing smartly and fearlessly, was overwhelmed by the attention that comes with beating Federer -- the interviews, the increased pressure -- and appeared for his next match against Austrian veteran Jurgen Melzer less sharp and less focused and lost a huge chance to advance in four frustrating sets."No, it's just a mental thing. I was not as ready for such a turnover," Stakhovsky said. "I mean, next time, if I'm able to produce such a result, beating a top player on a Grand Slam or any other event, I'll be more prepared and I will know how to behave myself. Today was just a new experience for me which I was not prepared for. I'm just a little disappointed that I got so blinded by the game I produced with Roger that I kept going with the same game I played against Jurgen, which was just not right. If I would be just a bit more smarter, I could have been a winner today, I think," Stakhovsky said.
Leave the stardust to the fans. A Cinderella run stings a bit if it isn't followed up by better results, results that can transform a career, turn journeymen into stars.
Lukas Rosol, ranked 100 when he shocked Nadal last year here, is now ranked 35th, quite near a main draw entry at majors.
The stakes are too high to come up small.
Five of the eight men in the fourth round are unseeded, and some of the players who failed to reach the fourth round let opportunity slip through their fingers.
Brown is ranked 189th in the world, bounces around the challenger circuit and travels to some tournaments in a van. He was terrific against Hewitt, athletic and rangy with a big serve, banging 21 aces and 74 winners, playing with enough power and charisma that he not only was a crowd favorite but one about whom people in the crowd were whispering the same question: "Exactly how is he ranked 189th?"
In his next match, Brown showed why, bowing out meekly in straight sets to the world No. 111, Frenchman Adrian Mannarino, who advanced after John Isner retired after two games in their second-round match with a leg injury. Against Mannarino, Brown lacked energy. His shot selection was reckless.
After his match, Brown talked of the difficulty of the lifestyle, its competitiveness, of the slim gap between the household names and the players flying coach to qualify for matches.
"All of these guys can play tennis in the top 200, 300," Brown said. "Think about playing the first round against Daniel Brands, who is [ranked about] 50 now, who at the beginning of the year was 170. Play against him. Play against Lukas Rosol. These are the guys you're playing at challengers.
"Of course I'm sad that I lost. … When I came here, I was in the qualies, I thought, 'I lost two rounds in qualifying in Nottingham, what am I expected to do here?" Brown said. "If someone would have told me from the beginning, 'Sign here, you get the third-round prize money and point and you are going to win five matches, I would've taken the deal."
Still, all of which highlighted what a missed opportunity the Mannarino match was for Brown, not just by losing but by playing so poorly. Conversely, Mannarino, who had not won a match this year on the ATP tour, took advantage of the draw. He is one win from the quarterfinals.
It is one thing to lose but quite another not to show up, and Benoit Paire didn't show up. The Frenchman, the 25th seed, had been set up for a quarterfinal run as soon as the tournament began. No. 5 Nadal lost to world No. 135 Steve Darcis. No. 11 Stanislas Wawrinka lost to Hewitt in the first round. No. 18 Isner retired, leaving Paire as the highest seed in a section of journeymen.
Maybe he overlooked his opponents, or maybe he had a bad day, but Paire responded to his third-round match with world No. 130 Lukasz Kubot of Poland by not showing up, getting beat in straight sets. Paire seemed distracted, and the end came quickly. He is a rising star on tour who blew a big chance.
And now, in the round of 16 at a major, the 111th-ranked player in the world will play the world No. 130 for a chance to play in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.
On one hand, Paire is the biggest disappointment. On the other, he has enough talent that his career trajectory suggests other chances. Of course, Kubot and Mannarino are taking advantage of the chance Brown, Stakhovsky and Paire let pass.
"I always call it 'managing opportunities,'" former world No. 4 and ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said. "The draw is opening up. The big guys are gone. You've got a chance. This is it. But, you see it all the time with guys who have a big upset. What do they do next? Are they as prepared? Did they do too many interviews? Forget the feel-good side of it. If you're one of those guys, this is a career chance. Can't let it slip by."