Rite of Passage

By Owais Majid

There are many aspects of sport that seem like a microcosm of life itself, which may be why many of us are so invested in it. One facet that is particularly prevalent in this regard is that of success rarely coming our way without a considerable amount of struggle preceding it. I’d venture that the majority of you reading this have probably faced some level of adversity prior to feeling something more positive. Maybe it was a rejection from a job you so dearly wanted, maybe you were turned down by the person your heart was set on. Maybe it was something more trivial or more serious, but we’ve all at some point had to overcome something that felt pretty rubbish at the time and been better off for the experience. 

For Taylor Fritz, it was losing a five-set epic at the hands of Rafael Nadal after being two sets to one up with his opponent badly hindered by an abdominal injury. (Coincidentally, if you want to read about said injury, Owen wrote a really thought provoking article which you should check out.) Considering the position Fritz was in and the position that his opponent was in, this will certainly go down as a huge missed opportunity for the American. Fritz’s reaction of dejection at the end of a tiebreak during which Nadal truly showed his class spoke volumes. By the time his press conference rolled around, the pain clearly hadn’t subsided a great deal, as he remarked that this was “the worst I’ve ever felt after a loss.” 

The loss would probably have been easier to deal with had he been outclassed in straight sets, but though he may not appreciate it at this moment in time, this nature of the loss will probably be more beneficial for him for the future. One thing I think we underestimate about elite athletes, and I’m talking especially about the GOATs here, is how hardened they all are by gut wrenching losses and how, later in their careers, they develop such a knack for being clutch when it most matters. Nadal is arguably the perfect example here. Time and time again he has brought out his best at the most pivotal points of his matches, and you don’t just develop that overnight. 

Nadal’s sheer mental fortitude may be a factor in his success, but all the same, he has suffered losses throughout his career that have shaped the player he’s become. Now, I’m not saying that Fritz will ever reach GOAT level, but I believe there’s a grand slam winner in there and a bit of pain a loss like this one will deliver may not be such a bad thing. Maybe when he plays a crucial tiebreak in the future, or when he’s trying to close out a big match in which he’s a favourite to win, he will use this experience against Nadal as a reference point for how to go about things differently.

This wasn’t Fritz’s first five-set defeat against a GOAT, or indeed his first five-set defeat against an injured GOAT. At the third round of the Australian Open in 2021, Fritz lost in five to Djokovic after taking the third and fourth set with Djokovic really hampered by, ironically, an abdominal injury. But that match felt different to this one. For one thing, the stands were emptied midway through the match due to COVID. For another, once Djokovic brought his level in the fifth, it never seemed in doubt that he would go on to win. On this occasion however, it was anybody’s guess as to the direction the match was heading in. Even when he was broken for 4-3, the American broke back despite being on course for defeat, and right up until the tiebreak, he was as likely to win this match as Nadal, if not more so. His inability to do so at this point even though it was down to Nadal as much as it was to Fritz himself, will cut deep.

Screenshot: Wimbledon/ESPN/Matthew Park on YouTube

I was struck by an instance of this kind of a loss actually being a positive in the long run. At the 2016 U.S. Open, when she was ranked 81st, aged 18 and far less experienced than Fritz is now, Naomi Osaka found herself 5-1 up in the deciding set against Madison Keys who would go on to play the final of that tournament. From that commanding position, Osaka went on to lose the match. By her own admission, Osaka was inconsolable afterwards, such was the magnitude of what she had come so close to achieving and such was the heartbreak of her not being able to achieve it due to the person on the other side of the net simply being more battle hardened.

Fast forward three years and Osaka found herself 5-1 up in a decider at Roland Garros before she was pegged back to 5-3. The now multi-grand-slam champion said that she drew on her experiences from that 2016 loss to ensure that she didn’t suffer the same fate twice. This is clear evidence that platitudes and cliches like “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “No pain no gain” aren’t completely baseless. Just as Osaka benefited from her heartbreak, I’m very confident that Fritz will too, and when it does come about, he may well look back on his defeat in the 2022 Wimbledon quarterfinal as playing some part in that. It might be at the U.S. Open in just over a month and a half’s time or it may be later on, but when he does have his moment, I believe that his feelings on this match will be more positive than what I assume they are currently.

To go full circle on this rambling, if you feel like you’ve had a 2016 U.S. Open moment but your 2019 Roland-Garros hasn’t yet come around, hang in there. You never know when your next break is coming, and when it does, it’ll feel all the sweeter for what has come before it. Life can often get on top of us the way the Nadal forehand got on top of Fritz yesterday, but there’s always light at the end of a tunnel and there’s always the next grand slam.

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