No earth-shaking upsets occurred in the first round of the 2015 French Open, but on Tuesday, two players who left a noticeably positive imprint on the 2014 tennis season were quickly dismissed from Paris.
In the men’s tournament, Grigor Dimitrov was swept out of France by Jack Sock, 7-6 (7), 6-2, 6-3, while in the women’s event, Eugenie Bouchard fell to Kristina Mladenovic, 6-4, 6-4. Numerous similarities between the two players can be readily identified, but with that having been said, their losses should ultimately be viewed in different ways and with varying levels of urgency.
For Eugenie Bouchard, 2015 offers the appearance of a tennis season in which a quick rise to prominence has introduced a young star to a whole host of challenges all at once. This bombardment is something the 21-year-old has not been able to handle. This is understandable and, moreover, natural.
Careers blossom at varying rates and in a multiplicity of contexts. In the men’s game, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic all manifest different forms of career evolution. In women’s tennis, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova certainly arrived at their respective levels of achievement — Serena the stratosphere, Sharapova at 15,000 feet — in unexpected ways and on twisting, turning paths.
Sure, Bouchard’s 2015 nosedive — following a resplendent 2014 topped by a Wimbledon final appearance — is profoundly disappointing. Simona Halep offers a portrayal of how the season following a breakthrough year is generally supposed to proceed. Yet, at 21, Bouchard has time on her side. Her arrival on the scene in women’s tennis was more rapid and more sustained than it is for most 20-year-olds on tour.
Sloane Stephens didn’t reach the heights Bouchard attained in 2014, and we won’t expect 20-year-old Madison Keys to be successful on that scale in the coming months, leading up to her 21st birthday next February. When a player of Bouchard’s age gets knocked back like this, it’s hardly unacceptable. It’s a moment to learn from, rooted in the awareness that players develop at different speeds.
That very realization, however, makes it necessary to view Grigor Dimitrov’s loss with a lot more concern.
Dimitrov did not enjoy a quick ascendance on the ATP Tour — he did not produce a season akin to Bouchard’s 2014 when he was 20 years old. He put together solid results a year ago, and like Bouchard, his best major performance came at Wimbledon, where he made the semifinals and pushed Novak Djokovic deep into the fourth set. Dimitrov was not a comet, rocketing to the forefront of the radar screen in tennis. He patiently absorbed defeats; battled the limitations so markedly evident in his stamina; and went about the task of marrying an artistic assortment of shots with an improved mental game.
This holistic approach, refined by coach Roger Rasheed, clearly paid dividends. Yet, for all the ways in which a coach can help a tennis player improve, this sport is loved by the vast majority of its fans precisely because it’s still up to the individual athlete in the arena to withstand the rigors and pressures of competition. Rasheed can lead Dimitrov to water, but the Bulgarian is the one who has to drink.
In 2015, the well of inspiration has run dry.
Losing to Jack Sock is not unacceptable these days. The American loves playing on clay, and at 22, he is — ironically enough — making the very slow and incremental improvements Dimitrov made before his more substantial breakthrough in 2014. What’s unpardonable for Dimitrov is that after losing a close tiebreak set in the first stanza, he went away in the second set. If you aspire to be a major champion, it’s fine to lose because your shots aren’t working, but it’s not fine when you cede the battle to an opponent based on the outcome of the first set.
One wonders what Roger Rasheed can do — if anything — to re-light the pilot light for Grigor Dimitrov. Right now, it’s out, and Dimitrov’s career has the form and feel of another “woulda-coulda-shoulda” player in modern men’s tennis.
Richard Gasquet was and still is the kind of player who can hit a full assortment of shots. His serve isn’t overpowering, but when you can shape the ball in so many ways, you don’t have to own a thumper of a serve. If you have just about every shot in the book, you should be able to rise to the highest level. Yet, when you see Gasquet, all his horses and all his men can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The outward shell of the player seems formidable, but something inside is deeply broken.
A year ago at this time, there was still plenty of reason to be skeptical that Grigor Dimitrov would ever win a major — not necessarily because of anything he was doing, but because it was too early to see if his 2014 season was a permanent indicator that he was here to stay on the ATP Tour. Now, that skepticism exists for a far more substantial — and worrisome — reason: 2014 has been revealed as anything but an indicator of where Dimitrov’s career would flow in the course of time.
At 24 — three years older than Bouchard — Dimitrov is coming up on the years when an athlete reaches his/her physical prime. He needs to be very close to the point where he can make himself a top-five player, someone who can pounce on an opportunity if a Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal loses a quarterfinal at a major. Almost 12 months ago, it seemed briefly possible that Dimitrov could arrive at that level this year, or maybe in 2016.
Now? Dimitrov’s career seems headed for Richard Gasquet territory, and all the irrelevance it promises.
There’s still time for Dimitrov to make a course correction, sure. However, unlike Eugenie Bouchard, the biological tennis clock is beginning to tick for Maria Sharapova’s boyfriend.