When in Rome, discuss asterisks and professionalism

The past week at the Rome Masters did not reveal much about the ATP Tour — certainly not in terms of tennis.

The story of men’s tennis at the Foro Italico proved to be illuminating not for its on-court aspects, but for its off-court dimensions. Italy’s Masters 1000 tournament represented a convincing argument for anyone who prefers major championships — such as the upcoming French Open — over the Masters Series as the true measure of tennis excellence at its greatest height.

You will notice that in the cover photo for this story, Novak Djokovic is an unbothered man. He’s happy, knowing he did his absolute best under unforgiving conditions. Technically, his opponent in Sunday’s rain-soaked final was Andrew Barron Murray, but on a larger level, he played at least five opponents, maybe six:

1) himself (or perhaps just his mind — this could be two opponents if you itemize Nole’s body and mind separately);

2) the weather;

3) the clay surface in Rome, on which he’s lost his mind before:

4) the schedule; and

5) Murray himself.

All Murray could do was to take advantage of the situation presented to him.

Murray — meeting Djokovic in a clay Masters 1000 final for the second straight Sunday in Europe — once again entered the court as the player who had played a daytime semifinal which had ended at least five hours before Djokovic’s nighttime semifinal. This time — unlike Madrid — Murray entered a final after playing a physically gentle semifinal against (really) lucky loser Lucas Pouille, who turned Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s injury into the best Masters result of his young career. Moreover, Djokovic played a three-hour semifinal against a dogged but still weak-nerved Kei Nishikori, who performed magnificently on the whole but flinched in a final-set tiebreaker.

Murray received a platter of circumstances which could not have been (realistically) any better than it was. Djokovic reached yet another final in a Masters tournament — he’s failed to make the final in only one since October of 2014 — but the situation which greeted him on Sunday in Rome could not have been less hospitable to his chances of bagging another 1,000-point tournament.

Predictably, the player who received a lot more sleep and gained a lot more preparation time — after playing a far less taxing semifinal against a dramatically inferior opponent — prevailed on Sunday.

Novak Djokovic knew this, and that’s why he could smile the kind of smile which doesn’t mask pain… because there’s no real pain to be found.

Make no mistake: Andy Murray needed to win this match for the sake of his confidence heading into the French Open. Murray might have had everything going his way against Djokovic, but that’s hardly a guarantee of success — partly because of Murray’s many misses against the Big Three in his career, mostly because of Djokovic’s recuperative powers and his overall ability to win with such constancy even (nay, precisely) when he’s uncomfortable on court.

In Sunday’s final, Djokovic — who endured a cauldron of supreme pressure against Nishikori, and who came back from 2-4 deficits in separate sets to once again vanquish Rafael Nadal in a compelling, high-level quarterfinal — pushed up the mountainside in the second set, as he invariably does. Despite a rubbish first set, Djokovic — tired, ornery, and moving poorly on the wet clay of the Foro Italico — earned break-point chances which would have enabled him to steer the match in his direction.

Murray could have wilted in those moments. We’ve seen him do so before.

This time, the Scotsman — celebrating his 29th birthday one week before Djokovic will do the same — held firm. As was the case in the 2015 Rogers Cup final in Montreal, Murray won every ad-court point he needed, either at 30-40 or ad-out, and fended off Djokovic in a Masters championship match. Murray might not beat Djokovic (or Federer, or Nadal) most of the time, but this was a time when he had to do the deed… and he did.

That’s called professionalism.

Murray was given the upper hand by a convergence of outside factors, and he didn’t waste it. Being a good professional doesn’t necessarily mean you win all or even most of the time; it can often mean that in relationship to your skill set on a given day, matched against a particular opponent within certain circumstances, you tend to your own business and the things you can control with a maximum of care. Murray did that, and he’s now the owner of another Masters title, his 12th overall.

It’s not the Big Three, but it’s miles better than everyone else… which represents an apt summation of Murray’s whole tennis career. He deserves three cheers for being a consummate pro the past week in Rome. Let that point be underscored in bright red ink.

Let that point stand on its own merits, regardless of what’s about to be said next:

*

Djokovic did not lose this match ONLY because of the schedule and the weather and the decision by the chair umpire to not suspend play in Sunday’s final. He lost because his opponent was better, and handled the moment with clarity.

Nevertheless… Djokovic’s loss WAS influenced by those outside factors. Of this there seems to be little doubt.

Sunday’s result — and the mediocre match within it — offered a timely reminder that while there are nine Masters events per year and only four majors, the majors retain a less diminished quality due to the fact that matches are not played on consecutive days. When matches are rolled out on a daily basis, scheduling takes on more centrality in shaping late-stage outcomes. It doesn’t guarantee them, but it does influence the competitive equation in a lot of circumstances. The majors aren’t immune to this dynamic, but they’re less subject to it. Playing a night match in a semifinal and a daytime final can be absorbed more at the majors because there’s a full day in between to regroup. In the context of Masters 1000 tournaments, that buffer doesn’t exist.

It sometimes matters, and it did on Sunday, much as the four-hour Madrid semifinal in 2009 between Djokovic and Rafael Nadal helped Roger Federer beat Rafa in Sunday’s subsequent final.

This leads us into a discussion which is familiar to some and murky for others (and perhaps all of the above): the discussion of asterisks in tennis and sports competition.

*

The presence of the asterisk in sports comes from an American drama in 1961, surrounding one of the world’s most famous franchises, the New York Yankees. Even though the actual application of an asterisk never occurred in this episode (which tells the story of how the asterisk came to acquire such a large place in sports debates and controversies), the surrounding details and qualifying statements concerning Babe Ruth’s 154-game home run record amount to the use of an asterisk.

This little mark is meant to indicate that a given record or achievement isn’t entirely whole. An asterisk doesn’t necessarily mean that an accomplishment is tainted (though it can), and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the athlete or team deserves no credit for the accomplishment itself (though it is sometimes reasonable to infer as much), but the asterisk always amounts to a certain kind of statement. The statement is basically this, in broader terms:

“Something about this event was so peculiar or severe that whenever you remember this moment in sports history and the accomplishment(s) attached to it, you MUST remember these circumstances. The achievement is incompletely remembered if the attached circumstances are forgotten.”

That’s the asterisk in a nutshell: You can’t forget the circumstances — not in the simple sense of recollection, but in the sense that the circumstances substantially altered the end result in ways which simply would not have existed without them.

The asterisk is the Scarlet Letter of sports. An achievement is always connected to the words, “but this happened, and you are not allowed to forget it.” The author of the achievement is forced to wear that sign by the one who applies the asterisk.

This forms the parameters of our post-Rome reflection.

*

What helped Andy Murray on Sunday — and hurt Novak Djokovic — doesn’t rise to the seriousness and severity which warrant an asterisk. Scheduling, favorable draws, playing shorter matches while your opponent gets roped into longer ones — these are standard occurrences (and variations) in tennis matches and tournaments. There’s no need to hang a big, fat (*) next to this event, but one can merely note that Murray got the right breaks this week… and cashed them in.

An asterisk would have applied to the 2014 Australian Open final had Rafael Nadal’s debilitating back injury occurred after he had won the first set. Because Stan Wawrinka won the first set, though, one can’t reasonably say, “Oh, Nadal surely would have won the match if he hadn’t been bothered by the injury.”

An asterisk applied (in my mind, maybe not yours — this is subjective and not objective) to Pete Sampras’s Wimbledon quarterfinal in 1999. Mark Philippoussis won the first set in a manner reminiscent of Richard Krajicek’s 1996 quarterfinal win over Pistol Pete. The two men were on serve early in the second set when the Australian shredded his knee when hitting a passing shot. Boom. Match over.

That’s more akin to the kind of moment which merits an asterisk. It was only a one-set deficit, so the idea that an asterisk doesn’t apply is entirely legitimate. If Philippoussis had a two-set lead, it would be very easy to claim — and rather difficult to deny — that an asterisk was appropriate.

Garden variety events don’t rise to the level of an injury… or to the use of certain kinds of substances, or to blatant cheating uncalled/unpunished by the chair umpire (Fernando Gonzalez against James Blake in the 2008 Olympics), or to a conduct-based default when the scoreboard favors the player who is defaulted. Only those rare instances merit (the possibility of) an asterisk.

This week in Rome did not… but let’s not think the week should go without commentary.

*

The main reason Murray was so much fresher for this final — beyond the fact that he played a much shorter and less taxing semifinal — was the inane use of split-session semifinal scheduling, a problem in evidence in Madrid, in Cincinnati, in Canada, and at other Masters tour stops.

At the majors, one rarely has to worry about semifinal scheduling; it only becomes an issue these days at the French Open, the one tournament whose semifinals cannot be staged indoors. (The U.S. Open will be able to go fully indoors this year for the semis if need be.) For the Masters, as mentioned above, the daily nature of play becomes more of a factor if there’s a large disparity between the end times for the previous day’s matches.

At the very least, if split-session semifinals are to continue at the Masters, a late-night championship match must follow the semifinals. This was a mid-afternoon final on Sunday. However, the week-to-week nature of the tour militates against late-night Sunday championship matches. Ergo, split-session semifinals must die.

One thing to stress here is that it’s not as though a reform would hurt TV ratings or exposure. Rome is a shared-tour event, with the WTA and ATP occupying the same stage and the same facilities. It’s not as though a night semifinal must be sacrificed; that’s not the issue. The problem is the splitting of sessions.

It’s not hard: The women’s semifinals could occupy the early-afternoon part of the Saturday order of play, and the men’s semis could occupy the late-afternoon and evening windows. The second men’s semifinal would be a night match anyway… but the first semifinal will have immediately preceded it.

Yes, Andy Murray went out and EARNED his Rome Masters title. He won the big points. He stood up to the pressure. He handled the World No. 1, whereas Rafa and Kei could not. He deserves kudos and commendations.

Yet, we should rarely if ever arrive at a championship match of a relatively prestigious tournament and wonder, from first ball to last, if the outcome might have been different if a preventable error had been avoided.

That’s rubbish… and it’s why I’ll prefer the majors over the Masters seven days a week and twice on Sunday.

No asterisks.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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