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Lucky Losers

Jonathan V. Last, the losers' friend

Aug 23, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 46 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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More than any other sport, professional tennis is a caste system. The top players are invited to tournaments as “seeds.” Players with lower rankings apply for wild cards or exemptions into the field. Further down the food chain are players who must participate in “qualifier” tournaments—the winners of which are also given entry into the main draw.

Lucky Losers

David Gothard

And then there are the untouchables. In most tournaments one or two players withdraw at the last minute owing to injury or exhaustion. Their vacant slots are then given to players who lost in the final rounds of the qualifying tournament. These players are called “lucky losers.”

The older I get, the more taken I am with lucky losers and the sport’s other also-rans.

Obscure tennis pros are still astonishing athletes. I watch them up-close every summer when the Association of Tennis Players World Tour comes to Washington. While most of the crowd goes to the stadium for the glamour matches, I like to wander the outer courts enjoying the lower-ranked guys. They have massive groundstrokes and booming serves, just like the big boys, and they’re preternaturally fast and coordinated, too.

But their daily existence is closer to yours and mine. Roger Federer makes many million dollars a year, flies on a private plane, and divides his time between a house in Zurich and a high-rise in Dubai. The gentleman currently ranked #100 in the world—he’s no slouch—might make $200,000 by the end of the 2010 season. Figure in taxes and expenses, and his take-home pay is probably closer to $80,000. (Tennis players are not unionized like baseball, football, or basketball players. Thus, they have no minimum salary requirements or pensions, like those jocks, and are paid as independent contractors. Also, unlike athletes in those other sports, tennis players pay for their own coaching, travel, and equipment.) Outside of the highest caste, most tennis players make a living somewhere between that of a good plumber and a mediocre lawyer. For the lucky loser, tennis isn’t a winning lottery ticket. It’s a job. 

It’s this work-a-day quality that makes the journeymen players so interesting. Last week I saw Marcos Baghdatis, a wonderful 25-year-old from Cyprus. Stocky and round-shouldered, he doesn’t look like much. But he’s surprisingly fast, and his forehand is a sledgehammer. It’s a pleasure to watch him work.

By any standard, Baghdatis has had a fine career. He’s won four minor tournaments; in 2006 he made it to the finals of the Australian Open. He’s been a top-50 player for the most part, though he was once ranked eighth in the world. He also has asymmetric fame: He might be the most recognizable man in his country, yet he could walk into a Starbucks anywhere else with total anonymity. 

Baghdatis’s frequent doubles partner is a Frenchman named Richard Gasquet. He was in Washington last week, too, and, as usual, his luck was rotten. His game is so fluid that he looks like a cyborg tennis machine from the future. As a junior, he was #1 in the world and marked for great things. The problem, as I see it, is that he doesn’t like playing tennis.

To watch a Gasquet match is to witness tragedy. He glides around the court hitting brilliant shots and then, between each and every point, looks glumly down at his racket, as if he’d rather be in a Turkish prison. And whenever the sledding gets tough, Gasquet heads for the exit. Ranked 40th in the world, he dropped a tight first set early this month to a 28-year-old who’s ranked 321st. Gasquet promptly retired from the match and hopped the first flight out of Washington. That’s just his way.

My favorite lucky loser is Vince Spadea. For most of his career, Spadea bounced around the top-100, reaching a career-high ranking of #18. The most notable thing about him is that in 2000 he endured a 21-match losing streak.

Tennis isn’t baseball, where long losing streaks are part of the natural course of events. To lose 21 straight means that you lost in the first round of 20 consecutive tournaments. Each tournament takes a week. Which means that even with a full playing schedule, Spadea—who is so good that there are not more than 100 people on the planet better at tennis than he is—went more than half a year without winning a single match.

Yet he kept going to work. Anyone who trades in even an amateur level of self-hatred will be mystified and awed by that accomplishment. Contextualizing failure is the most important skill we learn from sports. The lucky losers understand this better than anyone.

Jonathan V. Last

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