Joel Drucker: What Defines Greatness?

Two contemporary competitors met today in the semis of the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament, the ATP World Tour stop in Rotterdam. Their names are Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Tsonga today won, but the topic at hand is each player’s journey. For these are, unquestionably, great tennis players.

Hey, wait a second: What is great? Isn’t that an adjective used for Grand Slam champions? Between them, Berdych and Tsonga have reached only two major finals. Those efforts happened a while ago, Berdych at Wimbledon in 2010, Tsonga at the Australian Open in 2008.

These two are now each 31 years old. The knee jerk questions constantly surface. Will either ever win a Grand Slam final? What’s gotten in the way?

But are these even the right questions? For surely each of these two has achieved tremendously, Berdych and Tsonga collectively earning 25 singles titles. Berdych has finished the last seven years inside the top ten, Tsonga the last nine in the top 15 – all better results than any American man since Andy Roddick.

Do Berdych and Tsonga, each strong, powerful, tall and forceful, suffer the weight of expectation? Meanwhile, a more physically slight player, David Goffin, will be celebrated for exceeding expectations and scaling heights at a later stage of his career. Is either evaluation fair?

These kind of outcome-based questions all comprise the external narrative – the one fans enjoy pondering, wherein the athlete is treated more like a stock or commodity than an individual. Will he yield dividends? But as a former pro who reached a career high ranking just inside the top 50 once told me, “Maybe you do reach a stage in your career when you realize that you’re not going to win Wimbledon. But that’s not the point. The point is to play, to enjoy it, to compete and keep playing because it’s something you’re good at.”

Consider this frequent discussion topic: Underachiever or overachiever? Again, is that question even proper? Based on the expectations of others? Is that fair? Why is it up to us to issue a verdict? The only person truly equipped to answer is the player – and only once the career is over. And again, is that even the right question?

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