As clichés go, few are more shopworn than the idea that sports is a metaphor for life. But most clichés become clichés because they contain a kernel of truth, and there is no denying that with its challenges, cadences, and capriciousness, athletic competition can look a lot like life itself. In sports as in life, the key to success is to seize opportunity when opportunity presents itself. And in sports as in life, that’s a lot easier to do when you are young, fearless, and flush with optimism than it is when you are older and have had your hopes and expectations tempered by experience. It is a point that was vividly illustrated on Monday at Wimbledon by two players at opposite ends of their careers. One was Jelena Ostapenko, the second-youngest woman to reach the round of 16, and the other was Gilles Muller, the second-oldest man left in the tournament.
Ostapenko of course, is the breakout star of 2017. The 20-year-old Latvian won the French Open last month as an unseeded player. In the final in Paris, against Simona Halep, she turned in one of the great performances of this era (and there have been more than a few), erasing deficits in both the second and third sets with a dizzying fusillade of audacious, don’t-even-think-of-trying-that-in-your-USTA-match shotmaking. It was probably most the enthralling display of youthful insouciance on the tennis court since Maria Sharapova’s victory as a 17-year-old at Wimbledon in 2004, and as was the case with Sharapova’s win, it left pretty much everyone who witnessed it (save Halep) giggling with delight. Kids will do that to you.
On Monday, Ostapenko met Elina Svitolina in the fourth round at Wimbledon, and that same damn-the-torpedoes spirit was on glorious display again. Serving at 6-3 5-3, Ostapenko saw five match points come and go and then surrendered the break. At 5-5 in the second set, she was broken again. An older player, scarred by previous near-misses and blown opportunities, might have tightened up at that moment. Not Ostapenko: she immediately broke back to force a tiebreaker. In the tiebreaker, she uncorked spectacular winners but also coughed up errors. Two more match points came and went. On the sixth or seventh one—I can’t remember which—Ostapenko took a huge cut on a service return and dumped the ball in the net. She responded not by scolding herself or slumping her shoulders. Instead, she broke into a smile. Later, during her press conference, she claimed that she had felt “a little bit” frustrated and nervous at that point in the match. I don’t know—that smile suggested otherwise. To my eyes, it conveyed boundless confidence—confidence that she would see her way past Svitolina, and more than that, confidence that, even if the match slipped from her grasp, she’d have plenty more opportunities to win Wimbledon. That certitude—call it the spoils of youth— was clearly liberating; it was what allowed her to keep swinging for the lines and to finally clinch victory on her eighth match point.
A few hours later, Mueller was seeing match points come and go in his fourth-round epic against Rafael Nadal, but unlike Ostapenko, he wasn’t smiling. His face didn’t register any emotion, an impassivity that also invited speculation: what was going through his head as Nadal, having already rallied from down two sets to none, made one successful goal line stand after another? At 34 years old, in his 17th season as a professional, Muller was on the cusp of defeating one of the game’s all-time great players in the sport’s most prestigious tournament and of rising, for one glorious afternoon, above his status as a journeyman (a word I am somewhat hesitant to use, as just about everyone in this era of the Big Four plus Wawrinka has been reduced to journeyman status). In contrast to Ostapenko, Muller had never won a major and was almost certainly never going to win one. And unlike her, he also didn’t have the luxury of time—although he has won two ATP titles this season, the first two of his career, and recently reached a career-high 26th in the world, he was surely too old to expect that this kind of opportunity would ever come again.
Did he think about these things as Nadal staved off those first four match points? Did he think about how much it would sting if he ended up losing, about how it might gnaw at him even 10, 15, 20 years later? In his post-match press conference, he seemed to acknowledge that some dark thoughts had crossed his mind as they went deeper and deeper into the fifth set and those first four match points came and went. “It was not easy to keep believing,” he said. But if Muller had been fighting himself, it didn’t show; he just kept pushing forward with stolid determination, and with Nadal serving at 13-14 in the fifth set he earned his fifth match point, and that one proved to be the charm. As Nadal’s final shot sailed long, the Luxembourg native stood on the baseline staring blankly at his team. Asked about that, he said his prevailing emotion at that moment was not joy but, rather, relief—“a lot of relief,” as he put it. And he conceded that it would have been a crushing blow had he ended up losing. “That would have been tough to digest,” he said.
The pleasure of Ostapenko’s victory on Monday was in seeing a kid unburdened by self-doubt fearlessly walking that thin line between carefree and reckless. There was a more subtle, sober pleasure in Muller’s victory—it was the pleasure of seeing an adult who has known failure and disappointment pushing aside self-doubt and seizing an opportunity he might never have again. Two players, separated by 14 years and very different prospects, combining to tell a story about life.