Saturday, May 9, 2015

Do We Place Too Much Value On Grand Slam Titles?

Tomas Berdych is well on his way to finishing yet another season in the top 10.  He's actually finished the past 5 years at either 6 or 7 in the world, and has a good chance at a spot in the top 5 in 2015.  However, many tennis fans consider his career somewhat disappointing because of his failure to win a grand slam. 

Berdych clearly had the talent to win a major, and perhaps he'll sneak one in before he retires.  But due to some mental weakness and being stuck in one of the most difficult eras of all time, he's had to settle with a Wimbledon final to his name.  Tennis has always valued grand slam titles above all else (at least in the modern era), and it's hard to see this changing in the foreseeable future.  Winning a grand slam drastically elevates how a player's entire career is perceived (see Wawrinka, Stan and Cilic, Marin), and opens up a host of new opportunities.  However, by any other account Berdych's career has been tremendously successful, and his lack of a grand slam title shouldn't be the defining feature of his career. 

Cilic will never have to answer such questions after winning the 2014 US Open, but is it really fair that one incredible two week stretch over an entire career forever absolves him of questions relating to his accomplishments?  Cilic has similar talent and hasn't been nearly as consistently good as Berdych (though injuries are certainly a factor), but will be thought of as a "disappointment" by far fewer people. 

In a sense, the criticism is a compliment to Berdych and his abilities.  Watching him play it's obvious how talented he is, and few have ever hit the ball so cleanly.  Thus, it's natural to wonder why someone with so much skill hasn't been able to break through at tennis' biggest stage.  However, his inability to win a grand slam shouldn't take away from his decade of near excellence, and he should be remembered as one of the best players of his era (outside of the Big Four of course). 

If the younger Raonic or Dimitrov win a grand slam title in the next 3 or 4 years, they'll be remember completely differently than Berdych, even though the only likely difference between them would be the timing of their careers in relation to the Big Four.  Similarly, the grand slams won by Thomas Johansson, Gaston Gaudio and Albert Costa during a weak couple of years on tour over a decade ago shouldn't necessarily put them in a higher class than Berdych. 

Consistency over a long period of time should count for more than a random grand slam title, although it's much easier to perceive someone as a "winner" based on their success in a single, high profile event.  Winning a grand slam is obviously an amazing accomplishment, but putting too much emphasis on it skews how careers are perceived and fails to reward players for continued excellence.  

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