The Summit and the Climb: The Meaning Behind Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic in the 2016 French Open

Of all the things that seemed like they would happen in the 2016 French Open, two didn’t happen. Serena Williams lost the Final in two sets (5-7, 4-6) to Garbine Muguruza, a 4-seed. The other was Novak Djokovic winning his first French Open, the final jewel to his Majors crown that eluded him for years, even during his transcendent 2011 season. On a Pardon The Interruption segment the Monday following the Men’s Final, this was asked: which means more? Serena’s loss, or Novak’s win?

The prelude to the answer here requires context, and it raises more questions about the importance of a player’s route to their eventual result. So, let’s take a look at each.


Serena Williams Losing the Final

France Tennis French Open
Serena Williams of the U.S. returns the ball in the quarterfinal match of the French Open tennis tournament against Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, Thursday, June 2, 2016. (AP Photo/David Vincent)

Williams has been a dominant force not just in tennis, but in professional women’s sports, for a long stretch of memory. She’s recently broken the top-two for consecutive weeks at world no. 1 ranking for women in tennis. She hasn’t seen quite the same overlap of power at the top as the men’s side seems to have in recent years with the top 4, but she’s gotten used to grinding opponents into the ground. Her presence in the Final for most major tournaments that she enters (and often her victory) can feel a lot like a forgone conclusion. For example, the radio announcers for this year’s French Open were talking about her toying with her second round opponent and her possible Final opponents halfway through the first set.


It’s really hard to express the level of dominance that Serena has exhibited over the course of her career. The most comfortable comparison that I can make is relating it to a hypothetical result for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors season currently in progress. That basketball team spent the entire year kicking the crap out of every team on the block to the point that being one of the squads to beat them became an objective for everyone’s season. They logged an all-time best record at 73-9, sported a historically great average margin of victory, and every single team that they played entered the ring as some degree of underdog. A championship run seemed/seems like a foregone conclusion at this point.


It’s an imperfect comparison for Serena’s years of perpetual victory, but it makes basic sense. It’s reasonable to measure her loss in Paris to the hypothetical result where the Warriors do not win a Championship this year. When the ending seems written, how meaningful is it when it takes a left turn? Basically, is it more important when something that everyone thought was as good as done, something that everyone expected, doesn’t? Does an impressive climb matter if you fail at the summit?


Novak Djokovic Winning the Final

Djokovic after his victory over Murray, via

Djokovic, part of the named “Big Four” in men’s singles tennis (along with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray), has been riding high at the peak of world rankings for some time now. His 2011 season has been called one of the greatest single seasons ever by a player. He’s known for his mental fortitude, counter-punch skill, and defensive excellence, among a myriad of other talents. However, a title at Roland Garros has eluded him his entire career (more on his history in the tournament coming). Not even in one of the most dominant seasons ever did he manage to lift the cup, falling in the semifinals to Roger Federer (his first loss of the season). He’s sporting an above-80% victory rate in Majors for his career.


The primary obstacle to Djokovic at the French Open has been the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal. Nadal might be the most dominant single-surface player of all time, and certainly holds the title for clay. He’s won nearly every single French Open he has healthily participated in, an unprecedented run of dominance at a single major tournament.


Coming up short in Paris has been a thorn in Djokovic’s runs at multiple career achievements; a thorn in the side of his building legacy. Most notably, it held him back from a single-year Grand Slam in 2011, when he won every other Major except the French, and the Career Grand Slam (victory in all four over a career) which has only been accomplished by seven other men in the history of the game. More minor but still meaningful, it kept him from holding all four titles in a calendar year. To say it’s been a monkey on his back would be an understatement.


What causes pundits and fans to raise questions about the meaning of his victory in 2016 is the path he followed to get there. He only went through one of the other Big Four en route to winning, Andy Murray in the Final. Federer and Nadal both withdrew during the tournament due to a back injury and wrist injury, respectively. To add on, Murray is the one of those other three that Djokovic sports the best record against at 24-10, 13-2 since Wimbledon 2013. There will be plenty of fans and talking heads who try to call into question the value of his Career Grand Slam (which is ridiculous) and his single trophy in the French because his draw didn’t include two of his three best competitors, and the two men who have stopped him at Roland Garros a combined six times.


Returning to the Golden State comparison, this is most easily compared to the 2015 Playoffs; they won their way to an impressive 67-15 record, and steamrolled their way through the playoffs en route to their first title in 40 years. However, they faced off against two teams with injured point guards (a position where they sport one of the game’s best players), and did not face the San Antonio Spurs, arguably the most dominant team of the last fifteen years due to a first-round upset.


The question here is different than the one concerning Serena. While she fell short of expectation, the thing to consider here is the path. Does a perceived lack of difficulty on a dominant run detract from the validity of finally climbing a mountain?


Questions and Answers

Williams and Djokovic have similarity in that they are both generational players basically living at the peak of their sport right now. They’ve both got countless accolades (figuratively, I know we can look up the actual numbers) and have secured their places in history, at least at minimum. It might seem borderline ridiculous to devote this much attention and this many words to their runs at a single tournament along historic careers. The questions posed by that result, however, are bigger than this year’s French Open. Yes, both will have demons to exorcise next year: Djokovic will look to prove this year doesn’t deserve an asterisk in the minds of tennis fans, and Williams will be on the warpath for revenge (terrifying). The more focused question that we have to ask about this year is which event means more in the greater context. To me, the definitive answer there is Djokovic’s victory.


I’m sure that losing a Major stings to Serena, as it should to anyone at the top of the game. It matters because everyone expected her to not just win,but to steamroll the tournament and she got dropped in straight sets (and it’s not like Muguruza is some nobody, like Tomas Berdych was when he plowed through a Who’s Who of current all-timers at Wimbledon back in 2010). At the end of the day, though, this loss isn’t really all that damaging for her legacy; it doesn’t threaten her all-time position. We can’t just call it another loss since it’s a Major, but it ultimately goes down as a much bigger event in the story of Muguruza’s ascendance. She still dominated everyone in front of her on the way, and she’s won three of the damn things before.


By comparison, winning the French Open is massive for Novak Djokovic. He’s been a dominant force in the sport forever, with this one gaping section in his resume. Never mind that he exists in the same era as the most prolific clay player of all time and another player currently in the conversation for greatest of all time. All anyone ever sees is that Roland Garros was the one place where he couldn’t get it done. It didn’t just weigh on him personally, it weighed heavily on his legacy at large. It represented a gap in his game, a hump he couldn’t get over, something that critics could continually point to as evidence of weakness. It’s unimaginable what it means to him to silence that, and grasping at straws attempting to invalidate the accomplishment is ridiculous.


When all’s said and done, every single title run in every single sport ever involves a healthy does of not just skill, but luck. You beat the players that get put in front of you. Really, all that gets remembered by history is the winner, and the conversations around differentiating title runs are pointless. Is Nadal’s injury history an indictment of his playstyle, criticized for being conducive to injury? If the fact he gets hurt is an issue with how he plays, is it fair to count his withdrawal from tournaments against the eventual winner? What about Federer’s age? If that’s what causes his rise in injuries, it’s part of his overall profile as a player. Can that be discounted when evaluating the quality of Djokovic’s draw? It’s also a question of control. All any player can control is the result of the games they play. It’s unfair to question them for factors beyond that scope.


What might be more important than the negatives of lacking a win in the French Open, however, might be what achievements it completes as listed above. Victory at that major represents the missing jigsaw piece for a wishlist of historic accomplishments. To recap, Djokovic now not only has a career Grand Slam (becoming the eighth man ever to do so), but holds the title at every major simultaneously. It also gives him another shot at the fabled Golden Slam if he can take home Wimbledon and the US Open as well as a Gold Medal in the Olympics. A win at the Olympics would at least grant him the Career Golden Slam, accomplished by 19 other players across both genders.


The greater tale of Serena’s career won’t be all that different for her loss in Paris this year. The narrative for Djokovic, however, is catapulted into another tier entirely by his win. Not just that, it opens up the chance for another leap into even grander conversations.


The other question implied by this conversation is the importance of the path versus the result. This is something that can be debated until the end of time. To my mind, the result is more important. We remember winners. We remember those who summit the mountain rather than those who ended up just short. Tomas Berdych’s Cinderella run at that Wimbledon is demonstrative. Plenty of tennis fans remember it, but it doesn’t see airtime now because he lost the last game of the tournament. It’s a virtual guarantee that he would rather have the notoriety of a trophy over one of the most difficult draws of the modern era.


When we talk about the 2016 French Open with respect to Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, we have to talk in a historic context because they’re historic players. In that respect, Djokovic winning is more meaningful and more newsworthy. Winning a Final is more important than winning your draws and coming up short. In a more general sense, it’s an important point about sports: in this conversation, the journey is not worth more than the destination.


History isn’t just written by the victors; it’s also written about them, and the final word is that in the 2016 French Open between Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, Djokovic is the victor.

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