Monday 25 November 2013

Loss, and Serbian Davis Cup Dismay

Losses are dispiriting. And, often, something far worse. The way we process loss tends to vary, mainly because, well, people do too.

Some require catharsis. An electrifying effusion of rage and grief whose undiscriminating solar wind incinerates everything in its wake and thereby - it is to be hoped - sets the scene for healing and acceptance. Unsurprisingly, many opt to draw on their support structures (where available).
Others face misfortune with something resembling stoicism, preferring quiet, solitude and the cultivation of hope.

There's really no prescribed way through disappointment - beyond the fact that you'll have to weather it. And depending on its magnitude it can sometimes feel like those well-meaning anecdotes on personal growth and self-discovery through the 'loss of innocence' are largely platitudinous and simply in place to keep you from feeling a mess.

Almost all coping mechanisms will, however, feature an element of introspection and rationalisation.

Some such searches will yield more satisfying answers than others, though even where blame can be neatly ascribed to 'this' or 'that' or 'him' or 'her', the journey seems to be at least as important as any insight or closure it affords.

More commonly though the question of 'why' or 'how' is a fraught, intractable and confused mesh of inter-dependencies within which ideas like "blame" will collapse into their most abstract form. At least temporarily anyway.

Something like this has been playing out within the Serbian DC team (and indeed its band of supporters as well as the wider commentariat) in the wake of last weekend's loss to the Czech Rep.

Novak was of course roundly expected to come through both his singles rubbers perhaps only dropping a set to Tomas. He didn't drop a single set as it turned out - no one did, in fact, in any rubber for the first time in DC final history (the US didn't drop a set to Italy in the 1979 final either, but the opening rubber ended by way of a retirement after only one set. #History).

With Troicki and Tipsarevic sidelined however, the Serbs fielded 117 ranked Dusan Lajovic to play Berdych. As expected both teams were one a piece at the end of day one.

With the remaining singles seemingly set to mirror day one, doubles - now effectively a deciding rubber - assumed an almost seismic significance.

The true story of why Djokovic was benched for that fateful doubles rubber may never be known. There were reports of him being exhausted (and we might reasonably assume being rested for reverse singles). There were also reports of it being a "team decision". Speculation soon flowed that it might be mostly or wholly Novak's choice. And then of course there were those more fractious post match reports of everyone in the team (inc. Nenad) rounding on Nenad's evident underperformance. Nenad himself eventually indicated that "keeping the Ferrari in the garage" was a mistake. (Radek was perhaps alluding to Novak's greatness. I don't claim to understand what was going through Tomas' head. Nothing probably).

I expect the post-mortem will go on for some time. While that impulse is undoubtedly instinctive and perfectly sound, it's probably asking too much of the participants to play the role of staid, detached auditors.

However messy catharsis might already be, finding answers becomes exponentially more fraught when it takes place within the unholy alchemy of conflicting personalities, the oppressive weight of national expectation (including, but not limited to, the need to placate a visceral fanbase), the unforgiving nature of the public eye and the sheer immediacy of the loss.

One only needs to take a look at the happenings in the Argentine locker room to know that this phenomenon isn't peculiar to any one nation. But it can sometimes lead people to see things that really aren't there.

It's certainly not *inconceivable* that having Novak play doubles might have lent a different colour to proceedings. At the very least the presence of the world's best on court has to come with some pretty unique psychological benefits.

But it is possible to oversell this. It has been. It *is* being. The reality is that Novak simply isn't a good doubles player. Quite apart from his suspect doubles record, his even more 'suspect' overhead and how unnatural he still sometimes is in the forecourt, you have to indulge in a kind of bullish conceit to imagine that skills cultivated and rooted almost wholly on or around the baseline might be immediately transposed to a doubles court.

I wouldn't go as far as to say it's a different sport, but it's simply incontestable that doubles has its own distinct skillset and a dynamic that is almost foreign to most singles players (yes, even Novak). While it may be a different story if they were involved with doubles all year round, and while more top singles players could, on average, make the transition than vice versa, singles players just aren't the de facto 'star players' they're often made out to be.

That's not to say Nenad didn't clearly underperform or that Novak definitely wouldn't have instilled a little extra something against one of the most successful DC doubles pairings out there. But would this be an issue if even *one* of Troicki or Tipsarevic were present?

And would we not be demanding the head, and quite possibly the entrails, of Obradovic if the much touted benefits of Djokovic's aura failed to materialise?

It's very easy to posit robust sounding tactical corrections *after* matches have been lost. And it's very easy to pretend we'd not be seeing precisely the opposite analysis couched in equally confident terms if Novak's inclusion failed to have the desired effect (and, I hardly need add, left him even more exhausted for singles).

But whether we choose to admit it or not, Troicki's and Tipsarevic's absence remains the single most causal factor for why we are where we are.

It's one thing to want to strategise optimally given those glaring gaps in the Serbian team, and quite another to abandon all reason by losing sight of the fact that those gaps ever existed, narrowly restricting one's focus instead to "Ferraris" and "underperformance".

Perhaps the most emblematic illustration of the unhelpful and unhealthy consequences of leaving that frenzied appetite for answers unchecked, are those reports of Nenad being held responsible by the whole team - even appearing to be convinced of that himself.

Again, expecting the epitome of dry objectivity from Team Serbia at this point is a little short-sighted - to say nothing of the complete want of empathy it shows. They'll likely take a more measured view of things with the passage of time. And even if they don't it will hurt a whole lot less.

People often need (more than can be stated) such wholesale rationalisations to make sense of the world in the wake of disappointment. But that doesn't mean we continue with the conceit long after the sell-by date of its therapeutic value.

You don't bring a knife to a gunfight. But then you don't bring a Ferrari to terrain it's so obviously unsuited for either (especially when it has to race the next day). Sometimes the garage is exactly where it belongs.
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