Should Consistency be Tennis’ Holy Grail?

consistencyroutineAs a child I detested desserts. Cakes. Pies. Pastries. Even ice cream did not make my wish list. Yes, I was an odd child who could be bribed with wait for it …roasted sunflower seeds. A mature adult now, I have taken to baking. My repertoire includes: pound cake, carrot cake, pineapple upside down cake, banana nut bread, pumpkin pie and cheesecake. When I first began I was fastidious. Testing recipes, tweaking, perfecting until my creations achieved just the right denseness and sweetness. I dislike overly sweet concoctions. Sometimes the final products were beautiful and delectable treats perfect for gifting. Sometimes, they were simply lessons I had to learn.

My consistency was not particularly important when I began baking. The experience, the process was my goal. This is a lesson tennis has not embraced. It may never move beyond consistency as the hallmark of success. The obsession with consistency is really a need for perfection. This  mars the sport. 

Tennis players toil for years to develop their skills. It is vital that their technique is solid, repeatable, dependable. Pavolian like training and muscle memory helps them make their shots under pressure. Poor technique may lead to injury and shot breakdown in critical moments. How many times have we watched as a player’s forehand or backhand is intentionally worked until it breaks down and secures the opponent the match? This is no different from a basketball player’s need for a dependable free throw. We only have to remember Shaq’s or Reggie Millers’ free throw misses to understand the importance of repeatable shots. Tennis players need a toolbox of shots and skills. These can be stylized and recognizable weapons: Federers’ backhand, Serena’s serve, Radwanska’s ingenuity…

Yes players need consistency in their shots.

Yes players need consistency in their games.

Yes players need consistency in their demeanor.

Yes players need consistency in their tennis ranking or ELO.

Consistency has become a buzzword in tennis. Coaches everywhere have said ad nauseum: Consistency is the key. They conflate hard work and success. Some may quote Aristotle: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit. In tennis consistency has long moved pass usefulness in developing skills and character. Consistency in tennis is the only or rather the most important marker of success, the holy grail. Consistency has become synonymous with numbers or statistics: speed, rotations, rankings… Players, fans, coaches and media look to the IBM Tracker for a more detailed understanding of a player’s game. Technology has made it easier to chart consistency, to find the smallest holes in games, to mine for advantages. For example, recently ATP reported that statistics show how landing first serves all the time can hurt one’s game.

The sport also uses the consistency argument in an attempt to achieve order and lend credence to the insane calendar and unholy five-hour matches. Sadly, this argument reinforces old school norms and practices. In heralding consistency, numbers above all, we are silently approving PEDS (performance-enhancing drugs) and gambling.

Should unrealistic consistency be the norm/goal? Djokovic has achieved high-levels of consistency. So much so, he has been called a machine. Fans have not embraced his game or him. Whether they are rejecting his game style or personality, his consistency is irrelevant.

There is something about Djokovic that infuriates many people, his opponents but also tennis fans. It may be his planar style, or his backswing, efficient rather than a liquid whip. It may be the way he seems to make the right choice instead of the beautiful one, the way he plays with percentages instead of grit, or the way he bends and never seems to break. It may be the way he runs down every ball, stretches for every volley, hits that demoralizing extra shot. People call him a machine—not very nicely. The French Open, Novak Djokovic, and the End of the Machine Age in Tennis Louisa Thomas

Tennis is much more than consistency or numbers. Garbine Muguruza won the French Open last week. Her game is aggressive and powerful. It is not defined as consistent. Carolyn Wozinacki’s was number one and has twenty-three singles titles. She has been consistent with a defensive weaponless game. Nick Kyrgios is the most promising young player on the ATP. His game is big, aggressive, entertaining. Though, he would not be labeled consistent. Stan Wawrinka has won two grand slams, he too is far from consistent. Given the opportunity, I would watch Muguruza, Kyriogios and Wawrinka over Djokovic!

It is also erroneous to state that Serena Williams was marred by inconsistency early in her career. Her career tells the story of how she developed and used her considerable skills, battled through issues-physical, emotional and triumphed time and again. Her game is about improving in areas that would give her an advantage against the tour and specifically her rivals. Her change of strings, racquet and goals helped her consistency. Indeed, Serena’s greatness maybe rooted in her disregard for consistency above everything.

Consistency is not necessarily the mark or arbiter of greatness. This is especially true if it is placed above everything else. Consistency is less a key and more about developing good technique, habits and a dependable form. The development of strength, perseverance, mental dexterity are more valuable than consistency.

Often the truly talented are like artists: mercurial, temperamental, erratic. They need time to develop and define their games. They are frequented by inspiration delivering bursts of genius. It is capitalistic to attempt to capture that lighting in a bottle. Everything should not be manufacturable. There is a difference between consistency and dependability. We want players to develop shots they can depend on, but we don’t want players to take unhealthy paths to achieve consistency. Most regrettable are cases where players lose themselves in this search. Maria Sharapova has been banned from tennis for two years after testing positive for meldonium, a banned substance. She vows to appeal the decision; she is adamant that she did nothing wrong and seems to feel persecuted by the ITF. The World Anti-Doping Agency will review the ITF’s decision and decide whether or not to appeal the punishment.

While the tribunal concluded correctly that I did not intentionally violate the anti-doping rules, I cannot accept an unfairly harsh two-year suspension. The tribunal, whose members were selected by the ITF, agreed that I did not do anything intentionally wrong, yet they seek to keep me from playing tennis for two years. I will immediately appeal the suspension portion of this ruling to CAS, the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Maria Sharapova

 What role does the pursuit of consistency have in tennis’ increasing PEDs, gambling, and injury problems? We do have to question whether this consistency focus is good for the sport. Our love and appreciation for sports is largely our need for escapism, nationalism, adventure. Having the same three or four ATP players dominate and play each other twelve times in the season isn’t necessarily fulfilling our needs as fans. Only the most uniquely magnetic and engaging personality/game can hold this kind of attention and survive.

Other sports don’t hold onto consistency in the same way. Yes, they spout their statistics, they want dynasties and legacies. But tennis is unnatural in the way it wants players to avoid the natural progression of a career. Most egregious, is the sports use of consistency as a euphemism to devalue the women’s tour. The last four slam winners were different, so for many this means the women’s game is inferior to the men’s. For them the barometer of success is consistency, the ability to maintain the same high level. The same winners. Little movement in the ranking.  Is that the sign of a healthy tour?

Tennis requires so much of its athletes: physically, emotionally, mentally and even spiritually. Disregarding the complexity of the game in search of consistency above all  is harmful. Lets pull back from our need for perfection to once again enjoy the game. Marvel at serves, volleys, forehands, backhands, cross-court zingers, down the line bullets, impossible shots and rallies. Let’s revel in players careers without imploring them to be all things at all times. Enjoy the uniqueness of the match knowing that it may never happen again and that is OK..

For you, is consistency the sport’s holy grail or its four letter word?

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