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I think I have lost count of how many times I have heard the loaded word “potential” over the past few days. I’ve been binge-watching the Australian Open - because duh, tennis - and the term has been slung around so hard by the pundits. I even started writing down some of the barrage, so I could note the usage. (Looking at you ESPN and Tennis Channel.)
Madison Keys is finally living up to her potential.
Coco Gauff is not near to knowing her potential.
Nick Kyrios is unable to fulfill his potential.
Naomi Osaka’s potential has changed.
Kaia Kanepi and Alizé Cornet have renewed their potential, for a magical moment.
(Potential, potential, potential, free me now from this lack-of-other-words-pundit-prison.)
It got me thinking all the thoughts, as in, what is potential in sports? There is a subtext here that we need to pull apart, because potential is being used in curious ways.
How do we assess it in a 17-year-old like Gauff? How do we take it away from Kanepi, now 35, or Cornet, at 32, and now give it back when the reach the quarters and semis? Why do we take it away from Kyrios or give it back to Keys, just because they won or lost a few matches in one tournament - but have a long track record of frustration?
Where is this assessment really coming from, when the people who are talking about tennis on TV are also coaching/consulting other players...who may be direct competitors? Are they adding or subtracting from the assessment equation for other reasons?
Hmmmmm? Oh, maybe this potential stuff is a slick thing.
The labels of the “Next Big Thing” and “It’s Done” flow freely, especially in individual sports like tennis, golf, skating, or gymnastics. When you are alone on the court, beam, green, or ice, it’s all exposed. The talent, mental fragility, and star factor. Skating and gymnastics come with judges, making execution important, with the extra sauce of magnetism/flow (which are genetically ordained and rarely taught well). That brings it all to a worse level of tension. Your potential may literally be in the hands of others scoring you - carrying some hella bias for how you look, act or your coach/country.
In all of these sports, especially for teen girls, you can become a star before you graduate from high school or get a driver's license. You barely know who you are as a person - away from the athletic identity or marketing brand being crafted around you by (hopefully well-meaning) adults.
If you have potential at 15, is it over at 17 if you don't win an Olympic gold or a Grand Slam? If you are 32, and have played well and made money, but never made the big trophy yours, are you a failure?
Back to tennis. It’s just you, the court, your racket, the opponent, and one tennis ball. Plus the weather, the umpire and the crowd. No pressure.
On the pro tour, everybody is fast, strong and talented. They would not even make it the top 500 in the world if they sucked. It is a hard life. When you stand out, for any reason, then the potential word gets slung. The word weighs heavier if you are unique, like the first from a country not known for tennis, or labeled as the "next..." Serena, etc.
I think about Gauff, hearing over and over how she is the next big thing. And then she loses in the first round and has to live through SM asking what happened. Where is her potential? Does she get the grace of escaping other people's expectations and labels? (Answer: nope. We started that a couple of years ago. Thanks for asking.)
Kanepi and Cornet have had lovely careers, and now are steps from the final. Cornet has won more than $8 million in prize money over 16 years of being pro; Kanepi has made nearly $7 million, and has reached the quarterfinals of every Grand Slam.
Kyrios is still alive in doubles (semis), and went out in his usual blaze of WTF in singles in the second round to No. 2 Daniil Medvedev. (Quiet Kyrios shout out…only the coolest people are born on April 27. Acknowledge.) And Kyrios has won $9 million on the court. Oh, yeah, that is quite the failure.
The point is this: how do we respectfully assess, then talk, about the “potential” word without being asses? It seems the player’s own intent is rarely considered. I’ve talked to enough players to know how keenly aware of their potential and standing. They want to win. They want to be the best. But in most cases, there will be players who are bigger, stronger, more talented and just straight up luckier. Doesn’t mean you don’t try to maximize what you’ve got.
But there is no shame at reaching No. 30 in the world, and knowing clearly that people like Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic are the very best players of all time - and happen to be in your era.
Not everybody can be Simone Biles. Or Nathan Chen. But you still can be the best you.
Reaching the second round of a Grand Slam may be big deal. Or the quarterfinals. Or winning. Just reaching the Olympics or a Grand Slam. The goals and aspirations are different.
The word potential can drown a player. They feel they need to live up to what other people say about their talent or play. The echo chamber of social media adds to the rushing water. The player can slip under the waterline of words and get lost. Some have never made it back, finding the expectations to be crushing.
So much has to go right to "achieve potential". Don't get injured. Don't have heatstroke on a 120-degree court. Don't get a bad line call. Don't have somebody playing out of their mind. Don't be feeling scared. Don't mess up the strategy.
It is so easy for all of us, comfy on our couches or TV sets, to assess what we are guessing at. If Keys had said she was happy with her life, and never reached a semifinal, would we allow her that path?
Or if my smol dude Diego Schwartzman never wins a GS, which is likely the case, will we say he maximized his talent - or hold him to the same rough standard of failing to be the top?
It's clearly not a one-size-fits-all, and never has been. But we make it too smooth, rounding off the rough edges of the discussion. Potential, and a career, is a messy thing. We see it unfold in front of us, like an unforgiving reality show with no editing.
I am going to watch Keys, Kanepi, Kyrios and Cornet. For who they are, in this moment. Let's leave the rest aside.
Moment too good not to share...
One of the most popular athletes in Australia is wheelchair tennis star Dylan Alcott. He is a multi-Paralympic gold medal winner, in the finals of the men's wheelchair singles at the Aussie - going for his 16th GS singles title. He is also just an amazing spirit of joy and coolness. He talks a lot about representation, and having wheelchair tennis raise its profile. Wheelchair tennis is one of the lone Para sports contested at the same time as the able-bodied event. Zero segregation, which is a huge leap forward. More sports would be better served with such real and concrete integration.
Alcott is doing on-court post-match interviews during the Aussie, and they have been a treat. He is retiring after the Australian Open, and I will miss seeing him play. Keep him around the sport, please.
We need more of this. Athletes come in all forms.
Enjoy the remaining days of the Aussie.
See you Friday.