One of the highlights of my 2023 has been getting to hang out at the U.S. Open with my favorite tennis player, the Dutch doubles specialist Matwe Middelkoop, a meeting spurred by the recent release of the debut album by Stankeye Jones and the Vagabond Librarians. The album features my song “Agony Of Defeat,” written over a decade ago and inspired by watching Matwe play there. I was thrilled that he found the song meaningful, and since our recent hang I’ve been thinking about how broadly applicable the sentiments are.
Back in 2011 I attended the U.S. Open Qualifying tournament in NYC, which (for the uninitiated) is a play-in for players not ranked highly enough to gain automatic entry. To grossly oversimplify, there are three categories of players who participate: players on the rise, players on the comeback trail (from injury, poor form, or whatever else), and players who have been around a while but haven’t yet gotten over that hump and indeed in many cases never do so. I’ve heard others cruder than I characterize this as the ”up-and-comers,” the “has-beens” and the “never-weres.”
I have long had a particular interest in the last category. Part of that is that it makes for such a great story (as evidenced by the attention given this year to the rise of the wonderful and classy American player Chris Eubanks) when someone breaks through and rises from the proverbial trenches. Equally, though, I identify with all the folks for whom making the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament would represent a career milestone and bucket list experience even without necessarily parlaying it into sustained wealth and fame. And whenever I get to see tennis on that level it’s striking how high the quality is and how thin the margins typically are between winning and losing a match. The qualifying tournament offers great tennis and an abundance of that sort of drama; I enjoy watching famous players duke it out as much as the next fan, but whether or not they can “make history” or afford ten more sports cars versus just a couple is perhaps not as relatable as someone scrapping to earn a livelihood and make some kind of mark. Being, say, the 150th best practitioner of something ON THE PLANET, while knowing that that a couple inadequately perfect moments could imperil one’s livelihood, now that’s drama.
And for every heartwarming triumph there are many heart-wrenching close calls. So it went that day in 2011 when I sat by Court 6 and watched Matwe play in the third and final round of qualifying against the Irishman Conor Niland. Matwe checked all the boxes for the players I particularly invest in rooting for in these settings. He was nearly ten years into his pro career (approaching the twilight, it seemed at the time) and had never been this far in the qualifying for a grand slam tournament (much less into the main draw of one) and his stylish play was clicking. The match was a nail-biter down to 4-4 in the third set, and a couple loose shots from Matwe wound up making the difference in the end. The match was compelling* but what really hit me was watching him stride away from Court 6 and leave the grounds, unrecognized by those in the sea of people through whom he walked. He had just lost what was likely (and indeed turned out to be) his last, best chance at that particular career-defining milestone, and there he was walking anonymously through the crowd, presumably to prepare for his flight back to the Netherlands. That image stuck with me and spurred me to write the song “Agony of Defeat” on my train ride back to CT.
* I was hardly rooting against Niland, whose reward for making the main draw of this slam (his second and last such appearance, retiring soon thereafter due to chronic injury woes) was a once-in-a-lifetime marquee match-up with Novak Djokovic, the eventual champion, on Arthur Ashe Stadium . . . from which Niland had to bow out before the completion of the match due to a case of food poisoning.
As a jazz musician (having played in festivals and such) I’m plenty accustomed to simultaneously being the “talent” for whom people shell out the bucks for a day of entertainment and being basically anonymous to most of those folks. I was going to say that, on the other hand, I’ve seldom had to deal with the compounding factor of “defeat” until I began thinking about gigs, especially in my youth, that were demoralizing to the point where it took me days to rouse the determination to lick my wounds and maybe not quit after all. And that doesn’t even count all the times I considered quitting because of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I suppose this is why I found Matwe’s next career phase so inspiring.
It was five years later that I visited the U.S. Open and saw him make his main draw debut there . . . as a doubles specialist. In the interim he’d taught himself doubles strategy and made it to the top 100 in that discipline (even beating Roger Federer in a Davis Cup doubles match) and on this afternoon I watched him lose yet another nail-biter. Between then and now he has cracked the top 20, made three Grand Slam quarterfinals, and won 14 tournaments on the ATP tour. I, of course, didn’t know he’d have such a successful second act, and presumably neither did he, which is kind of the point of why it’s so inspiring – dusting yourself off after a setback is a lot easier if you have reason to think it likely that you’ll wind up in the place you want to be.
So when I saw him play this year at the U.S. Open? It was a rollercoaster ride – he and his teammate (former world #1 doubles player Mate Pavic) started terribly and then pulled ahead and then lost the momentum and then gained it again and . . . well, you get the idea. In the end they lost a close one, which would make for less of a storybook ending to this tale, except the storybook is real life. I was particularly struck during the match by my own hubristic desire to feel as though I could read into what was going to happen next. So many dramatic moments occurred and each time I thought “okay, well I guess THIS is the point where the momentum shifts fully in the direction of this or that team” and mostly I was wrong. As is the case in life, things go well, things go poorly, we dust ourselves off and get back to it (or don’t) with no guarantees of outcomes at any point along the way. And eventually, like a tennis career, it’s over – indeed this is what makes us human.
When we hung out afterwards (the graciousness of which still amazes me, especially given how it came less than an hour after a painful loss) we were a few yards away from Court 6 and he jokingly asked if I was going to write a song about this match too. And I very well may, as the internal dramas of a tennis match/tournament/career continue to parallel the triumphs and tribulations of human existence. In the meantime, I’ll cherish the reminder that music really can have an emotional impact and that behind every athletic performance is a human just trying to stave off the agony of defeat for another day, as we all are.