Monday, January 13, 2014

The Luckiest (and most talented) Loser of Them All



I am one of those people that likes the bizarre eccentricities of every possible event. For instance, one of my favorite things about professional football is the fact that in today's modern technological world, we still decide whether a team has achieved a first down by the decidedly unscientific method of measuring with two sticks and a chain . Similarly tennis, while on the one hand being obsessed with rankings, numbers and statistics, then throws out all of this mathematical data and finalizes the field to its biggest events by a system so completely random and bizarre, that it looks more like a carnival game than a professional sport. The concept of a "Lucky Loser" in a Grand Slam tennis event is one accepted as normal in tennis circles, but would be mocked by anyone not accustomed to it.  After three rounds of qualifying and fights to the metaphorical death to determine who will be fortunate enough to get into a Grand Slam field and have the potential for a major rankings bump, you can be saved after falling short by simply having your name drawn out of a hat in the final hours before the event begins.

That is exactly what happened this week for American Irina Falconi, who took the mantle of "Luckiest Loser" into the second round of the Australian Open yesterday with a win over Anna Medina Garrigues (6-3, 6-1). Falconi lost in the final round of Australian Open qualifying, a painful defeat that looked to have continued her streak of five straight majors where she had failed to make the main draw. It was a bitter disappointment and one that would have affected Falconi's prospects for the rest of the season, due to the corresponding points loss that was forthcoming. So how did Falconi handle this event?  She explains, "I was out with my friends having ice cream, when I got the email  from the WTA saying, "Lucky! You play first round on Monday against Medina." (as a side note, I find it hilarious that in 2014, this is how we tell players they have made a major championship...is it not even worth a phone call?  What if she hadn't checked her email?  What if the email got sent to spam?  These are the questions that make me rack my brain).  Falconi put the ice cream down, headed home and prepared for her big match.

So how was Falconi given this honor? Well of course, her name was drawn out of a hat. As one of the four highest ranked qualifiers to lose in the final qualifying round, Falconi was given the chance to make the field after Jamie Hampton withdrew. Four names went in the pot, Falconi's name was picked, and the other three "losers" got to finish their ice cream. It is a crazy and absurd system, but that is precisely why I love it. Rational people would suggest we should go by highest ranking, have the top two players compete or even just a hearty game of friendly, but competitive Spades. Critics would tell you that anything resembling a merit-based system is appropriate, but they are obsessed with concepts that are no fun like "rationality" or "fairness." Instead, we choose a completely random draw gives someone like Falconi a chance, and the other "Losers" a long flight home in misery (and by the way, the term "Lucky Loser" has to be one of the most backhanded compliments in the history of professional sports. I like to think of the designation as being the equivalent of a "L" that the player is forced to wear all tournament long, while her fellow competitors shun her in the cafeteria and hold the "L" sign to their forehead every time she walks by).

Fortunate or not, Falconi has now taken advantage of the moment and has a chance for a huge win on Wednesday versus 22nd seed Ekaterina Makarova. Just a few months ago, I saw Falconi play at a Challenger event on a scorching August day in Lexington, Kentucky, in front of a couple hundred fans at most. Now she gets a chance to play in front of a packed stadium and a worldwide audience with the possibility of matching her career best Grand Slam finish with a victory....all because her number was drawn out of a hat. The tennis world is a strange, but amazing place.