On Greatness, Desire, Tennis, and Trubisky

| July 23rd, 2018

We’re almost there, guys.

The Chicago Bears have started training camp, and the first preseason game follows in a few weeks! It’s great news for all of us at DBB, considering the most exciting thing that’s happened in the Bears’ universe over the last two months is Jay Cutler killing it on his wife’s new reality show.

Data and Andrew have done a fantastic job breaking down players, stats, and expectations for the 2018 season, and frankly my attention has been focused on other sports. And since at the exact moment of writing this article we’re still left with not much more than anticipation for the upcoming season, I’m going to spend a little bit of time reflecting on my other favorite sport: tennis.

Right now I imagine some of you would prefer I’d just write about politics again, but fear not, this is still DBB, and I promise to work the Bears in…eventually! Just indulge me for a bit. It’s summer, the days are long, and we still have time to meander.

While I fell in love with football as a small kid, I didn’t come to follow tennis until much later. It was 2008, and I was sick at home in the middle of a boring September afternoon, flipping through the channels. I came across the US Open. I figured I’d give it a try.

Tennis isn’t the most intuitive of sports, so I spent the first few hours bemused as to how a score could possibly go from 15 to 30 to 40 to game over, and just how many games do they have to play, anyways, and also what the fuck is a “let”?

By the end of that week I figured out the answer to all those questions, and was completely infatuated. Not only with the game, but with the eventual winners of that year’s tournament: Serena Williams and Roger Federer.

Ten years later, I’m still just as infatuated with tennis, and mesmerized by the undisputed greatness of those two players. In fact, when I initially pitched this idea to Jeff, both were still in the mix in Wimbledon and looking more and more like the favorites to win. That result would’ve undoubtedly helped me wrap a neat little bow around this column, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Federer lost in incredibly dramatic fashion to Kevin Anderson in the quarterfinals, and Serena Williams, who looked sharper in every round of the tournament, came out flat and maybe a little too eager to win her 24th major, falling in straight sets to Angelique Kerber in the final.

But really it doesn’t matter that they lost. It stings I’m sure, like it does when any competitor tastes defeat, but it doesn’t change much for either player. They both remain hungry, eager, and determined to keep adding to their legacies, not because they have anything left to prove, but because long after they’ve reached the point where they could retire and go down in the record books as the two greatest players of all time, all they want to do is win more.

Both Federer and Williams are in their late 30s. They each have families, multiple business ventures, and hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank. As of now Roger has 20 grand slam titles, while Serena sits at 23.

In 2016, Roger Federer found himself similarly and unceremoniously ousted in the semifinals of Wimbledon by Milos Raonic. Near the end of that match, Federer fell awkwardly to his knees. He’d been battling injuries all season, and after walking off Centre Court that night he ended up not playing another match the rest of the season. He was in his mid-30s, and although he had remained competitive the last few years, he hadn’t actually won a major title since 2012. Many were fearing that we were witnessing the beginning of the end of Federer’s career.

He returned after six months off to the 2017 Australian Open, ranked 18 in the world, and unsure about what to expect in his first tournament back. He ended up winning the title, and has gone on to win 3 of the last 7 grand slams.

Not to be outdone, Serena Williams also won the 2017 Australian Open while she was 8 weeks pregnant with her first child. After a long maternity break, made longer by a complicated delivery that proved almost fatal, she started playing professional tennis again just six months after giving birth to her daughter, and in her 4th tournament back, ended up reaching the finals of a grand slam.

Even if you don’t give a shit about tennis, that should impress the hell out of you. The fire and the drive that each of that these two legends have is exceedingly rare, and can’t be taught.

Philippe Dehaes, coach of the up-and-coming Russian tennis player Daria Kasatkina commented on Serena’s unparalleled drive in an interview with the New York Times during the French Open earlier this year.

“Serena has great tennis talent, but above all she has this fire. And when I watch the other young players coming up now, I just don’t see it. It’s the whole package with Serena: the confidence, the desire to win or more refusing to lose as if losing were an illness. When I see Serena winning I am angry in a way. I am happy to see her win of course because I have a lot of respect for her, but I’m angry when I think of the others. I say, ‘Wake up, girls. Serena is nearly 37 years old. What does it take for you to wake up?’”

The thing is most players will never “wake up” in the way that Serena or Federer have. That’s not to say they don’t have drive or ambition, or that they won’t work hard to improve their games and win titles. It’s that few people are born with that internalized desire to be truly great at something, and even fewer can keep that flame burning once they’ve achieved enough that the rest of the world recognizes their greatness. Serena and Federer aren’t like regular people in that way. If they were, they’d both be retired by now, off sipping Mai Thais on their own private islands. Their greatness keeps them going.

So – to all five of you who have actually stuck around long enough to find out – what exactly does this tennis-centered interlude have to do with the Chicago Bears?

Mitch Trubisky, that’s what.

Oh my God, Emily! Are you actually comparing a second-year quarterback with a mediocre rookie season under his belt to the two greatest tennis players of all time? How drunk are you?

I mean, I’ve got a summer’s buzz on, but I really don’t think that’s any of your business…

More importantly, no, I’m not trying to say that Trubisky is obviously on his way to becoming one of the greatest champions of all time. What I’m saying is that there is a reason Chicago, and more recently, the rest of the national media is so high on this kid; why his is the 6th highest selling jersey in the NFL, even though he went 4-8 last year with a passer-rating of 77.5.

It’s not just his physical skills, although he undoubtedly is a gifted athlete. When the Bears traded for Jay Cutler in 2009, fans were seduced by that canon of an arm. With Trubisky it’s clear that fans and teammates alike are inspired by his intensity and his drive. Article after article has been written on Trubisky’s obsession with improving himself, establishing himself as a leader, positing him as someone who likes the pressure, likes the challenge, and is ready to prove everyone who doubted the Bears picking him at #2 wrong.

His drive doesn’t just come from wanting to prove others wrong, though. Like Serena, like Federer, and like everyone else who is or was ever truly great at something, it’s a fire that’s been burning within him for quite some time. Per his recent interview with Bleacher Report:

“People have been telling me I have to prove myself this year. What do I have to prove? I’ve been trying to prove myself since I picked up this brown ball at the age of 7. Who are you to tell me I have to prove myself this year? I’ve been trying to prove to myself every single day of my life that I’m good enough to be at this level, that I’m worthy to be playing this game.”

Look I have no idea what the trajectory of Trubisky’s career is going to look like. I can’t say that he won’t turn out to be a flop, or an asshole, or that even if he does work his tail off, he won’t just be a guy who does OK, but never really lives up to the initial hype that’s been placed on him. But I keep going back to a fan question on a Hoge & Jahns podcast shortly before free agency this year which was, “What evidence do we have that Mitch Trubisky *won’t* be great?”

Like both Adams, I can’t think of anything. It doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It just means that so far, Trubisky has given us a lot to be excited about, and I for one, hope he proves the fans right. More than that, I hope he proves himself right.

So I’m looking forward to September. Looking forward to watching two tennis greats continue to battle under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe, and to watching a young kid carry the hopes of a city on his shoulders between the lines of Soldier Field.

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