Monday, February 27, 2012

On being the second fiddle

My heart went out to Marko Djokovic this morning. As a  younger sister myself, I have a sense of what it feels like to be the one that comes behind. In my case, I got lucky and ended up being the most successful sister. But to be fair, I did not have to face the challenge of being preceded by siblings who had blazed a path before me. My sisters were more into being married than in having successful careers. Observing their early misery, I chose career, and have never regretted it.
And yet in many respects I could relate to Marko, or at least to what I assume his emotional experience might be like. It must, in many respects, seriously suck to be a younger Djokovic - especially when your latest attempt to succeed comes shortly after your brother manages to spectacularly change the face of the very sport that you both play.

This middle Djokovic brother turned pro in 2007. He has thus far won a single junior title (Montengro Open), but has no ATP titles. His biggest success to date remains a doubles win against Nestor and Zimonjic (then ranked world # 2) at the 2009 Serbian Open. His partner was a fellow wildcard holder named Darko Madjarovski. As far as I am aware, no one screamed fraud when Darko and Marko pulled off a most unlikely upset on home soil. Maybe nobody noticed.

This issue of one tennis sibling outstripping another is not unique to the Djokovics. Tennis as a sport has seen more than its share of sibling rivalries. Or sibling contenders at least. There was Marat Safin and his younger sister, Dinara. And Richard Kracijek and his younger sister Michaela. Then there was Arantza Sanchez-Vicario and her brothers. And Cara Black and her brothers. Not to mention the Radwanska sisters. And the Rochus brothers. To name just a few.

The list of tennis siblings is long. And in most cases, there seems to be a distinct pattern of a dominant sibling who accomplishes a whole lot, and an also ran sibling who just does not live up to the same expectations. My point being that Marko should feel no shame about his loss today. He is in good company. There are a whole lot of tennis siblings who play second fiddle to the larger-than-life success of an older sibling.

Agnieska Radwanska's success has decidedly outstripped her sister, Ursul's. Watching her beat Julia Georges over the weekend was an unexpected joy as I was actually rooting for the german. But she made too many wild mistakes. And Aggie was too crafty, too intelligent, too determined, too stubborn.

Yet I felt Aggie's pain as she complained recently about always having to face her sister in the draw. It was a complaint not based on any kind of logic but more than likely coming from the emotional discomfort of facing your sister in a pro match. It's only so many times you want to face someone to whom you are related -- especially when that person happens to have little chance of beating you.

Which is really why the William sisters were so unique. Their ability to compartmentalize was formidable. At least Serena's ability to do so. I always got the sense that their contests were emotionally more challenging for Venus. Richard had long predicted that Serena would be the more ruthless of the two, and he turned out in this and so many other matters to be absolutely right.

But once the match was over, the sisters promptly went back to being sisters. You could see them giggling as they awaited the trophies that would define the winner and the loser. There were no hard feelings. It was not personal. It was just a tennis match and they were over it. They have never once complained about having to face each other. They could teach Aggie a thing or two about sibling rivalry and success.

Some siblings resolve the issue by succeeding in different spaces. John and Pat McEnroe, for example, initially contested the same spaces both on the tennis court and as Davis Cup captains. But where John succeeded in singles domination, Pat turned out to have a more deft and diplomatic touch with the team sport. Where John was abrasive, Pat seemed to thrive more on being a people pleaser. In the end, they did not contest the same spaces after all.

Then there are the Bryan twins whose coach father allegedly resolved any likelihood of sibling rivalry by guiding them into doubles tennis. Rumor has it that one of the twins desperately wanted, and for a while pursued, a singles career. But reportedly Dad was having none of that.

And to be fair, their doubles partnership remains one of the more successful in tennis. If there is a second fiddle in the Bryan alliance -- and I personally believe that there is -- they have gone to lengths to keep that concealed. It's a secret that we can only guess at because Papa ain't preaching.

Some siblings are not so lucky. The Bondarenko sisters (Alona and Kateryna) often seemed to forget that they are not in their private living-rooms but on a public tennis court with cameras catching their every angry exchange. Their on-court quarrels would be hilarious if they weren't so embarrassing. One would shout while the other fumed. I can't remember if big sister Valeria fared any better when she played with Alona.

Which is all by way of saying that Marko should accept the inevitability of the comparisons with his older and incredibly successful brother. Sometimes being the younger sibling means accepting that you have been eclipsed. This does not however, have to mean giving up altogether. If you're going to try to succeed in a contested space, you have to have the stomach to lose.

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