There are no Cinderella stories in sports. No one graduates straight from kitchen service to being the big hit at the Grand Ball.
This doesn’t stop broadcasters from trying it on every half-chance they get: “Jane Doe absolutely came out of nowhere to win that one. Even her full-time sports psychologist can hardly believe it.”
At best, what you get is a modified David story – low-status insider sneaks up the middle because the giants brought wooden clubs to a rock-throwing fight.
Aslan Karatsev is the latest of that type.
Karatsev, a Russian, is a 27-year-old tennis player. That makes him about 45 in regular human years. For most of the time he’s been at this, he’s been ranked somewhere between 200th and 600th in the world.
Until very recently, the most notable thing about Karatsev’s tennis career is that he’d managed to keep doing it for so long without having to take a part-time job at Russian Home Hardware.
But Karatsev is having a hell of a moment at the Australian Open. He had to play three qualifying matches just to enter the main draw. After many tries, this is the first time he’s ever gotten over that hurdle at a major.
Once there, he was lucky in his path. His first two opponents were pushovers. In the third round, he caught No. 8 Diego Schwartzman on a bad day at the office. He should have lost in the fourth round to Canada’s Félix Auger-Aliassime, but Auger-Aliassime conspired to regift a match he’d already unwrapped.
In Monday’s quarter-finals, Karatsev’s opponent, Grigor Dimitrov, was in the midst of back issues (which is the technical tennis term for “I was inexplicably terrible.”). Karatsev will now face world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semis.
Over his eight-year pro career, Karatsev had earned a total of US$618,000 in prize money.
In the past two weeks, he’s made at least US$660,000.
This turn of events is so unlikely that reporters in Melbourne waited until after the Dimitrov win to ask Karatsev about the basic details of his biography. It was only at that point they figured it was worth writing down the answers.
As you might expect from someone who’s never faced such questions before, Karatsev didn’t understand that he was meant to tell a hard-luck story about living in a van down by the Moskva River. Instead, he recited his bush-league CV. So much for his movie of the week.
It’s possible Karatsev is the next big thing in men’s tennis, and that he’ll get a chance to invest in some media training.
It’s a lot more possible that Karatsev is performing the function of every sporting dog having his day – he’s a purgative.
The system is weighed heavily against anyone who isn’t plucked early and put in the pipeline for success.
The chosen ones get access to the best coaching and the premier opportunities. They face the best competition and get the morale boost of being constantly reminded how great they are.
This process is happening earlier and earlier in a player’s life. If you don’t know by high school that you’re headed to the top, then you aren’t.
Sport’s PR apparatus – the media who report on it – play an ancillary role. They obsess over the Next Big Thing before her arrival, pump her tires when she’s in her glory days, and then ease her way out of it when she crests the performance hill.
The beats of these stories are familiar, comforting and, most importantly, uncomplicated.
As soon as we meet a Connor McDavid, we know how it’s supposed to go – bright burst onto scene, early struggles, growth into manhood, first taste of success, period of extended greatness, further struggles, slow decline, bittersweet professional death, Viking funeral.
If at any stage this process is interrupted, we fall on the failed hero like wolves and rip them apart, à la Eugenie Bouchard.
But we must also maintain the fiction that this pipeline has many entry points, and that anyone with a pure enough heart can slip into it whenever they’d like. All they have to do is pass the test.
Of course, that’s not true. If an athlete fails early, he loses all the structural advantages of his peers. Teams need their first-round draft picks to work out. Their undrafted free agents? That’d be great, but no one really cares.
This is where your Karatsevs come in. They flush the pipeline. They give their sport, whichever sport that happens to be, the appearance of being a pure meritocracy.
Because if a Russian kid who’s spent his adult life living like a middle-class hobo, going country to country, looking for a coach who thinks he’s not a complete waste of effort can do it, then hey, you could, too.
Tennis is especially good at pushing these sorts of competitors up every once in a while. Not too often, but enough to seem convincing.
Karatsev is the latest flavour-of-the-major. Good for him. He makes a bunch of quick money, plus he’ll have something to tell his grandkids about. As life achievements go, being able to say that in a very precise window of time you were one of the four best in the world at what you do, is really something. Few of us will ever be as objectively successful at anything.
But it isn’t a Cinderella story or a glitch in the sports matrix. It isn’t happily ever after. The system was designed to throw out these errors every now and again. In fact, it can’t function without them.