It Was a Thrilling Match
The two players above are Alex Bolt (lefty, blue hat) and Andrew Whittington (righty, white hat). You have almost certainly never heard of them, because their current world rankings are 471 and 368, respectively. Bolt just turned 21 a few weeks ago, and Whittington won’t turn 21 until later this year, so they might still have successful careers on the ATP tour, but it’s unlikely.
Make no mistake: As top 500 players, Bolt and Whittington are excellent at what they do. But tennis is a cruel sport for aspiring pros. There are more than 600 players in the NHL, all making at least the league minimum of $525,000. But even if they were to cut their world rankings in half, Bolt and Whittington would still struggle to make a living by playing tennis. To date, their combined career earnings are $93,346. They only received an entry in the doubles draw because they are Australian, and received a last-minute wild card entry from their home slam.
So, when we watched them play a third-round doubles match at the Aussie Open, we were unquestionably watching the biggest match of their careers to date. The outcome really mattered in an existential way that you don’t see amongst higher-ranked players. If they were able to win the match, they would be guaranteed $32,500 each, which is the kind of money that can mean an extra year pursuing a professional tennis career. On paper, they had very little chance against their Spanish opponents, (both ranked in the top 65), but they were hometown underdogs with the crowd enthusiastically behind them, and they had scored an even bigger upset just to make it this far.
It was a thrilling match. The Aussies dropped a close tiebreaker to lose the first set, but they prevailed in the second-set tiebreaker to force a third set. Late in the third set, Whittington and Bolt broke the Spaniards, and Bolt had the opportunity to serve for the match. The crowd went crazy, and then…the pressure of the moment completely got to Bolt, who’d been the better of the pair by some way up to that point. It was as clear a case of choking as you will ever see. All of a sudden, he couldn’t get a serve in, couldn’t hit a ground stroke. He lost the game at love, and hung his head dejectedly, the opportunity gone. But then, three games later, on the Spaniards’ serve, they earned a break point and a chance at redemption. And this time, they converted, and won the match. The crowd at Margaret Court Arena went absolutely wild. The kids were jubilant. It was a wonderful moment for them, but for the spectator too. It isn’t often you get to witness sportsmen achieve new heights, even if those heights are only the quarterfinals.
By way of epilogue, two nights later, Bolt and Whittington found themselves on an even bigger stage, playing the quarterfinals on Rod Laver Arena. They were sporting some new Fila duds, but couldn’t carry the magic any further, losing in straight sets to the veteran pair of Nestor/Zimonjic (combined career earnings over $17-mil).