In a short tennis life, players are always armed with hope

Irrelevance is cruel in tennis, and it is quick. Everyone starts the tournament with hope, and then hope is yanked away like a lifebelt grabbed by another survivor. Most carry aches, pains, niggles, but winning is the best balm and losing just accelerates the pain, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Novak Djokovic is young, gifted, outspoken, 20. Occasionally wise, too. At the French Open, he says: "This is a game where basically every week you lose. So it's not easy to maintain the mental strength."

Every week, tennis players not named Roger will win, a round, two, three, then they will lose, must pick themselves up from the dust, soothe the bruises of the mind, breathe life into rickety confidence. Losing is hard but it is constant. Last year only 34 men won tournaments on the ATP Tour, but over 1500 have rankings.

Life isn't measured in years for tennis players, but in tournaments. Particularly Grand Slams. Very good players look to contend for a Grand Slam title, good players want to slide into the second week, decent players would like to earn a single headline, average ones just want to qualify and feel the experience. Those who are specialists, whose authority is mostly restricted to clay, find their lives shortened still.

Irrelevance is cruel in tennis, and it is quick. Everyone starts the tournament with hope, "this will be my day, my year", and then hope is yanked away like a lifebelt grabbed by another survivor. Most carry aches, pains, niggles, but winning is the best balm and losing just accelerates the pain. Maybe in the end, the mind, a thoughtful friend, whispers to the athlete, "you lost because you were hurt". Who wants to be not good enough?

How old is a player at the end of his life? Thirty Slams maybe, sometimes 40, often less. So few opportunities, so many swiftly gone. The good/decent player, who owns no private jet, a fellow of sound skills yet rarely able to summon them all at the same time at the right time, he requires a push from luck. Four Slams in a lifetime he may be injured.

Another five or six slams, he looks up and sees someone like Nadal against his name in the first round, or a player beyond even his best day. Some Slams his game does not work, he has tried persuasion, abuse, pleas, thrown his racket, kissed it, and then gone to pick up his first round loser's cheque. But he keeps going, this is his life, serve, forehand, backhand. He believes his time, his Slam, will come. Maybe he'll be a Martin Verkerk, or Mariano Puerta, or Alberto Berasategui, who flew from anonymity into the French Open final. Or Fernando Meligeni, Fillip Dewulf and Franco Squillari, who battled into the Open semifinals this past decade.

When will promise turn to performance? When? When? Richard Gasquet is talented, French, world No.13, but he has not done his gifts enough justice you will hear. He, seeded No.11, loses, in the second round of the French this year, to Kristof Vliegen, on a surface he likes, in straight sets. He diminishes before your eyes, he shrinks this boy, yet the home crowd, it boos him.

Gasquet says later: "When people feel you're not playing your best tennis, they're not happy. It's quite natural. But then what you feel on the court is very difficult. You feel really lonely. You feel really on your own. I never felt more alone on a court than today. It was horrible."

Gasquet will be 21 this month, he has played 14 Slams. He has time. And yet he does not. People slip from the mind as form slips from the fingers. This locker room, this noisy, smelly, testosterone-infected home, one day a player will not merit a return to it, and the shared pleasures and private pains will become a memory of a fleeting other life. That, too, will fade. Kuerten, 32 Slams old, who was the grimy, grimacing master of this surface, remember him at all? Coria, 19 Slams old, a despairing, beaten favourite in the 2004 final, cannot be found. Gaudio, buoyant winner of that 2004 final, cannot find his game. He laughs. What else.

Venus, 27 this month, so damn young, yet so bloody old when confronted by Jelana Jankovic, 22. If Jankovic is the Now of tennis, is Venus its Past? The senior Williams is 36 Slams old, 10 years on tour, rich, famous, courted, but no one wants to leave the stage. How she fights against Jankovic, but the last point of the match tells a story. Venus pounds, bashes, blasts, but the ball keeps coming back till she sends it into the net. Tick, tock, she can hear career clock.

Youth matters. We focus on Nadal, Djokovic, and there, in our peripheral vision, Marat Safin is slipping into oblivion. The Russian, gone in the second round, is a funny story for some, a Shakespearean tragedy for others. Only he, would face this sort of questioning at the French:

Q: Have you ever attended in a theatre, Hamlet?

Marat Safin: No. Q. The play Hamlet? Marat Safin: No, no, no.

Q. Because there is a lot of interesting monologues and he's asking himself to be or not to be.

Marat Safin: It's for me or — this question?

Q. Could be, because I listen to many monologues of you today and it reminds me of Hamlet.

Marat Safin: Well, I'm 27 years old, and I'm already downhill on my career. So it's not really a question to be or not to be. This kind of question will be at age of 22, without winning a Grand Slam, and being somewhere up close, but never actually achieve anything, like Rios, for example. That's a question for him.

Safin is 31 slams old, and has won two of them; he will play a few more, he will win none. Who understands the Russian? Djokovic, who has a reported interest in books on psychiatry, renders an interesting diagnosis.

Says the ambitious Serb: "Well, Marat is, in my opinion, maybe the most talented player in the world. I think for him — this might sound a little bit harsh — but for him tennis is like a toy, because when it's interesting for him, no one in the world can beat him. But then when it's not interesting for him, he just doesn't show his talent or his tennis the way he can play."

Safin will hope for one last flourish. Of course he does. Everyone hopes.

This year Jankovic has won three tournaments and is ranked world No. 5. Against Venus, a hard match, she was laughing during changeovers as if relishing her life. Later she explained: "It helps me stay relaxed. I smile on the court. I have really positive people in my player box, it helps me to play, and it releases the tension on the court."

There was no sign on her face of the player who last year won one round at the Australian Open, and then over the next nine tournaments (four hardcourt, four clay, one carpet) failed to win a single round. Jankovic wanted to quit. Nine straight failures. The heart sinks. But these kids are tough. She played on. She had to. Always there is another tournament, another chance.