Issue #3 | Jasmine Paolini: Cavalca o Muori (Ride or Die)

Issue #3 | Jasmine Paolini: Cavalca o Muori (Ride or Die)

Photo Credits: (Photo by Christopher Pike/Getty Images)

I’ve always liked a good underdog. The intentional contrarian in me appreciates the underdog’s potential to disrupt the status quo, and have their day in the sun. I sometimes even like the chaos they cause, especially when I’m not emotionally invested in a particular outcome. When I used to watch football (IMSTILLWITHKAP), this would lowkey manifest itself on Sundays against the New England Patriots (specifically Tom Brady), and the Dallas Cowboys (specifically Jerry Jones). In basketball, that same energy has been directed at any of the teams LeBron James has chased championship rings with (as a Warriors fan, I realize there are mutual feelings of hateration, I respect it). And in tennis, there are definitely a few players that I don’t particularly want to see win if I’m being completely honest. I’m not sure what I resent more, the entitlement some of the popular favorites have towards winning or the entitlement fans have about the popular favorites winning. When it comes to sports, I’ll take the occasional gamble on an underdog, there’s something I like about going against the grain.

As I understand it, there are four common reasons why we root for underdogs. Schadenfreude, also known as “the bad joy,” is the idea of finding happiness in seeing top dogs lose. Secondly, there’s a justice-based rationale where we just want to see and believe outcomes can be fair and balanced (Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Money Mike). Third, there’s the safety found in a utilitarian-based mindset that allows us to root for an underdog, knowing that it will merely be a “pleasant, unexpected surprise” if they win (Eli Manning). And lastly, there’s a relative experience we may have with underdogs, the idea that we see a bit of ourselves in them, we want them to win for all who’ve been challenged or faced insurmountable odds in similar ways. I find myself gravitating to underdogs for each of these reasons, and in the case of Jasmine Paolini, perhaps all of these reasons.

I noticed Paolini for the first time in 2021. She was a diminutive, unseeded player at the Portoroz 250 in Slovenia, who was silently bulldozing her way through the draw. As I watched the tournament each day, I became enamored with how Paolini could sidestep around to shoulder high balls on her right wing and blast forehands at her opponents as if she had a personal grudge. Watching her work her way through the draw that week brought the feels of a 2018 sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

At Portoroz, Paolini would take out 3 seeded players (Yastremska, Cirstea, Putinseva) on her way to the finals where she defeated a fourth, Alison Riske-Amritraj, in straight sets (7-6, 6-2) lifting her first and only main tour singles title to date. With a lethal forehand, a 250 title, and a chip on her shoulder, I had discovered my new favorite player.

I’ve always had various versions of a recurring dream where I get on an elevator, and when the doors close the elevator starts going all sorts of unusual directions instead of up and down, like diagonally and sideways (my wife has been diplomatically suggesting I go back to therapy), but I stay riding on the elevator. Since Portoroz and until recently, the ride with Paolini had at times resembled that elevator, filled with ups and downs, and at times even a little sideways.

I enjoy watching Paolini play knowing she has the ability to be disruptive, triumphant, or gut wrenching at any moment. It hasn't always been smooth sailing with Paolini, she’s left me heartbroken on several occasions, losing matches she outright could have won. She missed out on her second tour level title at Cluj Napoca in 2022, where she lost a tough three setter to Anna Blinkova. In 2023 at Miami, she lost an awkward first round three setter to Mirjam Bjorklund who was ranked 149 in the world at the time. I was at the match at Indian Wells last year where Tatiana Maria stumped Paolini by chopping, slicing, and hacking her way to a two set victory. At a 125 in Croatia last year, Paolini let 5 match points slip away, allowing Mayar Sherif to capture the finals trophy. And just when I thought she had turned the tide on Qinwen Zheng in the 2023 Palermo final, Zheng flipped the script and snatched the title away. That's tennis though. Momentum shifts are inevitable, and when they come, they can come like an avalanche. No lead is ever completely safe. And despite a few missed opportunities, I've seen more than enough promise in Paolini's game to ride the bad days out.

Paolini has had a gang of moments where she’s brought her share of pain to some really tough opponents over the course of the last few years. In 2022, she played with the heart and courage of a lion when she beat Aryna Sabalenka in three sets in the second round at Indian Wells. Staying calm and composed after dropping the first set, she simply kept balls in play, frustrating Sabalenka until she overhit any ball that Paolini put on her side of the court. On the days where I’ve procrastinated and find myself washing and folding every article of clothing my wife and I own, I’ll make a sandwich, pour myself a drink and watch the replay of this match for fun.

In China last year, Paolini fought back to stun world number six Caroline Garcia in three sets, setting herself up for a solid run into the semifinals. She also had a very weary Elena Rybakina on the ropes in Cincinnati before Rybakina retired with Paolini up 5-2 in the second. And last year in Beijing, Paolini toughed out a tight three setter against Beatrice Haddad-Maia before falling to Aryna Sabalenka in a close two sets in the next round. Riding a wave of consistency and confidence in the second half of 2023, Paolini solidified her presence, and proved she could go toe-to-toe with some of the best in the game, and I feel she has still yet to produce her very best tennis.

If you were to ask some experts, I’d bet some would say Paolini shouldn’t be here. I’ve heard commentators exhibit what I chalk up as unconscious bias, more often referring to her as “The Italian” than by her actual name during matches. I listen as they appear surprised when she provides resistance against higher ranked opponents, referencing her height as if it’s a disability. 

One commentator recently spoke anecdotally about how at five feet four inches, Paolini had been told she’d be too short to compete in a forest of high powered six footers and tennis prodigies, and that she should quit tennis instead of turning pro when she played juniors. Yet as I write this, Paolini has pushed through the field, settling comfortably at #30 in the world, and the twenty six seed heading into the 2024 Australian Open, a testament to her dedication, work ethic and resilience.

On the surface, I don't have anything obviously in common with Paolini, I certainly can’t strike a tennis ball the way she can, I’m merely a spectator. I can however relate to being in places where I was made to feel I couldn’t be successful. I can relate to having gone underestimated until I did something to stand out. I can attest to having to work extra hard to prove I belong in some environments. And, I’ve also experienced a just balance of success with healthy doses of struggle and disappointment. So maybe I do see some parallels with Paolini, but with a questionable, at times downright janky forehand.

I believe in Jasmine Paolini. Her game, at its best, can rival even her highest ranking peers on any given day. I'm going keep the faith and continue to wish good things for her, I'm all in. She's my fighter. I like how she has a presence, but hasn't been overly prominent, lurking dangerously under the radar most weeks. I would really love to see her prevail when the big opportunities come her way, and remain diligent, consistent and aggressive in the matches she's supposed to win

Jasmine Paolini is quietly on the cusp of venturing into the upper echelon of the WTA rankings, where there's plenty of space for her. Space in which she belongs and where to many, she'll still very likely be considered an underdog. Until she isn’t. Jasmine Paolini will have her day(s) in the sun, I'm sure of it. And just like that elevator, I'ma stay ridin'.

Previous post Next post