Watching the Australian Open in a post-midnight haze this week, it was hard not to feel for the almost-winners this week. Whether unheralded upstarts or revered champions, many of those who left the tournament this week saw how tennis uniquely rewards those who raise their level at crucial moments. Like the electoral college, it’s not enough to win more points – it’s winning the right ones that matter.
If there’s a defining narrative of Maria Sharapova’s renaissance over the past few years, it’s that she manages to dig herself into big holes and claw her way out of them over and over again. Conservative in her off-court image, Sharapova’s a gambler on the court, sticking with her line-painting groundstrokes through thick and thin. And, on Wednesday, Sharapova’s go-for-broke style brought her to the wrong side of match point against Alexandra Panova. For Panova, a qualifier, a win against Sharapova would have been career-defining, and she had played an incredible match to get one point away from victory. Yet, on two match points, Sharapova went for gutsy forehand winners that landed on the line. And, even though she had played better than Sharapova for large swathes of the match, Panova never recovered from losing those points, and Sharapova quickly raced away with the win. While the narrative of Sharapova’s tournament will note her courage in staring down match point twice and going big both times, it’s hard not to spare a thought for Panova, who had done everything right, yet still ended up going home without that career-defining win.
If I had to pick the most shocking almost-win of the first week, it would have to by Tim Smyczek’s near-upset of Rafael Nadal in the second round. Nadal, suffering from stomach cramps and returning after another long absence from the tour, was down two sets to one to the qualifier, but won the fourth set to force a fifth. In the fifth set, Smyczek held his own and managed to get to 5-5. But, as he has done so many other times, showing his unsurpassed competitive instincts, Nadal found a way to break Smyczek’s serve when he needed it the most. In what has become the match’s most heralded moment, Smyczek volunteered to let Nadal re-start his serve after a fan shouted while Nadal was serving at 6-5, 30-0 in the fifth set. In an era where good-guyness is pretty much the norm, Smyczek’s gesture shocked Nadal in its generosity. When asked whether he would do the same in that situation, Stan Wawrinka admitted that he may not have, and it’s fair to say that most other players on the ATP tour probably wouldn’t have either. Honestly, it wouldn’t be surprising to me if sportsmanship-award-namesake Stefan Edberg himself didn’t go as far as Smyczek did. That isn’t to say that the ATP lacks in sportsmanship, but rather, players know that the difference between victory and defeat often lies in winning a few crucial points, and are loathe to give up any advantage in those moments.
If there’s anyone who showed how important it is to win the big points this week, it’s Andreas Seppi. So often challengers to the top players manage to push the stars to the brink, but find themselves outplayed at the big moments, whether due to champions coming up with their best tennis at key points, or their own faltering in those moments. Yet, over four sets, Seppi played a steady and punishing brand of tennis – consistently pushing Federer out of position, and not yielding during his normally attackable service games. Federer continued to hang in there, and had leads in the second and fourth sets that he could not hold. While Federer won more total points in the match, Seppi won the ones that mattered, just as Federer has done to so many opponents over the years. And, due to his failure to pull through at those key moments, Federer found himself out of the Australian Open before the semifinals for the first time in over a decade. In assessing his performance and the loss, Federer noted “I guess I won the wrong points out there.”
It’s one of the truly exciting aspects of sports, and especially tennis, to see players come through at key moments like Sharapova and Nadal did this week, and have so many times over their careers. While Federer himself would say that no one should shed tears for him after his loss, I came out of this week of midnight tennis madness with real sympathy for the less-feted players who came to the brink of victory, but couldn’t convert the crucial points. And it was a good reminder that, for a sport that throws the word love around so freely, tennis can be awfully cruel.