Nicolas Mahut might not teach at the Sorbonne, but he certainly was a professor on Sunday in his comeback win over Marco Cecchinato.
You name it, Mahut taught it. This match — the actual run of play and the larger realities attached to it — contained a boatload of lessons for any tennis player or fan.
I won’t rank these lessons in order of importance, just in case the use of “Lesson No. 1” suggests a hierarchy or system of priority. I am merely numbering the lessons to give you a sense of how many lessons Nico taught in Paris:
Lesson No. 1: Best-of-five matters.
Mahut was down two sets but kept fighting. Moreover, his attacking style made this a less physical match than most five-setters on clay. The match did not exceed three hours by a large margin. Mahut had plenty in the tank, and the spacious five-set format enabled him to work his way back. If majors really are majors — the toughest test in men’s tennis — let them remain that way. Forever.
Lesson No. 2:
And btw, let’s give some notice to slashing, well-applied s&v, and volleying, tennis on clay against the 19th ranked ATP player (16th seed) who’s a clay court afficionado
— skip schwarzman (@skip1515) May 26, 2019
The ability to play net-rushing tennis on clay is not something most ATP players are equipped to do. Darren Cahill, on the recent Tennis With An Accent Podcast hosted by Saqib Ali at Red Circle, made mention of this point. TWAA contributor Nick Nemeroff said that rushing the net on clay can be a winning play, since the ball doesn’t travel as quickly through the court on the surface, giving a net-rusher more time to get to a preferred spot near the net.
Mahut applied this concept brilliantly. He showed there is more than one way to win clay-court points and clay-court matches. Having more ways to win than your opponent is a skill. This should be taught more in tennis, and tennis parents of young players need to make sure their children are given the kind of coaching which is conducive to creating more ways to win.
Lesson No. 3: Do what your opponent doesn’t want you to do
Mahut didn’t just do what he likes to do; he did what Cecchinato doesn’t like: He took time away from the Italian and made him hit shots under pressure.
Cecchinato has a big takeback on his backhand. That backhand is an excellent shot, much as Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka have lethal one-handed backhands. Yet, part of the power of a Cecchinato backhand comes from having time to set up and whack the ball. Mahut wanted to eliminate the extra setup and instead rush the Italian. The tactic worked to perfection over the last three sets.
If your opponent likes hitting specific shots or playing under specific circumstances, you should do whatever you can to prevent those shots from being hit, and to remove those circumstances.
Lesson No. 4: Live your life on your terms
Roger Federer, 37 years old, won on Sunday, but Mahut became the 37-year-old who created a bigger story with his upset of the 2018 Roland Garros semifinalist. So what if he is not a title contender or even a likely second-week player? Did you see Mahut carry his son onto the court and hug him? What a great moment! Players should play only for themselves. Play as long as you enjoy playing. Outside commentators can say what they want; that shouldn’t affect a personal decision.