By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent
Entering his Australian Open quarterfinal against Stefanos Tsitsipas, Rafael Nadal had lost only two five-setters after going up two-sets-to-love. The first was against Roger Federer in the final of the 2005 Miami Open – then known as the Nasdaq-100 Open. The second one came over a decade later to Fabio Fognini in the third round of the 2015 U.S. Open.
Now, almost six years later, Tsitsipas has become the only third player to get the better of the Spaniard in this fashion, pulling off a heist no one saw coming – including himself.
This result once again touches upon the beauty that is the best-of-5 game. However, if this match were to be considered a microcosm of the present and future of men’s tennis, it represented the on-court effort the younger players are required to put forth against the players eponymously referred to as “Big Three” and the near-constant struggle the younger generation must face in executing a plan against the giants.
The quarterfinal between Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev played the day before at Melbourne Park is a handy example in this context.
Zverev lost the match to the defending Australian Open champion after having an advantage not once but twice across the last two sets. The match would have ended sooner had Zverev dropped the opening set instead of winning it awkwardly, having fumbled in a similar manner to the last two sets.
The way Zverev, the World No. 7, kept sliding down after reaching an advantageous position was reminiscent of one playing snakes and ladders. But in the board game, the pattern of going forward and backward until one reaches the last square is the luck of dice. Zverev getting bogged down in the match was more a matter of getting closed off by the same tactics that had previously lifted him in the scoreboard. Zverev ran into a shortfall of viable alternates. As a result of his technical miscues, Zverev’s mindset cracked.
Cutting back to Tsitsipas’s match against Nadal, the resetting the Greek did after tamely losing the opening two sets was as much mental as it was technical.
“Staying calm on court and holding my nerves is a very important element and having failed to do so in some of my matches, I think I would also give a big part of my win to that. Be consistent with my mood and just stay calm in the crucial tight moments, that helped a lot. My mood was consistent. I was working a lot on trying to just keep everything to myself and it’s also something I’m really happy with, the attitude I showed on court,” Tsitsipas noted after the match.
Without letting his frustrations overpower him, the fifth seed used them as reinforcement to guide him back into the match, point by point and game after game.
In the third set, the World No. 6 methodically undid the game plan he had been following in the first two sets, in which he waited for Nadal to hesitate when going for his shots. His reworked strategy of going on the offensive instead of letting the Mallorcan impose his game kept Tsitsipas on par with Nadal in Set 3 and, as the match wore on, propelled him so far ahead of the World No. 2 that Nadal couldn’t find his way back despite continuing to giving it his all.
Across those final three sets, Tsitsipas was so plumb in the zone that once the match was done, the Greek also seemed to need a few seconds to come out of his dreamlike state and realize what he had pulled off.
Later, in his on-court interview, mentioning this, Tsitsipas observed, “I’m speechless. I have no words to describe what just happened. It’s an unbelievable feeling to be able to fight at such a level and just be able to give it my all on the court. I started very nervous, I won’t lie, but I don’t know what happened after the third set. I just flied like a little bird; everything was working for me. The emotions at the end are indescribable.”
Indescribable is one way to describe what went on between Nadal and Tsitsipas in the four-plus hours they played. The other way to discuss the match is to simply say that Tsitsipas repaid Nadal in the same coin that the 20-time Grand Slam champion and the other two members of the “Big Three” have been consistent – and successful – in using all these years at the biggest tournaments in tennis.
At the majors, by stepping out of their comfort box while seeking an opportunity to one-up their opponents, the “Big Three” have elevated themselves to their present stature.
Stefanos Tsitsipas’s upset over Nadal was a reminder that this stature of the Big Three can be superseded – just as the Big Three had done so many times to older rivals. As men’s tennis continues to look for the fruition of the long-promised changing of the guard, the 22-year-old Tsitsipas showed that youngsters don’t need to emulate the Big Three’s game to go one better over them. They just need to play the best they can to step out of their own shadows, both in the present moment and in the longer run of time.