By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent
On Sunday at the Australian Open, only one of the men’s Round of 16 matches went the distance. Looking at the draw, expectations of this scenario were placed on the matchup between Dominic Thiem and Grigor Dimitrov. However, in the end, it so happened that Felix Auger-Aliassime and Aslan Karatsev – the two guys who hadn’t played a five-setter in their careers – drew the short straw.
Prior to the match, the differences between Auger-Aliassime and Karatsev as part of tennis’ competitive totem pole couldn’t have been any starker. The former, at 19 years of age, is ranked 19th in the world and was seeded 20th in the draw. The latter, at 27, is ranked 114th in the world and made it through to the main draw as a qualifier.
As Auger-Aliassime raced through the first two sets, it didn’t even seem the match would need four sets, let alone five. As Karatsev settled into the match, he made it his primary task to make sure that if he were playing a best-of-five in literal terms, he might as well use the opportunity to reach his maiden quarter-final at a major.
Karatsev’s eventual victory reflected the dual sides of the coin that is the best-of-five format.
On one hand, best-of-five pares the playing field to merely two contenders vying for a win regardless of their place in the ranking-points hierarchy. Though there are designated favourites and underdogs in a match, neither gets any free passes from the format itself. It’s all about who can last the longest – physically and mentally – irrespective of who wears which tag.
The narratives to this aspect of the format are the myriad descriptions of the winner’s glory.
In Karatsev’s case, it was about how convincingly he upstaged his higher-ranked rival. The conversation surrounding Nick Kyrgios’ five-set win over Ugo Humbert in the second round was about him soaking in the atmosphere and crowd support en route to a dramatic win, after having saved two match points in the fourth set.
Thiem’s comeback from being two-sets-to-love down against Kyrgios in the third round was about him having a champion’s comportment. Marton Fucsovics’ win over Stan Wawrinka in the second round was about him patiently biding his time without letting pressure overpower him, even when match points down.
Summing up his win over Auger-Aliassime, Karatsev said, “Emotionally, it was tough… It’s a good feeling.” Each of these other players, too, might have echoed these sentiments somewhere in their hearts and minds.
But what about the feelings hidden – and not-so-hidden – in the hearts, minds and even faces of the players on the other side of the net?
Like a roller-coaster slowly building its momentum while moving upward, the vanquished player also painstakingly constructs his game to respond to the given day’s opponent. The roller-coaster’s swiftness in its downward trajectory is akin to the player’s efforts during the match’s progression. In between these two eventualities, across both these spectrums, is the weight of the heavy pause which is as oppressive as it is sudden.
In a roller-coaster, this pause is the signal for the change of gears that are to follow, indicative of the thrill for which one gets on the ride in the first place, knowing the consequences of defeat. The change in the match’s momentum is unpredictable, leaving chaos and despair in its wake.
If, as the expression says, to the victor goes the spoils, it could be said that in a best-of-five, he who has lost mostly collects despair. Not much is spoken about this emotion, beyond a cursory acknowledgement of the player’s efforts.
Nonetheless, whether publicly shared or unshared, despair is what the best-of-five format has both euphoria and despair on offer to those partaking in it. Despair is the cup which sometimes has to be sipped from, be it a former champion in Wawrinka or the promise of the sport’s future in Auger-Aliassime.
Within this polarized ambit of glory and agony, the best-of-five format has continued to thrive despite some wishes to cast it aside and relegate it to the shadows as an unwieldy relic. As it has come to be proven over the years, there’s no gain to be had without any pain to show for it.
Stan Wawrinka bore the pain of having lost to Novak Djokovic in a five-setter in the fourth round of 2013 Australian Open before getting the better of the Serbian in the quarterfinal the following year. Felix Auger-Aliassime could do the same, too, to swing the oscillatory movement of playing best-of-five from agony to future glory.