When a match particularly fascinates me and I plan to report on it once it ends, I usually take some notes prior to its start, including a list of keys to winning the match, in my opinion, for each player.
For Andrey Rublev, I had the following listed: (1) directing rallies with the forehand from the middle of the court to keep Stefanos Tsitsipas moving; (2) occasionally accelerating down-the-line with the backhand to avoid single-direction (read: cross-court backhand) baseline exchanges; (3) high percentage on first serves to set-up the 1-2 punch on short returns; (4) attack the net when the opportunity presents itself.
Until 5-4 in the first set, it appeared that numbers one and two were enough for Rublev. He was so flawless in the execution of those two that he did not need a super-high first-serve percentage (61% for the set), it seemed, nor did he need to consider approaching the net. He was winning simply by keeping the error count low, hitting targets close to the baseline on Tsitsipas’s side, thus pinning his opponent behind the baseline and making him chase his forehand strikes and backhand down-the-line accelerations – his most underrated shot, I dare say – with which he either nailed downright winners (ex: the 30-15 point at 1-1) or pushed Tsitsipas around behind the baseline to squeeze an error out of him (ex: the 15-0 point at 4-2).
The first six games especially showcased the damage Rublev can do to his opponents when all facets of his baseline game – not just the forehand – are clicking. Down 0-15, serving at 3-2 for example, Rublev hit an ace, combined the 1-2 punch for a forehand winner, and followed it with another big serve to reach 40-15 and hold serve for a 4-2 lead one point later.
So, when I note that Tsitsipas had his most erratic stretch of the match in the first six games of the match, making 6 out of his 8 unforced errors (by my count) in the first set during that sequence, keep in mind that some of those may have resulted from the ripple effects of the “Rublev damage” described above from previous points. Tsitsipas only had a chance to approach the net twice until 5-5, a low count by his standards because he often found himself frantically scrambling from behind the baseline.
It’s true that, to explain the turnaround in the first set – and the match – all signs point to the 5-4 game in which Rublev, after having recorded only two unforced errors until that point, shockingly committed four in a row to lose a blank serving game. But Tsitsipas should also get credit for an earlier moment in the set, when he was serving at 2-4. Trailing 15-30 in that game, on the heels of a point where he was once again dominated by Rublev from the baseline, Tsitsipas refused to accept how dire his situation looked.
He shook things off with a brave forehand winner to recover to 30-30, and pumped himself up. Then, he hit a big serve to go up 40-30, and won the game on a stellar 1-2 punch that ended with his forehand winner. He could have easily folded and gone down two breaks at 15-30 in that game, considering how perfectly the Rublev machine was working. Maybe the version of Stefanos from a couple of years ago would have done exactly that. But not this version, not Wednesday.
His demeanor changed dramatically from that 15-30 point forward and his game improved as a consequence. He made only two unforced errors from that point until the end of the set.
He was still down a break nonetheless and Rublev was still rolling on his side of the court. In other words, although Tsitsipas steadied the ship and began making inroads into balancing the match, it only served to keep him within distance, not enough to climb back into the match. That assist from the Russian came in the 5-4 game, in the form of four unforced errors, two on each wing. Yes, it was lucky for Tsitsipas that Rublev badly faltered in that game, but credit to Tsitsipas for remaining within distance to turn that improbable jackpot fantasy into reality.
It was almost as if Tsitsipas began seeing everything with great clarity from that point forward. How much clarity? Here is a bit of data to ponder:
– After 5-5, Tsitsipas began utilizing his backhand drop shot to bring Rublev into the net to test the Russian’s net skills, or simply to win the point with a passing shot. He did it twice in the last two games of that first set (see the 30-30 point at 6-5 for the one that took him to a set point) and used that pattern six more times over the next two sets, never losing a point on it (7 for 7).
– Tsitsipas’s first-serve percentage skyrocketed from 61% in the first set to 72% for the next two sets combined, missing only five first serves in the third set, and winning his last 10 points in a row on his serve to finish the match.
– I noted above that Tsitsipas made six unforced errors in the first six games of the match. He only made eight more over the next 23 games to finish with a total of 14. That is a remarkable stat for a guy who was, for the most part, willing to be the first to take the initiative in longer rallies and not afraid to take charge with aggressive play.
– I also mentioned earlier that he only had two chances to come to the net until 5-5. He had another chance after 5-5 and won all three of those points in that set. He approached 14 more times (my count) during the next two sets and won all of them to finish the match with a perfect 17 out of 17 points won in that category. If you think that is a fluke or a rarity, think again. Tsitsipas also played with a 16-of-19 success rate when approaching the net in his previous round against Grigor Dimitrov. The bottom line: Tsitsipas possesses an all-court game, a rarity among his colleagues of the same generation, and he is very good at putting those skills to use.
Perhaps, that last paragraph is one of the reasons why Rublev could not save the sinking ship over the last two sets. He was not willing to make a major shift in his pattern. He hit countless shots from inside the baseline, some several meters from the service line, including routine sitters, only to shuffle back to the baseline after contact.
Consider the deuce point in the first game of the third set on Rublev’s serve. I invite you to count how many sitters Rublev got to hit from inside the baseline – and I mean, clearly inside the baseline – and chose to step back to the baseline to wait for the next ball to bounce, never following his strong drives to the net while Tsitsipas was scrambling left to right and floating balls back. I counted four of those! In the same rally! He finally came to the net on the fifth, and surprise! He won the point with a great low volley! — another puzzling point that I will not even delve into in this piece; the dude’s got hands, he can volley!
Consider next – and I promise this is the last one, because there were more than 20 of these – the 15-15 point two games later, with Rublev serving again at 1-2. On an aggressive Rublev forehand, Tsitsipas is stretched on his deuce side and hits a wide-legged, fully stretched, defensive forehand that lands inside the service box. Rublev advances inside the court to a spot where he is closer to the service line than the baseline.
It would be a lot easier for him to hit it to the open court and continue his momentum forward. Instead, he sets his feet to a hard stop and is already determined to hit a backhand crosscourt and shuffle backward all the way to the baseline. He makes contact and the backhand sails out.
If you think my description is exaggerated, feel free to verify it yourself. I maintain that one reason why he misses that routine backhand is precisely because he hit that backhand with no intention to take charge of the point, no intention to move forward to the net behind it. His mind was set on not coming to the net.
If you have read my articles before, this is probably old news for you. I admit that I beat this particular drum often. I do not mind repeating it one more time for possible first-time readers.
It is my firm belief that for any up-and-coming male player to comfortably enter the elite group of top players in the world, he needs to integrate the net game into his plan A, meaning he must develop an all-court game.
I remind you one more time not to confuse this with the idea that one should just “come to the net whenever possible.” Nor do I advocate for a player to become a “serve and volleyer” or even a “volleyer.” In fact, it is fine if the player’s groundstrokes are his strengths. He must, however, develop his net game and have enough confidence in it to send a crucial message to his nemesis on the other side of the net: You better keep your shots deep, or I will not hesitate to attack and punish you!
You can back your word up and instill that fear into the head of your opponent, so to speak, only if you have developed your transition game enough to the point where it is now part of your plan A, meaning that if the opportunity presents itself, you will not hesitate one iota to jump on the short ball and bring the heat at the net, instead of shuffling backward to the baseline.
Tsitsipas faces the World No. 1 Novak Djokovic on Friday. He will need the best version of his all-court prowess to show up for the Greek to have any chance to win. In fact, he may be the only one, precisely because of that quality being integrated into his game, with a plausible chance of pulling off the monumental upset.