Leads are precarious in tennis. You can be ahead, but as soon as you stop playing better than your opponent, that lead will wither. There’s no clock there to save you from a backward slide. This is why mentality is so important: a player can be cruising, but a seemingly random point can cause their carefully built staircase to victory to implode violently.
At the U.S. Open, Stefanos Tsitsipas led Carlos Alcaraz 3-6, 6-4, 5-2, 40-15. Alcaraz had sprinted out of the blocks with alarming speed, but Tsitsipas fought from a break down in the second, then served it out after falling behind love-40. He broke Alcaraz twice in the third, and with two set points behind his imperious serve, a decisive two-sets-to-one lead seemed inevitable.
Tsitsipas missed his first serve at 40-15, then went big on the second and missed that as well. No big deal, right? Here was another set point at 40-30. But when Tsitsipas misfired on another first serve, it’s hard to imagine the double fault on the previous point didn’t get in his head a bit. You’ve gotta make this one; two straight double faults would be terrible. He spun in a soft second serve and Alcaraz drilled a forehand return winner. The young Spaniard shook the head of his racket back and forth a few times in a brief show of positivity.
Tsitsipas would gain another set point, but the game had become a scrap. Alcaraz burned him with backhand passes on consecutive points, then barged forward himself to punch away an easy volley. One break had been retrieved, but the shift in momentum didn’t stop there. Alcaraz got his easiest hold of the match; 4-5 from 2-5, 15-40. Tsitsipas erred on a pair of backhands. After the second, he pantomimed the motion, looking confused rather than frustrated. Alcaraz was nodding to his box, looking fiercely determined but also calmer, despite still being behind.
Alcaraz hit a dynamite half-volley, forcing an error. Two break points for 5-all. The crowd went nuts. Tsitsipas saved one break point, screaming in what sounded more like desperation than defiance. He saved another. More screams, a trio of them this time. They’re not loud enough to beat back the suddenly unrelenting errors. Alcaraz breaks again.
Over the next few hours, Tsitsipas won six straight games to win the fourth set and Alcaraz won tiebreaks in the third and fifth. Fans will remember Alcaraz’s second serve ace to save break point at 5-all in the crucial third set and his spree of winners in the tiebreaks, as they should. Sometimes one needs a lifeline from their opponent to truly show their potential. We may never have known the upper reaches of Rafael Nadal’s tenacity had Djokovic’s forehand not imploded in the fourth set tiebreak of the 2012 Australian Open final. The inverse can also be true; Djokovic’s insane mental and physical endurance may never have fully been apparent had Nadal not pushed the match to a fifth.
Alcaraz finished the year in arguably better form than a physically ailing Tsitsipas, despite being ranked over 30 spots lower. Did that double fault at 5-2, 40-15 change things? It couldn’t have been responsible for Tsitsipas pulling out of the World Tour Finals and undergoing surgery not long after. But I’d argue that if Tsitsipas makes his second serve on that point, Alcaraz doesn’t start holding up that #1 finger later in the match (a ranking that he’s still several steps away from but that everyone now thinks he’ll attain: when, not if), he doesn’t crumple to the ground in victory a split-second before his final inside-out forehand winner disappears into one of those rectangular gaps in the advertising board on Arthur Ashe, and that he’d be viewed more as a very promising young talent rather than the next thing.
None of this is to criticize Tsitsipas, or to say that Alcaraz’s comeback wasn’t incredible, his hype undeserved. But it is intriguing to look back at those moments, that stretch where you go from enjoying a close match to thinking Wait, is Alcaraz a better hard court player than Tsitsipas? It might have happened anyway, all of it, the comeback in the third and the resurgence in the fifth and the five-set win over Gojowczyk in the next round and the easy win at the NextGen finals. Yet it might have happened very differently, or not at all, had Alcaraz’s opponent not double faulted while up a double break and double set point.
Tennis dominoes fall in weird ways, sometimes doing exactly what you’d expect, sometimes surprising you, sometimes deciding to ignore the laws of physics altogether. There exists a pattern that’s relatively consistent, for which I’ll turn to Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s The Circuit to express it better than I ever could: “One step in the wrong direction in the middle of one point can cause an avalanche that sweeps away any advantage, no matter its size.”
It might not always, but it can, and because it can it’s always a possibility the tennis player needs to be aware of, to snuff out every match if they’re able. The advantage can be mid-match or it can be mid-career; a championship point sometimes represents a player’s last chance to win a tournament. Ask Guillermo Coria.
The truth — sad for the players, tantalizing for the fans — is that this step in the wrong direction can seem harmless, but it’s equally possible that the error can give birth to a monster, a monster who knocks you out of a tournament or surpasses you or maybe decides just to eat you, body and soul.