Quiet Quality

I’ve been thinking about the best match of 2021. 

Not the set of the year, which was probably the third set of the Djokovic-Nadal semifinal at Roland-Garros. Djokovic won it 7-6 (4), sealing the set with a point I’m starting to think is very underrated. The Serb hit a great slider out wide from the deuce court, and Nadal, from very deep in the back right corner of Court Phillipe-Chatrier (I’m talking around 15 feet behind the baseline and 15 outside the singles sideline), hit a deep backhand return. Djokovic tried to pin Nadal in his backhand corner, but the Spaniard escaped by immediately hitting down the line, then got some good depth on two forehands. After the second, which went inside-out and pushed Djokovic behind the baseline, Nadal hit a drop shot. Djokovic, ever the supreme anticipator, was running forward before Nadal had even committed to the shot. He got to the ball in plenty of time and nudged a deep forehand down the line, fooling Nadal, who had moved inside the baseline, expecting a dink. Nadal reached the ball and skied it into the air but couldn’t get it back over the net. It was a brilliant end to one of the highest-octane sets ever, with the set point getting overshadowed by countless other epic rallies. But I’m getting carried away here. 

As good as that third set was, the Djokovic-Nadal match was not the match of the year. No, I think that exalted title belongs to a match many tennis fans didn’t watch. Namely, the Angelique Kerber-Sara Sorribes Tormo match at Wimbledon, played in the second round. 

I know what you’re thinking. The second round? Who is Sara Sorribes Tormo? Yes, the second round. Sara Sorribes Tormo is 36th in the WTA rankings. She is a grinder, blessed with fantastic endurance and harsh topspin, cursed with a lack of any semblance of easy power on her serves and groundstrokes. Her endurance makes her a handful for anyone on tour — she will run down any ball and will do so for hours — but more importantly for today’s topic, her intensity translates into a knack for producing amazing matches. 

In this match against Kerber, Sorribes Tormo did retrieve shots most would be crazy to even try running for, but she also scythed vicious slices and drop shots, and made her way to the net a few times. Kerber took the role of the aggressor, as all Sorribes Tormo opponents do, and did her best to lash the ball beyond the reach of her speedy opponent. Each player executed their strategy phenomenally, resulting in tennis heaven. 

This match had no noticeable lulls. For practically the entirety of the three hours and 18 minutes (an average of 66 minutes per set, none of which went to a tiebreak!), both players were in the zone. More precisely, both players were refusing to miss. It was that I’ll build the point as painstakingly slowly as I have to, I’m not making an unforced error if I can help it mentality which results in points being won by a stunning series of shots or one player simply outlasting the other. 

The tennis is dazzlingly attritional in this type of match, the players having to slog through the match point-by-point knowing they can never count on cheap errors from their opponent. The epic three-setter was made even more interesting by the high volume of breaks: Sorribes Tormo has one of the worst serves on tour but one of the best return games. Kerber isn’t a bad server, but Sorribes Tormo broke her seven times, more than Kerber had been broken in a single match all year. Most serves were returned well, resulting in grueling exchanges. The average rally length was over seven shots (and this was a grass court match!).

Sorribes Tormo made gets from so close to the back wall she looked certain to topple a linesperson like a bowling pin. Kerber sent missiles down the line from both wings, including her trademark shots made while squatting unbelievably low to the ground. Kerber fittingly sealed the match with a backhand winner down the line: 7-5, 5-7, 6-4. It had often taken no less than a perfect shot to end a rally. 

The reason I’m gushing about this match, again, is because I don’t think anyone else viewed this match as the best of the year. It didn’t even make Tennis.com’s top-ten list for 2021. I find this baffling. Sure, the match happened in the second round of Wimbledon. Not that many people watched it. But I think the criteria for a great match are fairly straightforward and somewhat universal, and this match checks all the boxes. Let’s run through them quickly. 

Both players have to play well, preferably for the whole match. This is a no-brainer. Simultaneous high-quality play is the key to a good match. 

The match should be close. A closer match usually equals more tennis, and three great sets is a better outcome than two great sets. 

There should be few lulls. All matches have dips, but the best ones have short dips. A lopsided set counts against the overall quality of a match since one player was significantly better than the other. A high-quality match with a big lull isn’t a great match, it’s a couple of great sets tied together.

Another criteria for some is that the match has to Mean Something. For me, the merits of a tennis match are way more aligned with quality of play than who is playing, but the stage can be important. Matches with tangible ripple effects or intense buildups are often more compelling. 

Maybe Sorribes Tormo-Kerber misses that last criteria, but Kerber had won Wimbledon three years earlier, and with good form going into the 2021 tournament, was a popular dark horse pick. Sorribes Tormo had played a wonderful match with Bianca Andreescu in Miami that turned some heads. Had both players been, say, outside the top 50 and without a big tournament win on their CV, this argument would be more convincing. 

And the match knocks the rest of the criteria out of the park, more so than the matches that made Tennis.com’s top ten list. Alcaraz-Tsitsipas, which was #3, had a bagel set: a big one-sided stretch which might have taken the air out of the match had the bagel not been sandwiched between excellent tiebreak sets. Neither Kerber nor Sorribes Tormo’s intensity ever wavered by a margin even resembling Alcaraz’s fourth set lull. The Indian Wells final between Badosa and Azarenka (#4 on the list) was of similar quality to Kerber-Sorribes Tormo, but the second set wasn’t close and Azarenka wobbled when trying to close out the match. And Djokovic-Nadal, the match atop the list, had its significant dips as well. Its peak, the third set, was the best tennis played all year, but Djokovic was poor for a three-game stretch in the first set and Nadal was poor at the end of the fourth, a combined time frame which lasted almost as long as that glorious tiebreak set. I don’t even think Nadal was on his game for much of the second set. 

I get why Djokovic-Nadal got the top spot on the list, I really do. It’s by far the best and most historic active rivalry. That third set really was magical. The rest of the match, though, wouldn’t have seemed remarkable in isolation. I’ve rewatched highlights of that Roland-Garros semifinal something like a billion times and am glad the third set is being heralded as much as it is, but it seems a bit short-sighted to deem the match the year’s best. When ranking the highest-quality matches of an entire season, harsh analysis of microscopic lapses becomes necessary, and in the case of Djokovic-Nadal, it’s not especially hard to find the holes in the quality.

The same cannot be said for the Kerber-Sorribes Tormo match. There was a stretch when Sorribes Tormo won five of six games to claim the second set from 2-4 down, but she had to save a pair of match points along the way. Both players were simply exceptional for virtually the entire time. They played a winner-stuffed game lasting almost 15 minutes at 2-1 in the first. Sorribes Tormo couldn’t reliably hold onto her serve but broke Kerber to start the decider and broke her when Kerber tried to serve out the match. There were belief-defying gets made from the shadow of the back wall on Court 2; there were multiple cases of one player hunching over after a rally. And most importantly, the quality was unceasing.

The only explanation that makes sense as to why this match got so little buzz is that it was largely ignored, because the quality was so evident to those that did watch. My friend Vansh Vermani recently reminded me that part of the match overlapped with the Federer-Gasquet match on Center Court. That match had way less potential to be an epic — everyone knew how it would end — but sadly, it’s not out of character for tennis fans to pass up a great quality match to watch a couple pretty one-handed backhands. 

Anyway, Sorribes Tormo won a bunch of hearts on Court 2 but lost to Kerber, who lost to Ash Barty a week later. Barty won Wimbledon, then lost to Sorribes Tormo in the first round at the Olympics. The wheel of tennis spins on, halting for not even the greatest matches, and for three hours and 18 minutes early in the first week at Wimbledon, the world largely failed to pay attention to the wheel’s most interesting spoke. 

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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