Trying to Explain Tennis

Tennis, like life, can be confusing. There are apparent absolutes that end up revealing themselves as mere hypotheses in the middle of a big match. In a match in which one player’s backhand is clearly better than another’s, you might think the better backhand will come out on top all the time, or the vast majority of the time. The margins often end up being thinner than the facts suggest.

As Roger Federer hits his first serve on his first championship point for a ninth Wimbledon title, Novak Djokovic leans to his right. Federer’s serve smacks the net tape, a likely ace had it gone over. Not too far from Center Court, England is about to edge New Zealand in a super-over to win the Cricket World Cup.

In the third round of the U.S. Open, eventual champion Emma Raducanu beat Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-0, 6-1. There were 93 points played in the match, with Raducanu winning 60. Sorribes Tormo won just over 1/3 of the points played, yet she won 1/13 of the games played. Such is the nature of tennis’s unforgiving scoring system: play your best on the big points, or the points you win will cease to mean anything.

Returning to the backhand example, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas clashed in the Australian Open semifinals this year. Medvedev’s backhand is one of the very best in the world, even statistically outperforming Novak Djokovic’s in the final of that tournament. Tsitsipas’s, by comparison, has some holes, most notably when he is pushed wide and on the return.

From this, it seems like Medvedev’s backhand would always overcome Tsitsipas’s, either by forcing an error or outlasting it. But tennis swings on errors. Medvedev’s backhand isn’t perfect: his mistakes might be few and far between, but they do happen. Tsitsipas might take a chance with his backhand and hit a shot down the line. This might not be reliable, he might miss often, but it does happen.

Take this 25-shot rally from the match. Shots 3-10 and shots 14-20 see the players trade backhands. The first ad-court exchange ends when Tsitsipas hits a short slice, leading Medvedev to attack with a crosscourt forehand. The lack of pace and proximity to the line on the forehand, plus Tsitsipas’s speed, allow the Greek to get to the ball fairly easily, so the rally goes on. The second ad-court exchange ends as Tsitsipas cracks a backhand down the line, forcing Medvedev into a running forehand. Finally, the rally concludes as Medvedev chases down a sub-optimal drop shot and lifts a backhand winner into the open court.

Medvedev’s decision to move to the right of the service line to hit a backhand on shot seven is an odd one, and might just be a weird lapse in judgment, but his immense trust in the consistency of his backhand may well have had something to do with it.

It’s been established that Medvedev has the better backhand, but from this rally, you might not know it. In professional tennis, the margins are so small. Tsitsipas’s short slice, while a mini-loss in the mini-battle of the ad-court duel, wasn’t poor enough that Medvedev could end the rally with the ensuing forehand. Tsitsipas also made up for his lesser consistency on the backhand side by taking a chance with a down the line shot, which landed in.

This is one example, of course. Tsitsipas made plenty of backhand errors in this match. But even big discrepancies in shots on the tennis court often take some analysis to be made apparent. There are fans out there who don’t understand that Djokovic is a better returner than Federer (including yours truly for quite a while), which might seem insane at first glance. But there are commentators that don’t point this out; there have been matches in which Federer broke serve more than Djokovic; there have been matches where Djokovic returns better but the difference is small enough not to be obvious.

*****

This nature of tennis as an extremely competitive conglomerate of shots, where even shots clearly better than other shots don’t always come out on top, makes it hard to make sense of the sport. Sometimes, stuff happens that just makes very little sense. To return to the Federer-Djokovic rivalry, there’s the fact that across 50 matches, Federer has won 73.1% of points in which he makes a first serve. Then there’s the fact that at the U.S. Open semifinal in 2011 and the Wimbledon final in 2019, Federer had four match points, two in each match. He made first serves in three of them, and he lost all four of those points. A difference in mental strength? Sure. An anomaly? Maybe. Bad serves? In at least one case. All of this aligning, though, feels like only the beginning of an explanation as to how something like this can happen.

What is the answer to this question? I have no idea. Probably a mixture of confidence, a very calm mind, a lifetime of experience playing tennis and facing adversity, benefitting from a bad approach shot from Federer, and the well-practiced technical motions required to nail the pass. Maybe none of this was what made the difference. It says a lot, I think, that after the 2010 U.S. Open semifinal, Djokovic said simply that he was closing his eyes (!) and hitting his forehand as hard as he could.

These moments, and the reception to them, are interesting — it’s the other four-hours-plus of this match that’s easier to comment on. Djokovic having a poor day and Federer having a great one is explicable. Everyone has bad days on court; everyone has great days on court. This five-second point, though, is shrouded in mystique, even though Djokovic’s affinity for saving match points is well-known (especially against Federer). How often does Federer lose a point after making a first serve and hitting a forehand on the first shot? Not often. How often does someone make a passing shot, even a simple one, to save a match point? Not often. The odds of this outcome happening on this point seem so astronomically low that I think while we can theorize about why it happened, we’re really just guessing. We could write pages and pages on what we do know, yet this ability is overshadowed by the desire to pin down the things we don’t. It’s probably self-defeating at times, but it’s irresistible (think of Kyrgios unnecessarily hitting a tweener on a big point in an important match at a major).

All this adds to the intrigue of tennis. Not only is there a physical and mental trial, there’s this invisible, abstruse land in which amazing things happen on match points, or a player chokes violently as the finish line comes into view, or a random error at 2-3, 40-15 in a deciding set ends up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Trying to figure out the “why” of any of this is like standing in a pitch-black room with lights flashing intermittently, and with every new flash the exit has moved to a different place.

I’m as spellbound now by the mystique of tennis as I was when I initially started watching the sport, but I don’t feel as if I’m any closer to putting it into words. I don’t know that any players are, either. Part of the lack of meat to Djokovic’s answers is surely due to a desire to be classy, but when asked about his remarkable escape from the 2019 Wimbledon final, the Serb said this:

β€œIn these kind of moments, I just try to never lose self-belief, just stay calm, just focus on trying to get the ball back.” 

And this:

"It was kind of a flashback to US Open when I saved the two match points against him, as well."

I mean, does this really tell us anything? This is how the man with the best view of this holy-shit moment describes one of the biggest moments in tennis history? What I want to see is an explanation, something that logically breaks down the illogical, something like this:

"My god, I'm in shock. The 2011 U.S. Open semifinals felt like a one-time thing. To save two match points against one of the most difficult serves to read ever required me to lie to myself, to think that there was nothing on the line instead of a 15th major title. Had I not done that, I could never have landed that passing shot inches away from the line. Imagining getting nervous at that moment and hitting the pass miles out makes me shudder. The experience was terrifying; I might have a good return game, but the returner usually has so little control over how points get played against a serve as good as Federer's. I was fortunate that Federer missed his first serve on match point #1 and hit a central first serve on match point #2, and I hit good returns on both points, plus the passing shot. I think Federer had to have remembered the U.S. Open, otherwise he'd probably have won the game even from deuce. But even knowing all that, it feels like all the planets in the universe had to align for me to win this match." 

Even an answer that complex doesn’t get much closer to explaining what happened. Plus, Djokovic probably doesn’t have much motivation to guess. On some level, he knows how he did it, even if he can’t explain it. We know players aren’t the ones to ask about this kind of thing. David Foster Wallace theorizes that the ability to perform these impossibles is inextricably tied to the inability to describe them. I would agree, and posit that maybe it’s because the player’s sole motivation is winning, not figuring out how to win after they have won. The fans are probably the ones best equipped to answer their own queries.

Rafael Nadal gives several interesting thoughts on his 2018 Wimbledon loss to Djokovic in an uncommonly instructive press conference.

*****

Maybe explaining things is just an insufficient way of communicating understanding. Since I’m not a professional tennis player, I can only look to other areas of life as a comparison. From what I can tell as a relatively unexperienced 20-year-old, love is another uncommunicable topic. It seems like even those who end up in happy partnerships for life get there by experiencing painful disappointment after painful disappointment, then a combination of the knowledge from failed relationships and luck result in a happy ending. But even if the process is evident, things have to be felt, not heard. “It will hurt” falls way short of explaining the dozens of moments when it feels like a vacuum is sucking the air out of your chest, resulting in a sensation somewhere between vertigo and anxiety. If experience is indeed the best teacher, tennis fans who aren’t professional players will never understand what they want to know. (Speaking for myself, at least. Other armchair analysts might miraculously start hitting their backhand like Djokovic, but I know it won’t happen to me.)

It’s a frustrating bind — players know the answers but can’t put them into words (maybe there aren’t words to communicate these answers), fans want the answers but have no means to find them. Those who want the key to the door have to work hard to even find clues to its location; those who know where the key is have no desire to go get it. The contrast seems like a slightly-less-morbid version of the coffin riddle.

Maybe David Foster Wallace’s theory — that dry answers like Djokovic’s are actually extremely thorough, such is the ability of the athlete to vacate the mind — is the perfect resolution to this annoying puzzle. But seeing an incredibly rich and vivid series of shots play out on court, then get summarized with “I got lucky on a few of the big points” is endlessly irking. I feel like there must be more to it than what’s been said, even if that information is in a place that no one will ever reach.

I plan on trying to find it for as long as I remain a tennis fan.

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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