Keeping Your Balance

1

The third round of a major is the first time when seeded players can face each other. It’s not the round that separates the elite from the very good, not quite, but it’s often the first round in which the elite need to battle. Standout performances happen in the third round — many are starting to regard Victoria Azarenka as a title contender after her destruction of Elina Svitolina. The third round was the stage at which Alcaraz beat Tsitsipas at the U.S. Open last year. The third round was the stage at which Novak Djokovic began his two-year decline at Wimbledon in 2016. The third round is treacherous enough that if you go in with any mindset besides wanting to survive, even as a top player, you’re probably pushing your luck.

2

When the match between Matteo Berrettini and Carlos Alcaraz started, I was thinking about Rainn Wilson, portrayer of the iconic Dwight Schrute on The Office. His main project these days is a podcast called Metaphysical Milkshake. I haven’t listened to it. It’s about philosophical and scientific questions in life, I think. Rainn Wilson has 2.7 million Instagram followers; despite his repeated promoting of the podcast, the Metaphysical Milkshake account has 9814. Maybe this is because the intersection between fans of a legendary comedy actor and fans of podcasts about complicated questions is fairly small, but I think the greater obstacle is that people want to hear about Dwight, not Rainn, so they follow Rainn in hopes that he might mention Dwight every now and then instead of for anything Rainn himself does. 

Wilson ranted in 2017 that just because he played a great character for 200 episodes, people shouldn’t make jokes about that character’s salient qualities every time they see the man himself. It’s a more than valid point. The paradoxical cruelty, though, is that fans care more about Dwight than they do about Wilson, so much so that they will love Dwight even if the intensity of that love negatively impacts the guy who played him. Wilson posted to promote an episode of Metaphysical Milkshake on January 11th. The post got 92 comments, fewer than half of which had to do with the episode. Several read “it is your birthday,” a reference to a popular episode of The Office. Another read, simply, “beets.” 

Wilson’s most recent post had a caption reading “it is my birthday. Follow @LideHaiti [a foundation dedicated to bringing Haitian girls better health and education] and @metaphysicalmilkshake!” My guess is that more people laughed at the reference than did either of the things he suggested.

Circumstances have changed since The Office wrapped in 2013. A rock he had to lean on for eight years has disappeared, but people act like it still exists. Fans are happy to look at Wilson as Dwight forever even when he does things that have nothing to do with Dwight. Wilson doesn’t have much say in the matter. He was just too good, too iconic in The Office. I feel a bit bad for Wilson that his previous success is inhibiting his current potential to succeed, in a way, but not bad enough to listen to Metaphysical Milkshake. 

3

The comparisons between Carlos Alcaraz and the Big Three tend to annoy me. Yes, Alcaraz is the best ATP prospect to come along in ages and yes, there are vague similarities, but comparing a green 18-year-old to the greatest players ever? It seems like inviting disappointment. And yet, when Alcaraz began his match against Berrettini by sailing around the court like he had built it himself and knew the best places to step and was crushing every forehand he got a swing at, I couldn’t help it, I thought about Federer. It was breathtaking tennis…

…that didn’t last for very long. I thought it was odd how quickly Alcaraz lost the plot in the first set. When I saw he had spurned four break points in his first return game, I wondered if that would come back to bite him on break points later, but I didn’t expect it to translate into breaking himself with four unforced errors. It took him a while to gather himself; he lost seven games in a row from 2-1 up in the first set. There were times when he was totally off the boil: pasting forehands way long, trying to end rallies too soon, seeming to forget he had a sneaky drop shot in his repertoire. Still, I found myself impressed with how he conducted himself during this period. He looked discontent, to be sure, but he seemed confused rather than panicked. When Daniil Medvedev’s game went haywire in last year’s Australian Open final, he visibly freaked out and began to play faster and more recklessly and faster and faster and faster until it was game, set, match Djokovic. Alcaraz seemed quietly confident that he would find better tennis imminently. When he finally did, breaking back to climb to 4-all in the second set, he bellowed a “siiiiiiiii!” that was audible over the crowd’s roar, ringing of confidence and even a sarcastic hint of about time that happened.

In many ways, this match was reminiscent of last year’s Alcaraz-Tsitsipas U.S. Open thriller: third round, five sets, promising youngster vs. established top-tenner. A lot has changed since that match, though — Alcaraz has made the jump from future star to the future star who is clearly better than his peers in a few short months. There is both external and internal pressure now, lots of it. Alcaraz was seeded 24 spots lower than Berrettini, but the Australian Open odds tracker thought he was the favorite. I thought he was the favorite. Alcaraz had beefed up his serve during the offseason and added a ton of muscle to his frame, so much so that his sleeveless kit didn’t look any weirder on him than it did on a young Nadal.

Alcaraz’s seven-game walkabout early in the match could have been for any number of reasons, but I’d argue it was because of the shifting circumstances. Against Tsitsipas in New York, he could play without fear because he wasn’t supposed to win the match. Here, he played supremely well in the first few games, but when Berrettini matched him, maybe it made Alcaraz think about the challenges of expectation. I’m supposed to play this well for the whole match? Once Berrettini rolled him for a while, it’s possible Alcaraz’s nerves regressed to the mean, allowing him to play more freely. He lost the match, but if a rematch were to occur even later this year, I think most would expect Alcaraz to not spot Berrettini a set-and-a-break lead. And to win the match.

Where today’s match differs from the U.S. Open defeat of Tsitsipas is that Alcaraz had to fight from behind against Berrettini, who was in the thick of a purple patch of form, especially early on. Even in defeat, many of Alcaraz’s competitive assets were on display. Berrettini is one of the best servers on tour. He made a mightily impressive 71% of his first serves during this match, but that didn’t stop Alcaraz had break points in seven different return games. He broke Berrettini four times. He won 54% of second serve return points. His return of serve is probably his biggest, most unique attribute. By comparison, Berrettini broke Alcaraz for the last time early in the second set and had a total of one break point in Alcaraz’s last 20 service games. Being able to break serve reliably in this looming era of giants at the top of the ATP is a precious asset.

Alcaraz was poised throughout the match, even when things weren’t going his way. His self-confidence was reminiscent of Dwight’s (if you haven’t seen The Office, Dwight is a beet farmer, he brings weapons to work, and he loves Battlestar Galactica. He is completely unaware that any of his behavior is eccentric), though the 18-year-old Spaniard doesn’t have any evident weirdness to be ashamed of. His reactions throughout the match blazed with certainty. After earning a mini-break on the first point of the deciding tiebreak, he nodded and tapped his head lightly with his racket. He seemed so utterly sure he would win the match that the fact he didn’t still seems kind of impossible. At 2-all in the fourth set, he worked his way to a break point, and managed to trap Berrettini in an ad-court rally. When Berrettini dropped a backhand slightly short in the court, Alcaraz annihilated it for an inside-in forehand winner. The winner had outrageous pace but was well inside the line, a divine balance. He nodded to his box, cocksure, as in control as he’d been since game two of the match. The shot was thunderous enough to warrant a manic celebration, but Alcaraz merely looked to his team and nodded, totally unconcerned about losing the match, totally in the moment.

Another eye-popping quality of this match was Alcaraz’s movement. Tennis players sprint and slide on cement like it’s ice with such abandon that I sometimes wonder exactly when in their training they stopped being afraid of simultaneously shredding all their ligaments. At 3-4 in the fifth set, Berrettini slammed a del Potro-esque crosscourt forehand, the kind that streaks through the court so quickly that by the time you process what just happened, the shot has either gone for a winner or practically knocked the opponent over with sheer pace. It was immediately evident that Alcaraz was not going to be able to get to the ball. He sprinted for it anyway, got a racket on it, then slid violently to the ground in a split. Alcaraz was moving with such ridiculous force that his rear literally bounced off the court upon impact. It will be far from a shock if he does, but please, tennis gods, don’t let this guy get injured anytime soon.

4

In rollercoaster matches such as this one, the complexion changes along the way until the players are competing and striving for different things than they were at the beginning. After the fourth set, Berrettini had gone from trying to close out a win to desperately playing to avoid a massive blown lead. Alcaraz went from expecting to win to having to reckon with the fact that 0-2 comebacks against top-ten players do not happen by accident, that they will not beat themselves, that you have to solidly outplay them for three sets to win. He reckoned with the fact, then almost did outplay Berrettini for three sets, falling barely short in the end. That the players have to maintain steady levels of play as motivations fluctuate is an underrated aspect of a match, especially in close contests where so many missed chances accumulate that whoever loses will feel shattered over what could have been. (This was more the case for Berrettini than Alcaraz, but the Spaniard did have a break point early in the fifth and lost six of the last seven points in the final tiebreak.)

Rainn Wilson lived in an abandoned beer brewery without heat or running water for years. There were rats. He was a more established actor when The Office began in 2005, but it was still by far the biggest hit of his career. What do you do after that, after something so big it’s virtually guaranteed you’ll never exceed it? It’s no wonder Djokovic crashed a little bit after Roland-Garros in 2016. You try to move on to bigger and better things, sure, but what if those things don’t exist? Wilson is rich enough to do whatever he wants, but it must be difficult to reconcile with the intersection between the greatest accomplishment of your career and the reason why no one cares about what you do next.

Hell, my circumstances have also changed, even during the four hours it took Berrettini to beat Alcaraz. I was first impressed and then disappointed by the young Spaniard’s play, then impressed again. I figured Alcaraz was toast when he blew a swing volley to go down match point, and when Berrettini failed to convert with a typically awful second serve return, I thought Alcaraz would go on to win the match. I wanted Alcaraz to win, and not just because I’d been talking up his chances to win this match. I admired his less serve-reliant game and love for the fight. I thought he was a better player than Berrettini and one I wanted to watch more going forward.

As the match continued past the two and three-hour mark, I scrapped my plan to sleep a few hours before Nadal-Khachanov and settled on a full all-nighter. My fullness from dinner dissipated and I stared at a jar of blackberry jam on my shelf, wishing I had picked up bread to spread it on. I yawned once and thanked myself for the midafternoon nap I took in preparation for this match. I started to watch in darkness so my roommate could sleep, my laptop a blue slice of light floating in black soup. My ears started to hurt from my earbuds. A Stan Wawrinka tweet about non-fungible tokens popped up on Twitter. When Alcaraz lost the match, I was disappointed, but not as much as I expected to be. Something about the way the finish line sped into view so quickly and how Berrettini refused to choke made me feel at peace with the result.

Different circumstances teach us new things about ourselves, and though Carlos Alcaraz knew he could win this match before it started, I’m not sure he knew he could win it in the way he almost did. He will be wiser for this experience, more prepared to excel the next time his circumstances change. The challenges of tennis are unavoidable; pain is squarely on the path to excellence. Still, Carlos Alcaraz remains farther ahead on that path than any of his peers. He will survive and grow from the next challenge just as he has from this one.

5

As I finish this piece, I’m watching the end of Osaka-Anisimova, which has also gone to a final-set 10-point tiebreak. Anisimova is able to produce pace from really low contact points. I mean really low. It’s like her swing gently swipes the air but the ball leaves her strings like it was shot out of a cannon. She has so much easy power she could probably tap the wall from Game of Thrones with her racket and it would crumble. Anisimova saves two match points and wins, just as Osaka did last year against Muguruza in the fourth round before going on to win the title. I think about how this means we won’t get Osaka-Barty in two days, and I think about how I don’t care at all because what Anisimova just produced was so amazing.

I start watching Rafa play Khachanov. Nadal is carving up the court with his forehand, and for a second it all just feels like too much. I feel as if I need a break to let my head cool, to let this scintillating tennis simmer, to appreciate what has just happened before it gets buried by the next thing. I don’t need a long distraction, just a few minutes to cool. Like a funny clip from The Office, or something.

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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