Plight of the Underdog

What I wrote before the match

Adrian Mannarino just made the fourth round of the Australian Open for the first time in his life. He had to battle to get there. James Duckworth had his foot on Mannarino’s neck in the first round, up two sets to one. Mannarino came back to win, losing a total of three games in the last two sets. He faced tenth seed Hubert Hurkacz in the second round and beat him like he was a qualifier on his last legs. Things got trickier in the round of 32 — Mannarino eventually wore down Aslan Karatsev, last year’s semifinalist. Karatsev was having a brutally taxing couple weeks, but in the world of the insanely athletic professional tennis player, running a tired player into the ground is like whacking a concrete wall with a sledgehammer, hoping you’ll eventually break off a big enough chunk to bring it crumbling down. The match took four hours and 38 minutes, and didn’t even go to a fifth set. That’s a barbaric average of 69.5 minutes per set.

Mannarino’s reward for this impressive run — a comeback, an easy upset, a fierce struggle — was a match with Rafael Nadal.

The 33-year-old Frenchman’s run reminded me of Márton Fucsovics’ at Wimbledon last year. He played Andrey Rublev in the fourth round, who had tormented Fucsovics all year. beating him in nine straight sets. Fucsovics, somehow, beat Rublev in five. He was even down two sets to one in the match! It was an upset of epic proportions, a testament to belief, an inspiring story that no matchup was too difficult. Then Fucsovics had to play Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Djokovic didn’t play very well. He won in straight sets anyway. No set was closer than 6-4. Everyone moved on from Fucsovics quickly.

*****

The Big Three era has been joyous for many fans. We’ve gotten to enjoy the best tennis that has ever been played on the ATP Tour. The same time period has been miserable for 99% of the ATP. Hoping that one all-time-great player gets upset, giving you a navigable path to a big title is feasible. Hoping that three of them lose is useless, because it will never happen. Players like Mannarino and Fucsovics might not be good enough to win titles even in weaker eras, but this era shoves that fact in their face. Not only will they not win majors, they will always be several legend-sized steps away.

Professional athletes’ mindsets are refined into ideal stepping stones to success. With that said, I’ve never been entirely convinced that extreme underdogs actually believe they can win at times. Does the extreme self-confidence of a pro tennis player get them to believe and say some crazy things? Absolutely. But did Sam Groth think he could beat Nadal when they stepped on court at Roland-Garros? Self-belief is huge, but I’m not sure it can hold up in a logic vacuum.

Mannarino is 0-2 against Nadal, though three of the four sets they’ve played have been close. By all reasonable predictions, Mannarino will lose to Nadal. Sure, this might take the pressure off — hey, Adrian, just go out there and try your best. And don’t forget to have fun! It’s hard to imagine, though, that the sense Mannarino is playing with house money will last beyond the first time Nadal takes a solid lead in the match. Grim reality sneaks up on you quickly.

From the logical perspective, this leaves Mannarino in a weird position ahead of tonight’s match. He’s probably doomed. His legs are likely wasted from his marathon with Karatsev. The tournament has already been a success for him. It seems almost cruel, like Mannarino should have more time to revel in his run before having to run after Nadal’s forehands. How is he supposed to feel? What if he tries to convince himself he can win and can’t, whether that belief starts flagging pre-match or when he’s down two sets and a break? He’ll be left in a weird Twilight Zone of caring fruitlessly, riding an escalator into a void — during one of the best runs of his career.

The sudden shift from labored joy to a complete loss is reminiscent of Sirius Black’s death in Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix. He’s dueling Lucius Malfoy, and slams him backwards after a series of spells. It’s badass, and fun to watch, because you like Sirius. Then Bellatrix Lestrange appears from nowhere and kills him. It happens in about two seconds, and it’s absurdly anticlimactic, because the charismatic Sirius was part of hundreds of pages and hours of footage, and then he’s utterly gone in a moment. It feels too fast, not because you want him to suffer, but because someone so compelling doesn’t deserve to be wiped from the plane of reality in mere seconds. Mannarino’s plight is similar. He’s written an absorbing book in his first three rounds, and now the hero will die in one lazy breath of the dragon.

There’s also the cold reality that in Mannarino’s case, there is no benefit in losing to Rafa. He is not young. It’s not like he can think that sucked, but it’s a match I’ll win when we play again in two years. He is probably done improving. A loss to Nadal, for Mannarino, will be little more than a painful reminder of where the standard is. He already knows; he has been on tour for over a decade. It is probably discouraging rather than inspiring.

The match

The match itself got to the void-into-the-escalator realm eventually, but not before Mannarino surprised me. I did not expect to be surprised by this match. I thought the Frenchman was spent and that we were in for three uneventful sets. Mannarino, though, chose to shred the script for a little while.

The first twelve games were bad, though there was the expected weirdness that comes with all tennis matches (a fan held up a sign reading “RAFA CAN I HIT WITH U?” He was wearing an RF hat). Neither player could get into a rhythm on the return of serve and held easily, the lone exception being the eleventh game, when Mannarino had a break point he couldn’t convert. The first set went to a tiebreak.

If you saw this tiebreak, you know that nothing can compare to watching it unfold. Nadal went up 6-4 by slinging a forehand passing shot crosscourt clean by Mannarino from way behind the baseline. It looked decisive. Mannarino disagreed, instead deciding to play some of the best tennis of the tournament. At 5-6, he advanced on a short ball and hammered a forehand winner down the line. At 8-9, Mannarino dug in for a grueling 25-shot rally. He dictated the pace through much of it, then Nadal tossed a lob over him and onto the baseline. Mannarino bunted it back, and Nadal crushed an inside-in forehand, an intended knockout punch. On the dead run, Mannarino swiped a crosscourt forehand into the open court, the ball landing smack on the back half of the baseline.

It was constantly brilliant tennis under pressure, so much so that I started to laugh at around 12-all, because there were a handful of shots so good they would have been decisive in many other tiebreaks. As so often is the case against the greats, the underdog did have a chance. At 12-11, Mannarino ran down a bad drop shot and had a look at a backhand down the line putaway. He went crosscourt, and Nadal passed him down the line.

Mannarino didn’t make many mistakes in the tiebreak — on his lone set point on serve at 13-12, Nadal returned a big first serve deep, then capped the ensuing 18-shot rally with a forehand winner down the line. Mannarino saved six set points against one of the most clutch players in history! He pushed Nadal into the longest tiebreak of the Spaniard’s illustrious professional career.

And, to the surprise of few, he lost. Nadal had to save four set points, but eventually won the tiebreak 16-14. The final set point was bizarre; Mannarino had Nadal dead to rights but kept trying to wrong-foot Nadal, who had stayed home in the ad court. Nadal finally blasted a forehand at Mannarino, and watched his volley fly wildly beyond the lines.

Nadal has performed some iconic (and odd) celebrations in the past. His reaction after winning the tiebreak showed how unique the place the match had gone was — he pumped his arms, slowly, one at a time. He had never quite celebrated like that before, even after his wildest sets and matches. It was like he understood the deeply special moment he had just come out on top of and wanted to mark it with an emphatic reaction, but couldn’t make up his mind on what to do.

For Mannarino, the tiebreak might be a fun story to tell a future generation of tennis players one day. And then, kids, after almost five hours in the previous round, I played this tiebreak against Nadal. It was insane. There were so many set points, and the rallies–I think, honestly, that you just had to be there. Maybe he will be able to laugh at the absurdity of it all one day. Maybe he already can.

I hope this is the case, because the rest of the match was brutal. It was obvious after the first few points of the second set that Mannarino’s legs were gone. He may have been injured; he got a visit from the trainer at 2-5 in the second set. When Mannarino was being worked on, Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” blared from the Rod Laver Arena speakers. Tennis has a sadistic sense of humor.

Mannarino fought gamely, flattening out his shots even more in the third set, but the result of the match was painfully clear, so much so that playing it out felt gratuitous. It wasn’t a legend-versus-challenger situation as much as it was a race between a fresh runner and one who had just finished a marathon. I don’t think Mannarino reacted a single time in the third set — no fist-pumps, no frustration. The self-belief was gone, because there were no reasons for it to hang around. Nothing short of Nadal breaking his leg would have prevented the inevitable. Cruelly, it wouldn’t have mattered even if Mannarino had won the first set. The emotional boon might have lasted for a few games, if that, before the mousetraps on the legs reasserted their presence. The finish line was miles too far in the distance.

An empty tank. Note that the first set lasted longer than the last two combined. Screenshot: Australian Open YouTube Channel

Mannarino, somehow, managed to complete the match without retiring or crying. It looked to me like Nadal asked if he was okay as they shook hands at net, and that Mannarino said yes. Nadal was inquiring about his physical state, of course. I don’t think he can relate to what the Frenchman must be going through emotionally. Nadal has beaten his biggest tormentor 28 times.

Post-match thoughts

For the past fifteen-plus years, underdogs on the ATP have remained enclosed in a cold, unyielding bubble. There are small victories, and that is usually all. A major semifinal becomes the logical dream rather than a major title. Mannarino has reaped some well-deserved joy from his run at this Australian Open. Just look at his smile after beating Karatsev. Still, it feels stingy that after all Mannarino has put into this tournament, this is all he gets. One could argue that he should be encouraged by his high level at the Australian Open, but the uncomfortable truth is that this high level got him one set into his round of 16 match before his body gave out. Presumably, professional tennis players dream of being world number one and winning majors. To be told in no uncertain terms that it’s not going to happen seems like something that cannot be dealt with overnight.

I remembered how Mannarino had suffered more bad luck recently. He was up two sets to one on Federer at Wimbledon last year, then slipped, hurt his knee, and wasn’t able to finish the match. I remembered how he tweeted about it after, saying he wasn’t having the best birthday. I remembered how I expressed my condolences, and how he liked my tweet.

The nature of the Big Three as reliable big-title magnets is not a new phenomenon. Other second-tier players have suffered more intensely and more often than Mannarino. The match today surprised me for almost half an hour — about a sixth of how long the match was in total. The rest went according to the script. The deviation, though, however inconsequential, won’t leave my mind.

Pundits remind us weekly of the fact that the Big Three era is waning. Some fans are tired of the same players winning repeatedly. I’m not really; I will miss the unprecedentedly high quality of tennis Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer brought to the ATP. What I look forward to of a day without the Big Three is the Mannarinos being able to celebrate bigger wins, the plight of the underdog becoming a surmountable challenge.

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.

3 thoughts on “Plight of the Underdog

  1. Good read, much enjoyed. But just for the record he’s French. You have him listed as Italian up there.

    Like

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