Blocked Returns

No player’s game is devoid of weaknesses. A constant battle as a professional player is to make your deficiencies as inconsequential as possible while maximizing your strengths. Lack easy power? Having great endurance is a good way to compensate. Have trouble moving quickly? Developing a powerful serve can create some balance. Interestingly, even the top players can have major weaknesses in their game. Their other shots tend to be amazing enough to make up for the weakness, but the weakness remains nonetheless. In the current era of the ATP, the most common deficiency is in the return of serve. The losing semifinalists last night, Matteo Berrettini and Stefanos Tsitsipas, have many strong attributes that have propelled them to the top of the game. Yet they share the salient characteristic of being poor returners.

Berrettini fell to Rafael Nadal 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 3-6 in a match slightly closer than the score indicates. It should be said that Nadal is an extremely difficult matchup for Berrettini. His backhand is by far his weaker wing, and Nadal is an expert at targeting the ad court with spin, angles, or pace. It didn’t take long for his tactic to pay dividends. Berrettini started slowly — his vulnerable backhand sneezed errors into the net, seemingly every time Nadal targeted it. He took two and a half service games to win a point on his second serve. Berrettini’s backhand made all kinds of errors — he netted attempted down-the-line shots, tried to take balls on the rise and missed them badly, or got pushed out wide and again, ended up missing. On the second point of the match, Nadal hit a solid crosscourt forehand. There was a decent angle on the ball, but it was a shot he probably expected to come back. Berrettini attempted a backhand down the line, and the ball flew wildly off the strings — wide of the doubles alley and headed wider. At the time, I chalked it up to early-match rustiness, but the error ended up being a bit of an omen. 

There are times when a player’s weaker wing holds up well, so well that the fact it’s a weakness can even cease to be apparent. Unfortunately, the reverse is also possible, and a player executing shots poorly from their already-weaker wing often results in carnage. Especially when the weak wing is a backhand and it’s trading blows with Nadal’s forehand. For much of the match, Berrettini’s backhand was absolutely ripped to shreds. To be fair, it required the specific conditions of heavy spin coming from Nadal’s lefty forehand to unravel the backhand so noticeably, but the weakness was apparent every time Berrettini had to hit a ball.

Berrettini often papers over the vulnerabilities of his backhand by slicing, which he usually does quite well. Nadal, though, is probably the best player in history at attacking slices, so this was a generally unsuccessful tactic for Berrettini. Screenshot: Australian Open YouTube Channel

And yet, Berrettini’s return of serve may well have been a bigger issue than his backhand. He has now played Nadal twice, for a total of seven sets. He has broken Nadal once and produced break point in just one return game. His backhand dumped returns into the net time and again. He regularly chipped forehand returns, which Nadal feasted on. The Spaniard won 67% of points behind his second serve!

Thanks to his advantages in ad-court rallies and the return, Nadal routed Berrettini for two sets. The second set looked like it could have been a bagel. Berrettini made over 80% of his first serves in the set and still got broken twice.

Finally, after two and a half sets, Berrettini had had enough. He sprinted into his forehand corner to scorch a winner down the line as Nadal came to net. On break point at 4-3 up, he blasted a forehand winner down the line. Then he served out the set with four bombing serves. 

The fourth set had its tight moments as well — Berrettini had 15-30 at 3-all but missed a makeable forehand down the line, then had a look at a pass at 40-30 and missed that too. He had his chances, as they say.

Berrettini is 0-7 against top ten opponents at majors. He’s given them plenty of trouble — hell, six of those seven are Djokovic, Nadal, or Federer. Still, he hasn’t been able to maximize his opportunities to get into the matches. Today, he took the third set with a burst of brilliance and rode a hot streak on serve deep into the fourth. At 3-4, Berrettini saved a break point with a tactical clinic — he first targeted Nadal’s backhand, then ran down the Spaniard‘s aggressive forehands, then managed to get the ball back to Nadal’s backhand, which eventually leaked the error. Berrettini plays nothing like Djokovic, but he had managed to channel the Serb on a vital point. 

Alas, it didn’t last. Berrettini lost six of the next seven points, several with unforced errors, to lose the match. 

Berrettini played Nadal relatively evenly for the last two sets. On average, he might have even played better. The bigger problem than his lapse in the final two games was the way he played the first two sets. Nadal was bossing points like you might expect him to against a club player. Berrettini’s backhand atrophied when targeted by Nadal’s forehand, sometimes immediately. The backhand was an obvious weakness going in, but a below-average performance from that wing made it a fatal one.

Berrettini’s return of serve continued to be an issue. In seven sets against Nadal, he has broken serve all of once. 

Berrettini also largely failed to dominate with his strengths. In the second set, he made over 80% of his first serves, and was broken twice anyway. Nadal does not have the killer match-closing instinct he once did. Despite the nightmarish tactical matchup, there was a window for Berrettini to win this match. The Italian has now played Djokovic or Nadal in four consecutive majors. The matches have not gotten closer. 

Berrettini has had a fantastic Australian Open. He took Carlos Alcaraz’s best punch in the third round and edged out the Spaniard in a fifth-set tiebreak. He repeated the trick against the electrifying Gael Monfils, losing the third and fourth sets after taking the first two, and again held on to claim the fifth. Seeded seventh, he played above his ranking to make the semifinals. Yet it feels like he has left some glory on the table. The wait for Roland-Garros is long, all the more so after a disappointing loss. 

*****

Both Medvedev and Tsitsipas had their work cut out for them. Medvedev suffered through a four-hour, 48-minute quarterfinal with Felix Auger-Aliassime; Tsitsipas cruised to the semifinals but got crushed by Medvedev on Rod Laver Arena a mere 12 months earlier. I didn’t think Tsitsipas had much of a chance going into this match, but he began clinically on serve, scoring four easy holds. The problem? He couldn’t win a single point in his return games. Medvedev won his first 22 points on serve: good for five consecutive holds to love, then another to 15.

At 4-all, Medvedev opened up a love-30 lead on Tsitsipas’s serve. They then dug in for an astonishing 34-shot rally, at the end of which Medvedev somehow defended a vicious backhand down the line, then in short order opened up the court and slotted a crosscourt forehand winner into the space. Tsitsipas was visibly flagging by the end of the rally. It was brutal, and shocking, because Medvedev’s quarterfinal had been so draining in comparison to Tsitsipas’s stroll over Sinner. The Russian was supposed to be more physically taxed, yet he appeared the fitter player.

Tsitsipas ended up holding serve impressively, saving four break points. His inability to make a dent on the return of serve aside, the match felt intense and high-quality. In the tiebreak, Tsitsipas took a 4-1 lead, but even that seemed tenuous, since it was obvious he couldn’t count on getting a second mini-break. Medvedev evened the tiebreak quickly and would up sneaking it 7-5. The Russian had made two uncharacteristic backhand errors in the tiebreak, but his steadiness on serve had given him more than sufficient margin for error.

Tsitsipas won the second set, breaking twice (though Medvedev hit a trio of unforced errors in each game). When serving out the set, he was hauled back from 40-15 to deuce, but responded brilliantly to the pressure with a severely angled forehand that set up a putaway. Upon nailing the forehand winner, Tsitsipas celebrated like he had won the tournament.

That was about as good as it would get for Tsitsipas. He had a couple break points early in the third set, but Medvedev held serve, and lost just five games for the rest of the match. The fourth set was alarming. Tsitsipas held his opening service game, then found himself standing still as Medvedev swept by him, winning five straight games. Tsitsipas’s movement grew clumsier and Medvedev crushed winners past him. There was an obvious physical and technical gap by the end of the match.

The nature of the loss is more concerning to Tsitsipas than the loss itself. Take Auger-Aliassime, who has lost to Medvedev at consecutive majors. The first was a flat straight-set affair, but in dragging the Russian to the brink in the quarterfinals he made clear that he had improved, results be damned. I’m not sure the same can be said for Tsitsipas. He won 18 points on the return, fewer than half of Medvedev’s 41. He came into the match as the fresher, more in-form player, and though he took a set, the semifinal was a thrashing by the end.

It’s Tsitsipas’s loss in particular that raises some questions. The Greek has been to three Australian Open semifinals now. He’s racked up all of one set (he was two points away from another) amidst his three losses. He made a hard court Masters 1000 final in Toronto in 2018 and hasn’t repeated the achievement since. Aside from his World Tour Finals victory in 2019, Tsitsipas’s hard court development looks to be at a standstill. The reason for that is the return of serve — until that area of his game improves, he is not a top contender at the big hard court events.

Tsitsipas is obviously capable of amazing tennis on hard court. His demolition of Sinner in the quarterfinals was a sight to behold; his forehand was firing winners at will, he was covering the court with ease. But tennis is a game of matchups, and against bigger servers and/or more consistent baseliners, Tsitsipas is not where he needs to be. Berrettini looked impressive for much of the tournament, especially in holding off Alcaraz and Monfils in fifth sets, but Nadal exposed his backhand so relentlessly that people on Twitter were saying they could hit better backhands than Berrettini. If there is a slight weakness in your game, it will come out if you play a well-rounded tactician like Nadal or Medvedev.

It’s probably impossible that Tsitsipas will ever be a great returner, but it’s the lack of visible improvement that is worrying. It was a full twelve months ago when he played Medvedev in the 2021 Australian Open semifinals, lost 88% of points played on Medvedev’s first serve, then said the Russian served like John Isner after the match. It is very clear what the issue with his game is. Yet there’s been no discernable change to his approach on the return — he still takes huge cuts at fast serves, as if chipping it back to take the pace off never occurred to him.

I’m not asking him to become Djokovic here. Dominic Thiem has a very similar game and once had very similar weaknesses, but he slowly improved his slice and return. He won the U.S. Open in 2020 and got very close to winning the Australian Open, too.

Tsitsipas and Berrettini are both brilliant players. Their serves and forehands are world-class. They are mentally strong. But until their return games improve, expect them to be blocked from major finals again in the near future.

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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