By Alex Thorpe
Tennis has a strange relationship with time. It has time limits and it doesn’t. I once told my non-tennis friend I was busy because I was going to watch a tennis match and he asked, “when’s it gonna finish?”, I told him “I don’t know.” Unlike a football match which will generally last 90-95 minutes, tennis matches can last 50 minutes or 5 hours, individual games or tiebreaks can last a couple minutes or 28 minutes, looking at you Nadal-Mannarino! The points themselves can last one second or one minute. So tennis doesn’t have a time limit. But it does. Denis Shapovalov is pretty insistent that it does. “You guys are all corrupt!” he lashed out at umpire Carlos Bernardes, feeling those limits between points were not being enforced as his time at the 2022 Australian Open drew to a close against eventual winner Rafael Nadal.
Nadal himself had seemingly run out of time to claim his second Australian Open, at what has been a ‘cursed’ slam for him, given his unfortunate near-misses in 2012, 2014 and 2017. The Spaniard was aware of this, both on court and in his post-match interview. The now 21-time major winner was an improbably unstoppable force in his comeback against Daniil Medvedev from 2-6 6-7 2-3 0-40 down right up until he came to serve for the match. From 30-0 up, a double fault and a tame backhand into the net contributed to four straight points for the Russian and a break of serve. Nadal, of course, got a ‘boomerang break’ in the next game and served out for ’21,’ but he was far from certain it would pan out that way after spurning the chance to close out the match at 5-4. “Well, after that I said ‘fuck, one more time a break up in the fifth and I’m gonna lose the advantage again, no?'” he said to Eurosport following his most unexpected triumph.
Whilst attempting to serve out for the championship first time around, Nadal was surely feeling ‘time pressure.’ He had gone from feelings of joy and gratefulness at the beginning of the tournament at simply being able to compete again on the biggest of stages, to, for the first time, fear of letting a golden and likely final opportunity of a second Australian Open slip away. Breaking Medvedev’s serve for 3-2 with that forehand down-the-line winner in the fifth set was the first time he’d been the favourite to win the title in the whole tournament.
Human beings, even really cool ones like Nadal and Roger Federer, like to think rationally and work out their problems with a clear head. Being weighed down by the feeling of a door slamming shut, with your only reprieve thrust upon you in a now-or-never situation, can cloud this judgment and cause you to make mistakes, to play below your otherwise stellar standard. Federer felt it trying to serve out a 9th Wimbledon in 2019, his forehand misfired on the first match point, and a combination of a safe first serve and an overly eager approach allowed Novak Djokovic an escape route. When would he again get a chance at a 21st slam, aged 38 years old? (Never, it looks like.) Nadal felt it in both his Australian and US Open finals against Medvedev, needing two attempts to serve out both victories. When would he again get a chance at a hard-court slam without facing Djokovic, who he’s failed to take a set against on the surface since 2013? These slams meant more. Maybe too much.
The same was true for Djokovic at last year’s US Open. The Serb, never one to play down his pursuit of the totality of tennis records, was “hugely inspired and motivated” by the opportunity to complete the calendar-year slam. Yet the pressure seemed to weigh on him as he lost the first set for four consecutive rounds, and these slow starts appeared to catch up with him as he was dismissed in straight sets by Medvedev in the final. Djokovic looked gassed, something we’d never seen so blatantly in a slam final despite him having overcome tougher on-court time and physical issues pre-final before. Something else was at play. A feeling of immense pressure to complete an historic achievement, one that would likely never arise again. As cliché as it sounds, Emma Raducanu had a point during her cruise towards the title at the same event when she said “as soon as you get ahead of yourself and start thinking ahead, that’s when you get distracted and side-tracked.”
If even the ‘GOATs’ are prone to getting tight as their careers wind down, it’s no surprise that we see so few new slam winners post 25 years old. Since and including Federer’s first slam at Wimbledon 2003, of the 11 players to have broken their slam duck, only Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka did so having been older than 25. Of those two finals, Wawrinka was playing against an injured Nadal at his ‘cursed’ Australian Open and Thiem had to battle through a terrible bout of nerves to win from two sets down in a final-set tiebreak against an equally nervous at times Alexander Zverev. The average age for a first major win in this period is 23 and that isn’t a number deflated by the Big Three’s presence, with the previous 11 first-time winners before Federer also being 23 years old on average. Only three of those players were older than 25 when they made the breakthrough.
It’s why we should be more demanding of those guys approaching their mid 20’s with the abundance of talent required to win a slam who let themselves down performance-wise. I’m talking about Zverev who, under expectations to make the final following his dominant showing at the season-ending ATP Finals, crumbled against his first serious obstacle in Shapovalov. ‘Night Train’ himself was more preoccupied with Nadal’s time between serves than making it his time against a physically compromised opponent. Stefanos Tsitsipas had a strong Australian Open in many aspects, but the way he faded in the fourth set against nemesis Medvedev was disappointing having competed so well for the first three.
These guys have often been filed under the ‘their time will come’ section after similar defeats. But will it? Is it just a case of waiting for the ‘Big Three’ to step aside?
If we look to the women’s game, one of the best examples of ‘time pressure’ was at last year’s US Open. Two teenagers, Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, met in the final having overcome older competitors for whom the time pressure on the opportunity was suffocating. Maria Sakkari, following her semi-final defeat to the Brit, said of her “she plays fearless, she absolutely goes for it, she does the right thing actually, she has nothing to lose, she’s enjoying herself but you know we (her opponents) were all absent from the court.”
Aryna Sabalenka’s serve was certainly absent when serving to stay in her semi-final against Canadian Fernandez. Four unforced errors including two straight double faults gifted the match away, a stunning collapse from the world number two. Following the culmination of Serena Williams’s era as the major force in slams in early 2017, it has been relative youngsters rather than her established rivals who have been picking up the trophies. Ostapenko, Osaka, Andreescu, Kenin, Swiatek and Raducanu have all won slams aged 21 or under. Ostapenko was unseeded, Raducanu was a qualifier.
Without the baggage of crushing defeats by the barest of margins, the feeling of ‘fuck…I’m gonna lose the advantage again, no?’, these youngsters play with that extra bit of confidence in the key moments, pushed on by a chance to achieve something, rather than a fear of missing out again. The match is approached in isolation, rather than being seen as career-defining, the referendum on whether all those years of hard work will pay off.
That’s why there’s no better time than the present for guys like Zverev, Shapovalov and Tsitsipas to be demanding everything from themselves in slams. The level never drops significantly. For example, it’s hard to see someone with the lack of variety of Rublev going 7/7 at a major, post-Djokovic/Nadal or not. New talent is always emerging, and it’s easy to miss your moment. Look at Grigor Dimitrov, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, who all looked likely slam winners at one point or another. This last week, with Juan Martín Del Potro’s likely retirement, has shown that time in sport is not devolved equally either.
They should be demanding of themselves not to win, but to show the fight that Félix Auger-Aliassime did against Medvedev, that Carlos Alcaraz has against Tsitsipas and Matteo Berrettini. The older they get, the harder it will be to play with that fearlessness. Then before you know it, you’ve run out of-
Time violation warning, Mr. Thorpe.