By Ashlee Woods
Tennis players rarely know how a match is going to play out. A player can scout, practice and simulate ahead of a match all they want. But nothing can really prepare a player for when they’re across the net from their opponent and none of the plans are working. The opponent has an answer for every question while you’re still struggling to put your name on the test. What a player does after this moment of realization is what separates the rookies from the rockstars.
We’re through only one round in Paris, but the second slam of the year has provided several epic comebacks. On Monday, it was German Angelique Kerber. Her opponent across the net was Pole and world no. 87 Madgalena Fręch, who played more like a top-10 player through the first two sets. Fręch had two match points and looked to send the 2018 Wimbledon champion packing.
Kerber had other ideas.
She saved both match points and fought her way to a gritty three-set win, 7-5 in the third. The Court 6 crowd spurred her on, chanting “Angie Kerber” throughout the final set. When Kerber seemingly had nothing left in the tank, she kept going, even resorting to moonballs to stay in rallies.
“I was just trying to enjoy this, because it was such a great moment on court with the fans,” Kerber said. “Yeah, it was unbelievable.”
Tuesday’s slate of matches were not to be outdone, however. On Court Suzanne Lenglen, the No. 7 seed Aryna Sabalenka stood across Frenchwoman Chloe Paquet. Sabalenka looked to avoid the same fate that befell Ons Jabeur, Barbora Krejčíková and Garbiñe Muguruza, all seeded players who were upset in round one.
Like Kerber, Sabalenka found herself in a deep hole with seemingly nothing to help dig her out. As her double faults piled up, so did the pressure. A loss would have been the second time in the last three tournaments in which Sabalenka exited in the first round. Mental issues have plagued Sabalenka all season, as she often crumbles when nothing — or even not enough things — is going right.
But she found a way.
Down 0-2 in the deciding set, Sabalenka broke Paquet back and fought her way to a three-set victory, winning 6-4 in the third.
It’s easy for us fans to sit back after a match has ended and nitpick every little thing a player did wrong. In a perfect world, the top players would cruise through the early rounds, but we don’t live in a perfect world and tennis is an imperfect sport. Few of us expected John Isner to push Rafael Nadal to five sets in the first round of the 2011 French Open. Even fewer expected Stefanos Tsitsipas to be ousted by Frances Tiafoe in straight sets at last year’s Wimbledon Championships.
Anyone can lose to anyone at any moment. What separates the good from the best is how they handle adversity. Both Sabalenka and Kerber could’ve conceded defeat like most fans did, but they didn’t. Finding a way to win when nothing is going right is what makes a champion.
Sabalenka and Kerber may very well not win the title or even their next match. But if their first round showed tennis fans anything, it was that effort and determination can get you out of huge deficits.