Sometimes you’ll hear a top tennis player say something like “if you watch someone in the top five and someone in the top 500 practice, you won’t be able to tell the difference. The difference is more mental than technical.” This might have a grain of truth to it, but I call BS. Novak Djokovic can play someone ranked in the top 10 and make them look like a junior. In Madrid, he played Carlos Alcaraz in the semifinals, and in the first set, Djokovic consistently hit the ball harder than Alcaraz despite having less firepower. Alcaraz’s blazing groundstrokes were tormenting everyone on tour, but Djokovic barely let him get a clean hit on anything by constantly moving him around and putting the ball in uncomfortable positions. At one point, Djokovic won 21 straight points on serve.
This was in a match Djokovic wound up losing, yet he had still managed to make Alcaraz look much worse than he really was for a good portion of the contest. The dynamic can be even more extreme — at Roland-Garros, Djokovic played Diego Schwartzman in the fourth round, who had made the semifinals in Paris before, had been in the top 10 before, and is known as one of the cleanest hitters on tour. Djokovic beat him in a little over two hours. Schwartzman had gone up 3-0 in the second set, which is usually a safe lead, and Djokovic responded by winning six games in a row. Despite both men being in the top 20, it felt like Schwartzman was a pupil who had managed to really piss off his teacher.
I’ve belabored the point by now, but ranking is not necessarily a great indicator for how close to the top you are, and gaps in level can be enormous even at the top end of the rankings. Miomir Kecmanović may know that as well as anyone. He is having a great year. Ranked 78th as 2022 rang in, he is now ranked 30th. In spells, he has played at a world-class level — in Miami, he dragged the red-hot Alcaraz to the brink in a pulsating three-setter, two tiebreaks included. Though Kecmanović lost narrowly, the revelation of the day was how consistently well he played, pulling Alcaraz wide with vicious angles from first ball to last. When the match was over, Alcaraz celebrated like he had won a major rather than advancing to the semifinals of a Masters 1000.
Kecmanović went to Belgrade next, where he played Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Djokovic was still fairly early in his comeback from not playing due to (heavy sigh) being unvaccinated and therefore not permitted to enter certain countries, so going into the match, there was a persuasive argument that Kecmanović was the favorite. And for a set and a half, he played like one. He was calm and confident, opening up the court with those sharp-angled groundstrokes and hitting difficult shots under pressure. He broke Djokovic early, almost broke him again, then held on to win the first set. He went up a break at the start of the second. Djokovic came back at him, tying the match and then pulling away late in the third with some electric backhand winners, but he had been forced to play his best to win. It felt like Kecmanović had made more progress.
Fast forward to today at Wimbledon. Kecmanović, having won a pair of four-setters, set a rematch with Djokovic in the third round. It didn’t go well. He lost the first set 6-0. The second set was more even, Kecmanović toughing out a couple big holds of serve, but he couldn’t get close to breaking Djokovic. At 3-4, 30-all, Kecmanović attacked the net, but twice hit putaways to the side of the court Djokovic was standing on and ended up getting lobbed. You could feel the air go out of the match at that point. He quickly lost the second set.
Being down two sets against a much better player is a pretty terrible position to be in, and not just from an odds-of-winning perspective. Since your chances are basically nil, the easiest thing to do is lose as fast as you can, then book it off the court and drown your sorrows in a food or drink item of your choice. You can fight, sure, but 99% of the time, it won’t work, it will keep you out on court only marginally longer (it will still tire you out, somehow), and you will be left hating everything.
A lot of the time, I think players in this phase — way behind against a significantly better player — fight because they feel they’re supposed to, not because they expect it to work. Tanking is dishonorable in tennis, and matches against top players are regarded as invaluable learning experiences. You get to see what the gold standard is, up close and personal! Who can say no to that? So the expectation is that even when a player is down two sets and two breaks, and for all intents and purposes has a 0% chance of winning the match, they fight tooth and nail to stay out on court for an extra few minutes, an extra few seconds. There will be nothing a player can do, but we still expect them to try. It’s an unfair expectation, really. Fighting against impossible odds is honorable, I guess, but the fact remains that the odds are impossible. There comes a moment when trying is pointless.
That was where Kecmanović found himself late in the third set, down two sets and 5-2. The match was over. The commentators had given up on analyzing the match. Andrew Castle spent a while asking Lleyton Hewitt what he thought of Jack Draper’s upside, then started marveling at how “Alex de Minaur has a great demeanor.” (I think thousands of people muted their streams after this.) No one would have admitted it, but everyone was waiting for the match to end. There was no tension whatsoever. Kecmanović knew it as well as we did. He had tried his best and it had gotten him nowhere, yet he was now supposed to put on a brave face in the face of the inevitable end.
Every tennis player has to deal with this at some point. No one is ever ready to dominate the tour when they emerge on the world scene (and most are never ready). There will always be a match, probably several, when the opponent is so much better that resistance is futile. We love to watch comebacks from two sets down, but they hardly ever happen, and are all the rarer against the top players. Djokovic has lost from two sets up exactly once in his career at a major. It was in 2010, one of his worst years, so was probably more of an anomaly than anything else. Coaches do not yell “remember 2010!” when their player falls two sets down against Djokovic. (The rightful response would probably be a rueful “screw you.”)
The thing is, the resilience you need to stage an improbable comeback usually has to be built up over time. The belief that you can in fact beat the odds isn’t that apparent until the comeback actually does happen, at which point everyone fawns over your perseverance, and your mental strength, and your admirable never-say-die attitude. Though tanking is easier, always, if it becomes automatic, you will start to miss those windows for a comeback, tiny though they may be. Tennis is hard and never stops being hard, but it’s also a long game. Staying out there for those excruciating extra few minutes today could be the start of an epic comeback tomorrow. Or in five years. Or maybe never, but you’ll have given yourself a better chance.
Kecmanović actually did haul a couple games back at the end of the match, though he didn’t really raise his level much. Djokovic lost his mind for a couple minutes up 5-2, 30-love, then failed to break in the following game despite being up love-30. To call it memorable would be a stretch.
What I will remember, though, is the reaction to Kecmanović breaking serve at 2-5 in the third, his first break in the entire match. Everyone knew that it wasn’t going to change anything. “Well, there you go!” Andrew Castle said. “Two sets and two breaks down, and finally he gets his breakthrough.” The camera bounced around, from Djokovic to Kecmanović to the players’ boxes. Everyone was kind of trying not to smirk, but some small smiles broke through anyway.