We are constantly told to strive for our best in life. It’s “do your best” before a test or a job interview, it’s “well, at least you tried your best” when things go badly. Tennis coverage is often similar — after an epic point, you’ll hear a commentator excitedly cry “Oh, that’s Player X at their VERY best!” After a match, someone usually evaluates the winner’s performance through the lens of their best level. That tends to sound like this:
- “Player X advances. Nowhere near their best, in truth.
- “Player X advances, and you’d have to say that’s pretty close to as well as they can play.”
- “Player X is through, but they’re going to have to make serious improvements to have a chance in the next round.”
- “Player X survives a day when EVERYTHING seemed to go wrong, but they’ve survived.”
You get the picture. After repeatedly hearing evaluations like the first and fourth one on that list, I started to wonder just how often a tennis player actually is at their best. Not very often, is the answer. Tennis is a low-margin game. In baseball, an “error” is a massive deal. You’ve screwed up badly if you make so much as one during a game. Two is grounds for having news segments on you and your deep struggles. In tennis, making dozens of errors in a match is pretty normal. We even separate errors into categories: forced and unforced. And errors are so prolific that even on a day when someone is at or close to their best, they’ll make a few unforced errors.
Point is, a player’s best level is not something they can summon on command. There are way too many factors: the surface, which may or may not be unfavorable; the opponent, who can be anyone from the world #200 to one of the best to ever pick up a racket; little things like how your stomach is feeling on a given day, or the weather, or how even-keeled you can be temperamentally. When you are trying to hit a small ball with a small racket with incredible pace and precision for hours on end, even a feather can become an obstacle. If they’re lucky, a player will be at their very best three or four times in a calendar year. It’s even rarer in big matches, with the increased pressure and level of opposition.
Peak level might just be a bad metric for performance evaluation. After all, an average top-10 player will win most of the matches they play without being at their best. More to the point, anyone can win regularly if they play at their best. The threshold between winning and losing is not being perfect but being good enough.
So why not pay more attention to that in analysis? I’ve been thinking about Carlos Alcaraz lately. This year, he’s beaten Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Matteo Berrettini, and other top players. He’s lost just five times this year. So it’s safe to say that peak level is not his issue — when he plays his best, he wins, drowning his opponent in a storm of heavy groundstrokes and quiet drop shots.
But what about those five losses? One was a close loss to Nadal in Indian Wells in which both players came up with very good performances in gale-force winds. We can set that one aside. But three of the five were losses in majors, in all of which Alcaraz lost the first two sets en route to a four or five-set loss, which feels like an area we can hone in on. Alcaraz’s opponents were Berrettini (who he’s since beaten), Zverev (who he had recently punked in the Madrid final), and Jannik Sinner (who Alcaraz was ranked higher than). At the least, all of these matches were winnable. And in all of them, Alcaraz played well below par for the first two sets, playing a part in his opponents taking a generally insurmountable two-set lead. Alcaraz made each of his opponents sweat even after losing two sets — he took Berrettini to a fifth set tiebreak, he had a set point against Zverev in the fourth set, he had break points against Sinner early in the fourth — but the vast majority of the time, going two sets down is not a winning proposition.
Alcaraz’s peak, or ceiling, was not to blame for these deficits. His floor was. What is a floor? Well, it’s the worst a tennis player can play. It’s what happens when nothing seems to go right. Despite everyone avoiding situations like this at all costs, a player’s floor is incredibly relevant. When you’re at your worst, you want to lose as little ground as possible, so when you come out of the dip, the match is close enough to still be winnable. Unlike the ceiling, where everyone can usually win when at their best, only a few players can reliably win on their worst days.
There are several ways to stave off the floor. Some players try to blast their way through it. Some play safer, trying to cut down on errors to slow their opponent’s momentum. Some might mix up their gameplan, saving their most aggressive play for the big points and playing safe the rest of the time. Right now, Alcaraz is in the first category, and it’s not helping him. His game — massive hitting, winners at will, soft drop shots — is low-margin. He’s on song an impressive amount of the time, but when he’s off, things fall apart quickly. When he starts missing his groundstrokes a lot, he’ll fall back on the drop shot, but when a player knows to expect it, countering a dropper is easy.
I’d like to see Alcaraz stretch out points and play with less risk when he’s in a bad period. He’s supremely fit, so would be able to go toe-to-toe with pretty much anyone in long points. Hitting more shots would naturally ease him out of his low points, and aiming at big targets would limit his errors. When I’ve watched him play badly, he seems impatient, trying to end points as quickly as possible. I think this falls into the trap of the floor — a bad patch has to be outlasted rather than overpowered. Plus, going for (and missing) really powerful shots is often frustrating, making it all the more difficult to play calmly and safely.
Today, Alcaraz lost a close final to Lorenzo Musetti, 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-4. He saved five championship points, often with outrageous shots, including two forehand passing winners. Most players on tour would have lost 6-4, 6-4. But it’s likely that if Alcaraz had been able to summon a better base level, he never would have had to face a match point.
At the end of the day, no one can rely on their best level consistently. It’s way too elusive. Iga Świątek didn’t win 37 matches in a row because she was at her best every day, she won 37 matches in a row because she learned how to survive her 80% days. Djokovic and Nadal are as successful as they are in large part because they know how to navigate the days when nothing goes right: don’t take unnecessary risks, let the opponent beat themselves, then play assertively on the big points. Their floors are probably the highest on tour, which is why they can show up at a major semifinal, play terribly by their standards, and come away with a four-set win.
All of this is much easier said than done. Improving one’s floor, paradoxically, requires that a player have less faith in their game rather than more. You have to accept that at times, the tennis shots you have spent a lifetime refining into sharp weapons are going to fail you, and that a backup plan is necessary. Earlier in this tournament, Alcaraz demolished Karen Khachanov — a very good player in his own right — 6-0, 6-2. It was brutal, it was ruthless, it was perfect. But Alcaraz can’t count on that level showing up for him day in and day out; way too many things can go wrong at any time.
For what it’s worth, I think Alcaraz will get there. He’s about to be ranked in the top five. This issue is something most players never figure out, and at 19, Alcaraz has all the time in the world to figure out the ins and outs of this bizarre sport. He’s already way ahead of any reasonable pace. Being a bit more patient is the next step.