Blink and You’ll Miss It

I fell down the stairs on my first day in Melbourne, on my very first trip out of the hostel. I had dropped off my bag a few hours before my check-in, then, brimming with a glorious sense of possibility, went down the stairs to explore the city a bit and my feet immediately went out from under me. I was sliding down the stairs on my butt before I could even process that I had lost my footing. Though the most severe injury was to my ego, hardly a good omen for my time in Australia.

Jessica Pegula doesn’t have room to slip, at least not in her first few matches at the Australian Open. She has found herself in a place where she’s so good that it shouldn’t be difficult for her to win opening-round matches, but she’s also so good that she has to win opening-round matches to live up to expectations. Forget about the first round, actually — given her great 2022 and her recent destruction of world number one and title favorite Iga Świątek 6-2, 6-2 at the United Cup, is anything less than a title at the Australian Open is going to sit well with Pegula? Just imagine the pressure she must feel early, say, before the quarterfinals. (She’s yet to make a major semi.) If she plays well and beats a few lower-ranked players comfortably, great, fine, it’s what she’s supposed to do, now let’s see if she can replicate that electric defeat of Świątek. If not? She’s wasted a fantastic vein of form by not performing her best at one of the biggest tournaments in the world.

I wrote about this dynamic when Świątek was powering her way to the Roland-Garros title last year. She had it even tougher — after becoming a runaway world number one and winning five big tournaments in succession, all the expectations were that she would win a sixth. If she didn’t, despite a winning streak of over 30 matches, all those titles would go out the window in the eyes of many, since she didn’t win the major. Really, all a favorite has to gain in an early round is entrée to the next round, where the stakes are slightly higher. A top player usually doesn’t need the prize money, nor do they need the ranking points. The late rounds are the only place they can add to their legacy with a single match. It’s all about getting there.

The pressure of this must be immense. The best way I can relate (and I doubt this is anywhere close to as hard as what tennis players do) is through taking a class in which the final exam counts for something like 70% of the grade. You do your best on participation and small quizzes, but with every good grade you’re reminded that none of it matters unless you ace the big one. All the early success is necessary but not sufficient. You’re constantly on edge.

The plight of the underdog is even worse. Pegula’s opponent in the first round of the Australian Open, Jaqueline Cristian, was likely playing primarily for the prize money and ranking points that are of little consequence to Pegula herself. (Not only does Pegula have millions in prize money, but her parents happen to own multiple professional sports teams and are very rich.) At 161st in the world, Cristian was looking to reclaim the heights she achieved in late 2021 by taking another scalp of a top player. The trip to Australia is long; a win, even in the first round, could make it worth the all the air fare and nerves and days spent training in the hot sun and nerves and frustrations and nerves (did I mention the nerves)?

Tennis matches don’t last very long, in the grand scheme of things, and the stretches that decide the winner and loser are even shorter. Hopes and dreams are either fulfilled or quashed by a couple forehands and backhands. The challenge of a match is twofold: You have to develop your game to the point that it’s better than your opponent’s, and then you have to manage your emotions well enough to give your game the chance to prove decisive. If your backhand is off early on, or if your arms are trembling, even in the first few minutes, you might already be screwed. For all the mental training tennis players put themselves through, I think a lot of professional tennis is about playing on instinct and hoping the adrenaline and endorphins wash away the anxiety.

Unfortunately for Cristian, it was clear within two or three games that Pegula had so many technical advantages that everything else seemed almost irrelevant. Sitting up in the stands, the greater weight of Pegula’s groundstrokes was evident even in the warm-up. She hit the ball harder and deeper, while one of every three or four of Cristian’s groundstrokes would drop short. (Not a massive difference, but fatal against a top player.) Cristian did what she could with the tools she had — she won a few points with what seemed like her best shot, the backhand down the line — but it was an uphill battle from the opening point.

Though the match was over in 59 minutes, it must have felt like longer to Cristian, adrift as she was on the ocean-blue court. She never seemed to throw in the towel, it was just that she didn’t have the firepower to make a meaningful impact on the match. Twice she hit aces on her second serve — but Pegula went on to break her both times. Cristian picked up on the fact that Pegula hit virtually all her putaway shots to the forehand side, reading several of them successfully — but she went on to lose most of the points anyway.

It can be a desolate place, the first round. Losing is obviously the worst-case scenario, but even winning doesn’t guarantee much. In 2016, Fernando Verdasco beat Rafael Nadal in a four-hour, 42-minute first-round epic at this very tournament. Not only did he exact revenge from their incredible 2009 semifinal, but he really played fantastic tennis — he hit so many blistering forehands in the fifth set that even Nadal was helpless by the end, losing six straight games. In revisiting the highlights, Verdasco’s level feels meaningful, like he had a real shot to go deep in the tournament. His businesslike celebrations after the match suggested he felt the same way. But he lost meekly to Dudi Sela in the second round. Story over.

*****

Though winning this match is a necessary piece in Pegula’s path to the title, it’s nothing more than the first of seven stepping-stones. Pegula was already talking about getting ready for her next match during her on-court interview. Cristian left the court quickly. The crowd appeared to sympathize with her, at least to my ears. I caught myself rooting for her early. Sometimes the pain of a loss comes not from surprise but from mourning what could have been gained with a win, and here she was leaving the tournament with very few positive takeaways. (I doubt Cristian will find solace in this, but when she held serve in the middle of the second set to seal what would be her only game of the match, the crowd — and this is to say nothing of Pegula’s popularity — cheered louder than it did after match point.)

It was all over very quickly. I’m staying in a six-person room in a hostel, and got along with my roommates better than I expected on the first day — I’m one of those introverts who needs to be adopted by an extrovert to truly have social success, otherwise I can’t initiate conversation. I was fortunate to be in the room at the same time as a couple friendly chatterboxes late in the evening, then went to a bar with one of them and one of their friends (who asked me, upon hearing I lived in the U.S., if I had ever experienced a school shooting). When I went back to the room early to sleep off the jetlag, someone else came in and told me people were fucking in the bathroom. We chatted for a few minutes. I asked who he was rooting for at the Australian Open; when he mentioned Ash Barty, I didn’t have the heart to tell him she had retired early last year. When I went to sleep, I felt good about the connections I’d made.

I went out at nine in the morning on my second day, before anyone else had woken up. I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that check-out at the hostel was always at 10 a.m. and that one of the people I’d gone to the bar with was checking out that morning. But when I got back around noon, I still jolted when I saw four of the six beds had been stripped and the room was empty.

Published by Owen

Owen Lewis 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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