Double Faults and Dominoes

Leads are precarious in tennis. You can be ahead, but as soon as you stop playing better than your opponent, that lead will wither. There’s no clock there to save you from a backward slide. This is why mentality is so important: a player can be cruising, but a seemingly random point can cause their carefully built staircase to victory to implode violently. 

At the U.S. Open, Stefanos Tsitsipas led Carlos Alcaraz 3-6, 6-4, 5-2, 40-15. Alcaraz had sprinted out of the blocks with alarming speed, but Tsitsipas fought from a break down in the second, then served it out after falling behind love-40. He broke Alcaraz twice in the third, and with two set points behind his imperious serve, a decisive two-sets-to-one lead seemed inevitable. 

Tsitsipas missed his first serve at 40-15, then went big on the second and missed that as well. No big deal, right? Here was another set point at 40-30. But when Tsitsipas misfired on another first serve, it’s hard to imagine the double fault on the previous point didn’t get in his head a bit. You’ve gotta make this one; two straight double faults would be terrible. He spun in a soft second serve and Alcaraz drilled a forehand return winner. The young Spaniard shook the head of his racket back and forth a few times in a brief show of positivity. 

Tsitsipas would gain another set point, but the game had become a scrap. Alcaraz burned him with backhand passes on consecutive points, then barged forward himself to punch away an easy volley. One break had been retrieved, but the shift in momentum didn’t stop there. Alcaraz got his easiest hold of the match; 4-5 from 2-5, 15-40. Tsitsipas erred on a pair of backhands. After the second, he pantomimed the motion, looking confused rather than frustrated. Alcaraz was nodding to his box, looking fiercely determined but also calmer, despite still being behind. 

Alcaraz hit a dynamite half-volley, forcing an error. Two break points for 5-all. The crowd went nuts. Tsitsipas saved one break point, screaming in what sounded more like desperation than defiance. He saved another. More screams, a trio of them this time. They’re not loud enough to beat back the suddenly unrelenting errors. Alcaraz breaks again. 

Over the next few hours, Tsitsipas won six straight games to win the fourth set and Alcaraz won tiebreaks in the third and fifth. Fans will remember Alcaraz’s second serve ace to save break point at 5-all in the crucial third set and his spree of winners in the tiebreaks, as they should. Sometimes one needs a lifeline from their opponent to truly show their potential. We may never have known the upper reaches of Rafael Nadal’s tenacity had Djokovic’s forehand not imploded in the fourth set tiebreak of the 2012 Australian Open final. The inverse can also be true; Djokovic’s insane mental and physical endurance may never have fully been apparent had Nadal not pushed the match to a fifth. 

Alcaraz finished the year in arguably better form than a physically ailing Tsitsipas, despite being ranked over 30 spots lower. Did that double fault at 5-2, 40-15 change things? It couldn’t have been responsible for Tsitsipas pulling out of the World Tour Finals and undergoing surgery not long after. But I’d argue that if Tsitsipas makes his second serve on that point, Alcaraz doesn’t start holding up that #1 finger later in the match (a ranking that he’s still several steps away from but that everyone now thinks he’ll attain: when, not if), he doesn’t crumple to the ground in victory a split-second before his final inside-out forehand winner disappears into one of those rectangular gaps in the advertising board on Arthur Ashe, and that he’d be viewed more as a very promising young talent rather than the next thing. 

None of this is to criticize Tsitsipas, or to say that Alcaraz’s comeback wasn’t incredible, his hype undeserved. But it is intriguing to look back at those moments, that stretch where you go from enjoying a close match to thinking Wait, is Alcaraz a better hard court player than Tsitsipas? It might have happened anyway, all of it, the comeback in the third and the resurgence in the fifth and the five-set win over Gojowczyk in the next round and the easy win at the NextGen finals. Yet it might have happened very differently, or not at all, had Alcaraz’s opponent not double faulted while up a double break and double set point. 

Tennis dominoes fall in weird ways, sometimes doing exactly what you’d expect, sometimes surprising you, sometimes deciding to ignore the laws of physics altogether. There exists a pattern that’s relatively consistent, for which I’ll turn to Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s The Circuit to express it better than I ever could: “One step in the wrong direction in the middle of one point can cause an avalanche that sweeps away any advantage, no matter its size.” 

It might not always, but it can, and because it can it’s always a possibility the tennis player needs to be aware of, to snuff out every match if they’re able. The advantage can be mid-match or it can be mid-career; a championship point sometimes represents a player’s last chance to win a tournament. Ask Guillermo Coria. 

The truth — sad for the players, tantalizing for the fans — is that this step in the wrong direction can seem harmless, but it’s equally possible that the error can give birth to a monster, a monster who knocks you out of a tournament or surpasses you or maybe decides just to eat you, body and soul. 

Tennis Origin Story #4: Jake Williams

By Jake Williams

My tennis career started at a very young age where my dad introduced me to the sport along with my two older brothers. We began playing casually on our local park courts in Bedfordshire. My dad was involved with the RAF where he played for the men’s teams and even competed at Wimbledon for the Air Force. My passion for the sport, however, did not begin until I was seven, when I joined my local club: Halton Tennis Centre. I got involved with the junior sessions on Thursday and quickly improved until I was able to compete in the county team for Buckinghamshire. As I progressed and developed I realised my love for the sport would follow suit and in turn I found myself playing most days with my brothers for up to three hours at a time. 

It wasn’t until I turned 12 that I thought I could take this seriously. I entered a few county and regional tournaments and began to pick up a few wins here and there. As I began to play tennis more and more I noticed other priorities, such as hanging out with friends, took the backseat. This did not bother me as I was so enveloped in what I was doing and the results that came from my weekly training and coaching sessions were evidence enough to me to try to pursue this career. By the age of 14 I was playing in national events and consistently making county teams. 

I had individual coaching sessions before this but no coach really stood out until James Morgan. James was a very established coach at the time and he had been at Halton for over 10 years. Once James had taken me on as one of his players the dynamic between coach and player clicked automatically. James knew what I needed to improve and ended up shaping my technique into what it is today. There are many hardships you go through as a tennis player and my coach always played a big role in helping me overcome those obstacles, along with my dad. As a junior tennis player I was extremely passionate about the sport and sometimes it was easy for my temper to get the best of me when a match wasn’t going my way. This is where my dad taught me how to control these emotions and not let them drag my performance down. I specifically remember playing a challenging match at the St Georges Hill tournament, I was a set down and felt as if nothing was going my way. My childish demeanour on court was affecting my performance and stopping me from playing my game. During the second set I took a tumble during the point at which time I was ready to give up until my dad came on court, picked me up and told me to “man up and get on with the match.” I understand this may seem harsh to some but I see it now as tough love and I ended up taking the third set tie-break 10-5. This moment will forever stick in my mind and was a pivotal point in my career and mental development. 

Tennis was a passion of mine that I don’t plan to give up anytime soon. It’s helped shape me into the person I am today, as well as help me achieve many things I wouldn’t have thought to be possible. One of my highlights as a tennis player would have to be playing in the 18&U National event at Nottingham, competing in both singles and doubles. I was also fortunate enough to earn an athletic scholarship in the States where I played tennis for Southern Utah university. This four year experience is something I will never forget and in turn has built another platform to my ledger. 

So where am I now? Well, I’m still playing tennis and I’m currently enrolled at Leeds Beckett University where I play for the men’s second team coupled with studying my masters degree in journalism. Even though I’m 22, I still love tennis and I won’t be hanging up my rackets anytime soon. In fact, I can’t wait for what is in store for me. 

Tennis Origin Story #3: David Gertler

By David Gertler

I rushed home from school, my heart vibrating against my chest. I wasn’t expecting this. How could I? Serena had never lost in the first round before, how could I ever expect this journeywoman named Virginie Razzano to challenge, let alone come close to beating an all-time great?

But, that’s the reality that faced me as I hurried into my house and turned on a grainy tennis feed to watch the unheralded Razzano take down Williams in three sets, 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-3. The adulating crowd’s cheers felt like spikes raining down on me.

But, I realized in hindsight, that this was a defining moment in my sports fandom. A casual tennis fan might shrug off the loss, saying to themselves “Ok that sucks…when does Nadal play?”

For me, this meant something more. I felt true emotions about that match and the outcome. I wanted Serena to come back strong and prove that, despite the pulmonary embolism that nearly cost her everything.

For the rest of the 2012 season, I lived and died by Serena’s Wimbledon and US Open matches. I sat on the edge of my seat as she somehow survived roadblock matches against Zheng Jie and Yaroslava Shvedova at Wimbledon. I cheered with pure joy as she won the Wimbledon title in three sets over Aga Radwanska.

I agonized over her tight US Open final against Victoria Azarenka, feeling more relief than anything else.

Feeling relief instead of joy was yet another indication that I was truly becoming a die-hard fan.

I had always liked tennis, playing it for fun when I was younger and enjoying the strategic battles that often reminded me more of chess than any other sport.

I had been a casual fan for quite some time, but it was truly that Serena-Razzano match that made tennis something more than that for me.

From there, I started watching more and more, and by 2014 had really gotten into the ATP Challenger Tour as well.

The Challenger Tour interested me because it was truly the defining stage of men’s tennis. Young prospects trying to make it to the top of the game, journeymen playing out their career, injured players trying to make their comeback, it was all on display on the free-to-watch Challenger streams.

The ATP Challenger Tour separated the future stars from the players that would flame out. Played in front of sparse crowds for (way-too-little) money, it showed who was willing to put it all out there for their career as a professional tennis player.

It was so cool, for instance, to see Frances Tiafoe grow into the player he is today. Tiafoe lost his first five Challenger finals, four in three sets, and his first three from a set up.

Yet, Tiafoe persevered and finally won one, beating Marcelo Arevalo in the 2016 Granby Challenger. From Granby until now, Tiafoe has won six Challenger finals in a row and even has an ATP Tour title to his name in Delray Beach.

Watching players navigate the Challenger Tour almost feels like you’re watching them grow up.

It’s this combination of high-quality tennis and players’ individual stories, both inside and outside the sport, that make tennis such a cool sport to follow. 

And I don’t plan to stop following the sport anytime soon.

Tennis Origin Story #2: Jack Edward

By Jack Edward

It all started 18 years ago. 

My mum dropped me off in Stamperland, a suburb on the outskirts of Glasgow, to try my hand at tennis for the first time. I picked up my racket, set foot on the blaes courts (Scotland’s finest version of clay) and started hitting a few balls.

The feelings it inspired in me…  Tedium. Indifference. Disinterest.

Who in their right mind would want to hit a wee yellow ball back and forth all day?

So, em, yeah, sorry, let’s start again. I was never forced into loving tennis – instead, our relationship grew naturally due to the irresistible charm of Andy Murray.

It all started 10 years ago. My mum gifted me a ticket to a Davis Cup tie at Braehead Arena with the caveat that we supported Andy from start to finish.

The speed of the ball. The atmosphere. The swearing. It was an entrancing spectacle that inspired me to get out there and do it myself.

From there, playing and Andy became an addiction. I’d get myself down to the tennis club to knock that wee yellow ball back and forth three or four times a week – the thrill of saving a match point, the adrenaline rush of nailing a forehand down the line, the competition, the community, all of it constantly drawing me back for more.

As for the Andy addiction – well, who could keep their eyes off of Andy over the next few years? Stomaching a heartbreaking Wimbledon loss was quickly rewarded with a jaw-dropping Olympic gold medal followed swiftly by a stroke-inducing US Open title. I remember being in a wee pub in Barcelona when Andy won Wimbledon (seemingly the only Scots for miles going by our unreciprocated celebrations), going mental court-side when Andy lobbed Goffin in Belgium (that’s me below doing the cheesy thumbs up), staying up late at a bar in Krakow to watch Andy win his second Olympic title and sitting in court 2 watching Andy dispatch Milos on the big screen in 2016 – so much adventure tied to the dour Scot’s crowning achievements!Image

Perhaps Andy started as a love born of nationalism rather than his tennis but it became clear to me I’d backed the right horse… Andy’s story is legendary: in the Golden Era of tennis, when the three greatest players of all time ruled their respective surfaces, a mere mortal from Dunblane cussed and scrapped his way to world #1, cementing his own spot among tennis’s elite.

It’s all those memories of David beating Goliath that are eternally etched into my memories, that will always inspire and motivate me to reach for more.

So that’s how it all started. Whether I was playing or watching, tennis had become a part of me – so last year, I accepted my fate, quitting my job in engineering to pursue my passion. I’m working hard to get a blog and podcast off the ground, never forgetting my roots by imbuing my work with stats and analyses aplenty. I keep myself afloat by coaching some kids, a gig I don’t think I’ll ever take for granted. 

I absolutely love it.

Sure, there are times where me and tennis haven’t gotten on (I still can’t serve for taffy). Sure, being an Andy fan nowadays is frustrating at the best of times. But there’s never any use in me denying it – this sport means so much to me! 

Hopefully it shines through in my work.

Speak soon,

Jack

Association of Terrible Principles

By Scott Barclay and Owen Lewis

It said a whole lot that the statement said nothing much.

A few paragraphs of puff-pastry wording that crumbled as you read it, flaking in your eyes as you scoured it looking for an acknowledgment of actual action that never really materialised, fading far too quickly into only a promise to merely monitor.

It seemed weak.

This was Andrea Gaudenzi’s spongy reply to Steve Simon’s trigger-pull over the question marks that continue to hang over the safety of a human being.

Simon, the head of the WTA, announced just yesterday that the lucrative Asian swing that comes with the turning of temperature and the browning of leaves every year would be suspended until free and open communication with Peng Shuai could be properly established.

The ATP chairman’s response has been just the opposite; a shanked Federer backhand the point after he struck a clean winner down the line. There was almost a pleading vibe to his message, an appeal for some sort of an understanding as to why exactly they weren’t going to stand and be counted. Mentions of the positive global influence that tennis has and the need for that to continue in spite of all else seemed coldly apathetic, especially coming as it did in the wake of such a clearly positive action of intent from across the aisle. 

Indeed, perhaps it’s not an aisle but more of a yawning chasm, a canyon that separates the ATP and the WTA in a moment that called for a combined showing of strength in the face of fear. The WTA undoubtedly hoped for help but find themselves alone and magnified by their willingness to stun the sporting world with confidence unshakable. 

Money over morals, is what the ATP is telling the world. Surely Andrea Gaudenzi isn’t happy with China’s total burial of Peng’s sexual assault allegations, but that doesn’t matter. If you don’t act in accordance with your morals, you may as well not have them at all. 

The ATP is fine with this. They want money. The journalist Simon Häring tweeted today that Shanghai Juss Event Management Co. Ltd., a 10% shareholder of the ATP, is affiliated with the Chinese state. Pissing off China means pissing off a shareholder and losing money. And this, evidently, is enough for the ATP to surrender their morals, leaving Peng Shuai to the CCP and saying “I hope you’re safe” rather than condemn the CCP’s actions.

The Chinese Communist Party has historically been unwilling to budge in clashes with sports organizations. In the case of Daryl Morey and the NBA in 2019, the CCP reacted so fiercely to a single Morey tweet about standing with Hong Kong protesters that the NBA made Morey fear for his job as it desperately tried to reclaim its lost revenue from Chinese advertising and streaming. 

Due to the rigidity of the CCP, support is needed alongside the WTA’s heroic stand. Tennis is a big product, a conglomerate of organizations on several different tours. One facet on its own doing the right thing is encouraging, but is hardly enough to make the CCP blink an eye. It’s the first chip to fall out of a brick wall, the first snowflake to melt on a thick scarf. A showing of unity when dealing with an issue of this genuinely life-altering magnitude would have underlined how serious the governing bodies of the sport we love are taking this.

So, how is it that the ATP is unwilling to stand behind its female counterpart, instead trying to hide behind brittle words that many were already saying two weeks ago? It is cowardly. Picture a team of people trying to bail water out of a flooding basement. The WTA works diligently, forming a smart plan of action and sticking to it, handing buckets smoothly up the stairs. The ATP fills a leaky thimble with water and runs out of the house. 

Comically enough, the stances of the tours can be summed up well by the bio of their Twitter accounts. #ThisIsTennis, reads the bio of the ATP Tour Twitter account. We aren’t just men playing tennis, we are tennis. It’s arrogance without follow-through. In contrast, the WTA account’s bio reads “Championing women to compete fiercely and live fully. We do it for the game”. And the WTA have lived up to those words.

The ATP, meanwhile, now has a pattern of cowardice in tennis politics. Credible domestic abuse allegations against Alexander Zverev in late 2020 were met with complete silence. Even today, months after Olya Sharypova released a second set of allegations that were even more harrowing, the ATP continues to market Zverev as if nothing happened. There is supposedly an investigation into the allegations, of which we have heard nothing since it was announced months ago. They have made clear that they value profit over principle. Any show of quality on the ATP’s behalf is strictly limited to the good shots their players produce on court. 

This could change easily. It wouldn’t have been hard to put out a stronger statement in support of Peng Shuai. But the spinelessness of the ATP has sent expectations hurtling through the ground and into Hell. 

As such, don’t count on the ATP redeeming itself anytime soon. 

Tennis Origin Story #1: Pauline Makk

By Pauline Makk

It all started when a young, shy girl was first brought to tennis lessons at the tender age of four. She was quick and had great hand-eye coordination. The coaches took her parents aside and told them that she was leaps and bounds ahead of many others her age. 

That little girl was me. 

However, that story abruptly ends there. For about the next 20 years. 

I don’t remember much from that experience but my parents explained that I didn’t have any interest in the sport, despite my reported “talent”. And so, as they didn’t want to force me to stay in the lessons, my potential tennis future came screeching to a halt. 

I went on to spend my childhood dabbling in gymnastics, achieving a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and being on school basketball and volleyball teams. 

But there was something about tennis that always beckoned. Perhaps it was the sheer power and media magnitude that professional female athletes held compared to other sports. Maybe it was the lengthy, intense gladiator showdowns that took place on the courts. Or perhaps it was the technical skill combined with the high- intensity athletic ability that drew me back in. 

Looking back now, it’s clear to see that it was all three—combined with another hundred reasons. 

The Williams sisters. Sharapova. Federer. Nadal. Kournikova. Roddick. Sampras. Agassi. These are the names that I had etched into my memory. Each of these athletes have their own unique stories, filled with triumphs and struggles. As a teenager and throughout my early 20s, I began to follow tennis more steadily and learn more about their individual paths. 

Fast forward to 2020 when I finally decided to pick up a racquet again. Rain or shine, every day was spent practicing—against a wall, on the court, alone, or with a partner—I simply couldn’t get enough. Tennis is such an introspective, and almost meditative, sport; where the mental game is just as important as the physical game. I began to learn so much about myself; how I dealt with the pressure of double faulting or how I was a better defender than I ever imagined myself to be. 

Tennis has helped me to be grateful for many experiences in my life: being able to play with my dad every morning, later retelling the match to my mom (who doesn’t have much interest in tennis but is a wonderful listener, bless her), having access to public courts within walking distance, being physically capable to last through an entire match…the list goes on. 

Now that the Canadian winter has begun, I’ve had to put my racquet away for the next 4 or 5 months. But I find myself incorporating stretches and exercises into my workouts that will eventually help me with my amateur tennis game. Why? Because I’m learning that tennis is much more than a game. It’s a lifestyle. 

A photo of me (left) with my best friend at the Rogers Cup this year. We were very vocal during the Fognini v. Struff match!

Hitting a Second Serve

My first delivery, hard and flat and probably too ambitious — I’m not Roger Federer, after all — smacks the net, and just like that the butterflies are awake. My stomach lurches before I even walk over to pick up the ball from the errant serve. I see the returner take a step forward as they prepare to receive my second serve, adding another dagger of nerves into my already lacerated heart and stomach. Are they a good aggressive returner? I think desperately, trying to pore over the details of previous matches in that indeterminate liquid stretch between serves (there’s no defined amount of time you can take between serves in a club match, but you know when you cross the line). Nothing useful comes to mind, the part of my head that’s usually so cerebral when thinking about tennis has been wiped completely blank. 

The tip of my white-soled tennis shoe toes the baseline. Already? How did I walk over here so fast? I’m not ready for this. I’ve taken enough time that my opponent is starting to look at me with confusion in their eyes, which will compound into the anger that can translate into a fierce return winner if I dawdle much longer. I haven’t even had time to think about where this serve is going. Don’t psych yourself out, I admonish myself. Go with the serve you can trust. 

It’s time to leap into the nuanced chasm of trusting my serve and hoping my opponent won’t prey on it, but my body is momentarily on strike. My fingers won’t spiral outward into the motion that’ll drive the ball bouncing into the ground for the last time before it meets my racket (which suddenly seems to weigh a thousand pounds). That’s enough, I decide. MOVE!

At long last, I toss the ball, bend my knees, leap in the air, and strike the ball, reaching and straining and praying to find that balance between reckless aggression and nervy passiveness that sometimes seems to elude everyone on the second serve, even the very best — and the serve smacks the net. Not the top, either. A swarm of nerves attacked my arm midway through the motion, sapping it of strength and conviction just before the point of contact, sending the ball fluttering into the middle of that devilish rectangular network of squares resting smugly between its two immovable posts. Who said playing tennis without a net would be a bad thing? Double fault. 

The worst has happened. I let my head drop, my chin thumping wearily against my chest. I start the walk of shame up to the net to collect the ball, my heart beating with hot embarrassment and — is that grief? Yes, grief — every step of the way. 

Love-15 in the first game of the first set.