It’s a frequent refrain during early-round matches at majors when David encounters Goliath and starts brightly: “He’s the better player at the moment. If he can just play like this for another four sets, he’ll win.”
It all sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Just keep playing the same way. Just keep hitting more big serves. Just keep cracking more monster forehands. Just keep being aggressive. Calling to mind the French Open piece I wrote on this blog a few weeks ago, “It only SEEMS automatic.”
In reality, it’s anything but. Tennis is fascinating this way… it’s why I love the sport.
Here’s what makes major tournament tennis such a championship test, far more than – for instance – the other individual-sport realm of major championship golf: An opponent gets to ask you questions at various points along a continuum. In golf, the opponent is the course, the competition one contained struggle that spills into four days. Only on Sunday does the need to assert one’s superiority become acute and profound; the first three days of the tournament are merely a matter of putting oneself in position to win in the final round. In tennis, that option isn’t really available, but Rafael Nadal sometimes makes it seem as though “hanging around” is an acceptable way of proceeding… and winning.
In the past year and a half, Novak Djokovic has mastered the art of outlasting opponents, but few men have built a career on this skill as well as Nadal. Whether it was John Isner at the French Open in 2011, or Robin Haase and Philipp Petzschner at Wimbledon in 2010, or Mardy Fish in the 2008 U.S. Open, Nadal has managed to absorb an opponent’s best punch before the semifinal round of a major and live to fight at the business end of the tournament. When able to advance to a semifinal or final, Nadal – especially but not always on clay – has been able to become the marathon man of tennis. This was never more apparent than in his 9-hour, 37-minute survival of Fernando Verdasco (5:14) and this guy named Federer (4:23) in the final two acts of the 2009 Australian Open. Nadal has lost plenty of first sets in his career, but he so often digs in, plays harder, defends better, and ultimately does what legendary tennis players do:
He asks you that question… not once, not twice, not thrice, but – to use the phrase from the Bible – “seventy times seven times.”
You can win two sets against Nadal. You can save 15 of 16 break points. You can force three tiebreakers. You can pass so many mileposts and survive so many pressure-packed moments. However, if your opponent keeps asking questions of you, the finish line can seem far away. You start to realize how much more you still have to do to drive the stake through Nadal’s heart. You panic. You flinch when you toe that service line yet one more time, and just like that, you’ve lost 6-3 in the fifth while the Mallorcan raises his two arms to the sky and closes his eyes as he bends his head back in exultation and relief.
All Lukas Rosol had to do was to keep playing the same way. All he had to do after he gacked away the first set on a bad groundstroke error at 9-10 in the tiebreak was to continue to pound his serve and forehand. All he had to do when he went up two sets to one was win that final set, the set that a determined legend was famous for not conceding.
When Rosol broke to start the fifth set, all he had to do was hold five times. After Nadal dug out of a love-30 hole to hold for 3-4, all Rosol had to do was block that sequence out of his mind. When serving at 5-4, all Rosol had to do was hold one more time. It all sounds so simple, right?
However, Nadal kept asking Rosol questions… the same way a guy named Federer, scratching and struggling and groping for any lifeline whatsoever, asked Alejandro Falla more questions in the first round of Wimbledon two years ago.
On that day, Falla – brought to the brink of his greatest tennis moment (and an upset that would have lived forever) – was unable to handle the realization that he was serving to knock the great Federer out of Wimbledon. It is one of the timeless truths of tennis that you can never fully prepare for the moment when you first have a chance to do something you’ve dreamed of doing your whole life. Sport is human drama, not robot drama, and so it is that when a flesh-and-blood being knows that he or she is on the verge of doing something weighty and enormous, the size of the occasion can intervene and inhibit performance. This is what pulled down Alejandro Falla two years ago, but it’s important to realize that Federer – by staying close enough in that fourth set to keep the conversation going – asked enough questions of Falla to create the Colombian’s eventual collapse. For all the questions Falla had answered through three sets and nine games, he couldn’t answer the newest and most urgent query in the tenth game of the fourth set.
This is what Lukas Rosol faced against Rafa on Thursday at Centre Court. He arrived at that unprecedented moment when he toed the service line not just to preserve a one-break lead, not just to tuck away one set (lots of players have won one set against Nadal at a major… it didn’t get them very far), but to register the greatest upset in the history of Open Era men’s tennis at the majors – greater than Soderling over Rafa in Paris in 2009; greater than George Bastl over an aging Pete Sampras in 2002; greater than Peter Doohan over a great-but-not-Rafa-great Boris Becker in the 1987 Wimbledon tournament. A normal person would have been peeing into his jock strap, knees knocking and legs wobbling. A normal person would have felt the heart pounding, the blood vessels constricting, the flow of air tightening.
As you know by now – whether you saw it live or not – Rosol did not act normally.
He threw bombs. He launched missiles. He fired cannons. They hit the corners of service boxes. They hit baselines and sidelines. They were perfectly struck, perfectly placed, so flawlessly explosive that Nadal — the best retriever in the Open Era – was often paralyzed in the face of the Czech’s assault. The 5-4 game, the game that figured to be such a tall mountain for Rosol to climb, turned into the kind of game you’d expect from a nothing-to-lose underdog at 1-all in the first set, when legs are fresh and Nadal has not yet had a chance to grind down his foe.
It sure looked easy, didn’t it? After all, Nadal didn’t come close to winning Rosol’s last four points (and most of the Czech’s last 30 service points). Yet, the paradoxical truth is that it was remarkably difficult – the most overwhelming of feats, in fact – for Rosol to be that centered, that unflappable, that dialed in under extraordinary pressure.
You would do well to wonder where this level of tennis came from, given that Rosol, now 20-32 in his career at the ATP Tour level, had won only one prior Wimbledon match in his eight years on the circuit. (He turned pro in 2004 and is Nadal’s age: 26.) The question everyone in tennis is asking today is, “Why couldn’t Rosol have been able to showcase this level of play before?”
Well, Ernests Gulbis – whose game is every bit as big as Rosol’s was on Thursday – has similarly failed to unlock his enormous talent over the past five years. He could tell you all about the difficulty of unlocking one’s tennis gifts on a consistent basis. So many other players – Berdych, Kohlschreiber, Almagro, Lopez, Nalbandian, Gasquet, Tsonga, and dozens more – have left ungodly sums of money on the table in their careers. The physical ability is there, but the mental ability to keep answering questions, to sustain a high level for five sets and four hours, very rarely appears. This is why major tournament men’s tennis is such a thorough revealer of excellence and consistency. (I’ll bet you that Rosol loses to Philip Kohlschreiber in round three on Saturday.)
Rafael Nadal had made 11 straight major quarterfinals heading into this Wimbledon event. He had made five straight semifinals and five straight finals. The Spaniard had joined Novak Djokovic as half of “The Big Two,” the pair that controlled tennis the way Nadal and Federer had from the spring of 2006 through the first five weeks of 2009. Though nothing is truly automatic in tennis, Nadal had certainly arrived at that point where his greatness was to be expected. You’d probably be lying if you thought Rosol had Nadal dead to rights after the completion of the third set. You’d probably be lying if you felt Rosol had a better-than-even-money chance after the completion of the fourth set. The reason to be so confident in Nadal’s chances – and so pessimistic about Rosol’s prospects – was not the form of each player or the conditions of the court (both of which leaned to Rosol’s side of the ledger), but the proven ability of Rafa to stay the course in his mind, to exert psychological command of the situation.
Lukas Rosol, improbably yet undeniably, never ceded that mental terrain to Nadal. He needed that 30-minute break for the closing of the roof and the conversion of Centre Court to an indoor nighttime facility, but when given that bit of good fortune, he (and coach Slava Dosedel, who really earned his money) took full advantage of the opportunity.
As a result of uncommon mental fortitude from a player whose default setting was “shrinking violet” on the toughness scale, that which seemed to be automatic did not come to pass. An 11-time major champion was dismissed in the second round by a man who had a losing career record on tour and only one main-draw Wimbledon win to his credit.
All Lukas Rosol had to do was keep playing well.
It makes you appreciate the full endeavor the professional tennis player must complete each time he steps between the white lines: It’s never just about the strokes and the footwork, the serves and the shot selection. If you can’t summon the focus and passion needed to keep that body flowing in suffocating environments chock-full of significance, history, and any mental demon you can imagine, your strokes aren’t worth a darn. Mr. Rosol passed this test whereas so many of his contemporaries (and he himself) had failed so profoundly in the past.
The tennis gospel according to Lukas is that if you can attain single-minded concentration on nothing but your performance, fine-tuning your strokes and your mechanics to the point that no amount of pressure can derail them, you can continue to answer questions no matter when or where – or how, or by whom – they are asked. Even though Professor Nadal posed so many of his familiar test questions to an entirely unheralded journeyman inside the cathedral of tennis, his Czech student aced the exam.
The 2012 Wimbledon tournament will never be the same.