It was sheer luck that we stumbled upon the French Open quarter final between Marco Cecchinato and Novak Djokovic. Marco (ranked 72) had started strong taking the first two sets 6-3, 7-6 against the former champion Djokovic, but then seemed to have run out of steam as Djokovic eyeing a ninth semi final had clawed back sweeping the next set 1-6. Our starting point of watching was Marco serving after Djokovic had taken a lead of 1-4 in the fourth set. Looking at the score, the match was following a familiar story, the lower ranked player bubbling with energy having early gains and then as the match progresses the champion bringing his experience to demolish the insurgent.
All indications were rife that fourth set will fall 1-6 and Djokovic will ride home in the fifth. But the serving Marco fought the next game with full force. The game swung with around 9-10 deuce’s, advantage, game point, break point, long rallies, both players were not letting off. Then amongst us was ____ (fill in the blank yourself, when you listen to his statement), “Why are these two fighting over this game, Djokovic had already taken the set, Cecchichutney should let it go, conserve energy for the fifth set, or Djokovic should let go, next game the set is his!”
The statement is indication of many things, chiefly amongst them, lack of viewing legendary matches. Tennis is a game which hinges on momentum and rhythm, players are trying to get into rhythm or break the opponents rhythm. Hence, even if the player is down 5 – nil, and is trailing 40 – nil, the tennis-y thing to do is to rally for the next point, and deny the opponent victory in this point. The point is played irrespective of the match position, enough legendary references are available wherein multiple match points are saved to eventually overturn the winner!
Anyways, as they say the rest is history. Marco Cecchinato saved multiple break points to take the game and make it 2-4. Djokovic took the next game and made it 2-5. Then, we experienced what rhythm is, and what a streak is, and what it can do in tennis. Marco must have had 10-12 calls on the line run in his favor in the that patch. Djokovic was missing the mark by a few millimeters, and lone behold the score got tied 5-5.
The tennis dsplayed was absolute beauty, we had a rally of over 20 shots, over 30 shots. At end of one great rally the commentator aptly reminded us, “Now you can breathe again!”. I was holding a glass of water for the entire rally, because I did not want to miss the winner in that momentary distraction of sipping water. Djokovic – the champion did hit a few great shots, and ran to the net a couple of times, and came into his own when faced with adversity, and managed to the tie the game at 6-6.
If you want to understand the combination of fatigue and pressure, then the tie breaker in tennis is the perfect case study. Exemplified by the sheer drop in the number of Ace’s scored in the tie breaker. Especially the fourth set tie breaker in a grand slam, the players loose the audacity of trying for an Ace, losing a point to a double fault in a tie breaker is a cardinal sin. The only player I have know to have had the consistent audacity of going for Ace in the tie breaker was Goran Ivanišević on way to his maiden Wimbeldon title. The stakes are so high, a mistake and you loose the set, and all the efforts you took to get the set to 6-6, all go down the drain with a single point. Plus with the tie-breaker both players get set points each time they get two successive points. The Set swings between the two players with each point.
Djokovic showed glimpses of both, the champion and the human he is. The champion came to the fore when he brilliantly defended a point (6-6 in Tie Breaker) with a sublime backhand at the net, and yet he was human when he had an empty court in front of him and all he managed was to hit into the crowd.
The atmosphere had an eerie ‘Blood and Sand’ feel about it. The initial phase of set was drowned in chants of ‘Come on, Novak’, applause and cheering every time Djokovic pulled a point, Novak was the crowd favorite. Yet, as the set progressed, specifically into the tie breaker, ‘Come on, Marco’ was in the air! It can be the love for the underdog for the hopeful, but for the cynical it was a reminder of ‘ Toreros Juan Gallardo’.
In all this, since it was a fourth set tie breaker, it split your heart. A corner in you wants the match to go to the fifth set, another one wants the tie breaker to be long, double digit points. Like the 2008 Wimbledon final, RF rallying in the fourth set tie breaker to win 10-8 over Nadal to take the game to the fifth set is etched into memory. And just to mention, what an epic final it was ! (4-6, 6-6, 7-6, 7-6, 7-9).
This why tennis or sport has such transcending value, it is so much in the moment, so exhilarating that you need to be reminded to breathe, yet it brings out so many memories, nostalgia to travel with.
Maybe one day when some other underdog rallies, and wins a match against a seed, we will all reminisce the time when one Marco Cecchinato brought down the champion Novak Djokovic by 13-11 in an epic tie breaker of the fourth set!