Our resident poet/tennis expert is back with some thoughts on the 2019 Australian Open.
The two most in-form players at the 2019 Australian open, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Danielle Collins, met their ends in the semifinals. That their final sets both ended with scorelines of 6-0 is remarkable. That these rising young stars were defeated is surprising. But here we are. Stefanos Tsitsipas, the twenty-year-old phenom from Athens, was turned away by Rafael Nadal, 2-6, 4-6, 0-6. And Danielle Collins, the twenty-five-year old former college champion from the University of Virginia, met the end of the road in the form of a 6-7(2), 0-6 defeat at the hands of Petra Kvitová.
Tsitsipas and Collins lost to the higher-ranked, grand-slam regaled, and far more experienced players. But before that, both had also become the talk of the tournament through their eye-catching play. In the Round of 16, Collins made Angelique Kerber, the number two ranked player in the world and defending Wimbledon champion, vanish into thin air before the match was even halfway through, beating her 6-0, 6-2 in what seemed like four minutes of match time. While most players go professional at some point in their early teens, Collins was already in her twenties, with a college degree in her pocket to go along with her two NCAA singles championships. She first came to prominence during last season’s Sunshine Double, the prestigious, back-to-back American hardcourt tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami. It’s not unusual for an American player to burst onto the scene at an American tournament or in Australia, only to burst back off the scene as soon as the surface changes to clay and the culture changes: they tend to be creatures of comfort. But there was something about Collins’s full-throttle power game and her “I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass and I’m all out of bubblegum” competitive attitude that remains, as it was then, utterly intriguing to me. Cut from the cloth fleet-of-foot big hitters of the Williams sisters and now Naomi Osaka, Collins is definitely one to watch out for.
And yet, a semifinal against the great Petra Kvitová proved too much for Collins this time around. After a tough tiebreaker in the first set, Kvitová, a two-time Wimbledon champion, had figured Collins out. The power that Collins is able to generate, power, crucially, coming from a left-hander, turned the final set at the tournament into a forgettable one. That a 6-0 result is referred to as “6-love” in tennis parlance is a reminder of how paradoxically cruel and purifying the sport can be. Cruel because you’ve been annihilated on the court, purifying because it happens, and after it happens you simply pick up your stuff and move on.
Meanwhile, on the men’s tour, Tsitsipas had defeated Federer in the Round of 16 in four sets. He’d played bravely, used the whole court—his own side, with his positioning and net play, and Federer’s side, with his shot selection. He had the good sense to notice that Federer’s forehand was half a beat off, that he was making errors on relatively uncomplicated rally balls. Tsitsipas rather precociously indulged him in this. In the following round, the quarter-final, Tsitsipas beat a talented Roberto Bautista Agut in four tight sets. In this tournament, a tight four sets and Tsitsipas may as well rhyme (wait … do they truly rhyme?): every match he had played heading into the semifinal had gone four sets and every match but one had at least one tiebreaker (and the one that didn’t finished 7-5 in, you guessed it, the fourth set). He gives a thoughtful interview, and his game likewise seems a thoughtful engagement with tennis’s past and present. No young player approaches the net like Tsitsipas. With his one-handed backhand, he reflects a faith in the lineage of tennis as a sport threatened with extinction. And yet, his forehand is resolutely modern. And if he could beat Federer, who has beaten Nadal five times in a row dating back to 2015, then surely he was going to stand a chance against Nadal in the semifinals, right?
Just as you haven’t really heard a foreign language until you’ve immersed yourself in the country of that language—not just visited the place from behind the shield of tourism, but immersed yourself—so, too, was Tsitsipas’s knowledge of Nadal’s game. Coming into this Australian Open semifinal, Tsitsipas had played Nadal twice, in 2018, and lost in straight sets in Barcelona on clay and in straight sets on the hardcourts of Toronto. Then the teenage Tsitsipas clawed his way into the top fifty, one decent match at a time. You might have been understandably inclined to embrace conventional logic and tell yourself, “True, Tsitsipas is playing Nadal in a semifinal of a major tournament but he’s already faced him twice before so the experience of playing Rafa won’t be new to him, which will be a plus.” But the Tsitsipas of this tournament is a top-twenty player, the new darling of the men’s circuit, and dangerous: he is immersing himself in the country of his idols; and so, the semifinal became Tsitsipas’s first deep dive into the language of Rafael Nadal. That language has a pace, bite, morbidity, and series of conjugations to it like no other language in the game; no one speaks this language well save for Novak Djokovic—even Federer, recent results against Rafa notwithstanding, speaks survival-Nadal better than fluent Nadal.
And therefore, though those two prior matches against Nadal could have, and for all intents and purposes should have, been regarded as learning lessons for the Greek protégé, instead (and this is what’s truly so terrifying about Nadal) they were lessons for Nadal. Just like 6-0 in the final set is a lesson beyond the score itself. That delicious (or venomous, depending on your perspective) 0: the poisoned bagel. There are scores so bad that you’re left with nothing to do but forget them and move on. Collins and Tsitsipas shouldn’t dwell on how their respective tournaments ended. They have too much to look forward to and too much game in their back pockets. Sometimes you show up with a knife to a fight only to discover that someone has brought a bigger knife.
How much ink has been spilled this tournament on a player reaching her or his full potential just in time for a savage beatdown in the following round? It’s always a new dawn in the early rounds of tournaments these days, copy-and-paste tennis sunrises for an audience thirsting for new faces. Fritz, Sabalenka, De Minaur, Pouille, (and at this point let’s throw in world number-four Sascha Zverev and his crippling case of five-set intolerance because he’s worked hard to be included), I sing of you. The first few days of a Grand Slam is a meadow, players stepping out into the sunshine and walking straight ahead, trying to make sure they don’t trip themselves up. But then comes the deep forest at the very back end of a Slam. This is where the monsters are. And the savagery of these late-round results have been there for all of us to see. What we can’t see is what these aspiring champions do with the experience. Experience being the one thing that can teach a tennis player the blade-thin difference between a weapon and a tool.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of the poetry collections Heaven and The Ground. He is the recipient of a Whiting Award, the PEN/Osterweil Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the GLCA New Writers Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His most recent book, The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey, is a finalist for the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sportswriting.