The Tennis Escape Artists Who Lifted the Trophies

Tennis players save match points regularly, but often crash out of a tournament soon after. But sometimes, a great save sets the stage for a big win.

Holger Rune should have been out of the Paris Masters in the first round last year.

Rune faced Stan Wawrinka in a contentious opening match that didn’t finish until after midnight. After saving three match points, Rune beat Wawrinka, a three-time major champion, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3), and went on to win the whole tournament, his first Masters 1000 crown. Along the way, he upset five top-10 players, including the world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz and the six-time champion Novak Djokovic in the final. The win placed him into the world’s top 10 for the first time.

Match points are saved in tennis with the regularity of a metronome. Most often, a player performs these death-defying acts early in the tournament then falters before the latter rounds. But sometimes, saving a match point can motivate a player for an entire week.

In 2021, winning players saved match points in 58 main-draw matches on the WTA Tour. Only four times, though, did someone come back to win the tournament. Naomi Osaka did it at the Australian Open when she rebounded from 3-5 down in the final set to beat Garbiñe Muguruza in the fourth round and then defeated Serena Williams in the semifinals and Jennifer Brady in the final.

Ashleigh Barty won the Miami Open over Bianca Andreescu but only after hitting a return winner down the line to save a match point against 149th-ranked Kristina Kucova in the second round.

Naomi Osaka saved match points at the 2021 Australian Open when she rebounded from 3-5 down in the final in the fourth round. She later won the tournament.Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

At the 2021 Italian Open, Iga Swiatek was down two match points to Barbora Krejcikova in the third round but managed to escape with a 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-5 victory. She then won the tournament by pummeling Karolina Pliskova, 6-0, 6-0, in the final.

Krejcikova got some measure of revenge when she saved a match point against Maria Sakkari in the semifinals of the French Open a few weeks later, ultimately winning, 7-5, 4-6, 9-7, on her own fifth match point. Krejcikova then defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova for her first and only major singles championship.

This year alone, eight ATP tournaments have concluded with a champion who saved match points along the way. Six times it was in the final, including Djokovic’s victories over Sebastian Korda in Adelaide, Australia, and Alcaraz in the final in Cincinnati. Hubert Hurkacz also did it twice this year, saving match points on his way to titles in Marseille, France, in February and in Shanghai earlier this month.

“It’s like being on the edge of a cliff,” Djokovic said in 2020 after he had saved three consecutive match points against Gaël Monfils in the Dubai semifinals before beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final. “You know there is no way back so you have to jump over and try to find a way to survive, I guess, and pray for the best and believe you can make it.”

Last year, eight male players — including Rune in Paris — saved match points, though none in the finals, and went on to win the title. Alcaraz did it twice, against Alex de Minaur in the semifinals of Barcelona and against Jannik Sinner in a five-hour-and-15-minute quarterfinal at the U.S. Open that ended at 2:50 a.m. He went on to beat Casper Ruud in the championship match.

“Sometimes when you overcome [match points], it’s good because you’re like half out of the tournament so you’re just happy that you’re there and you still have opportunities to play more matches,” said Rune in an interview.

“I try to play more aggressive because you think the opponent may be more tight and nervous in these moments,” he said. “But I also don’t want to miss because I don’t want to end the match by mistake. So I try to play safe but aggressive and often I play some very good tennis on the match points.” Rune will try to defend his Paris title when the tournament starts Monday.

“People often say that after saving match points or winning matches like that, it frees you up a little bit, but I don’t know if there’s any evidence to support that,” Andy Murray said.Glyn Kirk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Andy Murray, a former world No. 1 and three-time major champion, typically has strong memories of matches he’s played. But when asked about winning tournaments after saving match points, Murray stumbled then chuckled when reminded that he had saved a match point against Milos Raonic during the semifinals of the 2016 ATP Finals, ultimately winning the match, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (9). The victory was particularly significant because Murray went on to beat Djokovic in the final, securing the year-end No. 1 world ranking.

“People often say that after saving match points or winning matches like that, it frees you up a little bit, but I don’t know if there’s any evidence to support that,” said Murray, who also saved seven match points in a second-set tiebreaker against Philipp Kohlschreiber in the quarterfinals of Dubai in 2017 before winning the championship over Fernando Verdasco.

Murray sees a difference between saving match points in a close contest and coming back from a deep deficit.

“It depends a bit on the situation of the match,” Murray said. “If you’re a set and 5-1, 40-0, down it’s different to being 6-6 in the third set and it’s just one match point against you on your serve. You’re still very close to winning that match.”

Saving match points in Grand Slam tournaments holds a special place of honor for players. In 2016, Angelique Kerber saved a match point in the first round of the Australian Open against Misaki Doi and went on to win her first of three majors, defeating Serena Williams in three sets in the final.

“When I played here the first round I was match point down and playing with one leg on the plane to Germany,” Kerber told the crowd after winning.

In 1996, Pete Sampras became physically ill during his U.S. Open quarterfinal against Alex Corretja but still managed to save a match point and win. He then beat Michael Chang for the title. Boris Becker saved two match points, one with a net-cord winner that skipped over Derrick Rostagno’s racket in the second round of the 1989 U.S. Open. He went on to win the championship over Ivan Lendl.

Andy Roddick won his only Grand Slam after saving a match point in the semifinal.Nick Laham/Getty Images

In 2003, Andy Roddick saved a match point in a U.S. Open semifinal win over David Nalbandian then captured his lone major by beating Juan Carlos Ferrero in the final. Djokovic saved two match points in a classic five-set U.S. Open semifinal over Roger Federer in 2011 then won the title over Rafael Nadal. Djokovic also saved two match points against Federer in the Wimbledon final in 2019.

But no player can top Thomas Muster and the year he had in 1995. Muster won 12 ATP tournaments that year, 11 of them on clay, and had a 65-2 record on the surface. In six of those tournaments, he saved match points, including against Becker in a Monte Carlo final in which Becker double-faulted on his first match point and then made a forehand error.

In six of the 12 tournaments Thomas Muster won in 1995, he saved match points.Clive Brunskill/Allsport, via Getty Images

“Tennis is one of the few games where you can’t take a result and bring it home,” said Muster by phone from his home in Austria. “You have to win the match. It’s always open and can become a different ballgame. You can be down a set and 5-0 and still win. In any other sport, no way.

“You need attitude and willpower to keep believing in yourself,” Muster added. “When you’re down match points, you have nothing to lose anymore. In my mind, I’ve already lost it. But once you save that match point you say, ‘Now I’m winning it. Now that I’ve pulled it out, there’s no way somebody can take it from me. You’ve got to beat me, you’ve got to earn it.’”

As for Murray, he’ll take his victories however can get them.

“I don’t mind whether I’m saving a match point or winning, 6-1, 6-1,” Murray said. “It doesn’t matter to me.”

Source: Tennis -


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