The importance of closing out matches in tennis; more mailbag

Friday January 17th, 2014

Serena Williams' ability to close out matches helped her become one of the best in women's tennis.
SAEED KHAN/Getty Images

MELBOURNE, Australia -- It sits there, inconspicuously, perched low in the corner of the court. But that clock indicating the time of the match is what we call a "fan enhancement." It's a neat doodad, but hardly essential. In tennis, of course, time is elastic. There is no buzzer to beat or clock to run out. You don't seize a lead and go into a four-corner offense as the minutes dwindle. There is no strategy of keeping the ball on the ground after the two-minute warning.

In tennis, you don't win unless you win the last point, which means that the ability to close is a prerequisite for success. If you can't channel an inner Mariano Rivera, there's a ceiling on how high you'll climb.

We've seen ample examples of this these past few sweltering days in Australia. On Thursday, inside the furnace of Rod Laver Arena, Italy's Karin Knapp was two points from beating Maria Sharapova. She couldn't close, and lost 10-8 in the third set. A few hours later, Ajla Tomljanovic of Croatia led 5-3 in the third set against Sloane Stephens. She couldn't close, allowing Stephens to win the last four games of the match. After that, Nick Kyrgios, the dazzling Australian teenager, won the first two sets against France's Benoit Paire. Then fatigue set in. If this were boxing, he would have clutched and grabbed the last few rounds and waited for the final bell. In tennis, he was KO'd.

On Friday, Lucie Safarova had a match point in the second set against No. 4 seed Li Na. Safarova, though, couldn't convert. Li won the set and then the match 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3. "I think I was stronger in the end," she told Chinese media afterward. Of course she was; otherwise she would no longer be in the tournament.

Like a relief pitcher, every tennis player blows a save now and then. Even Serena Williams, the greatest closer in the game, can't close them all. Players can master all the shots, but if they can't manage the denouement, it doesn't much matter. Take Tomljanovic, for example: She's a brilliant ball striker, but has a difficult time turning off the light. Consider these results. Fourteen times over the last year, she has lost a match that went deep in the third set.

Luckily for her, an ability to close can be cultivated. Early in her career, Justine Henin was a certified choker. But then, faster than you can say "Enter Sandman," she became a reliable finisher. Same for Ivan Lendl -- he lost six of his first seven Grand Slam finals. Then he won seven of his next 10.

In tennis, closing strong is critical. It's not like those other endeavors, where you can get lazy at the end.

NGUYEN: Australian Open Day 5 recap


Let's start with a question I got multiple times in multiple forms: What if, citing the heat, the players simply refused to play?

The technical answer: Players could be defaulted. The economic answer: There's a huge incentive to break with the agreement. What are the odds that ALL players would boycott play? If you, in essence, undercut the competition (predatory pricing!), there are huge potential benefits.

Practically speaking, though: Nothing would happen. If two players got together before a match and decided their health and safety was more important than a tournament's revenues, only the most callous tournament director would sanction them. And in the event that occurred, the public relations fallout would be monstrous.

In keeping with one our themes of the week, the players either don't realize their influence or don't choose to exert it. Imagine if, on Thursday, the players were proactive, had gotten together and said, "To hell with your vague policies. Our colleagues are woozy and hallucinating and suffering. We're not risking our careers (and health). This is madness." They would have been hailed as sensible and responsible. And I think the suits would have blinked.

I cannot believe I'm the only one who finds the Australian Open heat policy sexist! The women get a heat break but the men don't, because, you know, those poor women will swoon in the heat, but the macho men can take it, even though they play more sets (another example of misogyny hurting men too). I don't know if I'm more offended by the policy itself or by the fact that no one is talking about that aspect of it.
-- Anna, Alexandria

• It's nothing sexist. Grand Slam are WTA events so the rules apply, which includes the right take a 10-minute break between the second and third sets. That rule doesn't exist for the men, but it could if they wanted it to. It's testament to tennis' wackiness and lack of standardization, but not its gender bias.

I see that Milos Raonic plays Grigor Dimitrov in the third round. If Raonic loses, it will be another Grand Slam disappointment. Is it me or is time to consider Vasek Pospisil as the better Canadian prospect?
-- Steve, Toronto

• Rub it in the Americans' face, why don't you? I can't decide whether to order the steak or the lobster. We should all have such problems. Both players have different games, different personalities, different backgrounds -- even an east-side (Toronto) west-side (Vancouver) thing going on. But as I see it, you have two likely top 10 players. I think Raonic is still ahead, as the rankings indicate, but the gap is closing -- and Pospisil is the real deal. And yes, if Raonic loses to Dimitrov, it will mark still another first-week Grand Slam exit. (And the same could be said for Dimitrov if he loses.)

How come so few players wear sunglasses? Even watching on television, the glare off the bright blue court is almost unbearable; I can't imagine how bad it would be in person. Yet, only a couple of players wear any sort of eye protection, which I think would enable them to see the ball easier and perhaps avoid eye fatigue.
-- Andrew Jobe, Lynchburg, Va.

• A few singles players -- Sam Stosur among them -- wear sunglasses, and a good many doubles players do. But you're right, you'd think more players would want the protection, both for function and health/safety. Most players don't even practice with them. I know a number of players say they can't see the ball as well. I find that hard to believe, but players are such creatures of habit that perception can be reality.

What's your take on this post-warmup, prematch bathroom break that Serena and Venus Williams habitually take?
-- @spadafora

• Two words that also describe the weather conditions: not cool. I don't know if this is routine or a bit of mental warfare, but it's not good form. There's nothing the administrators really can (or will) do, but you can't make a habit out of coming out for a match, warming up for five minutes and then taking a bathroom break. It's also brutal for TV.

With all the cameras at the Australian Open, I'm very surprised that I've never seen a shot of a player putting on sunscreen. Surely they do, right? The pale, blond(e) Slavs, especially, must be using it by the truckload. Not to get all uplifting on you, but showing sunscreen usage would be a good thing for the young 'uns.
-- Fred Bartlett, Hamilton, N.J.

• There are no cameras generally allowed in the locker room. But, yes, tennis players taking the court without sunblock is akin to football players taking the court without helmets.

Best photos from Day 5 at the Australian Open

Shots, miscellany

• The great Josh Levin asks whether it's time for tennis players to unionize.

• Nice work, Doug Robson: Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic battle their night demons.

• The New York Sportimes of World TeamTennis will relocate to San Diego as the San Diego Aviators.

• The USTA announced that single-day tickets for the U.S. vs. Italy Fed Cup World Group first-round tie are now on sale.

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