Every so often, maybe half a dozen times a year, fans in the United States get a glimpse of what tennis would look like if it were a major TV sport in this country. Thursday was one of those rare evenings.

Everything, for once, came together. ESPN waived its usual slate of NFL-chatter shows and blocked the night off for two matches from the Miami Open. The Miami Open obliged by sending out the world's two No. 1 players, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, back to back. And then Novak and Serena delivered as only they can. The stars won’t align this way every night; in fact, it could be the high point of the tennis season from a U.S. television perspective. But it was nice to see our supposedly effete pastime show a team-sport audience how riveting—how athletic, how dramatic, even how raucous—tennis’ one-on-one combat can be to watch.

It helps, of course, to have the world’s best players involved in that combat. Djokovic and Serena have been No. 1 for the majority of the last four years, and there are similarities in the way they compete and perform, similarities they showed to different extents on Thursday. Each is prone to slow starts, and each has a history of last-second comebacks. Each, like the rest of us, has moments when the pressure of competition gets to be too much for them, when they look like they would rather be any place but on a tennis court, battling to beat the same player they’ve beaten a dozen times before. But each—and this is what elevates them above the rest of us—is expert at recovering from those moments almost immediately.

Novak and Serena each show you how they feel. They scream at their teams, laugh ruefully at blown opportunities, smash their racquets to smithereens as they walk to the sidelines after losing a set. And then, a few seconds later, each will calm back down as if it never happened, and kill you. Each, in short, can make pretty much any match interesting; or, if you happen to be one of their fans, excruciating.


Back to Back With the Best

Back to Back With the Best

Last night in Miami, Djokovic and Serena shared one other trait: They wanted a little more love and appreciation from the crowd. The Latin-tinged Crandon Park audience was happy to cheer for Djokovic’s opponent, Spain’s David Ferrer, when he got off to a flying 4-1 start. The Little Beast’s underdog heart and grit had them on their feet. When Djokovic made his inevitable way back into the set, and showed more than a little grit himself, he threw his hands in the air and demanded the same reaction.

Later, Ferrer’s fans were replaced by a boisterous Romanian rooting contingent who spent two solid hours cheering and chanting and roaring for Serena’s opponent, Simona Halep. By late in the second set, Serena had had enough. After one winner, she made the same, “You better get up!” gesture that Djokovic had made to the crowd. You could almost hear her asking, “What country am I in?”

When the evening’s drama was over, Djokovic and Serena, as they tend to do, found a way to beat back their opponents and their fans. And they did it in the same circular, anxious, but ultimately convincing fashion that has always defined their competitive styles.

Djokovic served for the match at 5-4 in the second set and couldn’t close. But that nervous hiccup only seemed to liberate him, as he bounced back to play two of his best and freest games of the night to win 7-5, 7-5.

“I had to fight for everything I got tonight on the court,” Djokovic said later, “because I knew he wasn’t going to give it to me. I knew that coming into the court. I know that he’s a great competitor, that he grinds a lot, runs, and makes you play an expert shot.”

Maybe it was that knowledge that accounted for Djokovic’s slow start: He dreaded, for a minute or two, the thought of what it was going to take to out-grind Ferrer yet again. But then he went ahead and did what it took. You don’t become No. 1 any other way.

Serena also served for the match against Halep, at 5-3 in the third set, and couldn’t close. Much like Djokovic, though, the failure seemed to liberate her. She had been struggling mightily with every part of her game for the better part of two sets—her first-serve percentage was low, her forehand had vanished into thin air, and the sound of the chanting Romanians was firmly lodged in her head. Serena even needed the soothing (if booming) voice of chair umpire Kader Nouni to advise her that she shouldn’t “play the game” by responding to the audience. Yet after letting Halep come back from 5-2 to 5-5 in the third, Serena stopped all of the madness and poor play on a dime and won the last two games for a 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 victory.

“Keep trying, that’s all I could do,” she said later, echoing Djokovic’s thoughts about playing Ferrer. “I never gave up....I made so many errors, and I was like, ‘Serena, just come to the net because that’s the only thing that was working for me.’ I’m just happy to get through that. It was actually a really fun match.”


Back to Back With the Best

Back to Back With the Best

A fun match to win, and a fun match to watch; Serena-Simona was probably the most entertaining contest of 2015 so far. Even the loser seemed to be enjoying herself. When Serena whipped a backhand lob over Halep’s head for a winner, you could see the Romanian laughing as she tried, and failed, to catch up to it. In the first set, Halep had looked cowed by a razor-sharp Serena, but she had hung on with the knowledge that things can change as the finish line grows closer. Simona herself had nearly squandered a big lead in the previous round, against Sloane Stephens, and the Romanian has taken a renewed vow this season to fight until the end of every match. If nothing else, hopefully ESPN’s prime-time broadcast of this one woke some people up to Halep’s loose-limbed dynamism and quiet tenacity. Serena herself certainly appreciated her opponent.

“She plays so well,” Williams said of Halep, “and it’s so good to see her play so well. She’s so young, and I actually love watching her play. I’m actually a fan of hers.”

Halep has made a fan of Serena. Can she go one step farther and make a rival of her? I’m not prepared to say yes just yet. Over the first set and a half, when Serena was in one of her no-nonsense moods, she made quick work of Halep’s game; Simona’s serve, especially, will always be a liability in this match-up. But if she can’t handle Serena at her best, Halep did show last night that she’ll be there, ready and waiting, whenever her level dips.

Last night, Serena had a dip and still won. Djokovic had a dip and still won. You don’t get to be the best any other way. And tennis doesn’t look any better on TV.