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In Miami, Tiafoe, Rybakina & Hurkacz showed how the tiniest differences in confidence can determine so much
The trio of eventual winners and their valiant opponents offered enough plot twists for a three-act play Saturday evening.
Published Mar 26, 2023
The big sun was dropping slowly, the sky was turning a thin shade of purple, the crowds were getting a little younger, a little more diverse, a little more raucous by the minute.
Tennis fans will know what that means: We had reached the first weekend of the Miami Open. When the tournament moved north from Crandon Park in Key Biscayne to Hard Rock Stadium in the city, it hoped for nights and audiences like this. It also hoped for matches like the ones that were staged on Saturday night. Three of them in particular—Elena Rybakina vs. Paula Badosa; Frances Tiafoe vs. Yosuke Watanuki; and Hubert Hurkacz vs. Thanasi Kokkinakis—offered enough plot twists for a three-act play.
Each also offered a different look at how tiny differences in confidence so often determine the outcome of a tennis match.
Tiafoe d. Watanuki
“It was brutal tonight,” Tiafoe said after his 6-7 (5), 7-6 (3), 6-4 win over Watanuki. “Just one of those nights you try to get over the line. He was playing lights out.”
We’re used to seeing Tiafoe as a happy warrior who loves to work a crowd and flash a smile in the heat of competition. That was not his mode on Saturday. He was being out-hit by a guy ranked No. 123 in the world, and he wasn’t happy about it. He cursed, he argued with chair umpire Fergus Murphy, he chucked his racquet to the other side of the court; he glared in the direction of his opponent.
“I was a little frustrated as I had never seen him play and he played very well and was hitting incredibly from the baseline,” Tiafoe said of Watanuki.
For the second straight month, we were treated to the sight of a not-super-young player of little renown showing off Top 10 level ball-striking abilities. In February, it was 23-year-old Wu Yibing of China who awed us; last night it was the 24-year-old Watanuki of Japan. He took the ball early, he charged in on returns, he fired 55 winners, and he was the better player for most of two sets. Tiafoe didn’t know what was hitting him.
There’s a saying for these situations, popularized by Andy Roddick: At some point, a player will show you why he’s ranked what he’s ranked. For Watanuki, that point came when he led by a set and 2-0 in the second-set tiebreaker.
It wasn’t all his fault. In this case, while Watanuki was showing us why he’s not in the Top 20, Tiafoe was showing us why he is. At 1-2, Tiafoe held steady through a long rally, and Watanuki finally missed a backhand by an inch. At 2-3, Tiafoe hit a good return that Watanuki couldn’t handle. At 3-3, Watanuki hit a backhand approach that was just a little too soft and a little too short, and Tiafoe made him pay with a flick crosscourt pass.
With the mini-break in hand, Tiafoe finally had the advantage, and he rode it to victory. After his semifinal run in Indian Wells, the American could have caved in this match and taken a week off before the clay swing begins. Good for him for going the other way, and doing everything he could to win.
“He played a helluva match tonight, so give respect where respect is due,” Tiafoe said of Watanuki, who we’ll hopefully see more of in the future. “He was so red hot but I was hoping his level might drop in glimpses, and I did a good job of taking advantage when it did.”
Rybakina d. Badosa
“It didn’t start well in the first set, but in the end I just found some energy,” Rybakina said after her 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 win over Badosa.
This is a pretty fair description, I’m guessing, of what it feels like to win your 10th straight match. You’re tired and you start sluggishly, but you’re so used to winning that your body seems wired to come to life when you need it to. Just as important, your opponent, who surely knows about your recent success, wonders if she has what it takes to end your run.
That’s how it worked between Rybakina and Badosa. The latter won the first set, led 4-2 in the second, and had a match point on Rybakina’s serve at 4-5. A former No. 2 player in the world, Badosa was striking the ball more cleanly and consistently, while Rybakina alternated between tentative and reckless from one swing to the next.
But when the moment came for Badosa to step forward, take the match, and end the streak, she backed off instead. From the moment she reached match point to the end of the second set, the court position of the two players changed dramatically. Badosa backed up, and Rybakina moved forward to take the space that was given to her. Rybakina saved the match point with a forehand winner that, in reality, looked a little tentative, but Badosa was too far back to do anything about it. Rybakina maintained the upper hand from there.
In this case, the Kazakh’s “slow pulse,” as Tracy Austin calls it, served her well, while Badosa’s expressiveness seemed to constrain her—she was too amped up to play aggressively or swing freely when she needed to. In the end, the player who is used to winning won.
Hurkacz d. Kokkinakis
“Stealing a couple of points puts a little bit more pressure on the opponent and then sometimes the opponent tries to go for a bit extra and [with] that bit extra, you can miss that shot,” Hurkacz said after his 6-7 (10), 7-6 (7), 7-6 (6) win over Thanasi Kokkinakis.
At three hour and 31 minutes, this was the longest best-of-three match of the men’s season. If it had happened later in a Masters 1000, or featured a player like Carlos Alcaraz or Novak Djokovic, it would surely be in the running for match of the year. The scoreline says it all: All three sets went to tiebreakers, all three tiebreakers went past 6-6, and the winner saved five match points in total, three of them in one breaker, and two in the other.
The underdog-loving American crowd was pulling for Kokkinakis, and he gave them what they wanted. He was the guy controlling the flow, and leaping around to fire forehand winners. He was the one who came up clutch in the 22-point first-set tiebreaker. He was the one who had an open-court volley a foot from the net on his first match point. But Kokkinakis has suffered through his share of losses in matches like this, and when that volley ended up in the net, you had a feeling it might happen again.
You just didn’t know how tough this loss would be. Kokkinakis led 3-0 in the final tiebreaker. At 5-4, he slammed down a huge second serve that caught the T to give him another match point. At 6-4, he did the same thing, but this time Hurkacz stepped straight into the ball and reflexed a backhand return that flew up the line and past Kokkinakis, who watched it go by with a look of desperation and bewilderment on his face. Hurkacz followed with a service winner and an ace, and Kokkinakis missed a backhand down the line to lose it.
The match was, among other things, a testament to the genius of the tiebreaker: Where else in sports can victory and defeat, life and death, so quickly trade sides? Kokkinakis ended up on the wrong side at the end, but as he walked off a loser, the Miami crowd responded with what may have been the loudest and warmest send-off of the tournament so far. He hadn’t won, but he had given them a match to remember.