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Pressure Points: Inside the toughest matches for Serena, Federer, Nadal, Osaka and Djokovic
When five of the game's greatest players faced pressure like never before.
Published Jan 12, 2022
Billie Jean King said it best: "Pressure is a privilege!" In Pressure Point, players, legends and coaches take a deep dive into the polarizing topic of pressure in tennis.
This film explores that notion, and examines the various dimensions of pressure associated with the sport—from its scientific definition, to how Roger, Rafa, Novak and Serena handle pressure-packed situations.
Streaming now on TennisChannel.com (in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, UK and India)
History was on the line when No. 1-ranked Serena Williams met 32-year-old, 43rd-ranked and unseeded Roberta Vinci in the semifinals of the 2015 US Open. One more win and Williams would be poised to become only the fourth woman (after Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court and Steffi Graf) to capture the holy grail of tennis, the (calendar-year) Grand Slam.
New York was abuzz with interest and aflame with Serena love, and therein lay the rub. Despite her enormous success at the US Open—six previous singles titles, including three straight going into the 2015 event—the expectations, distractions, and hype surrounding Serena in Gotham approached critical mass during the tournament.
It all came to a head in the semi. Vinci, 0-4 with no sets won against Serena in previous meetings, was patient and methodical. She lost the first set but dug in and, with Serena misfiring more and more often, crafted one of the most sensational upsets in tennis history, winning 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.
“It was hard,” television analyst Mary Carillo told podcasters Chanda Rubin and Zina Garrison recently, “It was hard to watch her feel the weight, the burden of history on her shoulders.” (Editor's Note: Not unlike what happened to Novak Djokovic last September.)
“I think it played a big part in that match,” Vinci said of the pressure on Williams after the win. “To win the US Open meant reaching an incredible goal for her, and I think the combination made her play with a lot of pressure.”
Curiously, while Williams entered that match having won the last three US Opens, she missed two of the next six tournaments and faltered in the four that she did play. Call it the Vinci jinx.
Rarely has tennis provided such a career-long, clear case of the hunter versus the hunted as in the rivalry between Andy Roddick and Roger Federer. True, Roddick won just three times in their 24 meetings. But the American star was fearless, and on grass his huge serve always paid great dividends. Federer knew that only too well, for the men would end up playing one semifinal and three finals at Wimbledon.
The last of those four meetings, the 2009 final, was the most memorable. Roddick, a hard-charging realist, knew that his chance to secure that coveted Wimbledon title was fading. Further adding to the pressure on the hunted: Federer was hoping to break Pete Sampras’ all-time Grand Slam singles title record with a 15th win.
This match set all kinds of records, as Federer prevailed in the longest men’s major singles final in history (77 games) to date, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14. The match took four hours and 17 minutes and also featured the longest fifth set in a major men’s singles final.
Roddick’s serve was broken just once—in the final game of the match. For Federer, it was a superb performance against an opponent with a big knockout punch on a historic occasion. The Swiss star was up to the task.
“He kind of stayed the course and just toughed it out,” Roddick remarked after the final. “He gets a lot of credit for a lot of things, but not how, a lot of the time, he kind of digs deep and toughs out [matches]. He doesn't get a lot of credit for that because he makes it look easy a lot of the time.”
The 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Rafael Nadal was promoted by many as the greatest tennis match of all time, at least until Federer and Novak Djokovic met in the 2019 Wimbledon decider.
Keep in mind that the glorious “Big Three” Era was just taking shape in 2008. The “Fedal” rivalry was already underway (Nadal led 11-6), but it had yet to capture the imagination of the public at large. That was partly because wunderkind Nadal had yet to win a major other than the French Open, where he had just won his fourth successive title despite having just turned 22.
Famed for its thrilling shifts of momentum and otherworldly shot-making, the 2008 Wimbledon final consumed four hours and 48 minutes. The pressure on both men was enormous: Federer was trying to maintain his dominion at Wimbledon; Nadal still needed to prove that he could win on a surface other than clay.
The battle came to a head in the fourth-set tiebreaker, with Nadal leading two sets to one. Nadal fought to a 5-2 advantage with two serves to come, the match on his racquet. But he caved momentarily, losing both points. He revived to earn two match points, but failed to return a Federer serve on one, and watched a spectacular down-the-line Federer passing shot whistle past him on the other. Nadal knew full well how few second chances a player got against Federer, never mind third and fourth ones.
Under the circumstances, it was difficult to imagine Nadal recovering mentally from those two squandered match points. Yet he retained his composure and went on to win the second consecutive overtime tiebreaker of the set. Final score: 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7.
The Western and Southern Open is usually held in Cincinnati, but in 2020 it was played at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center under bio-secure conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was held back-to-back with the US Open, without spectators.
Naomi Osaka brought the first event to a standstill to protest police brutality. That, along with subsequent acts of activism during the Grand Slam that followed, brought an enormous amount of attention down on the shy 22-year-old of Japanese and Haitian heritage.
Osaka managed her overnight celebrity expertly through six rounds of the US Open, but when Victoria Azarenka raced out to a big lead in the final, many wondered if the distractions that elite players loathe and the pressure they are obliged to manage were getting the best of Osaka.
Everything seemed to be conspiring against Osaka as she fell behind 6-1, 2-0, serving at 30-40. At such times, the passion of spectators often serves to inspire a struggling star while intimidating the player struggling to hold the lead. That wasn’t available to Osaka, but she had a conversation with herself and rallied. As Azarenka’s game became less forceful, Osaka began to dominate with her power, eventually becoming the first woman in 26 years to win the major in New York after losing the first set, taking the match 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.
“I just thought it would be very embarrassing to lose this in under an hour,” Osaka said after the match. She added that she told herself, “stop having a really bad attitude.”
Wimbledon officials finally embraced a fifth-set tiebreaker, played at 12-all, as a feature of Wimbledon in 2019. Few could have predicted that the historic first final to go that distance would be played that very year, with Novak Djokovic beating Federer in a pressure-cooker of a match, 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3).
Among other things, the four-hour and 57-minute final was the longest in Wimbledon history. It knocked the the 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal off its perch atop of the “best matches of all time” list, and became the first Wimbledon final in 71 years in which the winner staved off championship points. As Djokovic’s 16th Grand Slam triumph—and a denial of Federer’s 21st—it was a pivot point in the still ongoing race among the Big Three to finish as the man with the most Grand Slam singles titles.
This was a superb contest, pitting Djokovic’s breathtaking athletic powers against Federer’s versatility and racquet skills. Both men handled the pressure admirably, at least until Federer found himself with two championship points at 8-7 in the fifth set. Federer cut a forehand placement too close during the first one, missing the line by a hair. Djokovic dismissed Federer’s second championship with a nervy, cross-court passing shot off a slightly hesitant approach. The Swiss icon continued valiantly, but an ominous cloud hung over him the rest of the way.
Asked to compare the match with his classic against Nadal in 2008, Federer said, “Epic ending, so close, so many moments. Yeah, I mean, sure there's similarities. I'm the loser both times, so that's the only similarity I see.”