Roland Garros Highlights: Cilic runs away from Rublev in fifth-set tiebreaker

Tennis periodically stages a lively debate about the Grand Slam events’ continuing, collective insistence on playing best-of-five set tennis, with critics marshaling some powerful arguments to play best-of-three instead. Those include the graying sport’s desire to capture a younger audience that has a limited attention span.

Yet nothing generates headlines that penetrate the at-large world of sports more thoroughly than one of those good, old-fashioned, knock-down, drag-out, best-of-five epics periodically staged by the likes of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and many lesser lights. The recent French Open semifinal between Nadal and Djokovic—a four-hour and 12-minute clash that did not even go the full, five-set distance—is a case in point. When titans clash on a grand scale, people notice.

This year, the French Open produced 21 matches that went the distance, including those involving high seeds Nadal, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Casper Ruud, Carlos Alcaraz and Andrey Rublev. All but Rublev, who lost to former US Open champion Marin Cilic, survived the test.

Those results bear out the fact that the longer a match goes on, the greater the odds that the “better’ player will win. It’s also obvious that longer matches demand greater fitness and all-around stamina. But those two self-evident truths only begin to address—never mind do justice to—the special demands of five-set tennis and the skills required to succeed at it.

“I think it's the most physical test that we have in tennis and also one of the biggest physical tests that you have in any sport,” Alexander Zverev said in Paris, following his five-set, second-round win over Sebastian Baez. “You don't know how long you're going to play for. You don't know what the preparation beforehand is, what meals you are eating, what you are doing on the court, because you might be playing for an hour and a half or might be playing for six hours. It's something that maybe no other sport has.”

Zverev wasn’t finished. He went on: “You are obviously running a lot, jumping a lot, [but] you also still have to concentrate on your technique of hitting a tennis shot. You have to be mentally tough, which I think is one of the most difficult physical things as well, [maintaining] the mental toughness.”

Felix Auger-Aliassime knows the perils of allowing the requisite intensity of going the distance to diminish during a match. He said after his five-set, fourth-round loss to Nadal at Roland Garros: “Yes, [the format requires] a lot of effort, a lot of concentration. There were a few dips [by me], physically, mentally, and I kind of lost the order of the game. I lost my intentions at one point.”


FAA was the only competitor who pushed Nadal to five sets at the latest edition of Roland Garros, losing 6-3 in their decider.

FAA was the only competitor who pushed Nadal to five sets at the latest edition of Roland Garros, losing 6-3 in their decider.

Those “intentions” have to be maintained at peak level for hours at a time, even when an opponent is barely visible in the rear-view mirror. Tsitsipas, who is 23 years old, has only competed at majors since the summer of 2018, but he’s already been involved in 13 Grand Slam five-setters (8-5), seven of them barnburners against elite rivals. The most painful of those five losses played out in his first (and thus far only) major final, at Roland Garros in 2021.

Tsitsipas led Djokovic by two sets to none in that match but wound up losing in five. “What I learned today is that no matter what, in order for the match to be finished, you have to win three sets and not two,” the dejected Greek star said afterward. “Two sets doesn't really mean anything. It's still one away from winning the entire match.”

Obvious? Sure. But building so large a lead, or being on the wrong side of one, comes with a number of unusual challenges that just don’t exist, or play out on a smaller, less resonant scale, in best-of-three tennis. As Tsitsipas said before the Australian Open this year, “There is kind of a different mental approach to it.”

Those situations, whether they be big leads, big deficits, or marathon-length, excruciatingly close matches featuring numerous swings of momentum, call for deeper reserves of patience and determination, as well as more resilient emotional responses. After Rublev lost to Cilic in a fifth-set tiebreaker this year in the Roland Garros quarterfinals, he was asked what he might have done differently to change the outcome.

“I would stay more calm,” the 24-year old said. “After [winning] the first set I think I relaxed a bit, and then I started to think too much. When things [weren’t] going my way, I started to show frustration. And that's it. . . Everything [is] mental. It was the closest I ever came to go through to be in [a major] semis. Then, again, the same thing: I didn't manage the emotions.”

The best players recognize that they have no precious energy of any kind to waste in the throes of a competitive five-setter. After overcoming Spanish sensation Carlos Alcaraz in a four-set win that lasted well over three hours, Zverev said: “I knew that it was going to be a very long and very physical match, and I couldn't show too many emotions because that also makes you tired. That also drains the energy of you.”


Zverev is 17-10 lifetime in five-setters, while Alcaraz is 4-1.

Zverev is 17-10 lifetime in five-setters, while Alcaraz is 4-1.

Elite players know how to conserve their energy for when it’s most needed, rather than wasting it on frustration, or physically acting out. The longer a match goes, the more important that ability becomes, which is why those who have a knack for saving emotional fuel sometimes find an extra gear late in a grueling five-set tussle. While still just 19, Alcaraz already has that talent.

Alcaraz first sent shock waves through tennis at last year’s US Open where, ranked No. 55, he won a fifth-set tiebreaker in the third round to upset No, 3 Tsitsipas. The loser later confessed, “I didn't expect him to raise his level so much, especially after having lost the fourth set this way (Alcaraz didn’t win a game). He was a completely different player [in the fifth].”

After losing to Nadal at the French Open this year, Novak Djokovic praised his rival for the way he rebounded. Nadal dropped the second set from a double break up, but mounted a furious charge that propelled him through the ensuing two sets against the defending champion.

“In a match like this, you know, you go through highs and lows in your game, but also emotionally. He was just able to take his tennis to another level in those [early games of set three]. He showed why he's a great champion. You know, staying there mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did. Congrats to him and his team. No doubt he deserved it.”

As good as Nadal has been in five-set encounters (he’s 25-13, for a winning percentage of 65.7), Djokovic owns the best record in that department by a healthy margin. He’s 35-10 (77.7%).

Well versed in the challenge of the five-set epic, Tsitsipas tried to explain why he gets embroiled in so many five-set matches after losing the first two sets of his first-rounder with Lorenzo Musetti in Paris last month.

“I have to really work to get things in life,” Tsitsipas said, “Things don't come easy. I refuse to give up. That's simply how it works with me. You never really think about getting back after being two sets to love [down]. You just play it point after point. You just wish that your efforts will pay off on a longer scale, longer run. You know, being in that situation is like, it's a mountain that you have to climb.”

Tennis is lucky that its range has such high peaks to test its most able players.