From Tuesday night club leagues to the professional tours, losing large leads is a part of tennis. So is losing a large lead but getting bailed out by your opponent. Take, for example, my league match on Tuesday. In a 10-point match tiebreaker, I raced to a 6-0 lead, then had six match points at 9-3. Soon, I had just one match point, at 9-8. The only way I was going to win this match was if my opponent gave it to me, and for the sake of my sanity, I thank him for doing so.
On Wednesday afternoon at the Volvo Car Open, hometown favorite Shelby Rogers took a 5-1 third-set lead over Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 French Open champion. Rogers was hitting big, just as she had in her emotional first-round win over Evgeniya Robina, and she wasn't giving Ostapenko time to set up her own powerful groundstrokes. Ostapenko may have ruled the terre battue, but this was Har-Tru, and Rogers had the green light.
Rogers dropped her serve at 5-1, but she earned a match point at 5-2. When her return of serve found the net, the American's nerves began to show. It didn't help her cause that it was just her second match back from an extended, injury-induced absence, and that Ostapenko, as she would later say, knew she had nothing to lose. It wasn't surprising to see Rogers drop serve again at 5-3, and when she picked up the balls again at 5-5, she couldn't even bounce one without it scattering towards the side of the court. It was going to be another difficult game.
When Rogers lost the first point, she muttered to the crowd (just as I did to myself the night before). She fell behind 0-30 with a followthrough-less forehand that meekly landed in the net (been there, done that). She sprayed a forehand long to give Ostapenko triple break point. The only thing missing was a game-ending double fault, but Rogers' botched swing volley was just as painful to watch. Ostapenko had now won five consecutive games.
But just like my benevolent opponent, Ostapenko eased up—or, finally with something to lose, tensed up—in the nick of time. Her subsequent service game was as poor as Rogers'; it even included a double fault. Rogers couldn't believe her luck, but she was into a tiebreaker, a place she never would have considered safe haven about 20 minutes earlier. Like any point in tenins, a match can change just as quickly.
My opponents' gaffe occurred when he was down match point, so he didn't have time to regroup. Ostapenko did, and she made amends for her cover-your-eyes service game at 6-5 with steady and at times aggressive play in the tiebreaker. She finished the match with 40 winners, the last a backhand into the open court with Rogers pushed well wide, completing an improbable rally.
"The match is only over when you shake hands with your opponent," Ostapenko told Tennis Channel's Steve Weissman afterward with a smile. Rogers could have said the same thing, though not with the same facial expression.