Andrey Rublev and Stefanos Tsitsipas will have their eyes on bigger prizes in the years ahead, but on Tuesday these two 22-year-old hopefuls were overjoyed just to have survived their first-round matches at Roland Garros. Rarely have two openers been so well-earned.
It was a whirlwind three days for the Russian and the Greek. On Sunday, they battled each other in a close final in Hamburg, which Rublev won 7-5 in the third set. Then they flew to Paris, where the French Open was already underway. Having tested negative for the coronavirus before the Hamburg final, they had their quarantine restrictions waived so they could practice on Monday. Ready or not, each was back on court 24 hours later, staring at a best-of-five-set match against a difficult and better-rested opponent.
To paraphrase AC/DC—a band that the head-banging Rublev probably likes—it’s a long way to the top if you want to be a tennis superstar.
Things quickly got worse for both men at Roland Garros. Rublev found himself in the middle of a heavy drizzle, and across the net from Sam Querrey, a 6’6” veteran with a bomb serve and a rifle forehand. Even on clay, his worst surface, the Californian fired 80 winners and 29 aces today. Couple that with the fact that Rublev had never won a match at Roland Garros, and it was enough to make him tighter than a…well, he didn’t know exactly what he was tighter than.
“I choke on another level, from the first point of the match till the last [point] of the match I was completely freeze,” said the 12th-ranked Rublev, who has won three titles in 2020. “I couldn’t do one step, I could only hit. I was tight like I don’t know. Not many times I was tight like this.”
Rublev knew he had to take whatever chances Querrey gave him. But knowing that only made them harder to take.
“As soon as I have one rally or one ball that, okay, now we start the rally, I feel even more tight because I don't want to miss it,” Rublev said, “because maybe then he will make ace, ace, two winners and I don't even touch the ball for the next one game and a half.”
“The attitude today was really horrible.”
Rublev lost the first set in a tiebreaker and fell behind 1-5 in the second. When Querrey suffered his own bout of tightness, Rublev came all the way back to 6-5 and twice reached set point. But Querrey wiped both set points away with service winners, and closed the second-set tiebreaker with two more.
In the meantime, Rublev was going through his repertoire of agonized reactions. He tore at his shirt, he chewed on his racquet handle, he pleaded with the heavens, he banged his racquet against his foot after one miss, and against his thigh after another. According to Querrey, Rublev even shot a “death stare” at him when the American’s seven-month-old son made a noise in the stands (Rublev apologized later).
When Rublev fell behind 5-2 in the third set, he seemed to be on the verge of tears. “I was completely sure that it was over,” he said.
But in his hour of need, Rublev received a “present,” as he called it. Serving for the match at 5-3, Querrey tightened up again, and Rublev broke. This time he broke again for the set, and from there he was in control. Despite all the miles he had put on his legs over the last week, and despite his nerves, he made the first successful comeback from two sets down of his career, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4, 6-3, in three hours and 17 minutes.
“I was just so lucky,” said Rublev, who is never a man to dance to around a subject. He talks the way he plays—straight-ahead, full-bore, with no tricks or subtleties. After his final forehand went for a winner, he dropped to his knees and leaned his face toward the ground. Was it in agony, or in ecstasy? It can be hard to tell with Rublev, but few players have ever acted out those emotional extremes on a tennis court the way he does.
Rublev's match point:
As Rublev was dropping to the clay in victory on Court Simonne-Mathieu, Tsitsipas was dropping the second set to Jaume Munar on Court Suzanne-Lenglen. In his own, very different way, Munar was just as frustrating an opponent as Querrey. Where the American doesn’t give you many chances, the Spaniard gives you far more than you ever asked for. He’s an old-school grinder and dirt-baller who runs absolutely everything down and makes you win a point two, three, four times. For the first two sets, Tsitsipas didn’t have the patience to do it.
“For me, it was difficult, the transition from Hamburg to here,” Tsitsipas said. “Balls are different. Surface is different. A lot of rain. It took time for me to adjust.”
“I don’t think I ever played a match like this before,” he said. “Everything was just not responding. I tried to win in a different way.”
At the start of the third set, Tsitsipas found that way. He stopped rushing, stopped missing, and started following the right shots to the net. The points were long and filled with drop shots, lobs, passes, volleys, and mad scrambles from baseline to net and back again. But Tsitsipas found a way to win them. Like Rublev, he ended the day with his first comeback from two sets down, and a 4-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 win in three hours and 12 minutes.
“When I started coming back in the third set, I knew that was the moment that I adjusted to the conditions,” Tsitsipas said. "Things seemed to go my way, and I was feeling more and more comfortable on court as more of the match evolved.”
Tsitsipas' match point:
Where Rublev is visceral and emotional, Tsitsipas is cerebral and self-dramatizing. He has lost a few epics in the last year, one at Roland Garros to Stan Wawrinka, and another to Borna Coric at the US Open a few weeks ago, after holding six match points. Many of us wondered if they would have an effect on his psyche. Today, Tsitsipas chalked them up to learning experiences, ones that helped him stay patient today.
“It's all in the brain,” Tsitsipas said, “all in the mental, I think, the way you take things and you try and make something out of them.”
“I'm happy that I won [this] match, for sure. I'm very, very happy that I found solutions and I fought hard, and little, small details that helped me play better.”
It’s a long way to the top of the heap in tennis—just ask Dominic Thiem, who won his first major title at 27 earlier this month. It’s also a long way to the second round at Roland Garros. Rublev and Tsitsipas probably wouldn’t have chosen the route they took, from a final in Hamburg on Sunday to a five-setter in Paris on Tuesday. But in getting through their matches today, each made a small but important step up the pro-tennis hill.