“It’s just so, so sad,” ESPN’s Cliff Drysdale said after watching Borna Coric and Stefanos Tsitsipas walk toward the net to tap racquets in a strangely silent Louis Armstrong Stadium a little after 1:00 in the morning on Saturday.
It’s safe to say that this was the first time that a commentator had uttered those words at the end of an epic five-set tennis match. But they were understandable. In any other year, a raucous and well-lubricated crowd would have joined Coric and Tsitsipas in that arena, and they would have lived and died with virtually all of the 349 points the two men played. The fans would have roared for their 112 winners. They would have been awed by Tsitsipas’s run of untouchable play through the third and most of the fourth sets. They would have shaken their heads and dropped their jaws during Coric’s beyond-belief comeback from 1-5 down in the fourth, during which he saved six match points. They would have stood and cheered Coric as he walked off a 6-7 (2), 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4) winner after four hours and 39 minutes. And they would have stood and cheered both men for the way they maintained their form and fitness through a fifth set that was as tense as it was punch-drunk.
Instead, the Greek and the Croat did it all alone, with a few coaches scattered around the stands and a skeleton crew of officials with them on the court. Somehow the atmosphere this match created for those of us watching on TV was nearly as taut, edgy, and thrilling as any other classic US Open night match from years past.
For much of it, the fourth-seeded Tsitsipas was, as expected, the superior player. He was the one with the more varied arsenal of weapons. He was the one who could belt winners from the baseline and dash forward to finish points in the forecourt, while Coric was the road-running retriever who could only rally and defend.
Except that somewhere along the way, the roles were reversed. By the end, it was Coric who was powering his shots to the corners, following them in, and closing at the net—he ended up there 63 times to 54 for Tsitsipas. It was Coric who was saving break points in the fifth set with big ground strokes and deft volleys. It was Coric who, at 4-3 and 5-3 in the final-set tiebreaker—the most important moment of the match—came up with a forehand winner and a service winner to virtually seal the win. It was Coric who essentially stole all three sets that he won.
Drysdale’s commentary partner, Brad Gilbert, said that this was a night when Tsitsipas would want to go home and “guzzle all the beer and smash every stick in the house.” As he walked up to shake hands, Tsitsipas looked amazed and bewildered by what had just transpired.
During the fourth set, he had steadily raised his level of play, to the point he seemed to be making a statement to the rest of the field that he was going to be a factor in the second week. Tsitsipas reached match point six times, served for the win twice, and led 5-4, 40-0, triple match point on his serve. But he couldn’t connect on the final shot. Each time he went for the kill, he missed.
If there’s a physical flaw with Tsitsipas’ game, it’s that he’s slightly hyper and edgy, rather than relaxed and flowing, in the way he moves and swings. He shanked a lot of balls on big points in this match, and that’s how he ended it, with a forehand that went off his frame and looped well wide of the court.
“This is probably the saddest and funniest thing at the same time that has ever happened in my career!” Tsitsipas tweeted a few minutes later.
Coric has played and lost his share of matches like this in the past, and it was nice to see him come out of his shell and grab this one. Hopefully Tsitsipas won’t be as physically and mentally scarred from this defeat as he was after his equally memorable five-set loss to Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros last year.
As Drysdale said, the end was sad in its way, but the match wasn’t. Together, Coric and Tsitsipas didn’t need anyone else. They gave us that old late-night Open feeling, all by themselves.