We're counting down the Top 10 matches of 2020 from Nov. 30 through Dec. 11. Click here to read each selection.
“It’s just so, so sad,” ESPN’s Cliff Drysdale said in a near whisper, as he watched Borna Coric and Stefanos Tsitsipas stagger toward the net to shake hands in an eerily silent Louis Armstrong Stadium at 1:00 in the morning on the middle Saturday of the US Open.
It’s safe to say that this was the first time a commentator had used those words to describe the conclusion to a thrilling five-set tennis match. Then again, we had never had a year, or a US Open, quite like this one, either.
Normally, a raucous and semi-sozzled New York crowd would have joined Coric and Tsitsipas for their night-session encounter, and would have lived and died with most of the 349 points the two men played. The fans would have applauded their 112 winners. They would have been awed by Tsitsipas’s run of untouchable play through the third and fourth sets. As lovers of underdogs and dramatic reversals, these New Yorkers would have cheered Coric through his beyond-belief comeback from 1-5 down in the fourth set, when he saved six match points. When it was over, the fans would have stood and cheered Coric as he walked off the most unlikely of winners after four hours and 39 minutes. But they also 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, Coric and Tsitsipas did it all alone, with a few coaches scattered around the stands and a skeleton crew of officials with them on the court. Up until then, we hadn’t known what it would feel like to stage and watch a Grand Slam event without fans. On this night we found out: The atmosphere Coric and Tsitsipas created for those of us watching on TV was nearly as taut, edgy, and exciting 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 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, came up with a forehand winner and a service winner to seal the win. It was Coric who 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.
How else could he feel? Tsitsipas had reached match point six times, served for the win twice, and led 5-4, 40-0, triple match point. But he couldn’t connect on the final shot. Each time he went for the kill, he missed. Rather than immediately guzzling all the beer in the house and breaking every stick in his racquet bag, though, Tsitsipas took a moment to laugh.
“This is probably the saddest and funniest thing at the same time that has ever happened in my career!” Tsitsipas tweeted a few minutes after he walked off court.
Coric has played and lost his share of matches like this, and it was nice to see him come out of his shell and grab this one. At the time, many of us feared Tsitsipas might struggle to recover from the loss, but he came right back to reach his first semifinal at Roland Garros a month later. 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, and helped us forget it was 2020 for a few hours.