Last year I bought Bud Collins' History of Tennis: An Authoritative Encyclopedia and Record Book. Any serious fan of the sport's history should own this book, for its wealth of factual material, as well as Bud's characteristically piquant narrative writing and his manifest love and knowledge of the sport.
Faced with the task of writing this article, I dipped into the book to answer the question of comebacks at the U.S. Open. I restricted myself to matches in the late rounds, from the quarters on. I defined an amazing comeback in the men's as a victory obtained after trailing two sets to love, and in the women's as surviving the loss of the first set and down as well late in the second set.
What I discovered surprised me.
On both sides, almost no comebacks occurred, at least by my criteria. Without more research, I cannot rank these for drama, so I'll list them chronologically.
1922—Bill Tilden defeated Bill Johnston
1940—Bobby Riggs defeated Don McNeil
1947—Jack Kramer defeated Frank Parker
1949—Pancho Gonzales defeated Ted Schroeder
1975—Manolo Orantes defeated Guillermo Vilas
1979—Vitas Gerulaitis defeated Roscoe Tanner
1984—Ivan Lendl defeated Pat Cash
2003-Andy Roddick defeated David Nalbandian
2005-Andre Agassi defeated James Blake
I'll throw in for good measure a "mini-comeback": Roger Federer's Wallenda act in 2007 against Novak Djokovic when he faced multiple set points in the first two sets and managed to win each set on his way to victory.
Similarly on the women's side I found a paucity of comebacks. Tracy Austin overcame Martina Navratilova in 1981; Graf bested Martina in 1989; and Sanchez-Vicario topped Graf in 1994.
I plead guilty to deficient research, which likely failed to uncover more examples of great comebacks. And my definition may be too restrictive since there are probably many comebacks from two sets to one, or dramatic reversals in the deciding set. But my instincts tell me that these too happen rarely, and that interests me more for what it tells us about tennis at the highest level, and maybe at all levels.
Simply put: better players usually win, and better players usually win fairly easily. Tennis requires too many points, too many shots, for flukes to occur often. That fact usually prevents better players from falling behind. Tilden enjoyed injecting drama into matches by lolling about, letting his rival get far ahead, then coming back at the penultimate moment.
That exception proves the rule: most better players fight for the lead, then ride it to victory.
What about matches between contestants more or less equal, presumably like those I uncovered in the late rounds of a slam like the Open? How do we explain why comebacks happen so infrequently?
Here, all of us, from hackers to true proficients, know in our bones the truth. We lose matches mentally as much as physically. We feel ourselves falling behind, getting passive, not knowing what to do to change the action in our favor, or somehow fail to muster the nerve to do so.
People aren't robots; they feel themselves falling behind as the action occurs; even though every point should be its own drama, its own reality, one point creates a mental reality that, subtlety or overtly, effects the way the player approaches the next, etc. etc.
That is why we cherish the comeback. It, in some ways, is the true measure of a person's mental fortitude even beyond their raw physical tools. They have to tune out the reality of looming defeat and keep playing one point at a time. It inspires us to think we can overcome.
Even two of the greatest performers of our age—Roger Federer and Tiger Woods—show how difficult the comeback is to pull off. Until this year's PGA, Woods never lost when in front at a major after three rounds. But he also never pulled off a dramatic final round comeback a la Palmer or Nicklaus. He's come close many times, as did Federer in his epic Wimbledon loss to Nadal when he came back from two sets to love, but both have yet to record that sort of dramatic victory.
That tarnishes their records not a whit. They win so often, so consistently, including close matches, that it makes my definition of the comeback almost irrelevant to them. But it humanizes them, and should make us hackers feel a bit better. Like any human act worth doing, sports requires head and heart as well as one's body. We win and lose with our spirit. The comeback will remain the unusual, reminding us that's why we play the game on the field, where the unexpected can happen.
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