The Modernisation Of Tennis

"And yet, to fans of Real Tennis, nothing could be more vulgar!"

Tennis, In Need Of A Saviour?

Last week Patrick Mouratoglou, the occasionally controversial coach of Serena Williams, made some rather bold claims about the state of tennis while promoting his new ‘Ultimate Tennis Showdown’ tournament:

Mouratoglou: “Ten years ago the average age of the tennis fan was 51 years old. Today it’s 61. In ten years it’s going to be 71… Tennis is not able to renew its fanbase… The world has evolved in the last 10-20 years but tennis has never changed. Tennis is in trouble, I want tennis to survive.”

A misquoting of one part of that stat and a misunderstanding of average slopes aside, I’m fairly certain Mouratoglou was just being intentionally incendiary. Proclaiming the average age of tennis fans to be ‘61’ is almost certainly silly (even sillier to imply the average age of a tennis fan in 40 years time will be 101), with that particular figure being plucked from a narrow study of broadcast and cable television ratings in the United States only. The study not only ignores every other country’s consumption habits, but also doesn’t include digital/streaming (read: young) viewership. Neither does it factor in on-the-ground tournament attendee demographics, whose avg age seems to actually be dropping in North America and has always been much lower in some of tennis’ faster growing markets like China (for e.g 70% of fans were under the age of 40 at the 2018 Beijing Open). Anecdotally, the events I’ve been to, including European ones, also seem to have a pretty even spread of ages, and certainly no shortage of GenZ & Millennials.

As a result, ‘61’ is a fairly unusable figure when trying to come up with an accurate estimate of the real avg age of a tennis fan. Americans who watch linear TV, unfortunately for them, aren’t really getting younger. So it’s not particularly surprising that that specific metric would be stable or higher than it was 10 years ago.

Tennis twitter, the eccentric corner of keen tennis fandom that is likely just as unrepresentative of the real (tennis) world as twitter is in general, wasn’t pleased with the doomsaying. I’m guessing Mouratoglou’s comments would have been more palatable for the hardcore tennis community had his choice of words not made some fans feel like both they, and the sport, were about to be ungratefully carted off in a hearse, rolling towards the nearest cemetery for extinct luddite sports, as mad-scientist Mouratoglou shrugs and turns back to furiously frankenstein-ing a half-MarioKart, half-tennis abomination to appeal to his perceived youthful saviours.

But, alarmism aside, is Mouratoglou’s wider point right or wrong? Is tennis in trouble?


‘Meh’

The short term answer, at least at the top of the sport, is no, not really.

  • The ATP’s global broadcast figures (even without including the four most popular events, i.e the Slams) nearly doubled between 2008 and 2018, from 464 million to 919 million, and continue to grow. ATP commercial revenues more than doubled in the same period, from $61.3m in 2008 to $143.4m in 2018. (Source ATP)

  • In the 18-49 age range, the Tennis Channel led all of US cable with a 67% increase in year-over-year viewership in 2019, while the 25 to 54 year-old group grew 44% in the same period, with an annual household increase of 40%. The network also saw increased viewership in 51/52 weeks and 13% more unique viewers in 2019 than 2018. (Source)

  • On the ATP’s streaming service ‘TennisTV’, non-live (catch-up) now accounts for between 25 per cent and 50 per cent of minutes consumed, indicating evolving viewing habits, but with the capability to harness and profit from them. The TennisTV platform was one of the earlier examples of a sports association presciently launching their own, native streaming service (launched in 2009).

  • Roland Garros 2019 saw a 31% year-on-year increase in unique views on the streaming service Eurosport Player, and its official app. The 2020 Australian Open saw a 35% increase on the same metric, and the US Open a 22% increase.

These increases in digital consumption are driven by younger fans, not older. Safe to say that the mythical, typical 61 year old tennis fan is not responsible for much of this growth.

As for in-person fan interaction, 2019 posted the highest attendance for any ATP season on record (4.82m fans on-site in 2019, beating the 2017 & 2018 previous highs). And the 2019 US Open, Australian Open, and Roland-Garros also each had record attendance (part of a larger trend of fan growth at tennis’ biggest events, as below).

If you wanted to mostly separate ATP performance from the WTA, the women’s tour paints a similar picture. For the WTA, globally:

The top end of tennis looks, in many ways, to be in good health. If you’re feeling particularly nosey, you can see recent financials & Form 990’s for the ATP here and the WTA here. It’s a pretty safe bet that had COVID19 not reared its ugly pathogenic head and turned 2020 in to what will be a shitshow for all sports fans and associations, tennis would have probably continued to build on impressive recent growth, both digitally and on-site.

A far cry from an impending tennis apocalypse.

‘But’

That isn’t to say that tennis doesn’t have legitimate threats however, both internally and externally. To do so would be dangerously complacent. To be clear, tennis is certainly not on its death bed, nor close to it. But the notion of this sport being set up to truly thrive in this decade and beyond, is much less certain. This is the crux of what made Mouratoglou’s comments potentially counterproductive: It isn’t that what he’s saying is wrong, it’s that the silly messaging is burying the very supportable discussion that this 160+ year old game does need modernisation, and the ways in which we should go about it.

(Important note: The growth and opportunity at the bottom end of the sport contrasts sharply with the top. The ATP and the ITF have struggled in recent years to work out who should do what in the vital on-ramp to professional tennis, with stories emerging regularly from struggling young, and not-so-young, professionals disillusioned with the self-perpetuating elitist structure. Especially with regard to prize money distribution that doesn’t seem to be filtering through the tour despite its abundant source. This week’s announcement of the US Open, and its COVID-forced lack of Slam qualifying (the premier opportunity of a ranking & earnings boost for many lower ranked players), has not helped this sentiment. This topic deserves its own essay which I will try and write soon, but suffice to say tennis has numerous issues to work out when it comes to its competitive foundations. Luckily for this sport, in the short term at least, these iceberg sized problems are mostly submerged from view from the perspective of the average fan, with the majority of observers only able to see the shimmering, obvious brilliance of tennis’ above-water tip of top-tier tournaments).

So how the hell do you ‘modernise’ a sport anyway?


Option 1: Change Or ‘Improve’ The Format

Mouratoglou’s Ultimate Tennis Showdown (UTS) falls squarely under this option, a bold attempt to gamify and shorten a conventional tennis match. In UTS, players can use cards, like some parallel universe where Hearthstone players actually went outdoors, including preventing their opponent from having a 1st serve (basically a ‘trap’ card), or ensuring that their winners count for 3 points (a power-up). There are 15 second time limits between points and the matches are divided into zippy ten-minute quarters. The format also encourages the ‘personality’ of the players to shine brighter than usual, with plenty of mid-match, mic’d-up interviews, pep-talks from coaches, and a brazen encouragement for the players to let loose with emotion (although presumably in ways which fit with the WWE-style nicknames that each player has been branded with: Stefanos ‘The Greek God’ Tsitsipas or the vaguely offensive choice of David ‘The Wall’ Goffin.)

So far it’s been interesting and definitely a substantial departure in terms of format. But given UTS is an exhibition event during a COVID-enforced professional tennis hiatus, it’s absolutely the right sort of environment to try such bold changes. Mouratoglou deserves significant credit for thinking outside the box, even if this early version of his vision may be a little too convoluted. Watching it feels a bit like a scene from Futurama, in which the main character Fry is trying to understand baseball, and all the absurd ways it has changed, in the year 3000. Fry, slack-jawed and head scratching, as ‘!MULTI-BALL!’ is activated, followed by a hover bike running the bases, topped off by a spider emerging from the bullpen, is the sort of reaction you can expect when a traditionalist first interacts with an experimental format (full clip):


A Brief History of Format Changes In Sport

The desire to tweak formats is not unique to tennis. There are similar debates raging in many traditional sports & games across the globe as they all try to keep up with evolving consumer habits & platform shifts. And within these debates is a near-constant dichotomy between what the casual, newer observers want and what the long-time purists want.

Cricket. Twenty20 (a shortened format) has drawn a mixture of praise and scorn, although it’s generally viewed as a significant net-positive for the sport. Praise in terms of its attractiveness to newer fans, its shorter ease of viewing, and its advertiser/programming friendly nature. Scorn from some of the purists:

Ricky Ponting criticised Twenty20 for being ‘detrimental to Test (traditional) cricket’ and for ‘hampering batsmen's scoring skills and concentration. Greg Chappell ‘feared that young players would play too much T20 and not develop their batting skills fully’. Alex Tudor ‘feared the same for bowling skills’. West Indies captains Clive LloydMichael Holding and Garfield Sobers criticised Twenty20 for its role in ‘discouraging players from representing their test cricket national side’, after Chris GayleSunil Narine & Dwayne Bravo preferred instead to play in a Twenty20 franchise elsewhere and make more money.

Rugby has had a successful shorter-format offshoot since the late 1800’s in the form of Sevens (personally my favourite form of Rugby). Its success has prompted some to wonder whether it’ll end up as more direct competition for the traditional 15’s format:

John Taylor: [Sevens] is in danger of becoming a totally separate game. Ben Ryan, who coached both the England Sevens and the Fiji Sevens, dismisses the idea that it should be seen mainly as a development tool. A few years ago players would spend a year or two with the Sevens squad to improve their running and passing skills. Many international players refined their game on the Sevens circuit including all-time greats such as Jonah Lomu. That is happening less and less. Players have to make a choice: Do they want to concentrate on Sevens or 15s? The techniques and training required are becoming very different. Modern professional players are already pretty lean but the forwards in 15-a-side do need bulk as well. In Sevens that is not required and new training regimes are making body fat levels even lower so they are not able to transfer from one game to the other.

Formula 1. Races were standardised down to a maximum 305km limit in 1989, compared to the much larger allowed range of 300km-600km in the 1950s. And a two-hour limit was introduced in 1974. This change was not only good for the safety of drivers but also for TV programming.

Golf tried gimmicky innovations like ‘Powerplay Golf’, but also has a bunch of more engrained shorter-format tweaks like ‘alternate shot’ for foursomes for e.g (which featured in the recent Woods/Manning vs Mickleson/Brady charity match). The Ryder Cup, a runaway commercial success, also uses a different, team-based format to traditional matchplay. Finally, some of the fastest growing areas in golf are ‘off-course’ activities like Topgolf or Driveshack, which are basically gamified driving ranges (these are excellent entry points for the sport).

Chess. ‘Blitz’ and ‘Rapid’ variations have exploded with popularity in recent years (more on this further down). Once again, some of its Grandmaster purists are, or were, critical:

“Rapid and blitz chess are first of all for enjoyment.” Magnus Carlsen

“Playing rapid chess, one can lose the habit of concentrating for several hours in serious chess. That is why, if a player has big aims, he should limit his rapid play in favour of serious chess."  Vladimir Kramnik

“Yes, I have played a blitz game once. It was on a train, in 1929.”  Mikhail Botvinnik.

“Blitz chess kills your ideas.” Bobby Fischer.

“I play way too much blitz chess. It rots the brain just as surely as alcohol.”  Nigel Short

“[Blitz] is just getting positions where you can move fast. I mean, it's not chess.”  Hikaru Nakamura (this quote is particularly funny given this chess champions recent embracing of, and impact on, chess growth and Blitz chess in particular, touched on below).

And finally, tennis itself has already experienced format shortening with the traditional best-of-5-sets variation now extinct (in favour of best-of-3) outside of the slams. Until recently best-of-5 was still played by the men in Masters 1000 finals (until 2007), the Olympics (until 2016) and the Davis Cup (until 2019). Even the ‘win-by-two-games’ rule at slams has mostly been phased out in favour of a deciding set tiebreaker, largely thanks to giant John Isner’s knack for clinging onto his serve more firmly than a cat’s death-grip as it’s being dangled above a bath. Subsequent new variations of tennis, in the form of Fast4, Tiebreak10’s and Mouratoglou’s UTS (all very short compared to normal tennis formats), are merely an extreme extension in this direction.

The common theme here is that format experimentation in most traditional sports was either at first, or still to this day, criticised for its detrimental, leeching effect on the traditional arm of the sport, or that it wasn’t serious/tough enough. Or both. Common criticisms of tennis’ attempts at new formats are no exception. Mouratoglou being dragged over the coals on twitter is one such example.

There is a worthwhile discussion to be had (another day, this essay is already long enough) about whether newer formats play more of a role complimenting the traditional versions, or destroying them. Cricket, Rugby & Chess have all had significant commercial booms as a result of having these quicker versions of their sports co-exist alongside the traditional. Each of the newer formats count younger demographics and a higher number of casual fans. As such there will inevitably be some symbiosis between the new and the old in the immediate term, as well as some possible cannibalisation longer term. Indeed this may be a good argument for tennis associations actively and enthusiastically working on new formats internally and in partnerships rather than letting it all happen externally, for fear of being eaten alive in the future by a new format/sport outside of their control (*Real Tennis’ stink eye intensifies*).

However, tennis does differ from most other major sport in one key way: none of its currently mainstream formats (best-of-3 or best-of-5) have hard time/play limits. Because of tennis’ scoring system (i.e in theory a conventional game could go on forever, back and forth between Deuce and AD) there will always be uncertainty in when a match will end. Cricket’s Twenty/20 has a simple ‘over’ limit. Rugby 15’s & Sevens have time limits. Formula 1 has a distance and time limit. Fast Chess has a very short time limit etc. For many purists, this mystery of match length is one of the many beautiful things about tennis, allowing twists and turns to weave unpredictable and complex details into the story of the match. For others, especially those concerned with broadcasting optimisation and fan attention spans, this ‘mystery’ is seen as gratuitously old-fashioned that no one has time for anymore. It is not a coincidence that nearly every single experimentation of recent tennis formats have included either No-Ad scoring or tiebreak focused matchplay (and/or strict time limits).

The problem, for these sorts of tennis format iconoclasts however, is that the current formats at the top of the game are thriving (as noted further up). The biggest events on both tours are posting record attendance and revenue, good streaming/digital growth, and despite the same ‘mILlenIaLs/gEnZ aNd tHeIr sHiTtY aTtEnTiOn sPaNs’ trope being trotted out occasionally, there isn’t a lot of information to suggest young fans don’t like tennis as it stands once they’re exposed to it (more on this below). One of the only bits of research done on this topic (none of them are particularly good, although that’s part of a wider problem in tennis) suggested younger fans overwhelmingly favoured keeping tennis match lengths as they are:

The lesson when it comes to format then is probably somewhere in the middle of Mouratoglou’s doomsaying and purist stubbornness.

At Mouratouglou’s end of the spectrum, sports having a race to the bottom of fan attention spans, and furiously trying to trim formats, is a bit like bargain supermarkets racing to the bottom of pricing, in which no one ends up winning. The shopper (fan) gets a shitty, unfulfilling product, and the supermarkets (sports associations) make no money and fight furiously for customers with their watered-down, mirror-image competitors. One can posit all they like about sports competing with Netflix or gaming, but perhaps this extreme end of the spectrum would merely be opening tennis up to fiercer competition against these general forms of entertainment. It’s worth at least considering whether some sports should try and differentiate to be deeper experiences in this regard.

At the other end of the spectrum, despite tennis formats clearly showing little need for change at the top of the game, there’s no reason why tennis shouldn’t strive for their own complimentary version of Blitz Chess or Rugby Sevens to try and make the sport wider, i.e more approachable, than it already is. Especially in the lower rungs of the sport (where revenue & growth isn’t so obvious), or running alongside the tours. The Laver Cup is a good early example of what can be done when you throw some tradition out of the window (Laver Cup is team based and heavily emphasises bench interaction & fun) but retain tennis’ core aspects (like scoring for the most part). Or World Team Tennis, which incorporates some scoring tweaks into their own team based, mixed event (which is a lot of fun, if currently america-centric).

Frankly if we ever did get to the stage where a rival version of tennis was gaining popularity sufficiently fast to threaten the entirety of regular tennis, that would probably be considered a luxury in hindsight (just not by the vocal, and currently valuable, purists). After all, there are good reasons Real Tennis faded into the background when Lawn Tennis was popularised. And no prizes for guessing what the purist Real Tennis players and fans thought about the thoroughly modern Lawn Tennis:

I particularly enjoyed this line from a Real Tennis player in the same piece:

“Real Tennis is all about finesse, technique, and last-second adjustments rather than brute power (referring to Lawn Tennis).”

This quote is wonderfully appropriate for the above topic because it sounds extremely similar to the sort of thing you’ll hear muttered from snooty fans of grass court tennis, lamenting the modern brutality and lack of refinement of today’s hard or clay court matches, compared to their pristine, ‘talent-above-all-else’ lawn game. I occasionally wonder if Wimbledon, who seek to constantly remind everyone that they’re desperately clinging on to tradition above all reason, would be quite so haughty if they appreciated that they themselves had once been seen as modern, sporting iconoclasts of ‘vulgar brutishness’.

History is helpful in this way of reminding us that the inexorable march of time really couldn’t give a toss about our precious purist traditions, especially over a long enough timeline.


Option 2: Entry points & Accessibility

Whilst I don’t think tennis is soon to be confined to the old folks homes of America to the extent Mouratoglou claims, I do think it’s a sport which has become exceedingly narrow in terms of fan discovery and accessibility, both culturally and technologically. This seems to me at least, to be a mostly separate (from format changes), more pressing, and more obvious problem to solve.

If you imagine sport having two characteristics when it comes to fans.

  • Width: how easy it is for people to first discover and fall into the sport.

    and

  • Depth: how far down the rabbit hole of interest, passion and interaction they fall once they’ve discovered a sport.

Tennis historically has been both wide and deep. Wide because of its international appeal, its biggest events spread across different continents, many linear television networks showing the slams for free or cheap in one’s home country, and superstars which have transcended the game. Deep because true fans who have taken the time to overcome the barriers to entry, for e.g learning & loving the complex scoring system and following the nuanced differences of the various surfaces (hard, clay & grass) and playstyles, serve as passionate, knowledgable and valuable supporters.

Tennis has retained its depth (arguably its deeper today than ever based on the passion and knowledge I see on display in its various communities and tournaments), but it’s inarguably lost a lot of its width for young people in the last 10-20 years. This is despite some of its most marketable stars in the history of the game (Federer, Nadal, Williams’ Sisters, Djokovic et al) playing simultaneously in this golden era.


Entry Points

(This is a simple visual for a helpful way to think about fan interest and discovery in sport. The wider a sport is, the more accessible it is for a person to become a fan, the more entry points there are for fans to ‘fall’ into. The deeper a sport is, the more its existing fans know and care, the more they interact with it, the more likely they are to stick around.)

(NB: I'm aware football/soccer and tennis are leagues apart in plenty of ways that makes comparisons tough and rather unfair on tennis. But football serves as one of the better examples of both a wide and deep game WRT fans, and so contrasts well in this particular context.)

In a ‘wide’ sport like football/soccer, there are plenty of entry points for potential fans to ‘fall’ into: Via its vital and enormous FIFA gaming subculture (which has helped football become both wider and deeper), excellent and culturally diverse grass roots participation (men and women), abundant YouTube/Twitch/TikTok content (professional and user-generated) to name just a few.

Tennis by comparison, has had young and general participation on a downward trend in important regions for years (China is the major outlier). Its participation levels in the UK, despite Andy Murray being arguably the greatest British tennis star in history, are currently lower than badminton, which isn’t particularly surprising given there wasn’t a single indoor tennis court built in Murray’s native Scotland during the peak of his popularity between 2006 and 2016. All of this despite the Lawn Tennis Association’s Scrooge McDuck-sized money pile that they receive from Wimbledon each year. Consequently, the sport is still seen by many as expensive, elitist and rather white. And its visibility in many young sub-cultures is likely weaker now than it has been in years. In particular, tennis hasn’t had a decent gaming culture in a decade. This sports chronically fragmented and individualistic nature, mostly out of short-sighted greed, seemed to nix its promising and critically successful VirtuaTennis and Topspin franchises just as gaming was about to truly enter the mainstream in 2010/11 (tennis gaming hasn’t recovered from this misstep ten years on, and currently badly lags behind most other major sports).

The CEO of Big Ant Studios, a sports game developer, on how FIFA was born and its impact:

Spoiler alert: tennis did not give their game rights away for free (players and agents apparently wanted too much money). And tennis ended up losing vital ground, in terms of cultural relevancy, on many other sports.

For a taste of what tennis has been missing, this is the sort of impact FIFA had on a market which could have hardly cared less about the sport before the FIFA games existed (Source):

Those last few sentences are especially telling. Tennis and football both had simpler, analog fan entry points 30-40 years ago. But they then diverged, with football consistently investing time and long-term thinking into gaming since then, and tennis failing to do so. I don’t think anyone would argue that a FIFA game and a tennis game would have had the same scale of impact, but tennis’ lack of a seat at the gaming table is inescapably a significant reason that this sport has become narrower in terms of accessibility to new, young fans. And its ramifications will run deep and long, given how enormous gaming is, and continues to grow, with regard to 2nd, 3rd & 4th order effects such as inevitable knock-on effects to participation and mindshare in general (not to mention tennis not being in a position to at least try to paddle out to the gargantuan, building wave of esports).

(As a personal and anecdotal aside, Mario Tennis on the Game Boy Colour and Gamecube, Virtua Tennis on the Dreamcast, and Topspin on the Xbox nurtured and supplemented my love for tennis throughout my childhood, alongside being lucky enough to play from a young age. Nothing, on that level of quality or popularity, exists today for kids of a similar age, and hasn’t done so for approx. 10 years. That void feels extremely costly).

Views

Once you have a fan that’s managed to find their way into the early stages of a sports fandom, the most important mission should be to make it as easy as possible to watch and engage with that sport. As gaming and participation are both lagging, you’d think tennis would focus on making watching the sport as easy as possible. Surely, low hanging fruit. Unfortunately, not only are live ticket prices regularly prohibitively expensive for the average young fan, but much more unforgivably tennis’ streaming/broadcast options are a severely bad user experience for many in terms of fragmentation (yes this is a running theme): WTA on TennisChannel and a host of other providers, ATP on TennisTV et al, Eurosport for certain slams, BBC for Wimbledon, national broadcaster subscriptions, Amazon Prime Video for certain events, TennisChannel International launching soon etc etc etc. Many keen fans are required to sign up for an expensive smörgåsbord of slightly overlapping video products if they want comprehensive coverage. Not only that, but that smörgåsbord can be a case of rather all-or-nothing-esque pricing, meaning that if you’re an inexperienced, new fan of tennis and you’d like to watch a tournament, there’s a decent chance you’ll need to at least sign up for a prohibitive monthly subscription to watch. This kind of pricing strategy and platform complexity is an egregious roadblock for new fans (although I hold out some hope that Amazon’s foray into tennis broadcasting may make this less of an issue in the future).

The situation for curious new fans who can’t, or haven’t yet, watched live tennis, and want to check out some exploratory highlights, is even worse. This sports archaic rights-holder agreements mean many classic matches and highlight compilations (the vast majority of which are uploaded from unofficial accounts) are immediately hidden on YouTube due to copyright strikes (despite the fact that other sports associations, such as the NBA, have been claiming monetisation but leaving similar highlights up for years thanks to Google’s Content ID). The Slams in particular, tennis’ four crown jewels of brand recognition, seem to usually only be allowed to offer up meagre 2-3 minute YouTube clips of what can sometimes be 5 hour long matches. Outside of YouTube, there’s also a similar block on anyone seeking to add commentary and analysis to short tennis clips to be used on Twitch, the live-streaming site (which counts one of the most engaged young user-bases on the internet, and was responsible for much of F1’s and Chess’ recent growth). If you imagine this whole process as tennis’ welcome mat, encouraging someone new to the game to walk across the threshold of fandom, it would spontaneously combust the moment a foot hovered above it. That fan could then saunter over to many other sports, who may as well be rolling out a non-combustible red carpet in comparison.

Side note: I’m writing a separate piece on this, but I’ve long wondered if the ATP/WTA/ITF could provide better, and more relevant, media training to lower ranked players in the Challengers and ITF events. It’s incredibly straightforward to livestream practice sessions, and perhaps even some matches (pending video rights), on Twitch/YouTube from an iPhone/Android. If enough players did so, inevitably a few stars would break through from the lower levels, potentially bringing with them a legion of next generation fans from one of the younger platforms (Lando Norris a great example of how this can work in F1). Tsitsipas and his YouTube channel was a good early example, although his videos (as opposed to streaming) require serious production time that most players don’t have. The ability for players to be the masters of their own story, with regard to how they’re seen (and how often) by the public, is especially pertinent in tennis, which is famously closed-minded and restrictive when it comes to media access to top players.

Tennis needing to sort out its ease of viewing is especially critical at a time when consumption habits have already changed substantially, and continue to do so. Twenty years ago channel surfing discovery enabled plenty of accidental first exposure to tennis on TV (I’ve met uncountable numbers of fans who stumbled onto the Federer vs Nadal Miami match in 2004, or similar, by complete mistake as a kid, absent-mindedly switching between channels, and were unintentionally left mesmerised by what they saw). This no longer really exists to the same degree these days, with dedicated streaming services requiring more intentionality of viewing rather than passive channel switching. So how much does this hurt the volume of next generations fans? And how does tennis capture these lost, passive viewers? A rethinking of pricing and platform complexity is essential. Off the top of my head: unified streaming platforms (or at least less fragmentation), single match micro-purchases, favourite player subscriptions, ‘tournament/surface passes’, cheaper ‘next-gen pass’, loss-leader pricing with some of the biggest matches shown free to increase awareness (for e.g streaming the ATP/WTA Finals final on YouTube just as football streams the Champions League final on YouTube) etc etc etc.

Anything to make that welcome mat less combustible.


Lessons Learned?

The COVID19 hiatus has uncovered an uncomfortable truth for many sports, including tennis. It revealed which areas of the sporting world could rely on diverse areas of fan interaction and entry points, and which couldn’t, as most athletes and fans had to lock themselves away at home and isolate. Winners included F1, with its million+ viewer Virtual Grand Prix's & new fan exposure via streaming and Twitch, again, enabled by the presence of a well made, complimentary game in ‘F1 2019’. McLaren driver Lando Norris in particular has pulled in 100k concurrent viewer streams during COVID lockdown, bringing in legions of new, young fans. As well as the second season of Netflix’s Drive To Survive documentary. For Football, it was thanks to FIFA, its accompanying esports events, and ever-entrenched presence in the cultural zeitgeist. For Chess, it was suddenly becoming the meta on twitch, attracting hoardes of young fans by way of a, now daily, exposure of the 1500 year old game on LivestreamFails (yes that is the most absurd juxtaposition I’ve ever written). Chess.com expects a hard-to-fathom 10 years(!) of growth, in terms of player base and games played, smushed into just the past 3 months, owing almost all of it to its ‘Fast’ Chess format variations. If you were plotting Chess on the Deep/Wide graph the change would look something like this (below), with Twitch, the Blitz Chess format, and Hikaru and Alexandra Botez in particular, responsible for the widening: brand new, non-traditional entry points for potential fans to fall into:

On a related note, the Golf world would have been mostly silent during COVID had it not been for the non-traditional format charity match between Woods/Manning vs Mickleson/Brady, allowing a cross-pollination of two major sports thanks to a format tweak that helped vastly different skill levels play together. Again, another tick in the ‘pro’ column for complimentary format experimentation.

And then there was tennis, most definitely a loser in this regard. They tried bravely to put on an esports event in Madrid, which unfortunately just served as a lesson of how far this sport is from many others when it comes to gaming:

For context, F1’s virtual Bahrain Grand Prix’s peaked at 396,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch (plus hundreds of thousands more on FB & Youtube, and millions on linear TV), while Tennis’ Virtual Madrid Open peaked at 19,000 viewers on Facebook, with most engagement focusing around how poor the game, TennisWorldTour, looked and played.

Tennis also tried fantasy brackets, which worked well from what I saw. And existing TennisTV subscribers were given free access to the service during the hiatus (a welcome move).

But it all felt a bit sad, watching such an amazing sport brought to a standstill of interaction and fan growth while more adaptable, yet similarly old, games rose to the occasion.


Cautious, But Proactive, Optimism

Tennis, as outlined in the first half of this essay, is in rude health in many ways. It’s still a hugely successful, global sport with legions of passionate & knowledgable supporters. It remains a fascinating and deep spectacle, and is still attracting young fans despite, at times, trying rather hard not to. But outside all of the truly good news about the health of this sport, lie inescapable problems that need proactive solutions. Whilst format experimentation is almost certainly a good idea when one considers how valuable it would be for tennis to incubate its next big growth-spurt from within, rather than be cannibalised from the outside, I continue to wonder whether too much of the talk surrounding modernisation is focusing on the less pressing of the two areas. I’d venture a guess that a successful sport being 'young' probably has more to do with having a wide, culturally varied funnel of discovery and participation for fans and players, rather than just a race to the bottom of attention spans.

Tennis almost certainly has significantly more flexibility, both in terms of generating revenue and fan demographics, than Mouratoglou’s sweeping statements seemed to suggest. But that doesn’t mean that the general direction he’s pointing towards is wrong, nor that the precious flexibility is unlimited. My hope is that anyone reading this considers that tennis needs to start having more self-aware conversations about the very real and varied ways in which this absolutely wonderful sport is falling, and has fallen, behind.

And then get to work.

As Bjorn Borg once said, simultaneously cryptically and obviously:

The ball is round, the game is long.

At least from the perspective of this obsessed tennis player and fan, boy would it be nice if this particular game went on for as long as possible.

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The Racquet 🎾 The 5th Set

A Closer Look At 'That' 5th Set Between Nadal And Medvedev

This is a special post-final issue looking a little closer at the decisive 5th set of Sunday’s epic US Open Final. And in particular, Nadal’s returning performance in the first 7 games.


Setting The Scene

Medvedev had just played a stunning return game to break Nadal at the end of the 4th set, converting set point with a backhand down the line (return winner) from way outside the tramlines.

Umpire: “Two sets all, final set.”

Medvedev to serve first (he had yet to lose a set [3 & 4] when serving first).


0*-0. Medvedev holds easily. Big 1st serves and some huge forehands as his 2nd shot. Nadal unable to get any depth on his returns.

Nadal serving at 1-0*.

  • Backhand unforced error from Nadal for 0-15.

  • 0-15. Medvedev hits an amazing backhand return winner (again) off a (106mph) Nadal 1st serve out wide. 106mph was lower than the majority of Nadal’s wide 1st serves on the AD side, and this serve also landed deeper and more central in the box than Nadal would have liked👇

  • 0-30. Nadal serves and volleys (off a 119mph 1st serve out wide to Meddy’s forehand) for 15-30.

  • 15-30. Nadal 2nd serve (safe, central 93mph). Neither player with positional advantage until Nadal runs around his backhand to try and play an offensive cross-court forehand. Rafa drops it too central and Medvedev takes control with his forehand, winning the point for 15-40. Two BP’s in the Russian’s favour👇

  • 15-40 (BP), Nadal lands a first serve (118mph out wide to Medvedev forehand) despite rushing his motion due to the shot clock. Serve and (excellent) half-volley saves the (1st) BP. Clutch.

  • 30-40 (BP), Nadal lands a first serve (110mph out wide to Medvedev backhand). Medvedev returns well off the backhand, similar to his return winner for 0-30, but not as powerful in the face of a bigger, and more angled, Nadal serve (110mph compared to 106mph). Nadal hits a good forehand down the line, and then retains positional advantage with a line-licking backhand, forcing an error from Medvedev. Again, brilliant under pressure:👇

  • Deuce. Nadal lands 118mph T first serve. Medvedev can only float the ball back and Nadal looks to finish the point with a pretty straightforward forehand volley. Rafa misses badly into the tramlines. AD Medvedev, another BP. Nadal a little hesitant to move forward after hitting the serve, and also seemed caught in two minds between hitting a drop volley or a deep volley.

  • AD Medvedev (BP). Time violation Nadal, 2nd serve. Rafa plays a clever 2nd serve, safe and central but not giving Medvedev an angle to work with. The Russian can only hit a short backhand reply. Nadal hits the forehand he was trying to hit at 15-30, forcing an error from Medvedev. Once again, clutch:👇

  • Deuce. This was really the only point in the game where Medvedev faltered. Rafa hits a pretty central 116mph 1st serve, and Medvedev responds with a good, deep backhand return. Nadal makes a similar mistake as the 15-30 point, running around his backhand and dropping a cross court forehand short. Medvedev takes control with his forehand once again, but misses the final volley.

  • AD Nadal, game point. Un-returnable 121mph (T) 1st serve. Rafa holds.

It’s hard to overstate how influential those three break point saves were for Nadal’s eventual win. Medvedev entered the 5th set as the better player, with all the momentum. Nadal successfully halted that runaway Russian train by holding for 1-1. Each BP save in that game featured Nadal winning the point with aggressive net rushing or forehands. There was probably very little Medvedev could have done differently on each one.

1*-1. Medvedev holds to 30. The 1st serves, that he lands, clock in at 124mph, 123mph, 121mph, 125mph (his avg. for the match was 118mph). He serves and volleys twice and wins both points. A borderline unplayable game from Medvedev, with his serve and volley for 30-15 in particular, a piece of genius:👇

— This is just straight up too good from Medvedev. Nadal hits a good 1st serve return, off a very good body serve, with the Spaniard using his more aggressive return position (talked about below). Medvedev is forced to play a tough volley, split-stepping well before the service line because of how early Nadal takes the return, but deals with it beautifully.

Medvedev won the game easily, but there was one important signal from his opponent. Nadal, since the middle of the 4th set, in an effort to make Medvedev’s 2nd shot, post-serve, less comfortable (whether it was a volley or a groundstroke), had started stepping in on 1st serve returns. Here’s a comparison between his set one 1st serve return position (very deep), and his more aggressive set 5 position (he also used this sporadically in set 2 and at the start of set 3, but reverted to a deeper position once he lost the break in set 3):👇

— The set 5 position gives Medvedev far less time to either: serve and volley (he would have had to hit this particular volley around the service line if he had approached after the serve), or hit his 1-2 baseline punch. As you see here he rushes himself into a backhand error in the set 5 example. Medvedev’s avg. backhand speed increased by 7mph after he broke back for 3-3 in the 3rd set (the forehand avg also went up by 3mph, but Med’s preferred 2nd shot is, unusually, his backhand). As such, Rafa had to find a way to make his opponents 1-2 punches less routine.

Nadal made this change in set 4, but it didn’t come off in the face of superb Medvedev serving and serve and volley. That 1st point, at 1-1 in set 5, is the first example of it starting to make inroads (and would become very important a couple of games later at 2-2).

2-1*. Nadal serving, holds to 15. At the change of ends prior to this game, Medvedev received some brief leg treatment (for what looked like cramps). The Russian, for what seemed like the first time since set 2, offered up two relatively soft errors in a single Nadal service game. The first, at the time quite subtle, signs of Medvedev’s movement fading a bit.

2*-2. Medvedev serving. 15-0 with a 128mph T ace (his fastest serve of the match). 30-0 with Nadal forehand unforced error. 40-0 with Nadal forehand unforced error.

Medvedev 40-0 up, serving bombs. But this is where it all changed:

  • 40-0. Nadal gets to 40-15 after a Medvedev forehand unforced error. Rafa put a 1st serve (124mph) return in play deep from his adjusted, aggressive serve position.

  • 40-15. Nadal gets to 40-30 with another good 1st serve return, landing deep, setting up a pretty neutral rally. Rafa starts using the slice again and coaxes a backhand error from Medvedev who looked tired bending his legs down to the low ball👇

  • 40-30. Nadal gets to deuce with another aggressive 1st serve return, his third in a row, off a 126mph Medvedev serve. This return rushed Medvedev into an error. Russian looking tired footwork and leg-bend-wise on his backhand side in the last two points👇

  • Deuce. Medvedev finally misses a first serve and Nadal brings up a BP, working low slices to the Russian’s backhand again.👇

  • AD Nadal (BP). Medvedev responds with a 126mph ace out wide. Phenomenal.

  • Deuce. Medvedev 2nd serve. Nadal good aggressive return opens up court space. Medvedev hits a tired backhand into the net, trying to go for too much.

  • AD Nadal (BP). Nadal hits another aggressive 1st serve return (off a 124mph wide serve) rewarding the Spaniard with a neutral rally. One of Nadal’s more proactive BP’s he plays all night, finishing with a backhand winner to take a 3*-2 lead.

Nadal’s returning in that game was superlative. I’m not convinced he made four, aggressive 1st serve returns like he did at 2-2 in the 5th, in a single previous Medvedev service game. And he did so in the face of some of the Russian’s biggest serving. These returns were key because they, for the first time since early in the 4th set, negated Medvedev’s serving and positional advantage, that the Russian had capitalised on so effectively with 1-2 punches and serve & volley. As soon as Nadal had a regular rally opening, he could exploit Medvedev’s tired backhand leg-bend on the low balls.

An example of a player raising their game when it mattered most.

2-3*. Nadal serving. Holds to 15 with big 1st serves and serve and volley.

2*-4. Medvedev serving. Russian gets to 30-0.

  • 30-0. Nadal gets to 30-15 on the back of another aggressive 1st serve return.

  • 30-15. Nadal gets to 30-0 (after a Medvedev 2nd serve) thanks to more slices to the Medvedev backhand. Again Meddy makes a tired error off that wing.

  • 30-30. Nadal gets to 30-40 with a miracle return lob (off a wide Medvedev 1st serve) that foils Medvedev’s attempt at serve and volley. Rafa hits a brilliant drop shot winner to finish the point.

  • 30-40 (BP). Nadal converts the break (for 5*-2) with another return lob off a Medvedev 1st serve (T). Medvedev misses a smash.

Once again, Nadal made 1st serve returns, on 3 out of the last 4 points. All 3 with the more aggressive return position. Importantly, on the 30-30 point, that closer to the baseline return position enabled Nadal to cut off what was a great angled serve by Medvedev. Had he been using a more defensive, deeper position, that serve would either have been un-returnable, or Nadal would have had to play a lob from further back (likely either giving Medvedev a volley or making the lob itself harder):👇


In the end, that double break of serve was very much needed for Nadal. With the Spaniard losing one of his breaks (at 5*-2) while serving for the championship, to then secure the title two games later at 5*-4.

Rafa’s return performance at 2*-2, and again at 2*-4, seemed to attract remarkably little attention from commentators or analysts at the time. Especially given that Medvedev served many of his biggest deliveries of the match on those crucial points. But those Nadal returns, by way of the more aggressive return position, ended up being vital to the Spaniard’s championship.

It’s easy to forget that Medvedev had all the momentum starting the 5th set. That series of 6 games from Nadal, from 1-0* to 2-4*, came very much against the run of play. It was an example of a champion standing up to a whacking wave of pressure, in to which most mortals would have been swept, and somehow reversing the flow.

Big match play at its finest.

📊Medvedev’s 1st serve points won in the 5th set was its lowest of any set (56% compared to his set 1-4 avg of 69%), despite featuring the Russian’s fastest, avg and one-off, serve speeds since set 1.

Between 2-1* and 2-5* in the 5th, Nadal won more 1st serve return points than Medvedev won 1st serve points.

We all know how the rest of the set played out, but here’s a quick recap:

  • Nadal double faults the first of his breaks away while serving for the title at 5*-2. Both guys look exhausted at this point.

  • Medvedev saves two championship points at 3*-5 with what can only be described as balls of steel (two 1st serves: one 1-2 punch backhand winner, one ace).

  • Nadal saves another break point, while serving for the title for a 2nd time at 5*-4, with a huge forehand cross court on the back of a 2nd serve (at 30-40).

  • An un-returnable Nadal 1st serve, at AD, secures him the title.

For the whole recap of the match, here’s the Racquet Recap from Sunday.

And here are the US Open’s official extended highlights.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this slightly different piece of Racquet analysis.

Matt ✌️


GAME, SET, MATCH 👋


— The Racquet is created, and written, by Matt.

— You can find me on Twitter here, and Instagram here.

See you later today for some news.

Racquet Recap 🎾 US Open Final

🇪🇸Nadal vs Medvedev 🇷🇺 5 Set Thriller, Medvedev Clutch, Nadal Rattled, Shots Of The Day, Presser Best Bits

There are lots of images/GIFS in ‘The Racquet’ so it may take a while to load depending on your wifi/4g. I promise it’s worth it 😅.


RESULTS 🎾

💥 = Beatdown \\ 🤕 = Injury \\ ‼️ = Upset \\ 🤯 = Epic


Featured Matches

— Nadal d Medvedev: 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 🤯

Short Highlights 🎥

Longer Highlights 🎥

I highly recommend trying to find an HD version of longer highlights.

Match Report: Good lord, where to even begin. 4 hours and 49 minutes of madness.

The first two sets were a free-to-attend Rafael Nadal clinic on how to play a counterpuncher. The last three (i.e Medvedev’s comeback) were the Russian’s equally good value seminar on how to play the biggest match of one’s life, and give off the impression that you don’t understand the meaning of the word ‘lose’ (and look like an expressionless assassin while doing so). That Nadal somehow overcame one of the greatest clutch performances we’ve seen in recent years, from the loser in a slam final, in the form of Medvedev’s 3rd, 4th and 5th sets, is yet another reminder of the mental behemoth that is Rafael Nadal.

🎾The Nadal Show: Firstly let’s talk quickly about sets 1, 2 and half of set 3. Nadal was by far the better player for the first two hours of the contest, in the process building a two sets and a break lead (3*-2 in the 3rd). The Spaniard put on a masterclass of spin/height variety, and net rushing, to disrupt Medvedev’s rhythm, and capitalise on the Russian’s incredibly deep court position. It worked a treat, with Nadal winning 20/25 net points with clever approaches and volleys, many of which were set up thanks to a slice coaxing an attackable ball off the Medvedev racquet. Rafa had actually started the match rather slow, going down an early break in set 1, thanks to some errant forehand shanks from the Spaniard. 📊But Nadal made an effective adjustment, spending the rest of set 1, and all of two, 40% inside the baseline compared to just 15% in the first 5 games of the match. Simply, when Nadal was aggressive, he was cruising.

🎾 The Turning Point: But then it all changed. With Nadal serving up a break, at 3*-2 in the 3rd set, the Spaniard had a very uncharacteristic lapse. He hit a backhand unforced error for 0-15, and then a double fault for 15-40. The Spaniard managed to claw himself back to deuce with excellent net play and serve and volleying, but then missed a completely routine smash to bring up another BP for Meddy. That miss changed everything. Down BP at AD, Nadal committed another tight backhand error, and all of a sudden the feeling of the match changed. It’s very rare for momentum to swing so violently towards an opponent who is 2 sets to love down, but this was one of those instances:

— The missed smash. If Nadal were to hit 100 of these in practice I doubt he’d miss a single one. (Eurosport)

All of a sudden Medvedev had belief. He started hitting his forehand 3mph bigger, and his backhand a staggering 7mph bigger, after he was 2-3* down (than before).

Nadal still looked the marginally better player, but he was no longer looking in control. The comeback by Medvedev was on, but it wasn’t yet solidified. That is until the Russian started a long procession of incredibly clutch tennis down break point (and down 15-30 and at 30-30 on serve). Meddy saved two BP’s at 4-4, the first with a huge 1-2 punch, and the 2nd with another Nadal smash miss after a gruelling baseline rally. The Russian then successfully served and volleyed his way out of the game. Even more impressively, a few games later with Nadal serving to stay in the set at 5*-6, Medvedev actually out-baselined his opponent. To the point where Nadal was so evidently exhausted that he was giving up on previously make-able forehands. Medvedev played 4 perfect baseline points, crushing forehands and backhands, to take the 3rd set.

The 4th set featured more of the same. Medvedev gaining momentum, and somehow looking the physically stronger of the two. Nadal looking tired, tight and frustrated at how this was all unfolding. The Spaniard made some nice adjustments on return, stepping in a bit closer to the baseline on 1st serve return to take time away from Medvedev’s big 2nd shot, or serve and volley. The changes were the right ones but they didn’t come off, with Medvedev usually serving absolute bombs to get himself out of sticky situations. Nadal was starting to look like the man who thought this match may get away from him. The Spaniard missed a pretty routine 2nd serve return while holding a BP at 2-2. He then played a very passive point with another BP (at AD) a couple of points later. Nadal, for once, was tight in the big points, and Medvedev could clearly sense it (Rafa at this point was just 4/16 on BP’s). The Russian’s new found aggression, courtesy of a more offensive court position, was capitalising on anything remotely short coming from Nadal’s end.

And then, the 2nd Rafa collapse occurred, once again while serving to stay in the set (this time at 4*-5). The Spaniard was 40-15 up, on serve, but threw in two very tight, and very loose, forehand unforced errors (the 1st of which was a routine 1-2 punch with most of the court open). This clearly gave Medvedev hope, alongside a set point opening, because the Russian played an absolutely stunning backhand return winner to steal the game and take the match to a decider. Nadal, and the crowd, were stunned:

— What an awesome way to take the match to a 5th set. Incredible.

🎾 The 5th: All the momentum was with Medvedev now. He had won sets 3 and 4 while serving first (Nadal served first in sets 1 and 2), and earned that right again for the 5th set thanks to that incredible break of serve at the end of set 4. The Russian was providing those watching with the very definition of redlining. His groundstrokes were huge, his serving bigger than ever, and his serve and volleying completely and utterly suffocated any momentum Nadal sought to build on return. Medvedev was, unquestionably, the better player at the end of the 4th and start of the 5th.

Nadal was immediately under the cosh, facing three BP’s at 0*-1. Medvedev was on fire, drilling a backhand return winner cross court (for 0-30) that defied logic and physics, and looking like nothing would stop the completion of his comeback. But, this is when Rafa started to show signs of stopping the bleeding. The Spaniard saved the 1st BP with a brilliant serve and half-volley. The 2nd with a series of crushing, deep forehands. And the third (after a time violation cost him his 1st serve) with a wonderful forehand 1-2 punch. That may well have been the most important game of the match.

After another game of Medvedev absolutely crushing 1st serves (at 1-1), giving Nadal little chance on return, the Spaniard’s opening finally came. At 2-2, Medvedev found his way to a 40-0 lead while serving. But Nadal’s adjustment of taking his returns a bit earlier started paying off, pegging Meddy back to deuce with a series of aggressive returns and deep follow up slices to the Medvedev backhand. The Russian missed another backhand, off another slice, to set up a BP for Rafa. Medvedev initially stood strong, bombing down another ace to save it. But another series of aggressive forehands from Nadal brought up another BP, and this time the Spaniard took his chance. Rafa played his most aggressive BP of the match, finishing with a huge backhand winner (after a gruelling rally) to breakthrough Medvedev’s serve for the first time since the start of set 3. The floodgates then appeared to open, as Nadal grabbed a double break with two ludicrously good returns of serve at 2*-4. Now 5*-2, with Rafa serving for the title.

Goodnight… right?

“Nyet” Medvedev bellowed. The Russian simply did not know how to lay down and lose.

Rafa played yet another tight game at the tail end of a set. This time double faulting to go down 0-15, hitting a backhand UE for 30-40, and then double faulting *again* (after losing another 1st serve because of a time violation) to lose one of the breaks. Medvedev at this point was playing out of his mind, clearly buoyed by more signs of Nadal weakness. The Russian faced two championship points serving at 3*-5, saving the first with as good a 1-2 backhand punch as you’ll ever see, and the second with an ace. A few more aces down the T, and yet more effective serve and volley, and Medvedev would hold to force Nadal to try and serve it out again. 5*-4.

One final chance for Nadal. 5*-4:

  • Rafa starts the game poorly, missing his first three 1st serves and finding himself in a 15-30 hole that must have looked all too familiar.

  • Another, very tight, Nadal forehand unforced error for 30-40 and BP.

  • Nadal, still missing 1st serves, finds a huge forehand on the back of his 2nd serve. Saves BP. This point was dripping with tension. That forehand took serious guts.

  • Nadal brings up his 3rd championship point with a 1-2 drop-shot punch.

  • Nadal finally converts with a huge, un-returnable 1st serve. 🏆

An absolutely unreal performance, in quite different ways, by both players.

🇷🇺 Firstly, Medvedev. The Russian displayed more heart, physical and mental strength, and adaptability than anyone would have given him credit for before this match. What he managed to do to Nadal from set 3 onwards, is a feat accomplished by no one in slam final history. No other challenger has made Nadal look that fragile from two sets and a break up in a title match. Perhaps most impressive of all, was the Russian’s willingness to not only go toe to toe with Nadal from the baseline, but mix in a rather janky, but incredibly effective, net game. Meddy’s serve and volley in set 4, and the first chunk of play in set 5, was frankly unplayable. Nadal was trying everything he could on return to make a dent, and nothing worked. Medvedev was soundly the better player during that period.

Medvedev breaking away from the ‘Next Gen’ pack is not something many would have predicted when he played the NextGen finals back in 2017. But he is currently *streets* ahead of anyone else in that age bracket. The mental strength & flexibility of strategy he displayed tonight was truly outstanding. He proved he can mix up his tennis, and do so against the very best, on the biggest stage. A coming of age, this certainly was.

🇪🇸For Nadal, this was probably most remarkable because he found a way to win despite battling himself for large periods of the 3rd, 4th & 5th sets. His forehand came up incredibly clutch, late in the closing stages, but that shot was costing him dearly in set 4 and the early-mid 5th set. The Spaniard was having serious trouble finding the requisite depth and penetration to trouble the brick wall across the net, and his forehand down the line wasn’t its usual devastating weapon. Indeed, Nadal was struggling so badly to hit his forehand down the line with enough proximity to the sideline, that Medvedev was winning the vast majority of exchanges where Nadal managed to hit that shot. Meddy’s forehand cross court defence, off that down the line forehand, was stunning in the latter stages of the match.

That Rafa managed to keep it all together in the 5th set, despite rather obviously squandering his two set lead, speaks volumes (to be added to already existing overflowing library) of his crunch-time mental strength. Nadal beat an opponent who played the match of his life. A player who seemed to genuinely believe he couldn’t lose. One of Rafa’s sweetest victories, in an already glittering career.

📊 Between them the two players combined for 140 net points (winning 101/140).

The total points won tonight stood at 341.

That makes 41% (!) of the total points of the match featuring net play.

The above means that this final will go down as the 2nd most volley-friendly slam final in the past decade (only the 2016 Wimbledon final, Murray d Raonic with 50% net points, trumps it). For context, this years Wimbledon final featured 24% net points, or 17% less than tonight.)

Not only is this a brilliant advert for the versatility of both players (Nadal winning 77% of his net points and Medvedev 68%), but it’s a fascinating insight into what both felt they needed to do to make the other uncomfortable. I wrote in my pre-match prediction that both players will mix in serve and volley, and general net rushing, into their games, but that this would be a smaller departure from Nadal’s comfort zone than Medvedev’s. This turned out to be decisively true in the 5th set, but only by the narrowest of margins. As it turns out, the limits of Medvedev’s comfort zone were underestimated by me, and many others. The Russian really does have it all, even it if that ‘all’ looks rather lanky and discombobulated at times.

Another perfect advert for best of 5 set tennis. Long may it continue.

— Two warriors. Nothing but respect.


SHOTS OF THE DAY 😮


— Nadal casually starting off the match with an around the net post winner. On the 2nd point. Ridiculous. (Eurosport)

— Another angle:


— Medvedev saving an early BP with serve and volley. Not for the first time. (Eurosport)


— Nadal working the angles brilliantly here to create space to hit into. Medvedev much less comfortable moving laterally *and* forward, rather than just laterally. (Eurosport)


— This is a great point to highlight the problem Nadal had with his forehand down the line. He was regularly hitting that shot where you see it land here (far away from the side line). And Medvedev was regularly cleaning up with that hooked forehand into the open space. (Eurosport)


— Nadal making, what was a quite rare today, forehand down the line winner. (Eurosport)


— Nice contrasting ball trajectories here. Nadal’s defensive loop, and Medvedev’s offensive, pancake-flat bullet. (Eurosport)


— Medvedev playing a near flawless game to take the 3rd set. Phenomenal tennis. (Eurosport)


— The backhand return that defied all logic and physics. Medvedev hitting a perfectly clean, completely flat return winner, from way out of court, against Nadal who was already in that forehand corner. This was the game in which Nadal held despite facing 2 BP’s. Huge. (Eurosport)


— Medvedev on fire at the net. (Eurosport)


— Some of the tennis in the 5th set was comically good. Many of these shots came at the end of 30+ shot rallies. (Eurosport)


— This isn’t a hot shot, but I wanted to include it to show Nadal’s main slice strategy tonight. Medvedev actually dealt with these low backhand slices really well for the most part. But as the match approached its crescendo, you could tell the Russian’s legs were starting to find it tough work to get down low for these. This set up the BP’s for Nadal at 2-2. (Eurosport)


— Nadal finding a miracle return lob, and then following up with the perfect drop shot. This set up a BP for the double break (which Nadal needed desperately in the end!). (Eurosport)


INTERVIEW/PRESSER BEST BITS🎤


Medvedev trophy ceremony:

“When I was looking on the screen and they show Rafa win #1, #2, #19 I thought, 'If I would win, what would they show?”

It’s worth watching (Medvedev comes across very well, and was very humble in defeat):

Meddy’s full presser:


Nadal Full Presser:

Nadal Trophy Ceremony:


EXTRAS 🔍📊🎤


— Two very contrasting styles. Nadal with his customary sprinting to the baseline to start the warm-up. Meddy casually strolling.


— Nadal is the oldest men's US Open champion in 49 years.



— Nadal wins his 19th Slam title (one behind Federer).

— Nadal wins his 4th US Open title (only behind Federer, Sampras and Conners with 5)

— Nadal, off clay, now has the same number of slam titles as McEnroe and Wilander won in their entire career (7).


— Medvedev was right when he said, post loss to Nadal in Montreal, that he’d do better next time. He adapted his court position brilliantly, especially in the latter sets, becoming significantly more offensive than in their previous match. This contributed to him looking unbeatable for parts of the 4th and 5th sets.


— That match will have certainly taken its toll on Nadal. Credit to @troublefault for this video.


NEW BALLS PLEASE 👀



— Medvedev clearly prepped for the match by handmashing a chalkbag.




Medvedev looked super-humbled when he was given an extended ovation by the crowd. But he slipped in a wee bit of trolling just for good measure:


— The Nadal box on championship point.


— Slam title No19. Still looks like it means just as much to him as No.1.


— Your 2019 US Open Champion.


I hope you’ve enjoyed The Racquet’s Montreal, Cincinnati and US Open coverage. It’s been a blast to make.

Feel free to comment below, or reach out on Twitter with any questions or comments.

✌️Matt


GAME, SET, MATCH 👋


— The Racquet is created, and written, by Matt.

— You can find me on Twitter here, and Instagram here.

See you next week!

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