Whether the surface is a hard one or made of red clay or manicured green grass, the goal is the same: to win. To beat someone. To play better, smarter and mentally tougher than the opponent. To be more physical and aggressive. To charge the net when an opening appears. To cover the baseline when the shots go deep against you. The court is a battlefield and the scales of justice are often tipped by net cords and fractions of inches along white lines. The game is tennis.
For men who play singles, the winner is usually required to win two of three sets. In Grand Slam events, however, the rules change to three of five sets to determine the champion. If each man wins two sets, a fifth set is played. The fifth set is often the scene of one man’s surrender and loss to another man’s courage and inner strength. The first four sets are evenly played, but the last one is too much for the body or mind or will or all of the above for one of the guys and the desire to win or to not lose drives his opponent to victory.
I love fifth sets. I particularly like them when they are close and long, and I’m not even paying for my seat in front of the television set. Nope, I’m watching for free, but I have the Deluxe Box seats and have seen my share of Grand Slams in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York City. From my ABCs of Agassi to Becker to Connors to my current personal favorites of Federer and Nadal I admire the passion and persistence of the five-set winners.
There is a moment of high drama called Match Point when the difference between winning and losing in the fifth set can be measured in split-second choices and breaks in concentration. Match points can be saved and the game can go on for hours, but in the end, a Match Point is lost and the winner takes center court with a victorious smile and wave to the crowd.
As I watched a five-set match today at the US Open, the thought occurred to me that Match Points in tennis have an advantage over those we have in real life. The quarter finalists I saw today knew the importance of the fifth set and its Match Point, but we may never know when we miss the chance to win – or lose what we value most.