Zverev’s Shock Fall and the Role of Luck in Tennis

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Photo by Getty

Bill Simons

Paris

In life and in sports, destiny can strike in a moment. It’s said that luck is so random, so wonderful or wretched and and so out of our control.

The Alexander Zverev vs. Rafa Nadal French Open was played under a roof but was over the top. Before us was an instant classic match, rich with astonishing shotmaking and plot twists, plus a 44-stroke point not to be forgotten. 

It all was gripping drama. After 3:03 of the riveting batte, the German giant was hoping to stave off a second set tiebreak. The 6’ 6” man lunged for a forehand and everything changed.

In a flash his ankle gave out and he crashed to the ground in agony. He wailed and shouted in pain. The No. 3 player in the world was flat on his back. He twisted in anguish and was coated with the thick dirt that makes this Grand Slam court so famous. Sascha’s hopes of downing the King of Clay were shattered. His dreams of winning his first Slam were now a nightmare. 

Philippe Chatrier’s clay had never seen anything like this. The fans put down their flags. They rested their trumpets. The drums lost their beat. A hush gripped the great stadium. Aides tried to lift the fallen man. But the pain was too much. Then came a wheelchair and the fallen man – his head down, his hopes gone – was wheeled off court. Philippe Chatrier Stadium had never seen anything like this. The crowd murmured. 

Then, about seven minutes later, Sasha, who’d been dashing about the court all day, returned on crutches. In tears, he shook the umpire’s hand, exchanged kind words with Rafa and, as he left the court, raised his left and then his right crutch. Few moments in our game have been more poignant.

If Sasha prevailed here, he would have become No. 1 in the world. Now questions loom. Could he possibly return for Wimbledon, where he reached the fourth round last year? What caused his fall? Was he just tired or off balance? Was there a problem with the clay? Rafa said it was just an accident, an unlucky moment. So what is the role of luck in tennis?

Here’s what we think. 

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Is there good luck or bad luck in tennis?

Pat McEnroe doesn’t think so. “No, no. There’s no luck. You can’t have luck in one career, or even in one year. It doesn’t exist.” France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga concurred. He told the New York Times, “To be able to win the US Open, you can’t wait for the little window to climb through. You have to build yourself a big door and walk through it, because there is no luck in this milieu…I don’t have any desire to win my Grand Slam by coming in through the little window.”

Kazakhstan’s Alexander Bublik has a different take: “Luck is 20-30% of tennis: one day you hit a big serve to the T and it’s an ace, another day the ball is out and you lose the match. Obviously, skills are important when a top 10 player faces someone ranked 150. But when two players with similar ranking face off, luck matters maybe 50, 70%.”

That’s a stretch. Strokes, technique, mental toughness, physicality, athleticism and hard work are at the core of the sport. But luck is an ongoing factor. Sure, there’s more luck in golf than any other sport this side of poker. One errant hop spells the difference between a birdie and a triple bogey. (Tiger hit a brilliant shot right at the pin at the 2013 Masters, but it hit the pole and careened right into the drink.) 

Still, when it comes to luck as a factor, tennis is not that far behind golf. Wretched injuries, unfair scheduling, let cords, quirky weather, weird bounces, surface and ball speeds and freak accidents all matter. About 5% of ATP matches are won by players who’ve won fewer points than their foes. 

Virginia Graham claimed,“Good shot, bad luck and hell are the five basic words to be used in a game of tennis.” Mary Carillo suggested, “In a big match, it can come down to execution or luck.” 

Californian Derrick Rostagno knows this well. At the 1989 US Open, he was up two sets over Boris Becker and was poised to score a mammoth victory. He only had to put away a routine volley. But Boris got a lucky let cord, the ball jumped over Rostagno’s racket and Becker went on to win the match and the Open.

At the 1991 French Open, Jim Courier was getting hammered by Andre Agassi. But then there was a rain delay. Courier got coached up, Agassi didn’t. The momentum switched and Jim was soon giving a victory speech in French. 

But no one in tennis has been more fortunate than Marc Rosset. After losing in the first round of the 1998 US Open, the Swiss man decided to stay on in New York and at the last minute chose not to take the fatal Swissair Flight 111 that killed 229 people. In a huge understatement, the Swiss said, “I feel a little lucky.”

Luck is everywhere in tennis. While Brad Gilbert noted, “There is nothing like a cushy draw,” tennis historian Richard Evans warned us, “Never underestimate the luck of the draw.” Ryan Harrison’s career was seriously hobbled by endless tough draws. For 15 years, ATP hopefuls have had to cope with the Big Four.

Andre Agassi contended, “Luck plays a part in a match and a tournament. Bad luck can play a part in a career.  But I don’t think luck can necessarily make a champion. Good luck can make a good career great…But bad luck can rip it all away. An injury here, a wrong step there. I lost six to eight months because of a wrist injury that came by hitting a piece of rock in the desert with a shovel. If I’d been a little left or right, it would have hit sand.” He added that the luckiest thing that ever happened to him was meeting his trainer and counselor Gil Reyes.

A quip from Gary Player expresses a core reality: “The more I practice the luckier I get.” Amelie Mauresmo’s t-shirt was even more succinct: “Make your own luck.” Others assert, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

Tracy Austin observed, “It’s not a coincidence that champions come through in the later stages. They’re able to elevate and make their own luck.” To Simona Halep, “In life, you cannot do much without luck. But you also have to work for what you want and desire. Then luck, if you are positive, comes next.” But not always. Austin’s career was derailed by a car accident. Venus has been combating Sjogren’s Syndrome for years. Maureen Connolly fell from a horse. The careers of so many, including Rafa, Juan Martin del Potro, James Blake and Jennifer Capriatti have been battered by injuries.

In contrast, no other tennis duo has had more luck than the Bryans. They’re twins, so they have built-in practice partners. They had brilliant tennis parents, and Bob’s a big-serving lefty while right-handed Mike has great returns and volleys. “Our career has been a storybook,” said Mike, who often played with a lucky 1959 penny taped on his wrist. “But you’ve got to put yourself into the position to get the luck. Good players get lucky…It’s lucky to have a clone who you can practice with every day and have the same goals, dreams and love together. Once I asked Bob, ‘What did we do to deserve all this luck? We’re winning every break point, let cords are going our way, we’re winning super breakers…We won the coin flip every time all summer.’ There’s so much luck it’s crazy. You make luck by working hard and feeling you deserve it in the big moments. When you put the work in, you have a peace of mind, and can focus. When you haven’t done the hard yards, you feel undeserving.”

To world-class coach and entrepreneur Peter Burwash, “Luck is a matter of one word – karma. In the end, when it’s your turn, everything comes to you. And if it doesn’t, it’s okay.” 

To Indian Leander Paes, who won 18 doubles majors, “Luck and karma are two different things. Karma is a big part of life. Some people believe that your life is written out – just execute it. When you get to a fork in the road, you’ve got to choose. You make your luck. Sometimes losing a match can be lucky – it teaches a lesson. Something negative can also be good karma. Every single thing happens for a reason. There’s a reason why, despite doing everything right, you didn’t win any of the 14 breakpoints you had. You never know why things show up – probably to teach us something. But we have to make luck. At the fork in the road we have to choose.”

Over the past 18 years, many an ATP career has fallen short due to the dominance of the Big Four, who themselves often surged on waves of good fortune, but also endured bad luck. 

One summer, Yugoslavia’s best tennis coach was assigned to conduct clinics in a remote mountain village. There, Jelena Gencic discovered a wide-eyed boy named Novak Djokovic. whom she would set off on a singular journey. Of course, some might claim that Novak’s tumultuous US and Australian Opens had plenty of bad luck. 

On a Mediterranean island Toni Nadal insisted his young nephew Rafael play the game left-handed. How lucky. Less lucky have been the hobbling injuries that often have sidelined Nadal. Andy Murray was lucky that his mum Judy was a leading player in Scotland and even more fortunate that as a fifth grader he ducked under a desk and survived a school mass murder that killed 17. More recently he was less lucky as he struggled with a rotten hip.

Conventional wisdom says Federer is the luckiest champion in tennis history: near-perfect body, flawless technique, sublime movement, good health and generational timing. At one wet Wimbledon, Roger rested for six soggy days as his foes battled it out. Things just seem to go his way. An Aussie broadcaster said, “Roger’s as perfect a human being as you can get.” Nikolay Davydenko claimed, “Federer’s always lucky.”    

But not always. Recently his knee has betrayed him. And then there was that monster forehand cross-court return of serve on the line that Djokovic blasted to stave off a match point in the 2010 US Open semis. After losing, Roger was dismissive: “He just got the lucky shot at the end and off you go.” He added, “You can get lucky on big points – a let cord at break point is a huge momentum swing. It’s rare, but if you get a break, go on and win the match…You can push luck by playing tough, by having belief and putting unlucky things behind you. It’s very mental. The margins are so, so slim…[Your opponent] needs one net cord or something so silly…But you get second chances sometimes…Umpires don’t have that much of a say like they do in soccer. It feels like it’s on your racquet.  That’s a good thing.”

So we asked, “Roger, are you a lucky man?” He replied, “I’m lucky to play the sport. I never predicted my career to be as good as it’s been. I don’t know how much luck was involved…Many players say, ‘You always get lucky.’ I guess there are reasons behind that.”

Sometimes players find comfort in blaming losses on bad luck. After falling to Justine Henin in three straight majors, Serena said the Belgian “made a lot of lucky shots.” Following a terrible French Open loss to Stefanie Graf, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario sniped, “She was very, very lucky. She had some late calls and hit some lines on some important points. I was in control and played really well, but I was not lucky.”

Others see the big picture and appreciate their good fortune. When she retired, Italian Flavia Pennatta said, “When you are a bit older you understand how lucky you are. Not everyone can do the job they like…Yes, sometimes I want to be home, and I miss my family, but as a player, life is never boring. We travel and make friends all over the world.”

Tennis photographer Cynthia Lum reflected, “I wake up every day and thank the universe for the good luck of having my life, career, friends, family and a strong healthy body. I believe in luck. Many have luck and talent, but the key is showing gratitude for that luck and talent. Hard work is what leads to success.”

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