NEW YORK (AP) — One point from defeat against John Isner at the U.S. Open, Michael Mmoh faced a decision tennis players deal with all the time, whether on a public court or a Grand Slam stage: Swing away and go for broke? Or play it safe?
Serving at 30-40 while trailing 5-4 in the fifth set Thursday, Mmoh chose to approach the moment as if it weren’t particularly special — even if losing that point would mean losing the second-round match. So he didn’t rear back and try to smack his biggest serve of the afternoon; he made sure to get the ball in.
“You’ve almost got to think of it as another point,” Mmoh would say after saving that match point with a 117 mph offering that drew a netted return, then going on to win on his own initial match point 25 minutes later to send Isner into retirement. “The more you think of, ‘Oh, if I miss the shot here, the match is done,’ you’re probably going to end up missing a shot.”
Any tennis contest played to its conclusion ends with at least one match point, where one competitor is a single point from victory and the other is a single point from defeat. Sometimes, there’s more than one. And sometimes, as in Mmoh vs. Isner, each player ends up on each side of the equation. The psychology of how to confront those situations — trying to convert a match point or needing to erase one — is a big part of a sport that, unlike soccer, for example, can’t end in a tie, and unlike basketball, doesn’t end when time runs out on the clock.
“I mean, they’re both stressful. … Sometimes you overthink,” said Ons Jabeur, a three-time major finalist who needed four match points to finish off her second-round victory.
Mmoh said there can be a carryover effect when a match point is saved. To him, it felt “kind of like getting a second life,” while he figured Isner was stewing over letting that opportunity slip away.
Daniil Medvedev, the 2021 U.S. Open champion, held two match points in a third-set tiebreaker against Christopher O’Connell in the second round, but blew the first with a double-fault and the next with a flubbed backhand. Another double-fault ceded that set, so Medvedev needed to play until past 1 a.m. on Friday before finally winning.
How hard was it to get past that wasted opportunity?
“To forget is easy,” Medvedev said, “but the thing is that gives a boost to your opponent. He’s like, ‘OK, now I can really win the match.’”
Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon title winner, saved a match point before eventually bowing out against Caroline Wozniacki, and acknowledged that when she is in that predicament, “I’m kind of already a little bit sad, to be honest, that I’m going to lose.”
Cutting through the clutter of thoughts and finding some clarity might be what matters the most.
“We are thinking about the worst scenario sometimes,” said Elina Svitolina, who made her third Grand Slam semifinal appearance at Wimbledon in July. “Somewhere you have a voice telling you, ‘Oh, you’re going to lose,’ maybe. But then you have to convince yourself. You have to speak to yourself. … I convince myself that I’ve got this.”
The best of the best, Svitolina said, find that positive vibe when it’s most pivotal — ahead or behind on the scoreboard.
She didn’t name any names, but 23-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic certainly would fit the profile.
His resume is filled with comebacks after being a point from elimination, perhaps none more famous than against Roger Federer at both the U.S. Open and at Wimbledon. This season, Djokovic has won two titles after averting a match point, including when he edged Carlos Alcaraz at the Cincinnati Masters last month.
Chris Eubanks is one of the five other men who collected an ATP trophy in 2023 after being a point from exiting.
“I’ve been playing tennis since I was 2, been playing tournaments since I was like 6 or 7. So I’ve faced countless match points. Faced probably thousands, if not millions,” said the 27-year-old American, who bowed out of the U.S. Open in the second round. “But for me, it’s about clarity of mind. Like, ‘If I were to lose this point, which way am I OK with going out? Am I going to be passive or am I going to be aggressive?’”
His process at match point involves weighing the patterns he prefers, what his opponent might be expecting, what his opponent’s tendencies are, and so on.
Seems like a lot to consider while a serve clock is ticking away.