The price of lowering your guard

The only thing that could have alleviated a bit of disappointment over Rafael’s defeat in their Roland Garros semi-final match against Novak Djokovic would have been for him to be defeated in the final by Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Throughout these last two weeks of competition I was telling my children. The player that I saw as most capable of beating the Serbian on clay if the opportunity arose, apart from my nephew, of course, was precisely the Greek. And for much of the meeting I held out hope that it would happen.

After a very tight first set, which could well have been scored by either of the two contenders and that, finally, the Greek won in the tie-breakerNovak accused the loss and delivered the second, too, with a resounding 6-2. This was the moment when Stefanos seemed to have the game on the right track and the possibility of his first Grand Slam close. But it is already known. When the person in front of you is one of the greats in the history of this sport, until you score the last point of the game, nobody can relax.

During the years that I accompanied my nephew on the circuit and, each time a similar moment came to him —with two rounds in his favor—, my prudence was accentuated and my slogan was very clear: “Rafael, maximum attention now” , I used to tell him knowing that the first games of the third set were decisive. I asked him to play them as if his life depended on it, not to lose concentration and not to give up any ball for lost. Both Rafael and I knew that continuing like this, with equal intensity, used to be the cause of the rival losing confidence in himself and in the comeback.

It is common or understandable, on the other hand, that just the opposite happens. That some relief seizes the player who is ahead by two sets up, let him lower his guard a little and finally end up giving up the third set. From there, the nerves make an appearance. The player fears that the opponent will be able to turn the scoreboard and time runs against one and in favor of the other. And that’s what happened to Tsitsipas not only in this Sunday’s final, but also in his semi-final match against Alexander Zverev. Against the latter, he had the ability to remake himself and end up taking the game. But this time it was different.

In the first games of the third set, Stefanos lacked some aggressiveness and that extra concentration that more experienced players tend to give in the important moments. Djokovic took notice of the situation, increased his pace of play and maintained the same intensity until the end. He went from dominated to dominator, and as the games progressed, I think we all had the feeling that the scoreboard was going to be definitively pronounced in favor of the Serbian.

We saw a good game and a denouement that brings Novak dangerously close to Federer and Rafael, in the fight they have to close their respective careers as the greatest conqueror of Grand Slam titles. The next two tournaments, Wimbledon and the US Open, will probably be decisive in unveiling it. I would not dare to venture conclusions, but I do dare to maintain the confidence that it is my nephew who raises one of the two.

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