WIMBLEDON, England -- The ball from Belinda Bencic was short, and Iga Swiatek scrambled to track it down.
Approaching the service line in the deuce court, she hesitated briefly, assessing the moment. Considering the immense stakes, most players probably would have pushed the ball up the line, but Swiatek took a full cut, sending a sharply angled backhand crosscourt for a winner.
And that was just her second straight saved match point. The first was a forceful forehand so clean that Bencic could only get a frame on it. And so, the World No.1 on the precipice of losing in Wimbledon’s fourth round on Sunday -- she was down 6-7 (4), 5-6, 15-40 -- went on to survive a tiebreak and win in three sets.
Afterward, Swiatek, who will feature in Part 2 of Netflix's Break Point, admitted she wasn’t quite sure what happened.
“Honestly,” she told reporters, “right now I don’t even remember how it was. But usually, I know that I have nothing to lose. Usually, I know that the player that is supposed to win this point is having little bit more pressure. I also know how it is to have match points and to kind of try to close it, but not be too impatient.
“I just wanted to kind of play my game no matter what the situation was.”
Far easier said than done, for match point is quite literally the point of no return. Game points can be bothersome, set points an exercise in anxiety, tiebreaks a nerve-tightening odyssey. Match point is, by definition, the critical-mass moment in a tennis match, when winning and losing hangs in the balance, when a snap judgement, a single swing defines that player, maybe forever.
It’s a microcosm of hundreds, even thousands of strokes, when a single swing can validate -- or nullify -- weeks or months or even a career of hard work. It’s similar to a soccer game that comes down to the final penalty kick, when goaltender versus shooter decides the outcome. Or a one-on-one drive to the basket as time runs out in overtime.
But those are team sports -- this is, breathtakingly, one-on-one, potentially all-or-nothing.
Match point means pressure -- lots of suffocating stress and anxiety and tension.
More from Wimbledon
- Keys halts Mirra Andreeva's run in Wimbledon fourth round
- Pegula rolls into first Wimbledon quarterfinal
- WTA 50: Looking back at Kvitova's dominance at Wimbledon
- Svitolina outlasts Azarenka in Wimbledon fourth-round thriller
The trick, according to Daria Abramowicz, a Polish sports psychologist best known for her work with Swiatek, is to convince yourself otherwise.
“From my standpoint,” she said in Madrid back in May, “it’s best when the player is able to perceive match point as a random point, to act like that’s the normal point. We perceive stress on three levels: our thoughts, our emotions and our body’s response.
“So the optimal situation is that even when the thought occurs – ‘Oh, this is a match point’ -- we can regulate our emotions, just for a second. Shut them and then use your body as if it’s a normal situation. So you’re able to optimize your potential.”
Barbora Krejcikova’s instinct for survival just might be the keenest of all the Hologic WTA Tour’s players.
In the 2021 Roland Garros semifinals, she saved a match point against Maria Sakkari and two days later was a Grand Slam singles champion for the first time. Last year, in the Sydney semifinals, Krejcikova saved seven match points against Anett Kontaveit before converting her fifth.
In February, buoyed by saving four match points in a second-round victory over Daria Kasatkina in Dubai, she proceeded to defeat two-time major champion Petra Kvitova -- and then, impressively in succession, the top three ranked players in the world.
Was that flaming second-round escape a factor in what followed?
“Definitely, yes,” Krejcikova said at the Mutua Madrid Open. “It gave me confidence. I felt that I overcome a little bit my death at the tournament. I felt like this is my turn right now and I’m just going to keep going.”
As Krejcikova discovered, surviving the crucible of match points can leave you with a bullet-proof feeling of invincibility. Proving yourself in the most trying of circumstances can’t help but instill a sense of belief. But what happens when you’re on the other side, when you hold match points -- and lose?
“Oh, sh--,” said Aryna Sabalenka, genuinely grimacing at the question. “Everything is in your hands and losing this kind of match really hurts because you remember that moment where you were on match point, feeling everything. It’s not like it’s in your pocket but going your way and you’re losing this match.
“I need a few days to recover after that.”
It happened to the current World No.2 four years ago in Dubai when Bencic saved six match points in a Round of 16 match. Then 20, Sabalenka was undone by nerves when she was serving for the match at 5-3 in the third set. A double fault allowed Bencic to break and, ultimately, complete an unlikely comeback.
The physiological facts
Tightening up in big athletic moments -- some would use the less complimentary description of choking -- is perfectly normal. Even a recreational player will tell you that hitting serves in practice can feel completely different than doing it in the club championship.
Barbora Strycova, playing her first match in more than two years, managed to save four match points before losing the fifth to Elisabetta Cocciaretto in Madrid’s first round. The Czech Republic player said it’s far easier for her to face match points than try to convert them.
“If it’s against me, I’m like ‘OK, I have nothing to lose, I go for it.’ Right?” Strycova said. “It’s a mood like that. I am less stressful.
“When you have the match point, your body gets stiff, your heart rate’s going up and then you are suddenly forgetting what [shots] to play. It’s not always, but thinking sometimes, ‘OK, I will get this match.’ But you are not thinking, `OK, maybe I should serve wide.’ Honestly, it’s nerve-wracking.”
In a very literal way. Science backs this up.
Four physiological responses tend to occur when an athlete faces an important moment:
- The heart rate increases.
- Breathing becomes more rapid.
- The digestive system breaks down, rerouting blood to the muscles in preparation for fight or flight.
- Muscular tension affects fine motor skills.
Whether it’s comparing free-throw percentage in regular-season games as opposed to the playoffs, or the accuracy of cricket bowlers as games progress, various studies in different sports have found that performance generally suffers in these critical moments.
One of the common pitfalls of pressure, Abramowicz said, is attempting to meet the moment by trying too hard.
“You can think, ‘I need to go and do something extraordinary,’” she said. "'I need to do better, I need to do something differently, I need to be hyper-alert.’
“So we have a few strategies here. For example, a player can analyze what worked best the whole match, then go for that. Or you say, ‘Well, OK, this is match point, this is a part of every match. Yeah, it happens.’ And just go win it. The other part is to work with a behavioral strategist.”
Maintaining a shooter’s mentality
In recent years, Sabalenka has developed a basketball shooter’s confidence. For her, match point means forgetting what’s come before and continuing to be aggressive.
“Because every time when you’re just trying to stay in the point you stop swinging and the ball flies, so you have to go for your shots,” Sabalenka said. “I always keep telling myself, ‘Why come to the practice court?’ Like basketball, just keep shooting this shot until the end -- and the balls will go in. As long as you’re swinging, it’s going to go in, you know?”
Sometimes, a match point can be a spark for the player facing it. Four years ago, Bianca Andreescu was playing Irina Camelia Begu in her Miami debut and it very quickly got away from her. Down a set and 5-1, Andreescu saved a match point -- and it seemed to energize her.
“I needed to almost lose to wake up,” Andreescu said after winning 4-6 7-6 (2), 6-2. “I am really grateful how I managed. If you have trust in your game and in your training, then a lot of good things can happen.”
That feeling can carry over.
“It’s like you’re playing with more freedom because you went through a really tough moment and survived,” Sabalenka said. “It’s like `OK, what else can happen to destroy me?’
“It’s giving you extra power in the next matches.”
While players typically acknowledge the pressure of playing match points -- and the inherent shortness of breath -- one of them almost dismissed the notion. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that it was Krejcikova, who is developing a reputation for crunch-time success.
What goes through her mind (and body) on match point?
“I just play the next point, really,” Krejcikova said, matter-of-factly. “I’m not really thinking about it’s a match point. I’m really trying to go and play the next point and just try keep going the same way I’m getting those other points.”
Abramowicz was, understandably, quite familiar with Krejcikova’s run through Dubai earlier this year. First, Krejcikova defeated No.2 Sabalenka, followed by No.3 Jessica Pegula …
“And then Iga,” Abramowicz said.
There are two sets of cognitive abilities, she said. Simple: Sight, attention and concentration. And complex: Decision-making, solving problems and analytical thinking.
“When you learn to free yourself of these simple abilities and the relevance of the match point, you can actually use this,” Abramowicz said. “I would say that might be the answer to [Krejcikova] feeling nothing.
“Then you can use body, use your potential, decide what you want to do. And you then have bigger chances to do this the same as you were doing this during the practice.”