Peter McNamara was a game Australian tennis player who beat experienced clay-courter Harold Solomon in the second round of the 1982 French Open. He won 2-6, 3-6, 7-6, 6-1, 6-3 over the American, saving a match point along the way. Afterward when asked about coming so close to losing, McNamara, who died Saturday at age 64, casually replied, “there’s a big difference between match point and losing a match.”
Roger Federer is all too aware of that – except the difference for him was between match point and winning a match – after failing to convert two championship points serving at 8-7, 40-15 in the fifth set his 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(4), 4-6, 13-12(3) loss to Novak Djokovic in this year’s Wimbledon final.
It was a crushing defeat as he attempted to win a ninth Wimbledon, and 21st overall Grand Slam, title. After the match at his media conference probably wasn’t the ideal time to expect profound analysis from him about the championship points – one lost on a forehand error and the second on a forehand cross-court passing-shot winner by Djokovic.
The first question to him was about what went wrong on the match points. Federer just shrugged and smiled, “I mean, one shot I guess. So (I) don’t know which one to pick – your choice.”
Winning and losing between two champions such as Federer and Djokovic often comes down to fine margins and the margins don’t get any finer than a match or championship point. One bold or one faint-hearted shot and the match could be over. In this year’s Wimbledon final Djokovic, after Federer hit two aces to get to 40-15 (double championship point) in the 16th game of the final set, hit three shots and didn’t miss any of them. He returned Federer serves on both championship points, the first well enough to force a Federer forehand error. The second may have been a little short but his next shot – that forehand passing shot winner – got him to the haven of deuce. Then, after two successive errors into the net by Federer, the crisis had passed for the 32-year-old Serb.
The next eight games went on serve and the 7-3 tiebreak that followed was controlled by Djokovic as Federer made five errors – either of the unforced or forced variety.
Saving match points and winning the title at Wimbledon is rare – in fact the last player to win Wimbledon saving a match point at any point during the event was Neale Fraser of Australia in 1960. It has happened much more frequently at the other three Grand Slams – on six different occasions since 2001 at the Australian, French and US Opens.
Over all the matches he has played in his career, Federer has won 21 times after saving match point or points, and lost 24 times after holding match point or points. That minus ratio would be different except for an eight-month stretch in 2010 when he lost four times after having a match point or points – Marcos Baghdatis (3) in Indian Wells, Tomas Berdych (1) in Miami, Djokovic (2) at the US Open and Gael Monfils (5) at the Paris Indoor.
In Grand Slams, he has lost six times after having a match point or points. They are listed below:
2002 Australian Open 4th R: 7-6(3), 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 8-6 – Tommy Haas (1)
2005 Australian Open SF: 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6(6), 9-7 – Marat Safin (1)
2010 US Open SF: 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5 – Novak Djokovic (2)
2011 US Open SF: 6-7(7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 – Novak Djokovic (2)
2018 Wimbledon QF: 2-6, 6-7(5), 7-5, 6-4, 13-11 – Kevin Anderson (1)
2019 Wimbledon F: 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(4), 4-6, 13-12(3) – Novak Djokovic (2)
Probably the two most memorable were the one against Safin at the Australian Open when Federer hit backhand stab volley short with the Russian somehow reaching forward and lofting a lob that Federer chased down. But his ‘tweener’ attempt wound up in the net.
The second was at the 2011 US Open when Djokovic cracked a screaming forehand cross-court, service-return winner on the first match point and then played to the crowd in celebration. That irritated Federer no end because he thought it had been a lucky, go-for-broke shot.
Three times in his Grand Slam career Federer has won after saving match point:
2000 US Open 1R: 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 3-4 ret. – Peter Wessels (1)
2014 US Open QF: 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 – Gael Monfils (2)
2016 Wimbledon QF: 6-7(4), 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(9), 6-3 – Marin Cilic (3)
In two of his Grand Slam losses he was vulnerable physically – against Safin at the 2005 Australian Open he had a foot issue and had trouble walking the following day, and against Anderson last year at Wimbledon he had a hand problem that persisted for a few months.
Federer is not alone among great athletes in experiencing failure as well as success. Golfer Jack Nicklaus is widely considered the greatest player in the history of his sport, mainly because of the 18 major titles that he won. But it’s not always remembered that the great American also finished runner-up 19 times in major championships.
The Federer faithful were heartbroken over their man’s loss to Djokovic nine days ago with so much at stake. Maybe most of all because of the possibility of a 21st Grand Slam title just 24 days before his 38th birthday. He himself was devastated and it showed in his response to the final question in his media conference when he was asked to compare his classic five-set final with Rafael Nadal in 2008 with this year’s five-setter against Djokovic. “Epic ending, so close, so many moments,” Federer said. “I mean – sure there’s similarities. But you got to go dig, see what they are. I’m the loser both times. So that’s the only similarity I see.”
Aficionados of the great Swiss shouldn’t despair too much about their man, and he himself said about getting over the disappointment that it was, “like similar to ’08 maybe, I will look back at it and think, ‘well, it’s not that bad after all.’ For now it hurts, and it should, like every loss does here at Wimbledon. I think it’s a mindset. I’m very strong at being able to move on because I don’t want to be depressed about actually an amazing tennis match.”
Sports through the ages is full of the seemingly impossible – such as Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender Patrick Roy winning 10 overtime playoff games in a row on the way to his team becoming 1993 Stanley Cup champions.
Probably the tennis equivalent of that would be the charismatic Italian Adriano Panatta in 1976. He won the Italian Open after saving 11 match points in the very first round against Aussie Kim Warwick in a 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 victory before defeating top-ranking players Solomon, John Newcombe and Guillermo Vilas in a row to win the title.
Then Panatta (on the left above with Peter McNamara) went to Paris for Roland Garros and again saved a match point in the very first round with a spectacular lunging volley in overcoming Czech Pavel Hutka 2-6, 6-2, 6-2, 0-6, 12-10 – before eventually winning the title with a 6-1, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 victory over Solomon in the final.
That was Panatta’s only French Open, and his only Grand Slam, championship. The same can be said about Federer as far as Roland Garros titles. So while he’s gutted about those two championship points he missed against Djokovic on Centre Court – he probably wouldn’t trade them for the inside/out forehand winner he hit against Tommy Haas at the 2009 French Open when the German was one break point away from leading their round-of-16 match 7-6(4), 7-5, 5-3. Lose that point – and the Federer forehand landed very close to the sideline – and he would almost surely not have won Roland Garros that year. And – considering the mastery 12-time winner Nadal has shown at the French Open – he would likely never have won the Coupe des Mousquetaires in Paris. That would have left a gaping hole in his resume and considerably weakened the argument for him being the best player in tennis history.
For diehard Federer fans, remembering that critical forehand against Haas may help put in perspective the hurt of this year’s championship point failures against Djokovic at Wimbledon.
Peter McNamara, who died at 64 on Saturday after a largely secretive struggle with prostate cancer, was about as fair dinkum an Aussie as you could find.
His was also a cautionary tale about how fleeting a professional athlete’s career can be. In March, 1983, he won the tour event in Brussels, defeating from the quarter-finals on – Kevin Curren, Vitas Gerulaitis and Ivan Lendl. That took his ATP ranking to No. 7 and put the 27-year-old from Melbourne in the lead in the Race standings for the year. Two days later, he was playing in Rotterdam when he badly injured his right knee – tearing his anterior cruciate ligament as well as both his lateral and medial menisci (cartilages).
Looking back McNamara attributed the injury to a combination of being tired from the previous week, wearing different shoes (put on two games earlier) because his supplier was unable to get his regular model after he went through eight pairs the previous week and the Greenset court surface that didn’t have any give when he planted his foot.
McNamara subsequently spent time in Toronto and eventually, in January, 1984, underwent a three-hour operation performed by renowned Toronto orthopedic surgeon Robert Jackson. Billie Jean King, who had a series of knee surgeries and then came back to competition at a high level, was one of the key people in encouraging McNamara to have the operation.
He returned to action in 1984 but was never again the same player and retired in 1987.
Subsequently, McNamara played some senior tour events and coached Mark Philippoussis, Grigor Dimitrov, Matthew Ebden and, most recently, Chinese WTA player Wang Qiang, who he helped reach the top-20 at the end of 2018.
— Brayden Schnur (@BraydenSchnur) July 18, 2019
This is a fun tweet from Colette Lewis of @zootennis with a picture of a somewhat younger Brayden Schnur.
(Feature Photo: Mauricio Paiz)