Games can take a long time, and players waiting to take the court for the next match have to find ways to stay sharp.
When Felix Auger-Aliassime won the first two sets of his men’s quarterfinals against Daniil Medvedev at last year’s Australian Open, Gonzalo Escobar started prepping for his mixed doubles semifinals, the next match in Rod Laver Arena. As the third set progressed, Escobar and his partner Lucie Hradecka, along with their opponents Jason Kubler and Jaimee Fourlis, began loosening up.
But Medvedev won that set in a tiebreaker, forcing the doubles players to switch gears. They lay down, covering their bodies to stay warm. At first they chatted, then Hradecka listened to music while Escobar talked to his wife before watching the match.
With Auger-Aliassime ahead in the fourth set, the doubles players again grew silent and serious, resuming their physical preparations. But again Medvedev prevailed.
“It was very tiring,” Escobar said.
Again, they lay down. Escobar ate a banana, energy bars and gels to keep his body fueled. The fifth set lasted another hour until Medvedev won. Escobar said that when the doubles players finally entered the court, Medvedev “looked at us and said, ‘Sorry guys.’”
In most major sports, the athletes know their start time. Tennis, however, is a guessing game: The previous match may be over in an hour or last for three. And Grand Slams deepen the uncertainty because men play a best-of-five instead of best-of-three format, as they do in other tournaments. Longer matches produce more seesaw battles, forcing waiting players to continually adjust their physical routine and mental preparations.
Even a match seemingly near the finish offers no guarantees.
“It can be two sets to love with one player up 5-4 and the match could be over in five minutes, or it could last more than two hours,” said Craig Boynton, who coaches Hubert Hurkacz. “You’re estimating and observing, but it’s all guesswork.”
Boynton was coaching John Isner in 2010 when Isner beat Nicholas Mahut at Wimbledon in a 70-68 fifth set that stretched across multiple days, eventually forcing officials to shift waiting players to other courts. “I’m happy all the Slams now do fifth-set tiebreakers,” Boynton said, which prevent final sets from going on indefinitely.
Alex de Minaur, who followed a four-hour five-setter in his first 2022 United States Open match, said afterward that the key was to be “mentally versatile.”
“You have to do everything to prepare as if the match before yours will go three sets and then adapt,” he said. “You can’t let it have a negative impact or waste too much energy, although that’s easier said than done.”
Many coaches request the first match of the day to avoid this issue, said David Nainkin, who coaches Brandon Holt (the son of Tracy Austin, who won the U.S. Open in 1979 and 1981). “The third match is the toughest slot — you can be on any time from 2 to 6 p.m.”
Certain matches offer more predictability, said Peter Polansky, who coaches Denis Shapovalov. If Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal is trailing the 50th-ranked player two sets to one, Polansky would say “let’s wait it out,” but if either superstar is leading by a set it’s more likely time for “high-alert mode” to get ready to play.
But repeatedly leaping into high alert can be draining, said Austin, whose 1981 U.S. Open final against Martina Navratilova followed a five-setter between John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis. Austin didn’t want to feel rushed so, anticipating an ending, she taped her feet and got dressed.
“I was ready to go and I’d get charged up, but then their match would extend,” she said. When the men finished, Austin felt “a little sapped by the emotional roller coaster” and lost the first set 6-1, but bounced back to win the match.
Shifting scenarios give experienced players an edge, Austin said. “It’s a gradual learning process. You develop tools and routines in those situations.” She said one factor was figuring out whether you prefer being around people or in a quiet space alone.
After waiting out a five-setter before her fourth-round match at the U.S. Open, Caroline Garcia noted that she passed part of her limbo reading, before prepping her rackets and then going to the gym to “fire myself up a bit.”
Some players meditate or even nap once a match extends, Polansky said, although it’s tricky because a final set can be a quick 6-1 laugher. At the opposite end, many players will gather with their team and play cards or board games.
“You don’t want to do anything that will fatigue you mentally,” Polansky said, noting that spending too much time staring at a phone as matches elongate can be detrimental.
When a match suddenly goes to a fourth or fifth set, Nainkin said some waiting players change their location, perhaps leaving the locker room for the lounge, “just to reset mentally and get out of ‘ready to go mode’ for 30 minutes.”
If the end of the match is exciting, many players watch while getting ready, he said, which also helps them pace their warm-ups. Some players, however, just have their coaches tracking the score. “The coach’s job is to have a read on the match so the player can switch off entirely if the match goes to a fifth set.”
Timing your food is also essential, Garcia said. “You don’t want to eat too much, but if it goes to a fifth set you need to have another snack while waiting.”
But numerous smaller details must also be factored in. “Some players want their ankles taped right before match time so it’s stiffer, while others want to walk around and break it in,” Boynton said. “Some want to get limber and sweaty and then use the last few minutes to go through the game plan, but others don’t.”
In a close fourth set, he added, Hurkacz will get on the treadmill and do sprints then undo his shoelaces and do a few stretches and wait. During a tiebreaker, he’ll lace up again, but if the match goes to a fifth set, the shoes come off and he’ll ask for another round of rice and vegetables.
“Everyone has their own process and talking about it sounds crazy, but it’s just normal to us,” Boynton said. “You don’t have to be the best at dealing with it, you just have to be better than your opponent.”