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Don't lose the first set

8/29/2013 - Tennis David Ferrer
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Five Things We Learned: Day 4

Greg Garber and Howard Bryant discuss the five things they learned from Day 4 of the US Open.

NEW YORK -- A common line of thinking in the age of the Big Four suggests that the top players, especially during a Grand Slam, are so good they can afford to start slow, and play their way into a tournament.

It is a terrific piece of fiction that allows legends of toughness to be written and generally keeps the panic meter down during a tight first set, but the truth is quite different. Tournament pressure is obvious and real. Belief is a most precious and inexplicable commodity, and loss of it, even temporarily, is enough to prove fatal.

While there are so many variables that affect the outcome of a match --  the matchup, the surface, injuries and conditions -- it doesn't matter if the name is Federer or Nadal, Murray or Djokovic, or even Gael Monfils or Tommy Robredo -- nothing in the game is more important than winning the first set of the match. It is akin to winning the turnover battle in playoff football.

On its face, winning the first set would appear to be important, especially during the regular year when matches are best two out of three. More surprising, however, is how even the great players are not immune from one fact:

Lose the first set and they probably lose the match.

Statistically, players who drop the opener generally end up with a sour face on match point, but the world remembers the great escapes. Novak Djokovic was down two sets to Andreas Seppi in the fourth round of the 2012 French Open, came back, won and reached the final. Roger Federer was down by the same margin to Julien Benneteau in the third round at Wimbledon a month later yet wound up winning his 17th major. Andy Murray won his first Wimbledon by coming back from two sets down in the quarterfinals against Fernando Verdasco. Last year's US Open was highlighted by the record number of comebacks from two sets down, suggesting perhaps to the storytellers that momentum had a way of shifting, even in today's game of physicality and endurance.

More immediately, James Blake's final match at the US Open came Wednesday night, a loss to Ivo Karlovic after winning the first two sets.

Lyrical moments and stirring comebacks aside, the front-runner dominates tennis.

 Djokovic, Murray and Rafael Nadal are the only three players in the top 25 who have won at least half of their matches after losing the first set. David Ferrer is known for his tenacity, and John Isner (7-10, .411), with his monstrous serve, puts so much pressure on opponents that he is never out of a match if the rest of his game doesn't break down. That the top three players in the world have kept first-set losses to a minimum underscores how important it is for players to start quickly, maintain belief throughout the beginning of a match, how much fight is required to avoid falling into the hole.

Conversely, nothing seems to take the fight out of a player more than losing the first set. Maybe at the elite level, players are excellent at holding leads. In the men's game, so many players are beaten before even leaving the locker room when playing Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray. Any shaky belief dissipates further when they're down a break.

Or maybe it is the psychological weight of knowing that losing a first set means at least another hour on the court, with the pressure of having to come from behind. It's one thing to pick on guys outside of the top 100 for not quite developing the mental toughness to persevere, but even those inside the top 25 find it difficult to claw back. When a player drops the first set, the knockout punch is only a few points away, or worse, has already been delivered.

The No-Chance Club

Philipp Kohlschreiber, who plays Edouard Roger-Vasselin in the second round, has won exactly two matches this year after dropping the opening set, in the Hamburg semifinals against Daniel Brands and in the third round in Barcelona against Martin Klizan.

More vexing is the case of Tomas Berdych, the No. 5 player in the world who plays American Dennis Kudla. He has put himself in such a deep hole so often, losing the opening set a resounding 21 times this year and winning just seven matches (33 percent).

Not surprisingly, despite their high rankings, virtually every player on that list -- especially Janko Tipsarevic and Berdych -- has at some point in their careers been criticized for not competing hard enough.

All of which heightens the appreciation for the guys on tour who are less likely to cash it in, and more likely to fight. Obviously, the great fighter is Nadal, the anti-Kohlschreiber, who has dropped the first set 10 times but still returned to win eight, losing only to Steve Darcis at Wimbledon and Djokovic at Monte Carlo. If Kohlschreiber loses 86.6 percent of the time after dropping the opener, David Ferrer provides something of a counterbalance. But as a top 10 players, he also is a curious one.

Ferrer should be credited for his tremendous fight, such as in the first set of his opening match here against the Australian teenager Nick Kyrgios. Kyrgios had chances to break serve. Ferrer wrestled away the first set, where he was outplayed, and Kyrgios disappeared in straight sets. In some ways, it was a repeat of Wimbledon, where Ferrer lost first-set tiebreaks to Alexandr Dolgopolov and Ivan Dodig, only to win the matches. This year, Ferrer has lost the opener 19 times -- a huge number for a top player, yet still won eight of those matches (42 percent).

That grit and toughness are legendary, proof of how hard Ferrer competes, which has built his reputation. What it hasn't done is win a Grand Slam title. And there's the real message: No player, not even the toughest fighters like Ferrer, can continue to live so dangerously in a tournament like this and beyond.