On Saturday, I watched American Sofia Kenin beat Garbine Muguruza (pronounced MOOOO-gah-RUTH-ahhhhhh) in the Australian Open women’s final. It was an incredible performance from the 21-year-old American, who lost the first set and appeared to be in trouble before dominating the second set. She then won some incredible points with her relentless defense in the third set and kinda cruised to the victory. Kinda. Throughout, Kenin was talking to herself like some crazed scientist experimenting with mercury back in the day. I found it both adorable and unsettling.
The final point was decided on Muguruza’s serve. Down 5-2, she double faulted on two straight points, and her serve seemed extremely shaky all of a sudden. The game went to deuce, and then advantage Kenin. On championship point, Muguruza missed her first serve, then didn’t like her toss on her second serve. When she caught that errant toss, the crowd gasped. Everyone could tell she wanted NO PART of serving at that moment. Sure enough, she hit her next serve long to lose the Australian Open.
It was one of the most devastating, anticlimactic moments I’ve seen in recent sporting memory. The crowd didn’t seem like they could bring themselves to applaud. Sure, Kenin was almost certainly going to win anyway, but we wanted to see her lace a backhand winner up the line and drop to her knees in victory. Instead, her opponent effectively seppuku’d herself, and we were left holding our mint juleps and thinking, did I really need to stick around for that? If you think I’m being harsh, you probably didn’t watch it. It was rough.
This is far from the first time that an open final has been decided on a double fault. Djokovich lost two French opens to Nadal in the same fashion. There have been a number of examples throughout the years, I learned, from an article written by a company that I can’t stand even though it’s toast so I won’t post it here. Just google that shit if you care. But there was something about this women’s final on Saturday ending on a double fault that really sucked the air out of the place. Kenin brought her hands to her face, more astonished than exultant, and the tamest celebration ensued.
I thought of Maximus when they take him to the woods to execute him and he says, “at least give me a clean death—a soldier’s death.” At least give Kenin a clean victory, a soldier’s victory! Come on, Muguruza! Or give yourself the clean death. You deserved it too. Go down swinging.
In ping pong, if you’re down 20-16, some house rules will give you “suckers serve” where you can’t lose on a serve. Some dopes take advantage of this and smack insane, spin-heavy serves at you, missing four or five, before one finally lands. We don’t need to get that extreme, but maybe we give tennis players three serves on championship point? Just in case they miss the first two? Something to consider.
This got me thinking about other terrible ways to lose a big sporting event. Missing an extra point that would push the game to overtime, a la John Carney and the Saints, is tough. But extra points are far from the chip shot they used to be before they moved them back. And that Carney miss was so painful mostly because the Saints had pulled off their own Cal-Stanford ending, only to have the kicker tell the team he’d run out of cherries.
Missing a penalty in soccer? No. A layup in basketball? Don’t think so.
The best parallel I can come up with is a pitcher walking in the winning run with the bases loaded. Given the stakes of a major tournament final, it would have to be a playoff baseball game. The Mets famously lost to the Braves in game 6 of the 1999 NLCS when Kenny Rogers walked Andruw Jones with the bases loaded to end their season.
I remember watching this game. I turned to my dad and said “wait, that’s it?” I was a lot stupider back then. But it was inconceivable to me that the game could end on what I deemed a technicality. No hit, no crazy pitch, no excitement. The Braves won a playoff series when a guy literally walked to home plate.
Maybe Muguruza can find solace with this clip. I’ll send it to her people.