From First Set Bagel to Sounding the Victory Bugle

Lorenzo Giustino of Italy was handed a bagel by Corentin Moutet (handle the first name!) of France in the First set of the First round of the Cold French Open.  The next day, that is six hours and five minutes of match-time later, Giustino took the fifth set, 18-16 to win his first Grand Slam main draw and ATP-tour level match. For the Italian, who has been around since 2007 this win could not have come in a more dramatic fashion. At 6h5m, this was the second longest French Open match ever played.  With this memorable 0-6, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 18-16  win, Giustino was assured of a prize money of 84000 Euros, more than his total earnings last year and double of what he has earned in 2020. From a whitewash in the first set to a hard fought 18-16 in the fifth- is this the most dramatic of tennis turnarounds that I have seen or read about involving the first set bagel?

His second round opponent, Diego Schwartzman, himself once came back from the dead. In the Round One match at the Roland Garros in 2017, Schwartzman had overcome Andrey Rublev 0-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 9-7. Diego, aware of Giustino’s new found love for bagels handed him another one in his 6-1,7-5,6-0 victory to enter the Round 3.

Lorenzo’s and Diego’s first set bagel connection piqued my interest in the post-first-set-bagel recoveries in best of five matches. Such score-lines are rare, and I could only recall two great five-setters which I saw live and had a six-nil score in their first sets.

The greatest match of them all, given the occasion and the drama, was played at the Roland Garros. In the 2004 final, Argentinian Gaston Gaudio came back from a first set drubbing to defeat his compatriot Guillermo Coria 0-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 8-6. No player has before or since overcome a first set bagel in a Grand Slam final. That Gaudio came back from two sets down to win the trophy made it doubly special.

The only instance of a player making a successful comeback from a first set blank in a Grand Slam semi-final occurred at the Wimbledon in 1981 when Bjorn Borg defeated Jimmy Connors 0-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-0, 6-4. Borg eventually lost the final to McEnroe.

Casual search brought forth an astounding trivia. Iceman Borg had won four such matches in Grand Slams (and seven overall). These were:

1974French OpenR-4Erik van Dillen0-6 6-3 6-3 5-7 6-3

1975WimbledonR-3Jaime Fillol0-6 6-4 6-4 6-3
1976French OpenR-1D.Bedel0-6 6-0 6-4 7-5

1981WimbledonSemi-finalJimmy Connors0-6 4-6 6-3 6-0 6-4.

Perhaps he was named Iceman not for his calm-court demeanour, but because it took some warm-up and drubbing for the thaw in his icy game to set in! Interestingly, two of them even saw Borg handing out bagels to his opponents later in the match.

Rafael Nadal was bageled by Dominic Thiem in the opening set of the Quarter-final of the US Open 2018. In that hard-fought classic five-setter, Rafa somehow survived, only to withdraw mid-way in the semifinal against Del Potro. The score-line for the Rafa-Thiem match read as 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7, 7-6.

Astonishingly, 465 times since 1969, it has so happened that an eventual winner has come back from a first set bagel, and won the match in four or five sets. Besides the Guistino-Moutet, Schwartzman-Rublev and Rafa-Thiem battles, there have been three other such occasions between 2016-2020–

YearGrand Slam/roundPlayer wonPlayer lostScoreline
2016US Open round 1Giannessi (Italy)Kudla (US)0-6, 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-0  
2017French Open round 4Nishikori (Japan)Vardaresco(Fra)0-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-0
2018Wimbledon round 2Paire (France)Shapovlov(Canada)0-6, 6-2, 6-4, 7-6

On three more occasions since 2000, players have recovered from first set bagels in the Grand Slams-

2002Australian Open R-1Stefan KoubekSaulnier0-6, 1-6, 7-6, 6-4, 8-6
2004French Open R-1Hyung Taik LeeSoderling0-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5
2007French Open R-1WawrinkaHidalgo0-6, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5, 6-4

Davis Cup and ATP Masters’ finals have become best of three sets affairs. It is only in Grand Slams now that such comebacks after first set blanks are possible. That this has happened 9 times in the last 20 years, and six times in the last five, is still remarkable. Out of all these matches, Guistino’s marathon over Moutet was perhaps the most draining contest. It is also quite fitting that the man who refuses to ever call it quits, Rafael Nadal, has at least once emulated the great escape feats of Iceman Borg.

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