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Sporting Life

In tennis' third set, a tense theatre is inevitable

"Drama," said that old cowboy Clint Eastwood, "usually has some sort of intense conflict." He could have been describing the third sets of tennis matches. Think of them as last acts in an athletic theatre, full of tense twists and fatal turns. It is like any other theatre except the writers of the drama - the two players - don't know the ending. The tension lies in the spectacular unknown.

The third set is what Dominika Cibulkova is ready for on Saturday evening in her WTA Finals semi-final. Even while sitting down at changeovers her yellow shoes keep drumming on the floor. As if she's listening to a song in her head whose lyrics are "run, run, run". Later she swears she "gets tired". No one believes it. She would exhaust bees.

Cibulkova the Slovak has won the second set 7-6 after Svetlana Kuznetsova the Russian won the first 6-1. They've been playing for 91 minutes and they don't know it but 56 minutes of struggle remain. In the end, Cibulkova will win, throw her racket, fall on the floor and Kuznetsova will ignore her. The third set is tennis but also opera.

The first rally of this match takes 13 shots. The second, 10 strokes. In the second game there will be a 17-stroke conversation. In the second set tie-breaker they once go 22 shots. It is the season's end, but their movement is still relentless and their dexterity is still confounding. ESPN once did a fun study on the toughest sports and boxing was first but tennis was seventh. As athletes they have come some distance.

In the old days, recounted Martina Navratilova yesterday, she pulled a stomach muscle and the doctor recommended the jacuzzi. Chris Evert remembers going to Salt Lake City in the 1980s with her former husband, the skier Andy Mill, and says "when I saw how they trained, the Olympic champions, I was like whoa, tennis is not even close".

Now, with trainers and physios, these women are sophisticated athletes. Ashton Eaton, twice Olympic decathlon champion, told a website that "tennis is the next most athletic sport next to the decathlon. There's the technical aspect, the agility, the mind-body awareness."

Men players are mostly tall with muscular serves which provide them cheap points. Women players are shorter and know struggle for almost every point must be earned. Of the four semi-finalists yesterday only one served aces.

The third set has begun and the Slovak and Russian are running. Later, between them, they will use the word "aggressive" six times in their press conferences. Their intentions are clear, but who has the momentum is not. Cibulkova will win the first two games, Kuznetsova the next four and Cibulkova the final four. This up and down is dramatic, intense, nerve-racking. It makes women's tennis difficult to play but a delight to watch.

Pete Sampras, whose serve may be the greatest shot tennis has ever seen, would break a rival once, yawn, and hold his serve five successive times. Men players are mostly tall with muscular serves which provide them cheap points. Women players are shorter and know struggle for almost every point must be earned. Of the four semi-finalists yesterday only one served aces.

Cibulkova leads in the third set 2-0 and Kuznetsova flicks a forehand winner to break back. The longer the set goes, the louder the grunting. These women deal in millimetres and Cibulkova's backhand is off by a few and she is broken again to 2-3. Kuznetsova embroiders a 21-shot rally with a drop shot and lob and holds to 4-2. They breathe.

"Go Dominika" shout some fans and she listens. From 2-4 to 5-4 she will hit a drive volley, a forehand cross-court winner and two more down the line. Hesitancy is not in her vocabulary.

She runs to the baseline for what will be the last game, while Kuznetsova trudges out with a towel on her shoulder. You can read her body language but she can't read Cibulkova's forehand. The Slovak sends another one stinging down the line to set up match point. Then a net cord helps her win and her father is crying.

Kuznetsova, mostly a fine, funny woman, shakes the umpire's hand and goes to pack her bag. She has turned her back on Cibulkova because Cibulkova's camp it seems has annoyed her. A match full of heart ends with a half-hearted handshake. It is unfortunate yet it peels back sport to show you what hurt looks like. The third set is over. The plot has unfolded.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 30, 2016, with the headline 'In tennis' third set, a tense theatre is inevitable'. Print Edition | Subscribe