Ranking the 10 Most Epic Matches in Tennis History

Jake CurtisFeatured ColumnistJuly 10, 2013

Ranking the 10 Most Epic Matches in Tennis History

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    Was Novak Djokovic's thrilling, five-set victory over Juan Martin del Potro in the Wimbledon semifinals among the 10 most epic matches in tennis history?

    Perhaps Andy Murray's victory in the finals deserves a spot on the list since he became the first British man in 77 years to win a Wimbledon singles title.

    "Epic" means different things to different people. For the purposes of our rankings, we considered four factors: drama, importance of the match, greatness of the players involved and historical significance.

    There is a tendency to rank recent matches higher, partly because they are fresher in our memory and partly because increased media exposure gave them more prestige.  Nonetheless, our list includes matches from eight different decades, ranging from 1926 to 2012.

    We start with five matches that deserve honorable mention for their distinctive qualities but don't quite reach epic status. Then we count down the 10 most epic matches in history.

Honorable Mention

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    Goran Ivanisevic defeated Patrick Rafter 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7, Wimbledon finals, 2011: The wild atmosphere of this Monday finals, as described by Sports Illustrated, added to the dramatic and surprising victory by Ivanisevic, who was ranked 125th at the time.

    John Isner defeated Nicolas Mahut 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68, Wimbledon first round, 2010: The 11-hour, 5-minute match that covered three days was by far the longest match in history. The 138 games and 8 hours and 11 minutes consumed in the fifth set alone easily broke the records for the longest match in history.

    Rod Laver defeated Tony Roche, 7-9, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, U.S. Open finals, 1969: .Although the match itself was not particularly riveting, the result completed Laver's second Grand Slam. He is the only player to win all four majors in the same year twice.

    Vicki Nelson defeated Jean Hepner, 6-4, 7-6, Virginia Slims of Richmond, Va., first round, 1984: Nelson and Hepner played a single point that lasted 29 minutes and 643 shots, by far the longest point in a professional match. Nelson collapsed with cramps after winning the point, according to the New York Times account. Then she got up and won the 6-hour, 11-minute match.

    Arthur Ashe defeated Jimmy Connors, 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4, Wimbledon finals, 1975: The 22-year-old top-seeded Connors was an overwhelming 3-to-20 betting favorite, according to an ESPN.com article. In fact, he was a 9-to-10 favorite to win in straight sets. But the No. 6-seeded 31-year-old Ashe took the pace off his shots, relying on angles and finesse to frustrate Connors' powerful groundstrokes in a major upset.

10. Monica Seles vs. Steffi Graf, French Open Finals, 1992

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    Monica Seles' 6-2, 3-6, 10-8 victory over Steffi Graf in the 1985 French Open finals barely edged out Margaret Court's 14-12, 11-9 victory over Billie Jean King in the 1970 Wimbledon final for the 10th spot on our list.

    The 18-year-old Seles was ranked No. 1 in the world and had already won five of the nine Grand Slam titles she would eventually capture. Graf was 22 and ranked No. 2, having won 10 of the 22 major titles she would ultimately claim, causing her to be rated the top women's player in history by the Tennis Channel.

    In the 1992 French Open, Graf fought off five match points against her in a taut, 90-minute third set. She saved four of those match points while serving at 3-5, and rallied to take leads of 6-5 and 7-6. But Seles ultimately prevailed.

    "I think it was the most emotional match I've played ever, not just in a Grand Slam, but in any tournament," Seles said, according to Time magazine.

9. Henri Cochet vs. Bill Tilden, Wimbledon Semifinals, 1927

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    At age 34, Bill Tilden seemed to be cruising to his third Wimbledon title, having won the event the only two previous times he had played in it.

    Tilden was breezing past semifinal opponent Henri Cochet, a 25-year-old Frenchman, 6-2, 6-4, 5-1, for what appeared to be another lopsided victory.

    Suddenly, everything changed as Cochet decided to go for winners on virtually every shot.

    "I made 17 points in a row, so I decided perhaps I should fight," Cochet said later, according to a Sports Illustrated report.

    Cochet won six straight games to win the third set. He went on to win the match 2-6, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. 

    Cochet won the final over Jean Borotra after losing the first two sets again.

8. Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal, Australian Open Finals, 2012

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    The emotion and energy spent in Novak Djokovic's 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5 victory over Rafael Nadal in the 2012 Australian finals were evident throughout.

    The match lasted five hours and 53 minutes, longer by almost an hour than the previous longest Grand Slam finals in history, according to the Guardian. The match, which began Sunday evening, did not end until 1:37 a.m. Monday Melbourne time.

    It was the third straight Grand Slam final matching Djokovic and Nadal, who were the top two players in the world at the time.

    Nadal, who had gone to his knees in celebration after winning the fourth-set tiebreaker, took a 4-2 lead in the final set. Djokovic rallied to tie it at 4-4, but was flat on his back, apparently exhausted, after losing a 32-shot rally in the ninth game.

    Djokovic persevered to take a 6-5 lead, then saved a break point against him in the 12th game before finally holding serve to close it out.

7. Pancho Gonzales vs. Charlie Pasarell, Wimbledon First Round, 1969

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    Pancho Gonzales was 41 years old, and it had been 21 years since he won his first Grand Slam singles title at the 1948 U.S. Championship.

    But despite losing the first two sets and having seven match points against him in the fifth set, Gonzales beat the up-and-coming 25-year-old Charlie Pasarell  22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9 in a first-round marathon at the 1969 Wimbledon.

    At the time, it was the longest match in Wimbledon history.

    Gonzales virtually gave away the second set because he was angered the match was not suspended after one set because of darkness, according to a BBC account. Gonzales' behavior brought boos from the crowd.

    But the excitement increased the next day, when the aging Gonzales twice rebounded from triple-match points against him, according to a report in The Guardian.

    At both 4-5 and 5-6 in the final set, Gonzales dug himself into 0-40 holes, only to serve his way out of both situations. Pasarell's final match point came at 7-8, when Pasarell hit a lob out.

    Gonzales summoned the strength to win the final 11 points of the five-hour, 12-minute match and claim the win.

6. Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, French Open Finals, 1985

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    The 1985 French Open finals was the 65th and best of the 80 matches Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova would play against each other.

    Navratilova held a 33-31 lead against Evert at the time and had won 15 of their previous 16 meetings, including a 6-3, 6-1 victory in the 1984 French Open finals. But Evert won this one 6-3, 6-7, 7-5 to reclaim the world No. 1 ranking at age 30.

    This matchup of the two stars with the contrasting styles produced great entertainment. 

    As described in an excerpt from Johnette Howard's book The Rivals: Chris Evert Vs. Martina Navratilova: Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship, "The match they played was dazzling, not for its perfection necessarily but more for the stomach-gnawing tension and the stirring determination they displayed."

    Navratilova rallied from down 2-4, 0-40 in the second set to force a third.

    In the deciding set, Evert let a 5-3 lead slip away. Navratilova tied it 5-5 and, with momentum on her side, had an 0-40 lead on Evert's serve in the 11th game. Evert came back to hold serve, then broke Navratilova's serve in the 12th game to close it out.

5. Ken Rosewall vs. Rod Laver, WCT Finals, Dallas, 1972

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    Rod Laver wrote in his memoir of the 1972 WCT finals, according to World Tennis, “I think if one match can be said to have made tennis in the United States, this was it.”

    Laver, then 33, and Ken Rosewall, 37, had already played each other 137 times as amateurs and pros before that meeting in Dallas. They would meet just five more times after that.

    But this one was epic, not only because of the gripping tennis, but because it was televised. NBC preempted three regularly scheduled programs to show the match's conclusion as it passed the three-hour mark.

    "A record tennis audience of 23 million watched spellbound, riveted by the sights of two terrific athletes displaying their superb skills in a thrilling fashion," wrote Paul Fein in an excerpt from his book, Tennis Confidential: Today's Greatest Players, Matches and Controversies.

    Rosewall let a 4-2 lead in the fifth set slip away, and Laver held a 5-4 lead in the final-set tiebreaker with two serves upcoming. But Rosewall produced two remarkable service returns with his legendary backhand to take a 6-5 lead, and Laver erred on a service return to end the match.

    Rosewall won 6-4, 0-6, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, and pocketed $50,000.

4. Don Budge vs. Gottfried Von Cramm, Davis Cup, 1937

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    The 1937 Davis Cup match between Don Budge and Gottfried von Cramm had all the ingredients of epic tennis.

    It matched the United States and Germany in a pre-World War II battle, although von Cramm had refused to join the Nazi party, according to a CNN report.

    Bill Tilden, an American star of the 1920s and '30s, was the coach of the German squad, an unusual circumstance indeed.

    Budge was the No. 1 player in the world at the time and had just beaten von Cramm easily in the finals at Wimbledon. And now they were facing each other again at the All England Club in the fifth and deciding match of the Davis Cup Challenge Round.

    It turned out to be a thriller.

    Budge was favored, but von Cramm won the first two sets. Budge rallied to take the next two sets, but von Cramm was on the verge of a monumental victory when he went ahead 4-1 in the fifth.

    It was high drama in what was the most important tennis competition of that era. According to the CNN article, the radio broadcast of the match kept many people home from work, and the New York Stock Exchange was halted as traders stopped to listen.

    Budge rallied to go ahead in the fifth set, but von Cramm saved five match points before Budge won it on his sixth match point with an amazing passing shot.

    In a New York Times blog, Marshall Jon Fisher, author of A Terrible Splendor, a book about that Budge-von Cramm Davis Cup encounter, called Budge's 6-8, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 8-6 victory the greatest match ever played.

3. Suzanne Lenglen vs. Helen Wills, Cannes, France, Finals, 1926

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    A 1962 Sports Illustrated article began with the following paragraph:

    The most eagerly awaited and universally talked about tennis match ever played did not take place at WimbledonForest HillsMelbourne or Sydney. Tilden didn't play in it, neither did Budge, Vines, Cochet, Lacoste, Perry, Kramer, Sedgman, Hoad or Gonzalez. Matched instead were two young women, Suzanne Lenglen of France and Helen Wills of California.

    Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills, the two dominant players of the era, met on the court only once. 

    Lenglen never lost a completed Grand Slam tournament match on the court. She won six Wimbledon titles and eight Grand Slam events from 1919 to 1926 and did not lose more than four games in any of her last five Wimbledon finals. 

    Wills was equally dominant, winning 19 Grand Slam singles events between 1923 and 1938.

    Starting with her U.S. Championship victory in 1924 and ending with her Wimbledon victory in 1938, Wills never lost a completed match on the court in a Grand Slam singles event. She did not play Wimbledon in 1925, and an appendectomy kept her out of Wimbledon in 1926.

    Lenglen and Wills finally met in a small tournament at the Carlton Club in Cannes, France.

    The match produced a circus atmosphere as spectators, some sitting in trees and on rooftops, were often loud, according to the Sports Illustrated report.

    Both played cautiously, and after Lenglen won the first set 6-3, there are conflicting reports on the second set. An Associated Press story, as published by the New York Times, reported, Wills took a 3-0 lead in the second set, while Sports Illustrated said it was 3-1.

    Both reports agreed that at 3-1, the melodramatic Lenglen clutched her heart area as if in pain, and went to the sidelines for a drink of cognac.

    The Associated Press story said Wills had a double set point at 5-4, 40-15, in the second set, when a bad call by a linesman cost her the set.

    The Sports Illustrated account, which did not mention Wills' set point, said Lenglen had a match point at 6-5, when a deep ball hit by Wills was called out by the crowd, but not by a linesman.

    The players, assuming the crowd's call was the official one, shook hands and had photos taken. When they were informed the ball officially had been ruled in, they went back on the court, and Wills won the game to tie it at 6-6.

    Nonetheless, Lenglen won the next two games to complete a 6-3, 8-6 victory.

2. Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe, Wimbledon Finals, 1980

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    The 22-minute, 34-point, fourth-set tiebreaker in the 1980 Wimbledon finals between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg trumps all challengers in terms of drama.

    That tie-breaker alone guarantees the contest a lofty spot among the best matches ever. But was it the most epic match ever? It's a tough call, because other matches had more sustained tennis excellence than Borg's 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6 victory over McEnroe.

    Long-time New York Times tennis writer Neil Amdur was enthralled by Rafael Nadal's 2008 victory over Roger Federer.

    "But," he wrote in the New York Times in 2011, "after watching chunks of the 3:53 McEnroe-Borg final at an HBO screening, I am tempted again to reaffirm its place as the sport's single most compelling piece of court magic."

    The match had plenty of intrigue simply because of the contrasting styles and personas of the world's top two players. However, the match hit a new level in the seemingly endless tiebreaker.

    McEnroe, who had survived a double match point against him earlier in the fourth set, fought off five more match points in the tiebreaker. Borg, meanwhile, survived six set points against him in the tiebreaker, which included five side changes.

    Finally, on McEnroe's seventh set point, Borg netted a volley, ending a tiebreaker that had lasted only five minutes less than the entire first set.

    "The drama of the 18-16 fourth set tie breaker in McEnroe-Borg was like a riveting, unscripted theatrical experience," Amdur wrote.

    Borg's resilience in winning the fifth set 8-6 added to the match's lore. 

    It was the fifth consecutive Wimbledon title for Borg, who had turned 24 just a month earlier. It was also his last Wimbledon title.

1. Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer, Wimbledon Finals, 2008

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    Roger Federer's five-set victory over Rafael Nadal in the 2007 Wimbledon finals might be on this list were it not for their rematch in the 2008 finals.

    Events coalesced on July 6, 2008, to create, in many minds, the greatest match ever played anywhere.

    Nadal and Federer had already developed an appealing rivalry, and Federer had dominated Wimbledon, having won the previous five Wimbledon titles in a row, His five-set victory over Nadal in the 2007 final heightened the anticipation for their 2008 meeting.

    They responded with four hours and 48 minutes of classic tennis, the longest final in Wimbledon history. Adding to the splendor of Nadal's 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (6-8), 9-7 victory was that it ended at 9:16 p.m., in a shroud of darkness.

    "Last year's emotional tussle immediately took its place among the best Wimbledon finals, but this five-set classic—played on a rainy, gusty day—was better yet," the New York Times reported.

    Federer fought off two match points against him in the fourth set, and the match was twice interrupted by rain. Federer finished the match with 89 winners, and he still lost.

    "This is the greatest match I've ever seen," John McEnroe said, according to The Telegraph.

    The sustained drama of a match involving the world's two best players on tennis' biggest stage put it in contention for the most epic match in history. The fact that it ended in darkness put it on top.