The Most Significant Matches in Tennis History

Jake CurtisFeatured ColumnistAugust 17, 2013

The Most Significant Matches in Tennis History

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    Andy Murray's Wimbledon victory carried great significance for the people of Great Britain. But does it rank among the most significant matches in tennis history?

    In gauging the significance of a match, we gave considerable weight to its historical and social importance. The quality of tennis and the magnitude of the achievement were also factored in to create a list of a dozen matches deemed the most significant.

    We start with six matches that deserve honorable mention for specific reasons. Then we count down the 12 most significant matches in history.

     

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Honorable Mentions

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

    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. 

    Kathleen Horvath defeated Martina Navratilova, 6-4, 0-6, 6-3, French Open fourth round, 1983: In one of the biggest upsets in tennis history, according to a World Tennis report, the 17-year-old, unseeded Horvath handed Navratilova her only loss of 1983. 

    Martina Hingis defeated Mary Pierce, 6-2, 6-2, Australian Open finals, 1997: Hingis, four months past her 16th birthday, became the youngest player in 110 years to win a Grand Slam singles title.

    Boris Becker defeated Kevin Curren, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, Wimbledon finals, 1985: The 17-year-old Becker, a virtual unknown, became the youngest male to win a Grand Slam singles title and the first unseeded player to win a Wimbledon title. (Michael Chang later became the youngest male Grand Slam winner when he won the 1989 French Open title.)

    Andy Murray defeated Novak Djokovic 6-4, 7-5, 6-4, Wimbledon finals, 2013: Murray became the first British male to win the Wimbledon title since Fred Perry did it in 1936.

12. John Clifton vs. Owen Davidson, Bournemouth First Round, 1968

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    Allowing professionals to play tour events may have been the most significant change in tennis history, as outlined in an ESPN.com commentary. However, there is debate about when the Open Era actually began.

    The first open Grand Slam event was the 1968 French Open won by Ken Rosewall. But a month earlier, the first open tournament was held in Bournemouth, England.

    Technically, the first open matches were played during qualifying rounds of that Bournemouth event in April, as noted by The Guardian. In some minds, the Open Era began symbolically when an amateur (Mark Cox) first beat a professional (Pancho Gonzales) at Bournemouth, according to Sports Illustrated.

    But the first shot struck in the main draw of an open tournament was a serve by John Clifton against Owen Davidson in the first round at Bournemouth. The Sports Illustrated story even recorded the time: 1:43 p.m. on April 22, 1968.

    The fact that Davidson won the match, 6-2, 6-3, 4-6, 8-6, is a footnote to the historic event.

     

11. Martina Navratilova vs. Helena Sukova, Australian Open Semifinals, 1984

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    Martina Navratilova had won 74 consecutive matches, still the longest winning streak in the Open Era by far, when she faced 19-year-old Helena Sukova in the 1984 Australian Open semifinals.

    Winning that tournament would have given Natratilova a record seventh straight Grand Slam singles crown as well as titles in all four majors that year, according to The New York Times. (The Australian Open was played in December then, making it the year's last Grand Slam event at the time.)

    However, after winning the first set decisively, Navratilova lost to Sukova 1-6, 6-3, 7-5, ending her historic streak.

    It denied Navratilova a chance to become the fifth player to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam, something she never accomplished. It also prevented Navratilova from breaking the record for most consecutive Grand Slam singles titles, leaving her tied with Don Budge, Maureen Connolly and Margaret Court at six in a row.

     

     

10. Rod Laver vs. Tony Roche, U.S. Open Finals, 1969

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    Only five players have won all four major singles tournaments in the same calendar year. Rod Laver is the only player to accomplish that feat twice.

    Laver was 31 years old when he completed the final leg of his second Grand Slam by winning the U.S. Open in 1969, the second year of the Open Era.

    The finals had to be postponed two days because of rainy weather, and Laver's opponent was Tony Roche, who was the only player with a winning record against Laver that year, ESPN.com reported.

    After losing the first set 9-7, Laver was granted a request to wear spiked shoes on the slippery grass courts, according to the ESPN.com report. Roche did not switch to spikes.

    Laver won the next three sets amid two rain delays, 6-1, 6-3, 6-2.

    No male player has completed one Grand Slam since, much less two.

9. Renee Richards vs. Virginia Wade, U.S. Open First Round, 1977

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    Even though she lost to Virginia Wade, 6-1, 6-4, in the first round of the 1977 U.S. Open, Renee Richards' participation was historically and socially significant.

    Richards underwent a sex change in 1975, according to Sports Illustrated, and some opposed allowing her to play in women's tournaments.

    "Richards is still physically a man, and that gives her a tremendous and unfair advantage," prominent player Rosie Casals said at the time, according to the Sports Illustrated story. "[She] has to be stopped."

    The United States Tennis Association prevented her from playing in the women’s events at the 1976 U.S. Open because she refused to take a chromosome test, according to The New York Times.

    She went to court and won the right to play in 1977, The New York Times reported. 

    Twenty years after she had competed as Richard Raskind in men's singles at the same tournament (known as the U.S Championships in 1957), the 43-year-old Richards played in the women's U.S. Open.

     

8. Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs, Exhibition, 1973

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    The fact that the so-called Battle of the Sexes was an exhibition match prevents it from being ranked higher on the list.

    However, Billie Jean King's 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory over 55-year-old Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome in September 1973 had a huge social impact.

    Not only did the highly publicized contest illicit interest from non-tennis fans, it also aided women's tennis during the feminist movement of that era.

    "For a male chauvinist, he did a lot of good for us," Rosie Casals said in a Los Angeles Times obituary on Riggs. "We'll always remember him in the best possible way. I always said he did the most for women's tennis."

    Riggs had beaten Margaret Court in May 1973, causing King to take up Riggs' challenge, knowing what was at stake.

    "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match," she said, according to an ESPN.com article. "It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self-esteem."

    Despite that pressure and the massive hoopla surrounding the event, King dominated Riggs.

     

7. 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.

    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."

    More significant historically is that Borg's 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6 victory over McEnroe represented Borg's fifth straight Wimbledon title. It matched the record set by William Renshaw from 1881 through 1886 and later tied by Roger Federer.

    It was also Borg's last Wimbledon title, even though he was just 24 years old. He played McEnroe three more times in Grand Slam finals and lost all three.

    The 1980 match, which took place in the heart of the tennis boom, provided interest simply because of the contrasting styles and personas of the world's top two players. McEnroe was lauded for his tennis excellence, but he gained a lasting pop-culture identity for his controversial behavior.

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

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    Rafael Nadal's 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 victory over Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon finals has been called the greatest match in history, as noted by an SI.com article.

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

    The match ended in darkness, adding to the drama.

    However, it was more than the riveting tennis and the rivalry between Nadal and Federer that made the match significant.

    Federer, ranked as the greatest player in history by the Tennis Channel, was shooting for a record sixth straight Wimbledon men's singles titles when he faced Nadal. 

    Nadal, meanwhile, had already won four French Open titles and had established his world superiority on clay. His rise to prominence on grass was far more difficult, though, and his victory over Federer completed the ascent.

    A month after that victory, Nadal supplanted Federer as the world's No. 1-ranked player for the first time.

    Federer remained tied with Bjorn Borg and William Renshaw for most consecutive Wimbledon men's singles titles at five.

5. Rod Laver vs. Ken Rosewall, WCT Finals Championship Match, 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.”

    The match had a major impact on tennis as a spectator sport and on the tennis boom in America. As a result of that contest, "almost immediately, tennis was transformed from a blip to a blimp on the sports radar," Tennis.com columnist Peter Bodo wrote.

    Laver, then 33, and Ken Rosewall, then 37, had already played each other 137 times as amateurs and pros before that meeting in Dallas.  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 won 6-4, 0-6, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, and pocketed $50,000.

4. Suzanne Lenglen vs. Helen Willis, Cannes, France, Finals, 1926

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    Suzanne Lenglen's 6-3, 8-6 victory over Helen Wills in the finals of relatively small 1926 event in Cannes, France, is important for one reason: It was the only time the era's two stars met in a singles match.

    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 had avoided meeting for a variety of reason, until they got together in a small tournament at the Carlton Club in Cannes, France.

    1962 Sports Illustrated article described the buildup with the following paragraph:

    The most eagerly awaited and universally talked about tennis match ever played did not take place at Wimbledon, Forest Hills, Melbourne 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.

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

    An Associated Press story, as printed in The New York Times, 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 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 the victory.

3. Althea Gibson vs. Angela Mortimer, French Championships Finals, 1956

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    Althea Gibson played several matches that had profound historical and social significance, any one of which could be on this list.

    Because she was African American, Gibson had been excluded from the U.S. Championships until 1950, according to an ESPN.com account. Her first-round victory over Barbara Knapp in that 1950 event, three years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball, represented a major breakthrough in American tennis.

    She became the first African American to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships in 1957. She was on the cover of Time magazine in August 1957. But even while she was winning tournaments, she was denied rooms at hotels, according to ESPN.com.

    Somewhat arbitrarily we selected Gibson's victory in the 1956 French Championships as her most significant match. With that win, she became the first African American of either gender to win a Grand Slam singles event.

    In the finals, Gibson, who grew up in Harlem, beat defending French champion Angela Mortimer 6-0, 12-10.

    The fact that she won a Grand Slam title when the civil rights movement was just beginning to gain steam added to the significance.

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

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    The era, the situation and the riveting nature of the match made the 1937 David Cup match between Don Budge and Gottfried von Cramm one of the most significant in history.

    According to a CNN.com 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.

    Several aspects of the matchup produced the intense interest.

    Davis Cup play was every bit as important as the Grand Slam tournaments at the time. And this one matched the United States and Germany in a pre-World War II battle.

    Increasing the intrigue was the fact that von Cramm had refused to join the Nazi party, according to a CNN.com report. Budge later claimed von Cramm received a call from Adolph Hitler five minutes before the match, although the report noted that was never verified.

    Bill Tilden, an American star of the 1920s and '30s, was the coach of the German squad, adding to the match's draw.

    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 inter-zone finals.

    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.

    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 to complete a  6-8, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 8-6 victory.

    By winning, the U.S. advanced to the Challenge Round, where it beat Great Britain to claim the Davis Cup for the first time in 11 years.

1. Arthur Ashe vs. Tom Okker, U.S. Open Finals, 1968

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    Arthur Ashe's 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 victory over Tom Okker in the 1968 U.S. Open finals may not be the first one that comes to mind when reviewing Ashe's career. His upset of heavily favored Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon finals may be more memorable.

    However, several aspects of the 1968 U.S. Open finals make it more significant historically and socially.

    First of all, it was the finals of the first Open Era Grand Slam event in the United States. That alone made it significant, even though the Forest Hills stadium was only half full that day, according to an ESPN.com report.

    Making Ashe's victory in the first U.S. Open particularly noteworthy was that he was still an amateur. Established pros Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall failed to make it to the finals.

    Okker carried the unusual designation of "registered" player, a sort of hybrid amateur/pro who was allowed to accept prize money in certain events that year, according to a Sports Illustrated story. He walked away with the $14,000 first prize even though he did not win the title.

    Ashe, a lieutenant in the Army at the time, received only $280 in expenses, at $20 per diem for 14 days, according to the ESPN.com story. The Sports Illustrated story claimed he earned just $15 a day.

    Ashe also became the first American to win the U.S. title since Tony Trabert did it in 1955.

    Nonetheless, the most meaningful accomplishment by Ashe that day was that he became the first African American male to win a Grand Slam singles title. He did it five months after Martin Luther King was shot and killed during the civil rights movement.