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Ranking the 10 Greatest Finals in US Open History

Jake CurtisFeatured Columnist IIJanuary 7, 2017

Ranking the 10 Greatest Finals in US Open History

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    Both the men's and women's finals of the 2012 U.S. Open were thrilling matches that went the distance. But were they good enough to rank among the greatest finals in U.S. Open history?

    Because we are considering only U.S. Open finals, matches before the Open Era began are not included. Fred Perry's 2-6, 6-2, 8-6, 1-6, 10-8 victory over Don Budge in 1936 and Margaret Osborne duPont's 4-6, 6-4, 15-13 win over Louise Brough in 1948 would have made the list if all U.S. title matches were considered.

    In determining our rankings, we considered the drama of the match, the star power of the participants and the significance of the contest.

    Here is our countdown of the 10 greatest U.S. Open finals.

     

     

10. Tracy Austin vs. Martina Navratilova, 1981

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    Tracy Austin's 1-6, 7-6, (7-4), 7-6 (7-1) victory over Martina Navratilova in the 1981 finals represented the first Grand Slam finals decided by a final-set tiebreaker.

    It also represented a victory of Austin's unerring groundstrokes over Navratilova's attacking, net-rushing style.

    The 24-year-old Navratilova was playing in her first U.S. Open finals, and she dominated the first set, winning 10 of the first 11 points and blowing Austin off the court in the swirling winds that day.

    However, Austin maintained her poise. She began getting her groundstrokes deeper and started passing Navratilova regularly. Austin controlled both tiebreakers, particularly the third-set tiebreaker, when she hit two big forehands down the line to take a 3-0 lead. 

    The match ended after two hours and 40 minutes, still a U.S. Open record for the longest women’s final.

    It was the second and last U.S. Open title for the 18-year-old Austin, who had won it two years earlier.

    Navratilova, who had become a U.S. citizen earlier in 1981, wept through the award ceremonies, according to the U.S. Open website.  

    “I tried too hard,” said Navratilova, according to the tournament website. “It would have meant so much more to win [the U.S. Open] as an American. But it didn’t turn out that way."

9. Billie Jean King vs. Evonne Goolagong Cawley, 1974

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    Billie Jean King overcame a 3-0 deficit in the third set to beat Evonne Goolagong 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 in 1974 in the final U.S. Open played on grass.

    Goolagong was playing in the second of her four consecutive U.S. Open finals, but she never won the event. She came close in 1974, when, at the age of 23, she seemed to be in control when she took the first three games of the deciding set.

    King, who would turn 31 two months later, had not played a tournament since losing in the semifinals at Wimbledon. She had spent most of her summer playing and promoting team tennis but still had enough tournament toughness and stamina to rally against Goolagong.

    King finished off Goolagong to win her fourth and final U.S. Open title.

    Sports Illustrated called the match "far more entertaining" than the men's final won by Jimmy Connors in three lopsided sets over Ken Rosewall.

     

     

8. Andy Murray vs. Novak Djokovic, 2012

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    After losing in his four previous Grand Slam finals, Andy Murray finally broke through for his first Grand Slam title in the 2012 U.S. Open.

    However, it did not come without considerable anxiety. No. 2-ranked Novak Djokovic rallied from a two-set deficit to send the match to a fifth set before Murray prevailed 7-6, (12-10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2.

    The contest featured long rallies between two players who seldom make mistakes. One rally lasted 55 shots, and a 30-shot, fourth-set point that ended on a forehand winner by Murray elicited a standing ovation from the crowd, according to the Associated Press account.

    The match lasted four hours, 54 minutes, tying the record for longest U.S. Open final. The 22 points in the first-set tiebreaker set a tournament record and provided the most thrilling moments of the match. That 25-minute  tiebreaker included 10 points of at least 10 shots, and Djokovic saved five set points before Murray closed it out on the sixth.

    Murray showed his mettle and stamina in the deciding set. Djokovic had momentum on his side after winning the third and fourth sets, and he had won his last eight five-set matches. But Djokovic was the one who looked worn at the end, as an aching groin muscle and tired legs left him sagging.

    Murray jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the fifth set and finished it off to become the first British man in 76 years to win a Grand Slam title. 

     

7. Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi, 1995

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    Though not quite as riveting as their U.S. Open 2001 quarterfinal match, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi played a memorable finals in 1995.

    This was the 17th match in what would become a 34-match series between the two. The rivalry was tied at eight wins apiece, and Agassi had beaten Sampras to win the 1995 Australian Open. But Sampras turned the tables in the year's other hard-court Grand Slam tournament, beating Agassi 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 in the 1995 U.S. Open finals.

    A single point elevated the 1995 match onto this list and was a turning point in the contest. It occurred at set point for Sampras at 5-4 of the first set and is described in this excerpt from Tennis.com:

    Playing near the peak of their powers, the archrivals engaged in one of the most dramatic rallies in U.S. Open history: a 22-shot slugfest on set point of the opener that escalated into stirring running rally. Both men amped up the velocity and intensity of their shots, repelling would-be winners with explosive replies. ... A jaw-dropping rally concluded with a Sampras backhand winner and clenched fist as the crowd erupted in an roaring ovation.

    Sampras won the set on that point and was in control the rest of the way. He won the third of his five U.S. Open titles.

6. Victoria Azarenka vs. Serena Williams, 2012

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    Serena Williams survived a scare and the first three-set U.S. Open women's finals in 17 years to beat Victoria Azarenka 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 in 2012.

    At age 30, Williams rallied from a 3-5 deficit in the third set to win what long-time tennis writer Peter Bodo of Tennis.com called "the best women's final since who knows when."

    Azarenka was the world's No. 1-ranked player and the No. 1 seed at the U.S. Open, but the No. 4-seeded Williams had beaten Azarenka in nine of their 10 previous meetings, including the last seven in a row.

    Williams dominated the first set with her overpowering style, which produced 44 winners for the match.

    But Azarenka turned things around in the second set and was on the verge of victory when she broke Williams' serve at love, then held serve to take a 5-3 lead in the third set.

    Williams regained her focus just in time, sweeping the next four games to win her fourth U.S. Open.  This one came 13 years after Williams had won her first Open title as a 17-year-old and was achieved against a player who has become Williams' chief rival.

    The loss left Azarenka in tears.

     

5. Mats Wilander vs. Ivan Lendl, 1988

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    Mats Wilander called the 1988 U.S. Open finals the biggest match of his career to that point, according to the New York Times. It's easy to see why.

    With his 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 victory over Ivan Lendl, Wilander won his first U.S. Open title and supplanted Lendl as the world's No. 1-ranked player after Lendl had held the top spot for 159 consecutive weeks. He also ended Lendl's three-year reign as U.S. Open champion, ruining Lendl's chance to become the first player since Bill Tilden to win as many as four straight U.S. titles.  Finally, it gave Wilander three of the four Grand Slam titles that year.

    The match lasted four hours and 54 minutes, the longest U.S. Open finals in history and seven minutes longer than Lendl's four-set victory over Wilander in the 1983 U.S. Open finals. Both matches were studies in patience, mental toughness and groundstroking excellence as the two baseline wizards pounded the ball at each other in long rallies.

    It was the fortitude both players displayed as much as the shot-making that made the match great. As Wilander noted to the New York Times:

    I realized tonight why it was hard hard for Borg to win. It is so tough, mentally and physically. Because it's a tournament that I've never won, or a Swede has never won, and because I'm going to be number one, it's the biggest match I ever played. It meant so much.

    Indeed Borg never won the U.S. Open, despite getting to the finals four times. Wilander, then 24, won it only once.

    Although the players engaged in long baseline rallies, Wilander often ended those extended points with forays to the net when the opportunity finally arose. It was a departure for Wilander, but he knew had to do something different after losing his previous six matches against Lendl.

    Wilander even played serve-and-volley to win the final point of the eighth game of the final set, giving him a 5-3 lead. And Wilander was coming in on an approach shot when Lendl erred on a passing-shot attempt on match point in the 10th game to give Wilander the title.

    Lendl made an uncharacteristic 83 unforced errors, according to the Chicago Tribune.

    This proved to be the last of Wilander's seven Grand Slam titles. In fact, he would never get to another finals in a major and would never again get past the third round of the U.S. Open.

     

     

     

     

4. Jimmy Connors vs. Bjorn Borg, 1976

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    Jimmy Connors had been virtually unbeatable in 1974, and he was still ranked No. 1 when he met Bjorn Borg in the 1976 U.S. Open finals.  

    However, he had not won a Grand Slam event since his one-sided victory over Ken Rosewall in the 1974 U.S. Open finals, which was played on grass. The 1976 Open was played on gray-green Har-Tru clay. Borg had already won the premier clay-court tournament, the French Open, twice (1974 and 1975) and had captured the first of his five straight Wimbledon titles two months earlier.

    Beating Connors was a different matter for Borg, though. Connors had beaten the Swede five times in a row heading into the 1976 Open finals. Connors' hard flat ground strokes and aggressive forays to the net always seemed to wear down the consistent Borg and his looping top-spin groundstrokes.

    This time, Borg was able to match Connors shot for shot.

    “Some of the shots that Borg and I played that day, he with his little wood racket and me with my [Wilson] T-2000, were just flat-out crazy," Connors wrote in his book The Outsider, according to a Tennis Channel article by Steve Flink. "The crowd responded with the kind of passion that showed their appreciation for fierce competitors and great tennis.”

    The two split the first two sets, and the twists and turns of the third set made the match memorable and pushed the match in Connors' favor.

    Connors led that third set 4-2 and was serving at 40-0, one point from assuming a commanding 5-2 lead. Borg won five straight points to take the game and later held a double set point at 6-4 of the tiebreaker.

    Connors hit two winners to even the tiebreaker, let a set point of his own slip away at 7-6, then saved two more set points against him at 8-7 and 9-8. After the latter point tied the tiebreaker 9-9, Borg was set to serve again, when a ball boy came running in from the back fence to tell the umpire the players needed to change sides again, according to Tennis.com.

    The drama of the situation had caused both players and the umpire to forget that it was time to change ends.

    After the changeover, Connors quickly ended the set. He won the next two points to take the tiebreaker 11-9 after fighting off four set points.

    He had his first match point while serving at 5-4 in the fourth. Borg saved that with a difficult forehand passing shot and saved another before Connors finally finished off his 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (11-9), 6-4 victory.

3. Steffi Graf vs. Monica Seles, 1995

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    Steffi Graf's 7-6, 0-6, 6-3 victory over Monica Seles in the 1995 U.S. Open finals provided riveting entertainment. But it was only part of a larger, evolving story involving the two stars.

    Seles was playing in just her second tournament after a two-and-a-half year absence. She had been sidelined since April 1993, when she was stabbed in Hamburg by a fan who wanted Graf, a German, to regain supremacy over Seles, who was the No. 1 player at the time.

    Meanwhile, the German press had been stalking Graf throughout the 1995 Open. The media wanted her reaction to the fact that her father and mentor, Peter, was currently in jail in Germany for failure to pay income tax on more than $1.5 million on his daughter's earnings, according to the Sports Illustrated report.

    The night before the finals, Graf had spent time at a New York hospital having an MRI performed on her aching foot.

    Amid this charged environment, the two produced thrilling tennis.

    Seles thought she had won the first set on an ace at 6-5 in the tie-breaker. But the ball was called out, and Graf hit a winner on the second serve to save the set point on her way to winning the set.

    But Seles dominated the second set, winning it at love in just 27 minutes.

    Graf responded with some of her best tennis in the third set.

    With Graf serving at 5-3, 40-15 of the deciding set, Seles hit a crushing forehand winner on a service return to stay alive. But she erred on Graf's second match point to end it.

    "This is the biggest win I have ever achieved," Graf said, according to SI, after getting her 18th Grand Slam title. "There is nothing that even comes close to this one."

     

2. John McEnroe vs. Bjorn Borg, 1980

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    John McEnroe's 7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4 victory over Bjorn Borg in the 1980 U.S. Open did not quite reach the heights of their 1980 Wimbledon encounter, which included the unforgettable 18-16, fourth-set tiebreaker.

    But it was still a thrilling clash of the top two players, with their very different styles and personalities providing polar opposites on the court.

    The resiliency of Borg was on display in the third set. He appeared to be out of the match after offering little resistance in the second set. But Borg roared back, hitting five clean winners to take the third-set tiebreaker, then won the fourth set to tie the match.

    It was Borg who seemed to be in control at that point. He was almost invincible in that situation, having won 13 straight matches that went five sets. Plus McEnroe had played a marathon five-setter while beating Jimmy Connors in the semifinals and had to be running out of gas.

    But McEnroe held firm, breaking Borg in the seventh game of the deciding set with the help of two Borg double faults and McEnroe's strong cross-court backhand on break point. McEnroe then served out the match for his second straight U.S. Open title.

    Sports Illustrated described the compelling nature of the match:

    However many more tennis matches Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe are fated to play against each other, surely their names will be linked forever by the memories from a single summer. The summer of 1980. The summer of the tennis bookends. The summer that Borg started by defeating McEnroe in a glorious final at Wimbledon on July 5 and that McEnroe ended by checkmating Borg right back in a glorious final at New York's Flushing Meadow on Sunday.

     

1. Martina Navratilova vs. Chris Evert, 1984

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    Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played each other 80 times, and their 61st meeting, which took place in the 1984 U.S. Open finals, may have been the most intriguing.

    It ended with Navratilova pulling out a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory, but there was more to the story than the final score.

    Navratilova had beaten Evert 12 straight times coming into that match, and most of the results were one-sided. Navratilova had beaten Evert 6-3, 6-1 in the U.S. Open finals the previous year and had defeated Evert 6-1, 6-3 on Evert's best surface in the finals of the 1984 French Open.

    More of the same was expected in the 1984 U.S. Open finals. Instead, the match became a turning point.

    Evert did not win, but the greater variety and better stamina she displayed in that match at age 29 indicated the rivalry was no longer a one-sided affair. Evert beat Navratilova the next time they met, and the two competed on relatively even terms over the next four years.

    The contrasting styles and friendship made all their matchups fascinating, but for this one, Navratilova was riding a 54-match winning streak, one shy of Evert's Open Era record.

    When Evert broke through to win the first set, the crowd erupted. 

    It was "louder than anything I have ever experienced in my life," Evert said in an excerpt from Johnette Howard's book, The Rivals. "I remember walking off for the changeover thinking, 'I am finally going to do it.' And it seemed like everyone else thought so too."

    Evert might have won her seventh U.S. Open title if she had taken advantage of an opportunity in the 10th game of the second set. She trailed 5-4, but hit three marvelous winners to get a double break point at 15-40 on Navratilova's serve.

    Evert was unable to produce the big shot. Navratilova held serve to win the second set, then finished it off in the third. Despite the brilliant shot-making by both players, Evert felt she choked.

    "It was the most devastated I've ever felt over a tennis match," she said in The Rivals.

    Navratilova's winning streak would reach 74 before she lost to Helena Sukova in the Australian Open.

     

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