Most Memorable Tennis Match for Each Year of Federer-Nadal-Djokovic Era

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistDecember 9, 2013

Most Memorable Tennis Match for Each Year of Federer-Nadal-Djokovic Era

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    2013 was another year of tennis dominance for Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. These two champions have continued an astonishing decade of excellence that began with Roger Federer's greatness.

    There have been many outstanding matches that continue to be remembered and discussed. Most of them spiral around the Big Three who have set the standard of recent modern tennis on the ATP tour.

    The  following slides will examine the most memorable Grand Slam matches of the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic dynasty. These are selected because of their importance or impact on the history of tennis. Only one match will be selected to represent each of the past 10 years.

2004 U.S. Open Final: Roger Federer d. Lleyton Hewitt

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    In 2003, Roger Federer won his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. At the time he was merely one of several competitors sharing the spoils of tennis' grandest titles. Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, Andy Roddick, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andre Agassi were also in the mix.

    By September 2004 the power had clearly shifted to Federer. He had defeated Roddick in a competitive Wimbledon final and looked for his third Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open. It had been 16 years since Mats Wilander had won three Grand Slam titles in a calendar year.

    Federer did not just defeat Hewitt in the final, he destroyed him 6-0, 7-6, 6-0. The victory was a clear message that Federer was at a level above the rest of the ATP tour. It set in motion the most dominant six-year run in the history of tennis.

    Suddenly, the Swiss Maestro was the most sensational champion since Pete Sampras. His beautiful tennis creativity and personal charisma would attract new fans and more popular appeal to his sport.

2005 Australian Open Semifinal: Marat Safin d. Roger Federer

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    It would be the last time that one of the Big Three would not play in a Grand Slam final, and the last gasp of Federer's talented but inconsistent contemporaries. Give credit to the gifted Russian Marat Safin, who played up to his talent and performed in the match of his life.

    The semifinal was a donnybrook with Federer holding the edge for most of the match. He played with the kind of swagger and energy that captivated the spectators Down Under. Safin stayed steady with his powerful backhand and composure.

    It looked as if Federer would win the fourth set tiebreaker and the match, but he missed on his matchpoint opportunity with a tweener shot. Federer reacted with a hop and a yell, knowing he had let Safin off the hook.

    Eventually the match endured a dramatic fifth set in which Federer fought off matchpoints. Ultimately, Safin's quality held on for the 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6, 9-7 win.

    Safin polished off Australian native Lleyton Hewitt in the final. Neither player would return to a Grand Slam final, and the Fed Express would continue to roar ahead for several more years.

2006 French Open Final: Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer

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    No. 1 Roger Federer, at age 24, was at the peak of his powers. He strode into Roland Garros in hopes of winning his fourth consecutive Grand Slam title, something not achieved since Rod Laver. The only thing he had to do was conquer his new, pesky rival Rafael Nadal who was the defending champion in Paris.

    As he warmed up with Nadal, NBC commentator John McEnroe stated on the telecast that Federer would be the greatest player of all time "if he wins this match."

    No. 2 Nadal was barely 20 years old but already acclaimed as the top player on European clay. His own swashbuckling intensity fueled him to believe that he alone could defend his red dirt as if it were the last piece of real estate on Earth not conquered by the Swiss Maestro.

    It was Federer who won the first set as a lackluster Nadal sprayed shots outside the court, losing 6-1. Had this continued, history might have been altered for both players. Perhaps Federer would have established the confidence to battle Nadal more evenly on clay, without the pressure of chasing the Roland Garros title.

    But Federer's backhand sputtered. Midway through the second set, his backhand had 18 unforced errors and only one winner. Nadal's attack pattern of targeting Federer's backhand would sweep the final three sets 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 and show the formula for winning their head-to-head career meetings.

    Federer would defeat Nadal a month later at Wimbledon. The rivalry was on.

2007 Wimbledon Final: Roger Federer d. Rafael Nadal

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    In 2007, the most memorable match was the middle act of the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal Wimbledon trilogy and the more competitive portion of their rivalry. Nadal had firmly locked down Roland Garros with a third straight French Open title and Federer was looking for a fifth straight title in London.

    What transpired was a classic match that saw Federer win two tiebreakers and Nadal dominate two sets. The close of the fourth set also saw Nadal call a trainer for a possible knee injury. From there, Nadal looked to finish points quicker and Federer to extend some points.

    The fifth set opened with Nadal having the momentum and strength of will to topple Federer, but it was the Swiss champion who shrugged off a 15-40 deficit in both the third and fifth games. Then he broke Nadal and cruised the rest of the way for a 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-2 victory. The most glaring difference was Federer's serve, which had 24 aces to only one for Nadal.

    It would be the pinnacle of Federer's career, in the midst of his final three-Slam season. Nadal still trailed away from clay, but their rivalry was the captivating feature to a fabled Golden Age in men's tennis.

2008 Wimbledon Final: Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer

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    Was the 2008 Wimbledon final the greatest match in tennis history? It's certainly one of the few that can claim this title as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal dueled five sets, endured rain delays and finished within encroaching darkness. There were also incredible periods of shot making and championship heart from both champions.

    For Nadal, it was an agonizing test of character to watch his two sets lead shrink away as he lost the next two sets in tiebreakers and sit through the rain delays.

    For Federer, it was a test of perseverance to battle back from a huge deficit. He lost the match but not his heart.

    The match would also catapult Nadal to the No. 1 ranking for the first time, and it would spur him on to eventually capturing Grand Slam titles on all surfaces.

    Writer L. Jon Wertheim showcased the Federer-Nadal rivalry with this match as the centerpiece in his book Strokes of Genius.

2009 French Open 4th Round: Robin Soderling d. Rafael Nadal

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    The importance of this match looms larger with each passing year. Robin Soderling remains the only player to have defeated Rafael Nadal in 60 matches at the French Open. Nadal has claimed eight titles in nine years with only the Soderling blemish keeping him from perfection.

    For a full retrospective review of the match, click here: Rafael Nadal: A Look Back at His 2009 French Open Loss to Robin Soderling.

    Soderling controlled the match with powerful ground strokes that kept Nadal scrambling on defense. The big-hitting Swede played with fearless tenacity in winning the fourth round match 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6.

    Soderling marched to the final where he was swept away by Roger Federer. It would be the Swiss Maestro's only French Open title, and perhaps only possible because of Soderling's conquest of Nadal.

    The French Open victory for Federer would be his singular most treasured achievement.

    One month later, Federer claimed his sixth Wimbledon trophy with an amazing five set marathon over Andy Roddick. It was probably the best match of the year and most memorable for Federer fans, but the Soderling match might have been more important.

2010 Wimbledon 1st Round: John Isner d. Nicolas Mahut

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    Though Rafael Nadal made history by winning three consecutive Grand Slam titles on three different surfaces in 2010, his dominance left few candidates for memorable matches.

    But the match everyone will always remember was a first-round marathon between American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut. Isner won the match. The score in the picture above says it all: 70-68 in the final set!

    Besides the records and the 11 hours and five minutes of match time, it received a lot of attention and commemoration. There is now a plaque from the All England Club and praise from Time magazine and other tennis insiders. It won the ESPY award for "Best Record-Breaking Performance," voted ahead of Roger Federer and Usain Bolt. Mahut even co-wrote a book on this match.

    All tennis fans who tuned in will forever remember where they were at or what they were doing. (There is a good chance many were tuned into World Cup soccer as well.)

    It was not a beautiful display of tennis and did nothing to affect the Grand Slam title. It was mostly possible because both players were rarely able to break serve. Yet, it was a tribute to endurance and the spirit of competition. It won't be forgotten.

2011 U.S. Open Semifinal: Novak Djokovic d. Roger Federer

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    The rise of Novak Djokovic in 2011 was the story that changed men's tennis. He had been a Grand Slam winner at the 2008 Australian Open and consistent No. 3 player, but took the leap in taking over his sport by capturing three Grand Slam titles.

    Had it not been for Roger Federer's semifinal victory versus Djokovic at the French Open, it's possible the Serbian could have won the calendar Grand Slam. He would dominate and supplant the Spanish champion Rafael Nadal, and only Federer truly threatened his near-perfect Slam season.

    The U.S. Open semifinal saw Federer take the first two sets against Djokovic. The Swiss Maestro was a more proven champion on fast hard courts and at his best had the attacking game to disrupt the more baseline grounded and defensive Serbian.

    But Djokovic clawed back, showing the resourcefulness and comeback ability that would become part of his reputation. He battled into a fifth set but faced two matchpoints.

    Federer served wide to Djokovic's forehand and the Serbian took a huge all-or-nothing cut. He scorched a cross-court winner and raised his arms. The crowd also responded. Djokovic then won a second matchpoint and rode his momentum to victory.

    Federer later criticized Djokovic's ripping service return, according to ESPN, "I never played that way. I believe in the hard-work's-going-to-pay-off kind of thing, because early on, maybe I didn't always work at my hardest. So for me, this is very hard to understand how can you play a shot like that on match point."

    Djokovic's analysis in this same article was more straight forward: "The forehand return, I cannot explain to you because I don't know how it happened. I read his serve and I was on the ball and I had to hit it hard, and it got in, luckily for me."

    Djokovic's 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 victory was the match of the year. He followed this by pummeling Nadal in the final to cap off his epic year.

2012 Australian Open Final: Novak Djokovic d. Rafael Nadal

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    As the clock notes in the photograph, Novak Djokovic took nearly six hours to outlast Rafael Nadal for the Australian Open title, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5. It was the longest Grand Slam final in the Open Era.

    The match marked the pinnacle of Djokovic's dominance in men's tennis and against Nadal. It was the third consecutive Grand Slam final victory over Nadal and seventh straight victory in their head-to-head rivalry.

    It was also an astonishing display of baseline bashing, defense and fitness. Somehow both players mustered up the resolve to hit harder in the fifth and deciding set.

    It was a bitter disappointment for Nadal who had rallied back from near defeat in the fourth set. In the fifth set he blew a 30-15 advantage by missing an easy backhand down the line, even with a wide open court. It seemed to wake up his exhausted opponent and give him more life. Djokovic rallied to win the game and outhit Nadal for victory.

    Was this the greatest match of all time? Two years have passed and the match is more respected as a gritty duel of champions and less as a display of beautiful shot-making. It's certainly one of the most competitive and memorable matches of the Open Era.

2013 French Open semifinal: Rafael Nadal d. Novak Djokovic

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    There were several quality and memorable matches in 2013:

    Stanislas Wawrinka dueled Novak Djokovic for the best match of the Australian Open, a match with high-quality shots and the Serbian's final resilience to win the fourth round en route to the title.

    Andy Murray outlasted Fernando Verdasco in the quarterfinals and capped off his dream with a final victory over Djokovic. Juan Martin del Potro also played his heart out in pushing Djokovic to five sets in the semifinals.

    Nadal's third set comeback in the U.S. Open final also spurred him to his 13th Grand Slam title and eventually the No. 1 ranking.

    But the French Open semifinal will rank as the most important and memorable match of 2013. It was the difference between an epic year for Nadal and a runner-up great year for Djokovic. It virtually determined which player would finish the year with two Slams and the No. 1 ranking.

    Djokovic was so very close to ending the Nadal dynasty on red clay. If only he had not blown that fifth set smash volley...

    The match was the mirror to their 2012 marathon in Australia. Just as it looked like Nadal would wrap up the match in four sets, he faltered and Djokovic seized the advantage into a fifth set and up a break.

    Up 4-3, Djokovic's ill-fated smash volley carried him into the net. Nadal was awarded the point by the chair umpire and a few points later Nadal broke back to level the match.

    Later, Djokovic missed an overhead to open the 16th game and could not recover for any of the final three points.

    The match contained high quality shots, endurance, dry heat, adversity, comebacks and mistakes. Ultimately, it may have been the most important match of the year, and perhaps took the pressure off Nadal to dominate the late summer North American hard court tour.

    We may never see another player approach Nadal's eight French Open titles, but Djokovic should not lack for motivation in 2014 in the tournament he most wants to win.