The 10 Most Memorable Matches in Australian Open History

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2014

The 10 Most Memorable Matches in Australian Open History

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    Will this year's Australian Open produce any classic moments? Will any matches over the next two weeks rank among the 10 most memorable matches in Australian Open history?

    The stakes, the quality of tennis, the drama and the star quality of the participants contribute to make a tennis match memorable. Sometimes a display of emotion or an unlikely incident causes a match to be etched in our memory.

    What is unforgettable for one tennis fan may not create a lasting impression with another, so our ranking of the 10 most memorable matches in Australian Open history is subject to debate.

    We had to leave out some matches that are worth remembering. Lleyton Hewitt's 2008 victory over Marcos Baghdatis that ended at 4:34 a.m., John McEnroe's expulsion from the 1990 tournament for his behavior during a match and Marat Safin's upset of Roger Federer in the 2005 semifinals earned consideration, but did not make the cut.



10. Serena Williams Defeats Venus Williams, 2003 Finals

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    The Williams sisters were the finalists for the fourth straight Grand Slam event at the 2003 Australian Open, with Serena beating Venus in straight sets in the finals of the 2002 French Open, 2002 Wimbledon and 2002 U.S. Open.

    Serena beat Venus again in the 2003 Australian Open final to become the fifth woman in history to hold all four major titles simultaneously. But Venus was a far bigger obstacle this time.

    The two engaged in their typical, hard-hitting exchanges, with Venus able to match her sister throughout the tight match.

    Venus served for the first set at 5-4, but Serena rallied to force a tiebreaker, which she won 7-4. Venus took the second set and showed her mettle in the third. Serving down 3-4 in the deciding set, Venus fought off five break points, the last with a 120 mph service winner.

    However, that proved to be Venus' last stand, as Serena won the final two games to complete a 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4 victory. The fact that Venus committed four errors while serving in the final game took just a bit of the luster off a match that had been a showcase of power tennis.


9. Rod Laver Defeats Tony Roche, 1969 Semifinals

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    Rod Laver's 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3 victory over Tony Roche in the 1969 Australian Open semifinals holds a place on this list based on the legend that surrounds it. It would rank higher if more information or video evidence were available to keep this epic match anchored in our memory.

    In his book, The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time, tennis historian Steve Flink ranks it as the No. 16 greatest match in tennis history.

    Besides the length of the match and the 42-game second set in the days before tiebreakers, several other factors made this match worth recalling.

    It was the first Australian Open, which is why Laver, who had turned pro in 1962, was allowed to play the event for the first time in seven years. Laver went on to win the 1969 Australian Open as well as the other three majors that year to capture the second single-year Grand Slam of his career. Laver finished off the Slam by beating Roche again in the U.S. Open finals.

    Perhaps more significant is that Laver and Roche played their four-hour Australian marathon in temperatures that reached 102 degrees (39 degrees Celsius), according to a World Tennis report. In his book, The Education of a Tennis Player, Laver recalls the temperature as being 105 that day. He put cabbage leaves inside his hat to help keep cool.

    Despite losing the first two sets, Roche won the third set and blew Laver off the court in the fourth. Roche, 23, appeared to be the fresher player, but the 30-year-old Laver showed his toughness by beating the heat and stopping Roche's momentum in the fifth set.


8. Martina Navratilova Defeats Chris Evert, 1981 Finals

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    The 1981 Australian Open women's finals represented the 45th of the 80 matches between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert and the fourth of their 14 meetings in Grand Slam finals.

    This one may have been the best.

    In his book, The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time, tennis historian Steve Flink ranks the 1985 French Open finals and the 1981 Australian Open finals as their two most significant matches, according to a World Tennis article.

    In 1981, the Australian Open was the final Grand Slam event of the year, not the first, and it was played on grass, with both players using wooden rackets.

    Navratilova had attracted a lot of media attention that year, even though she had failed to win any of the nine Grand Slam singles events preceding the 1981 Australian Open. Over the five months prior to that Australian Open, Navratilova had become an American citizen and had revealed her sexual orientation publicly.

    But Evert was still the No. 1 player in the world at the time. Plus, the women's field for the Australian Open that year was far stronger than the men's field, which featured few of the top male players. 

    All that provided the backdrop for a riveting final. Neither player took control of the taut first set, which was tied 4-4 in the tiebreaker before Evert won three straight points. Navratilova rebounded to take the second set and steamrolled to a 5-1 lead in the third. Seemingly doomed, Evert summoned some of her best tennis, winning four straight games to tie it at 5-5. 

    Evert served at 30-15 in the 11th game, but Navratilova continued to attack to draw even at 30-all. The fifth point of that game found both players at net, trading volleys from close range. Navratilova won that pivotal point, took the game and served out the match to complete a 6-7, 6-4, 7-5 victory. It was Navratilova's first major title as an American and her first as an openly gay athlete.





7. Mark Edmondson Defeats John Newcombe, 1976 Finals

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    The magnitude of the upset and the back story involved in Mark Edmondson's 6-7, 6-3, 7-6, 6-1 victory over John Newcombe in the 1976 Australian Open finals entraps it firmly in the minds of long-time tennis fans.

    The match is particularly memorable for Australians, because no Aussie male has won the event since. Australians had dominated the event until then. Only four times since World War II had a non-Australian male won the Australian Championship heading into the 1976 event, and all eight quarterfinalists in 1976 were Aussies.

    But Edmondson was not expected to be one of them. The 21-year-old was ranked No. 212 at the time. A few weeks earlier he had been mopping floors at a hospital to make some money while the game's stars were starting to reap the financial rewards of the Open Era.

    Although many of the top players from North America and Europe did not participate in the Australian Open in those days, the draw still included Ken Rosewall, who was ranked No. 2 in the world at the time, and Newcombe, the defending champion who had beaten Jimmy Connors in the 1975 finals.

    However, Edmondson upset Rosewall in the semifinals, and he took out Newcombe in the finals.

    The media played up the fact that Edmondson went from being a floor-mopper to a Grand Slam champ in a matter of weeks.

    “They ended up getting out of me that I’d been a cleaner, so, therefore, I was a janitor,” Edmondson said, according to The New York Times. “After I won, one writer gave me a mop and bucket and had me throw it away for a photo op. So I’ve been a janitor all my life.”

    The fact that Edmondson never got to the finals of another Grand Slam singles event only served to make his 1976 victory more memorable.


6. Andre Agassi Defeats Pete Sampras, 2000 Semifinals

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    The 2000 Australian Open semifinals represented the 30th meeting between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, but it was only the second time they went five sets.

    The matchup of Sampras, whose serve was rated the best in tennis history by the New York Times, and Agassi, who had one of best service returns the game has ever seen, was always intriguing. And this battle of contrasting styles went the distance.

    "Andre and I have been a part of a lot of epics," Sampras told the Associated Press in 2000. "Today was definitely one of them, and he got the best of me."

    Sampras fired 37 aces, but still wound up the loser.

    Sampras had a chance to close out the match in a spectacular, fourth-set tiebreaker that had the crowd in an uproar on every point.  Leading two sets to one, Sampras used a second-serve ace to take a 5-4 lead in that tiebreaker.  But Agassi produced two service winners to get to set point, and won the set on a forehand passing shot.

    Ultimately, the match turned on a sequence in the fifth set. With Sampras serving trailing 0-1, Agassi hit two outstanding shots to win the first point, and led 15-30 when an annoyed Sampras shouted at Agassi's cheering coach, Brad Gilbert, who was seated beside Agassi's girlfriend (now wife) Steffi Graf.

    Agassi broke Sampras' serve in that game and finished off a 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (0-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-1 victory.


5. Monica Seles Defeats Steffi Graf, 1993 Finals

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    Monica Seles' 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory over Steffi Graf in the 1993 Australian Open finals was memorable enough on its own. However, events a few months later made that match even more unforgettable.

    Entering the 1993 Australian Open, Seles had won six of the past seven Grand Slam events she entered and had displaced Graf as the No. 1 player. Her only loss in a major in that span was a crushing 6-2, 6-1 loss to Graf in the 1992 Wimbledon finals in their most recent meeting.

    The Seles-Graf rivalry was evolving into something special, and the 1993 Australian Open brought out the best in both.

    As the New York Times reported, "Today's match was, in some respects, of higher quality than last year's memorable French Open final, in which Seles beat Graf by 10-8 in the third set. Today, the standard of play was consistently high from the start, and Graf was considerably less erratic from the baseline than in Paris. As a rule, points were won, rather than lost."

    The match pivoted on a single point in the sixth game of the third set. With Graf serving at 2-3, 30-0, Seles hit a marvelous cross-court return that landed on the line for a winner. Graf fought off two break points in that game, but Seles eventually got the service break, then won the final two games.

    It was Seles' third straight Australian Open title, and her match record at the event was 28-0.

    Seles was just 19 years old, but with the 1993 Australian Open title in her pocket, she already had eight Grand Slam singles titles. She also appeared to have the upper hand against the 23-year-old Graf.

    Then, three months later, Seles was stabbed during a tournament in Germany by a Graf fan. Seles missed the next 10 Grand Slam events. She won the 1996 Australian Open for her ninth and final Grand Slam title, but she was never quite the same as she was before the stabbing incident.

    The 1993 Australian Open finals is a reminder of what might have been.

4. Rafael Nadal Defeats Roger Federer, 2009 Finals

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    Rafael Nadal's 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 victory over Roger Federer in the 2009 Australian Open finals may have lacked some of the tennis drama provided by Nadal's five-set victory over Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, perhaps the greatest tennis match in history.

    However, the post-match emotions displayed by the normally unflappable Federer made the one in Melbourne almost as memorable.

    Minutes after losing the epic match, Federer took the microphone and muttered, "God, it's killing me," before breaking down in tears and being hugged by Nadal.

    That is the lasting impression from that match, which had been highlighted by Nadal's tenacity in this marathon matchup of tennis greats.

    Nadal had to get past Fernando Verdasco in a five-set semifinal that lasted five hours and 14 minutes, and Federer seemed to have the upper hand several times in the finals.

    Nadal rallied from 2-4 down to win the first set. After dropping the second set, Nadal twice received treatment for a tight right thigh during the third set, but staved off six break points against him in the set before winning it in a tiebreaker.

    Federer pulled even by winning the fourth set, but Nadal controlled the fifth. Serving at 2-5, 15-40, Federer saved two match points. But Nadal eventually won the game and the match. However, Federer won the crowd's heart with his emotional display.


3. Jennifer Capriati Defeats Martina Hingis, 2002 Finals

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    Jennifer Capriati's victory in the 2001 Australian Open represented a storybook comeback from personal problems that nearly ruined her career.

    However, her victory in the 2002 Australian Open final represented an even more memorable comeback. Capriati saved four match points against her in the second set amid stifling, 95-degree heat while pulling out a 4-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2 victory over Martina Hingis.

    The match is also remembered by some because of the profanities Capriati spewed while arguing with the chair umpire about a linesman's call. But she made a greater impression with her ability to respond to adversity.

    Capriati staged a brief rally in the first set, when she came back from 5-1 down to get to within 5-4. Hingis held on to win that set, and seemed in control in the second set when she took a 4-0 lead.

    Hingis had a match point while serving at 5-3 in the second set, but Capriati saved it with a backhand winner. Hingis had two more match points with Capriati serving at 5-6, but again Hingis was unable to finish off the match.

    Hingis had one more match point at 7-6 of the tiebreaker, but a backhand error cost Hingis her final chance. Capriati then hit a forehand winner to get a set point of her own, and Hingis hit a backhand wide to even the match.

    The players were allowed a 10-minute break after the second set, using it to apply ice packs to stave off the unrelenting heat.

    However, the interruption did not stop Capriati's momentum as she dominated the final set.

    "I really don't know how I won today," Capriati said, according to the Associated Press

2. Pete Sampras Defeats Jim Courier, 1995 Quarterfinals

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    Pete Sampras' 6-7 (4-7), 6-7 (3-7), 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Jim Courier in the 1995 Australian Open quarterfinals featured high-quality tennis by two of the game's stars in a tight match that went the distance. It even included an impressive comeback by Sampras from two sets down.

    However, none of those factors is the reason this match is so memorable.

    What put this match high on this list occurred in the first game of the fifth set. Sampras was serving after tying the match at two sets apiece, when he suddenly, inexplicably, starting bawling like a baby. Virtually no one knew until later that Tim Gullikson, Sampras' close friend and coach, had been diagnosed with brain cancer and had flown to America that day for treatment, according to a Fox Sports account of the incident. Gullikson, who later died from the disease in '96, had collapsed in the Melbourne Park locker room just before the tournament, and Sampras had kept his emotions locked inside until that moment.

    It's unclear what triggered the tearful outpouring from the typically stoic Sampras at that moment. But Courier realized what was happening, and, as you can hear in the video provided, he offered to delay the match a day. "Are you all right, Pete? We can do this tomorrow, you know," Courier said.

    Sampras went on, firing consecutive aces on the next two points through his uncontrolled sobbing. He won the game, then collapsed in his chair during the changeover.

    Sampras collected himself enough finish off the victory. Courier took solace in the exceptional tennis played that day, according to the Fox Sports flashback.

    "You're never happy to lose, but I take a lot of satisfaction away from that match," he said later. "We both could have collapsed then [when Sampras started crying]. We were cramping, the intensity took its toll, but we never let up. I knew by the second set this was something special in our lives.  The level of tennis was exceptional in that match and just high drama all the way through. And a really great sense of camaraderie after the match which Pete and I shared in the locker room having been through that together."



1. Novak Djokovic Defeats Rafael Nadal, 2012 Finals

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    The level of tennis as well as the emotional and physical effort exerted by two of the best players in history lifted the 2012 Australian Open finals to this lofty position.

    The 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 was 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.

    Nearly every point was spellbinding, creating an evolving drama.

    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.

    The epic nature of that match was punctuated by the sight of the two exhausted players struggling to stay upright during the awards ceremony. Finally, someone provided chairs for them to sit on, provoking another round of cheers from the crowd.

    “This was definitely one of the greatest matches of all time – easily one of the ten best since the Open Era of tennis started in 1968,” Steve Flink, author of The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time, told World Tennis. “Djokovic and Nadal both showed boundless energy and determination. They moved beyond themselves time and again, finding reserves of willpower they never knew existed. It was a match that will stand the test of time. It was riveting theatre...”