Ranking the 10 Most Memorable Matches in Men's Tennis so Far in 2014

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJuly 28, 2014

Ranking the 10 Most Memorable Matches in Men's Tennis so Far in 2014

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    Claude Paris/Associated Press

    Three Grand Slam tournaments and five Masters 1000 titles have awarded champions thus far in the 2014 tennis season. Along the way there have been high-quality matches and memorable moments, especially with the biggest stars in men's tennis.

    With the U.S. Open and four Masters 1000 titles still to be determined, there will be other matches to consider in November, but for now we have completed about two-thirds of the tennis season.

    The following slideshow ranks the 10 most memorable matches of 2014. Most of these were excellent or entertaining, but some of them were memorable because they were significant.

    Important Grand Slam matches have greater weight than Masters 1000 tournaments, and matches with superstars and big stakes take precedent over early-round matches. We did not include mid-level tournaments.

Honorable Mention

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    Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press

    Four great matches did not make our cut, but they were spectacular shows and memorable to diehard tennis fans. And they were significant enough to warrant consideration:

    Andy Murray vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber (French Open third round): Murray was showing signs late in the clay-court season of playing like his championship-best. In this match, he endured against a tough veteran who could play aggressive tennis at net.

    Part of this match's appeal was the contrast of styles, but in the end it was Murray's grit that won the day, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 12-10. It also propelled Murray on to the semifinals before he was obliterated by Rafael Nadal.

    Grigor Dimitrov vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov (Wimbledon third round): It looked like Dolgopolov's sensational serving and go-for-broke mentality would knock off Dimitrov, but the Bulgarian dug himself out of danger in the fourth set and finished off an impressive five-setter 6-7, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1. Clearly, Dimitrov's fitness and belief have grown, and this match spurred him on to the semifinals.

    Novak Djokovic vs. Roger Federer (Indian Wells final): Federer dominated the first set, fueled by some timely net play and good pressure against the Serbian. It seemed that he would finish off Djokovic again, having defeated him at Dubai with a similar attack. But Djokovic turned the match around and eventually held Federer off in the third-set tiebreaker for the 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(3) victory.

    Djokovic immediately hugged co-coach Marian Vajda as a sort of validation for their way of playing tennis. How important would this victory be for the Djokovic-Federer Wimbledon final?

    Rafael Nadal vs. Andy Murray (Rome quarterfinal): Murray came out firing, playing his best set of tennis in almost a year. He stepped in, hit with aggression and purpose and forced Nadal to elevate his game with more risk and power. The third set was a thriller, and it looked like Murray, up a break, would win.

    Nadal fought back as he has so many times, but he had to earn everything in the 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory. It was a boost for Murray and a good effort for Nadal as he went on to the final.

10. Novak Djokovic vs. Grigor Dimitrov (Wimbledon Semifinal)

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    Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press

    A couple of Djokovic's Wimbledon matches are understandably overshadowed by his final with Federer. In the quarterfinals, he had to come back in a tough five-set match against dangerous and accomplished grass-court competitor Marin Cilic.

    The semifinal match with Dimitrov was even more intriguing and threatened to become a classic in its own right. It was the up-and-coming, talented Bulgarian against the snakebit Serbian champion who had to prove he could return to the Grand Slam-winning circle.

    Djokovic started strong, but Dimitrov battled back after a 3-1 second-set deficit. He kept his composure with a big serve and some audacious points. They were just getting warmed up for tiebreakers in the third and fourth sets, both won by Djokovic.

    Dimitrov had every opportunity to win the fourth set. He could not convert one set point off Djokovic's serve at 5-4, and he later held a 6-3 lead in the tiebreaker for three more set points. The match seemed as if if could go on another hour or more, but suddenly it was over at 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(2), 7-6(7).

    Djokovic's escape was important. Who knows what would have happened in a fifth set, and at the very least it might have worn down the Serbian for the Wimbledon final.

9. Ernest Gulbis vs. Roger Federer (French Open Fourth Round)

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    David Vincent/Associated Press

    Federer could not close out the second set, which might have narrowed Ernests Gulbis' willingness to fight back for three straight sets. It was tough for Federer to swallow, losing the second set after serving at 5-3 and 40-15.

    But Gulbis deserves the credit for playing big all the way through a fifth set. His backhand and serve were his usual weapons, but his head and heart hung in through the adversities and pressures of facing a legend. In an on-court interview with Cedric Pioline, ATP World Tour reported, "It’s the biggest win of my career. Sorry I had to win. I know how everyone likes Roger. It was a tough match but this is sport."

    The final line was Gulbis' victory at 6-7(5), 7-6(3), 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.

    Gulbis roared on to his first major semifinal before falling to Djokovic, but the Latvian showed that his dangerous skills could be a threat at majors if he can play with consistency and composure.

8. Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal (Rome Final)

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    Andrew Medichini/Associated Press

    Nadal played well in the first set, attacking Djokovic's forehand and winning the baseline battle for a 6-4 first-set win.

    And then Djokovic's forehand did the damage as he ran Nadal all over the court, winning at net and grinding out the longer rallies. Furthermore, he attacked Nadal's struggling second serve and had the ideal blend of power and control that all but flummoxed the Spaniard.

    To many tennis observers, the 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 Djokovic victory was the perfect blueprint for showing his superiority in his recent title matches with Nadal, and many gave the nod to Djokovic as the new favorite for the French Open.

    It was a good final that seemed to shift the balance of power in the clay-court region of the tennis world. In hindsight, it might also have helped Nadal with his adjustments and resilience in the French Open final. But the Rome final was great conversation and still a big title for Djokovic.

7. Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Roger Federer (Monte Carlo Final)

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    Claude Paris/Associated Press

    Federer has been very good in 2014, but in some of the biggest matches we profile, he is on the losing end. A few points here and there in any of these matches and perhaps he would have his signature win. Titles at Dubai and Halle are nice, but going forward he would love to close out a big title in 2014.

    The Monte Carlo final was intriguing in the matchup, the first time two Swiss players contested a final since Marc Rosset defeated Federer in Marseille in 2000. Stanislas Wawrinka came into the match with a 1-13 record against Federer.

    But 2014 Wawrinka, despite some hiccups, had a few big wins. The Monte Carlo title was a huge coup for him, and he won 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-2 after Federer controlled the first set. Once Wawrinka had the time to tee off from the baseline with his blistering backhand and improved forehand, he put on a third-set clinic that left smoke hovering above the Monte Carlo Country Club.

    The final win also increased the talk for Wawrinka's chances to win the French Open, but that hype turned out to be a brief disappointment with a first-round loss.

    Wawrinka will always have his name etched at Monte Carlo.

6. Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic (French Open Final)

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    Thibault Camus/Associated Press

    The cards were on the table for Djokovic. He had dominated Rafael Nadal in four previous (best of three) finals, and it seemed that this time he would be indestructible.

    Nadal at Roland Garros is like one of those TV serials where the hero is placed in one impossible situation after another in which the audience is sure that this time he will not survive—except that Nadal's French Open reality is another title. This year was his fifth consecutive French Open title and ninth in 10 years. It defies anything else ever attempted on clay, including the Renaissance.

    The final was not their most theatrical display, and many would not call it beautiful play. Djokovic was fighting an illness, and this was clearly more of a factor as the match went on. Nadal had his physical difficulties, and he had to hold on and survive at the end.

    Furthermore, the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry has already provided so many memorable matches and championship bouts that this one could get lost in the shuffle. Their rivalry's abundant quantity and quality makes it increasingly difficult for other fanbases to be fully impressed. Some are tired of it.

    But this 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 result was still a French Open victory and another chapter in Nadal's legendary will. It's a highly significant match and another integral piece of the greatest clay-court resume ever assembled.

5. Nick Kyrgios vs. Rafael Nadal (Wimbledon 4th Round)

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    Ben Curtis/Associated Press

    Just when it seemed like Nadal had regained his footing on grass, he was overpowered by 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios. Most of this can be explained with the young Australian's booming serve and powerful, flat groundstrokes hardly giving Nadal a look. He blasted 37 aces to go with his 70 winners. It was a nuclear display of power and energy.

    Tennis fans will remember this, as they do when Nadal or Federer lose in Grand Slam matches, but to many observers excited about Kyrgios' star potential, this was validation.

    If Kyrgios were to ultimately be a bust, this match will lose some luster as a one-hit wonder. If Kyrgios does become a tennis superstar, this might one day be looked at as one of those baton matches—possibly like young Federer's victory over Pete Sampras at the 2001 Wimbledon.

    Kyrgios showed his mettle a couple of rounds earlier in fighting off nine match points to defeat Richard Gasquet. Maybe that was more impressive, but this is the one we will remember.

4. David Ferrer vs. Rafael Nadal (Monte Carlo Quarterfinal)

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    Michel Euler/Associated Press

    David Ferrer might be fading in 2014, but his quarterfinal victory over Nadal came after a decade of clay-court futility against his bigger Spaniard tennis brother. Ferrer displayed his frenetic best with defense, but he was particularly effective in using both sides of the court to put away Nadal's short and inconsistent strokes for the 7-6(1), 6-4 upset.

    This was a match that sent shock waves through the ATP and began the questions regarding Nadal's crumbling empire. It was also Nadal's second loss in as many years at Monte Carlo after eight consecutive years without a defeat. It foreshadowed difficulties for Nadal on clay and for his French Open defense.

    Later, Ferrer and Nadal had a rematch at the Roland Garros quarterfinals. Ferrer won the first set, but he fell apart in a humiliating final two sets, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0, 6-1. Was Nadal motivated by Monte Carlo? The great champions always have a response.

3. Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Rafael Nadal (Australian Open Final)

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    Aaron Favila/Associated Press

    Yes, another Rafael Nadal loss in this countdown (1-4 record), but the memorable matches swirl around the stars because they are usually in position for big titles. (Nadal fans might note that Federer is 0-3 in this countdown, again a compliment to providing the other side of the big-match tale.)

    On the other hand, nobody gets too worked up if Wawrinka loses. It's easy to appreciate his success and give him props, especially because his two big titles this year are career highlights. He and Djokovic come across as the big winners in this countdown, Wawrinka for a few huge wins and Djokovic for dominating on the road back to his No. 1 ranking.

    The Australian Open final was a bizarre disappointment in terms of quality, but that's also what makes it highly memorable. Most tennis fans credit Wawrinka's powerful start to the match as setting the tone and validating his eventual 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 championship win over Nadal.

    For Nadal's part, a back injury would become just as big of a story. He was clearly hampered from the second set to the end of the match in an injury that he said occurred in warm-ups.

    Consequently, the match turned ugly with Nadal often lobbing in serves and not running to the corners during rallies. Wawrinka then lost his focus and unraveled with amateur errors before rebounding to finish off a major championship that must have felt more like relief than triumph.

2. Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Novak Djokovic (Australian Open Quarterfinal)

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    Rick Rycroft/Associated Press

    This was the third part to the epic trilogy of Djokovic-Wawrinka. Wawrinka pushed Djokovic to the limits in the 2013 Australian fourth round and the 2013 U.S. Open semifinal, and he continued to build greater confidence in big matches.

    Furthermore, their styles of play are a compelling difference, with the hard-hitting Wawrinka one of the few players in tennis who pushes the great champion to scramble so often on defense. It's power against mettle, and they often force each other to come up with spectacular winners.

    This time, Wawrinka finished off perhaps his greatest match, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7, and it proved to be even more monumental as he polished off Tomas Berdych and Rafael Nadal to win his only Grand Slam title. He also halted Djokovic's bid for a fourth straight title at Melbourne, the toughest place there is to defeat the Serbian.

    Could they meet again at the U.S. Open? It seems impossible that they would provide an equally great fourth act, but nobody would hesitate at the price of admission.

1. Novak Djokovic vs. Roger Federer (Wimbledon Final)

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    Ben Curtis/Associated Press

    It might seem exhausting to keep discussing their Wimbledon classic less than one month removed from its performance. The praise and superlatives are one thing, but the quality of shotmaking and the drama of comebacks made this a theatrical marvel.

    Furthermore, it takes two great players for those special matches. Djokovic and Federer had to use every bullet in their holster, at times with astonishing improvisation to produce the 6-7(7), 6-4, 7-6(4), 5-7, 6-4 championship.

    The stakes were high. Federer nearly chased down his 18th major, and Djokovic pushed aside some haunting majors matches to capture his seventh major and the No. 1 ranking.

    Where do they go from here? Federer has to brush aside another disappointing result, but he has to feel encouraged with his chances to get No. 18. Djokovic got the Grand Slam monkey off his back, for the time being, and he might be more loose and determined to attack the North American hard-court tour. He has a chance to run away with the No. 1 ranking.

    In the end, it really was the standout match, so far, of 2014. Will there be literary chapters regaling the match? Will ESPN turn this into another 30 for 30 special? Right now it might seem like overkill, but years from now it will be remembered fondly.