In a celebration of the best tennis of 2009, it is invariably the victor who wins the plaudits. But the greatest and most memorable matches are not the easy wins, the one-sided demolitions, the over-in-a-flash triumphs. They are the gladiatorial, lay-it-all-on-the-line, battle-to-the-death nail-biters.
Such duels bring not just drama to the tennis court but often some of the greatest quality, as one player seeks to find just a little bit more to counter their opponent.
This is a celebration of “losers” who provided some of the most memorable matches of 2009. Who do you think gave the best performance, but lost, this year?
Contributors, with their matches presented in chronological order, are: AntiMatter, J.A.Allen, Marianne Bevis, Claudia Celestial Girl, and Chloe Francis
1. Fernando Verdasco, Semifinal Australian Open
Nominated by Marianne Bevis
By the time Fernando Verdasco met Andy Murray in Round Four of the Australian Open, back in January, the Spaniard’s impressive progress was already raising eyebrows, and not a little excitement, amongst pundits and crowds.
His five-set defeat of Murray in over three hours, 2-6, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 then became, up to that point, the match of the tournament. Verdasco’s performance had been quite stunning but, in Melbourne’s unforgiving temperatures, could he possibly maintain the same quality into the next round?
In fact, he went on to be the revelation of the tournament.
Although a hugely talented and charismatic player, Verdasco had seemed destined to languish in the shadow of his all-conquering younger compatriot, Rafael Nadal. But the absence of his friend and rival from Spain’s Davis Cup team in the final against Argentina just weeks before gave Verdasco a pivotal role in Spain’s victory.
He channelled his new confidence into solid training during the off-season and, by the time he came to Melbourne, he was full of energy, power, and aggression.
Verdasco moved from Murray to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, which also turned into a display of powerful shot-making, immaculate serving—indeed a 77 percent first serve average for Verdasco—and creative rallies. He won in four.
Of course, the ultimate test awaited him in the semis against none other than Nadal himself. And Verdasco had failed to beat him in all six previous meetings.
What a feast it turned out to be: two handsome, strutting, bronze-skinned Spaniards going head-to-head. Sweat poured from both in buckets. Their forearms seemed to grow in circumference with each passing game. Serves were pounded harder and deeper to combat each challenge. It was a stunning exhibition of power play, leavened with acute angles and brilliantly constructed rallies.
There were trainers; there were “comfort breaks;” there was a net cord that all but sealed the first set; there were 95 outright winners from Verdasco’s racket; and, had he reduced his error count just a fraction, he may well have sealed this match.
After five-and-a-quarter hours, there was just one point between them: 193 versus 192.
Platitude it may be, but you had to feel sorry that either player should lose. Verdasco must have been devastated to come out the loser by such a narrow margin, 7-6, 4-6, 6-7, 7-6, 4-6. However, it launched him into the top 10 for the first time, where he stayed until he sealed his place, also for the first time, in the Tour End Finals.
This would have been the match of the tournament had there not been a certain emotional five-set rematch between Nadal and Roger Federer just round the corner. As it was, Verdasco provided a magnificent 50 percent of one of the matches of the year, and his performance in Melbourne was an individual tour de force.
2. Novak Djokovic, Semifinal Madrid
Nominated by AntiMatter
Towards the end, it was like a bout. They seemed like two pugilists.
Each point seemed a passing round. After each heavily fought rally, they took prolonged and probably allowable breaks due to the exhaustion each left them in.
There was real chemistry there. The rallies were intimate. They shared a bond just like Batman shares a bond with the Joker, only here to most, it was the Joker who won.
For Djokovic, the year started with not only his body giving up midway but also "the Head" out of control. After a bit of disappointment in the beginning of the season, he started preparing for the most ambitious task in tennis at that time—to beat Rafael Nadal on clay. And it was by the thickness of a hair that he missed.
Djokovic was successful in keeping Nadal in his place with flat angled strokes on both flanks, forcing Nadal to play shots with a lot less setup than he would have liked, and on the run, too. And this being a surface that was blue disguised in red, he was having his success. After taking the first set, he also had many opportunities in the second set to close out the match at a stunning 2-0 score-line with two clean breaks of serve.
But Nadal is not one person. Only one is awake at a time. The more ferocious creature is woken up only when he is in deep trouble. This creature can save as many match points as you can give it by hitting winners.
And the rules of the game were his accomplice that day allowing him to win the match with no residual breaks of serve.
This was not the Nadal that lost to Robin Soderling meekly. This Nadal was hitting deep and had an additional “rip-factor” on his strokes than normal.
And what is the word that describes the situation? Yes the situation in which Djokovic’s strategy and execution were impeccable, where he was at his very best, and had kept Nadal out of his comfort zone? Where he almost won the prize that would have launched his career this year into another orbit altogether? Misfortune? No. That sounds too diplomatic with fate.
“It was Djokovic’s best performance of the year.” Say nothing more.
3. Juan Martin del Potro, Semifinal French Open
Nominated by J.A.Allen
Tall, lean, and lanky, Juan Martin del Potro had to cringe when he realized his opponent the next day in the 2009 French Open would be Roger Federer.
Del Potro had met Federer five times, and the Argentine stood 0-5 in his matches against the Swiss maestro. Del Potro had never even won a set against Federer.
During the 2009 Australian Open quarterfinals, Federer had humiliated del Potro 6-3, 6-0, 6-0. It was almost as if the Argentine were standing on the beach rather than inside Rod Laver Arena. The 20-year-old felt as if his feet were nailed to the synthetic surface.
At Madrid on clay, Federer had again defeated the tall del Potro, but the score was a respectable 6-3, 6-4. That offered some encouragement. Perhaps the Argentine was improving. Del Potro had to believe in his own ability to win the match, otherwise he never would defeat Federer.
The semifinals at the 2009 French Open would be the day the Argentine would turn around expectations and begin to impose his game upon the man from Switzerland.
Del Potro used his height to great advantage, rifling serves at Federer. He ended the match with 16 aces compared to Federer’s five.The Argentine also splayed winners to all corners from all angles, cumulating 55 to Federer’s 50.
His ground-strokes were massive and Federer found himself reeling, broken twice in the first set and losing it 6-3 in a mere 38 minutes.
Del Potro did not lessen his intensity in the second set and the mighty Swiss tightened his belt and dug into the match, holding his own serve, waiting patiently for his moment to seize control. That came only in the second set tiebreaker. Del Potro finally blinked and Federer escaped with the second set in tow, 7-6.
Once again, the 20-year-old boomed back and rocked Federer’s world, setting the mighty Swiss back on his heels. The Argentine dismantled him in the third and left a disheveled Federer in his wake—taking the third set 6-2 in a little over half an hour!
Onto the fourth where Federer finally began to sense Del Potro’s power waning. The Argentine’s first serve deserted him and his ground-strokes were often wide or long. Federer could feel the blood begin to flow again—he took the fourth set 6-1 in 38 minutes.
Finally, it would all come down to the fifth set and Federer could smell the finish line as he ran around his backhand to fire winners past the depleted Argentine who was fast running out of gas.
Del Potro sprung back to life briefly, but Federer contained the fire and put it out completely winning the set and the match.
But in losing, Del Potro convinced himself that with a little better conditioning and an undying belief in his own ability, he could defeat Federer ,or anyone else for that matter.
The loss prepared him mentally for the next time Del Potro would meet the Swiss maestro—in the finals of the U.S. Open where the Argentine would prove he could play and win against the best on a grand stage.
4. Elena Dementieva, Semifinal Wimbledon
Nominated by Claudia Celestial Girl
Olympic gold medallist, Elena Dementieva, had played two Grand Slam finals before, but never kissed the trophy.
She had lost to Serena Williams in the Australian Open at the start of the year.
But she, like many on the W.T.A., went through a period of yips with her serve. She went out of the 2009 Indian Wells tournament in the second round.
Coming into Wimbledon, though, she seemed to have re-tooled the serve. With that, she was a completely different player, pushing Williams around the court, first serve speed up to 120 m.p.h., and winning 65% of her second serves. But it was her belief on the court that was an unpleasant surprise to Serena.
This fantastic match (perhaps the best of the Women’s Tour this year), was characterized by serve and half-volley! Great mid-court play, with great angles from half-court, and correspondingly great gets. There was also great play from the baseline.
After winning the first set 7-6, and with a break point at 4-3, Elena was broken in the last game of the second set, to lose it 7-5.
She held match point in the third set, but Serena fought it off, and Elena lost the third 8-6 in the longest women’s semifinal in the Open era: two hours 49 minutes.
A challenge of belief on one side of the net, and all out will to win on the other side of the net, and Elena seemed to lose belief after failing to convert match point.
It was an outstanding performance from one of the best players in the women’s Tour never to have won a major.
5. Andy Roddick, Final Wimbledon
Nominated by Chloe Francis
It was the biggest final of the year—in all senses.
Roger Federer, in a bid to win his sixth Wimbledon title and record-breaking 15th Grand Slam, had, once again, to face Andy Roddick in the final on the hallowed turf.
Based on previous results, Federer should not have been afraid of the match-up. In each of their two meetings at Wimbledon, Federer had humbled the big serving American, beating him comprehensively to win his second and third titles at Wimbledon. In the broader tennis world, too, Roddick had only gotten the better of his nemesis once in 19 meetings.
Yet Roddick was resurgent, in blistering form on all surfaces since his union with coach Larry Stefanki in December. It was a leaner, fitter, more determined American who comprehensively triumphed over a dazzling array of stars at Wimbledon, culminating in his defeat of Lleyton Hewitt in five sets in the quarterfinal, and then home favourite Andy Murray in four sets in the semifinal.
But the biggest prize was yet to be achieved…and, ultimately, could not be achieved.
In five gruelling sets, in one of the greatest matches Wimbledon has ever witnessed, the “Greatest Player of All Time” did just enough to beat the fighter.
At 14-all in the final set, Roddick blinked. Federer didn’t.
A break: at 16-14, it was all over.
The most prized cup in tennis was once again out of reach, handed instead to “The Great One.” How wonderful, how cruel, how historic, how absolutely right, how utterly crushing.
Roddick had lost, but he hadn’t really.
6. Venus Williams, Final Stanford
Nominated by J.A.Allen
Venus Williams was having a great year in 2009, back in the top five in W.T.A. rankings. She climbed and held onto No. 3 for much of 2009.
At the Bank of the West Classic Tournament at Stanford, Williams was going to meet unorthodox French woman Marion Bartoli in the final.
Bartoli had battled all week to make it to the finals, eliminating Jelena Jankovic and Samantha Stosur in her last two rounds. She fought back from two match points down against Jankovic before prevailing. The French woman’s victory over Stosur extended to three sets.
Williams, on the other hand, had crushed Elena Dementieva in her semifinal contest 6-0, 6-1 in 64 minutes. It was Venus’ sixth straight win over the stubborn Russian. Williams had also sent Maria Sharapova packing earlier in the tournament.
Bartoli and Williams had met once before in the finals at Wimbledon where Venus dismissed the inexperienced French woman 6-4, 6-1 on her way to capturing another Wimbledon crown.
As the match got underway, Williams started slowly. Bartoli did not. She ripped through the first set, taking it 6-2. Venus just couldn’t seem to click—to get her coordination and her footwork in sync.
Soon, Williams found herself down in the second set 3-5. That is when the older Williams sister found another gear and stormed back into the match, winning four games in a row. That gave her the second set 7-5.
It would have been easy to give up in the second set just to get off a court that was baking in the afternoon sun. But Venus did not give up, and she fought hard as the match moved into the third set.
They stayed even until Bartoli surged into the lead in the closing moments of the last set, breaking Venus’ serve and holding on to her own to close out the set 6-2, 5-7, 6-4. It lasted almost three hours.
This match typifies the fighting spirit of Venus Williams who never gives less than 100 percent and never complains. Her competititive spirit was on full display during this final, and her sportsmanship as well as she congratulated her opponent for a great tournament and applauded her level of play. Venus Williams truly is a champion even in defeat.