The 11 Best Australian Open Matches from the Last 11 Years
In the past two decades, the Australian Open has transformed from a forgotten, forlorn afterthought into a vibrant showcase for some of the best matches in tennis history. With the 2011 tournament fast approaching, I'm counting down the 11 most unforgettable wars of attrition from the past 11 years -- how's that for symmetry? From five hour marathons to a monstrous sister act to a couple heartbroken Swiss superstars, nothing's off-limits under the scorching Down Under sun.
11(tie). 2009 3R: Fernando Gonzalez d. Richard Gasquet 3-6 3-6 7-6(10) 6-2 12-10
So I may have cheated just a bit by co-ranking two underrated classics at number 11. But the 2009 Australian was too good to be true, particularly in the men's draw -- a cornucopia of excruciating, enthralling epics. Since the '09 tournament makes a few more appearances on this countdown, I felt like I had needed to axe one of these early round clashes. Too bad they're both way too memorable to be left unmentioned.
When the likes of Richard Gasquet and Fernando Gonzalez step onto a tennis court, their games can be polarizing; over the course of a match, you'll witness the firepower of Del Potro, the variety of Federer, the pure athleticism of Nadal -- but usually in contained doses. The psychological side of the game has abandoned these two too often to count -- and for Gasquet, it would happen again in this January thriller. The Frenchman opened beautifully, winning the first two sets comfortably, striking his serve and backhand with confident poise. Gasquet's a true showman, and times when he's able to display his trademark impromptu flair are those in which you wish he'd finally realize his true potential. Gonzalez, meanwhile, will always be famous for a god-given, extraordinary ability to hammer the s#!% out of the ball. But in the tournaments that he's excelled in, the slice backhand and booming serve are also key components to a winning formula.
There are so many reasons to love this match. First one that comes to mind: the beauty of the one-handed backhand. Both these men possess big wind-ups, but when they lean in and connect -- BAM!, the shot becomes a cannon. I personally love my two-hander, but watching the Frenchman and Chilean duke it out makes you wish there were more old school backhands on the pro circuit. Especially when watching the two that Gonzalez hit to break serve and win the match -- a perfectly-placed topspin a lob and a down-the-line laser. You also wish crowds could be as tuned into a match as much as they were this night in Melbourne. When rabid South American fans mix with the sports-crazy Aussie atmosphere, a palpable electricity emanates throughout the Oz Open stadiums. Players like Gonzalez feed off of that energy. Yet another reason this match deserves to be remembered -- for how much intensity these two guys were bringing to the table, especially in the match's final stages. I find it fascinating when Grand Slam matches go into overtime in the last set (yep, even 70-68), but it can be tough to see at the Australian Open -- where oppressive heat is a huge factor. So 12-10 in the fifth? After 12-10 in the crucial third set breaker? Tough to beat.
11(tie). 2009 4R: Jelena Dokic d. Alisa Kleybanova 7-5 5-7 9-7
Tough to beat, sure -- but 9-7 in the third comes damn close. Like Gasquet and Gonzalez, Jelena Dokic and Alisa Kleybanova can be fantastic to see when their games are working. On off days, however... let's just say I'd rather watch a couple cows during mating season or Mary Carillo in a Chipmunks movie or -- dare I say it -- Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
Lucky for the Australian crowd, the two sluggers were both in the zone when they met in a surprise '09 fourth round clash. Dokic, recipient of a wild card, was the sentimental favorite -- again an Aussie citizen, again in a good mental state, again a force to be reckoned with after beating three tough players all in three sets. The Russian, meanwhile, had taken down last year's finalist Ana Ivanovic in a captivating third round encounter and was looking to break through to a maiden major quarterfinal.
Both approached the dogfight with similar game plans: dictate from the baseline while getting the other girl on the move. Dokic was out to paint lines with her flat, clean groundies and smooth serve; Kleybanova's unorthodox forehand swipe and backhand scoop were ideal for creating off-angles and drawing Dokic out wide. The fight and concentration from Dokic was unbelievable -- it harked back to her days in the Top 10, and, unfortunately, we haven't seen much since. But the belief factor was also ever-present, and it was clear despite her laborious efforts to get to the fourth round that she was pumped and ready for a challenge. The wide-eyed looked to the crowd after winning a huge rally to go up 6-5 in the first, followed by the fistpump she unleashed to close out that set -- it was beautiful to see.
But give Kleybanova for not wilting after the opener -- even after losing leads in the second, she held tough and also closed it out 7-5. They went the distance and ended up running a marathon. A crucial juncture came when, returning at 6-5 up in the third, Dokic went over on her ankle -- could it be yet another injury to add to this girl's unlucky streak? Miraculously, she got up and just kept on playing -- taking the match a few games later, her smile lighting up the packed house. The two would meet a year later in the opening round, Kleybanova gaining revenge in a tepid two-setter. But nothing could erase Dokic's -- and her adopted home country's -- memory of the previous year's fight.
10. 2001 QF: Martina Hingis d. Serena Williams 6-2 3-6 8-6
By the time the 2001 Australian Open rolled around, both Martina Hingis and Serena Williams had something to prove. It'd been two long years without a major for Hingis, a period full of devastating Slam losses -- Graf at the '99 French, Dokic at '99 Wimbledon, Venus at the '00 U.S. Open -- and questions from detractors about the validity of her No. 1 ranking. Serena also came in with recent disappointing runs at the majors, failing to back up her incredible triumph at the '99 U.S. Open (over the Swiss, no less); winning many of the matches she was supposed to, but losing out on big stages.
Their shared hunger for that next Slam trophy rippled throughout this gripping quarterfinal. From the start, Hingis was a woman on a mission, a player transformed -- hammering serves and belting groundstrokes, anticipating beautifully and employing her trademark panache. She took the first set handily, outsmarting Serena and dialing in on returns. But the younger Williams struck back with a vengeance in the next two sets. Her strokes got deeper, she approached the net more and drew Hingis along the baseline on a string -- the Swiss constantly resorting to sliced one-handers and squash shots to stay in rallies. Most of all, Serena tracked down everything -- an ability she always seems to call upon when playing Down Under. Williams took the second 6-3 and built a commanding lead in the third.
You could say that ultimate set was Martina Hingis' last stand against the power game -- she wouldn't score another meaningful win over an established top ballbasher until her return to the game in 2006. The Swiss Miss went down 1-4 in the third with little sign of Serena letting up. The two then started the sixth game with a point that epitomized their whole match up: Serena running Hingis along the baseline with groundstrokes that painted the baseline, Hingis tracking them all down and coming up with a beautiful finesse drop shot, Serena tracking that down and finishing the point at net, pounding a perfect overhead into the corner.
But suddenly, that player from the first set awakens again in Hingis. The next point we see the Swiss rip a backhand down the line, follow it into net and put away a crisp forehand volley. Hingis would claw her way back to 4-5 and watch Serena tighten as she tried to serve out the match. Ultimately, that tightness would creep into Williams' entire game, leading to yet another painful Grand Slam loss. Hingis took it in overtime -- capping off a brilliantly exhausting effort. She would go on to trounce Venus in the semis (racking up a rare double over both sisters in the same tournament), but famously fell to Jennifer Capriati in the final. It's this gem with Serena -- the best match she and Hingis played -- that isn't so well known.
9. 2004 SF: Marat Safin d. Andre Agassi 7-6(6) 7-6(6) 5-7 1-6 6-3
Anytime a player could avoid getting wiped off the court in three by Agassi at the Australian, they were usually playing pretty well. But to stand a chance at actually beating the legend, it was better to try one's hand at black magic or phone in a bomb threat on a changeover or blindly rocket back service returns hoping one of them would knock him unconscious. Between all the straight-set blowouts he handed out at the year's first major, Agassi also outlasted rivals like Sampras, Rafter and Courier in five -- with the fifth set never being that competitive. He was a Gil Reyes-fueled machine, I tell ya!
But then along came Marat Safin -- washed up and forgotten in his early twenties, ranked a lowly No. 86 and discounted by many -- to show that man indeed could conquer machine. Facing down man with a 26-match win streak who had beaten him in their last two encounters, the Russian refused to be intimidated. He handed down what could've been Agassi's most painful Aussie Open loss, moving on after a relatively tame fifth set. How ironic.
There were a few of crucial elements that came into play during this match. The Safin return had to be on fire -- and that it was. In the clip above -- showcasing the tight second set tiebreak -- the lumbering Russian doesn't relent on the Agassi serve, particularly hammering back the second delivery. He beat the American at his own game. More importantly, though, the Russian kept it together mentally. In the tiebreak above, receiving serve up 5-4, Safin rips a backhand return, fires a blistering inside out forehand off of Agassi's weak reply and has a easy drop volley into the open court. He nets it. Could have been two set points, no problem. Instead, he swats his next return into the net, now finding himself down a set point.
That's how Agassi won matches, particularly in Melbourne -- he had an almost sadistic love of grinding opponents down, particularly guys with self-destructive tendencies like Safin. Even though Agassi would lose that tiebreak, he swept the third and fourth sets easily and seemed poised for a berth into the finals. But this time, he was a victim of self-implosion. The American held a break point early in the fifth, missed a cross-court forehand and all but disappeared from the match. Safin kept his cool -- for Safin standards -- and deservedly took the marathon. Seven years later, it still goes down as one of the most improbable victories in recent Oz Open history.
8. 2008 3R: Lleyton Hewitt d. Marcos Baghdatis 4-6 7-5 7-5 6-7(4) 6-3
4:33 AM. The latest -- or earliest? -- finish in Australian Open history. Rarely do you see two men fight so hard as Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis did in those early morning hours in Melbourne, neither wanting to give up the fight despite the fact they should've both been passed out like a couple of babies whose bottles were spiked. Because of an epic Federer match earlier in the day and the refusal of Venus Williams to move to a lesser court, these two warriors started the match around quarter to midnight. I'm guessing the tournament directors really felt like Hewitt would wipe the court with this Baghdatis character. Hey, the guy only made the final last year, right?
The match started out pretty even-keel, nobody in the stadium suspecting that they'd be awake in time to see the start of John McEnroe's morning vocal exercises and f#$&in' anger management therapy. The players split sets before the Cypriot opened up a comfortable 5-3 lead in the third, holding set point. But Scrappy Hew, urged on by the (delirious) crowd, took nine of the next ten games to sneak away with the third and build a 5-1 lead in the fourth. Then it was Baghdatis who got a second wind -- breaking back twice, saving a match point down 2-5 and gutting out the fourth set tiebreak with some huge shots. By that time, the tourney directors were nearly out of sharp objects to chuck at a Baghdatis poster hanging in the locker room wall.
Sorry for going walkabout, how 'bout more analysis mate? Turns out both Hewitt and Baghdatis play very similarly -- something you don't really notice until you watch them spar together. They track down a lot of balls, work points over with topspin heavy shots, wait for opportunities to strike and place emphasis on point construction. On this day, Hewitt's athleticism was just too good for Baghdatis' shotmaking; in fact, the Australian came up with some stunners of his own, particularly the forehand return he smacked on match point in the (extremely) short clip above. Must have felt damn good at four in the morning.
It's matches like this one that have transformed the Australian Open into the most entertaining of all four majors. Year in and year out, it produces classics that are often remembered as the most enthralling matches of the year. It also draws the rowdiest tennis spectators: some fun and laid back, some intensely intense, some just out to watch Sharapova in a sports bra, all possessing a sheer love of the sport. Only at this tournament would 15,000 crazed fans -- cheering on their hometown favorite or pseudo-Greek superstar -- stay up 'til the crack of dawn to watch some a couple mates bat a ball back and forth. Hewitt collapsing on court after one final winner, enveloped in relief, joy and fatigue; Baghdatis waving to the crowd as he wipes tears from his eyes -- that incomparable emotion is what the Australian Open is cemented in.
And did I mention Sharapova in a sports bra?
7. 2003 F: Serena Williams d. Venus Williams 7-6(4) 3-6 6-4
Simply put, we will never have another Serena or Venus Williams. During the heights of their tandem Slam dominance, people looked on in awe at their athletic prowess while bemoaning a severe lack of parity on the women's tour. In retrospect, their demolition derby of a sister act in 2002 and 2003 should be a cherished period -- not only for its improbability (in my mind, at least), but for the insanely high quality power tennis they routinely demonstrated. In today's error-strewn WTA, vintage Williams would be more than welcome; I'm sure even present day Venus and Serena would enjoy the challenge.
Over that two-year span at the start of the millennium, the sisters sat high atop the rankings and played in five major finals -- four in a row, from the '02 French to this '03 Australian title bout. What unfolded in Melbourne was certainly the best match between the two at the time -- and continues to be one of their best matches to date. Blockbusters between the Williamses are never too pretty, but this three-setter was chock full of monstrous rallies, humongous serving and very little give from either player. Because of the repercussions for both -- Serena fulfilling the Grand Slam and holding all four majors consecutively; Venus losing four majors in a row to her younger sister -- they clawed tooth and nail for the victory. Serena's subdued reaction after her sister's final forehand sails out -- and Venus' subsequent flustered smile at the net -- tell the entire story.
This may not be a match that rivals the overall quality of others on my list, but the effortless, intense firepower generated on nearly every shot needs to be both immortalized and remembered. In the superb highlights above, the yellow ball is smacked around so hard it blends right in with the pale green Rebound Ace -- a byproduct of mediocre picture quality, sure, as well as the unrelenting brand of power tennis patented by the sisters. The clip sends us back to brighter, better days on the women's circuit. Both sisters are as fit as they'll ever be -- and, better yet, completely injury-free. The stellar careers of Venus and Serena will always be accompanied by hypotheticals. What if all the ailments and sabbaticals and personal tragedies never occurred? Perhaps we'd have seen a lot more matches like this one.
6. 2003 QF: Andy Roddick d. Younes El-Aynaoui 4-6 7-6(5) 4-6 6-4 21-19
In January 2003, John Isner was a rising star at the University of Georgia and Nicholas Mahut was trying to crack the Top 100. Way before "70-68" came "21-19" -- an incredible fifth set between young American standout Andy Roddick and lanky, affable Moroccan Younes El Aynaoui. They battled it out in that 2 hour, 23 minute fifth -- in a world post-Isner/Mahut that number seems like child's play, but it's still one of the longest sets contested in the Open Era.
I vividly recall watching the entirety of that last set, a wide-eyed middle schooler entranced by the neverending match. Before refreshing my memory with the YouTube highlights, I figured it had just been a serve-fest -- in reality, the match featured loads of gripping rallies won from ten feet behind the baseline and inches from the net and everywhere in between. It's strange seeing Roddick in a visor (a look that I tried to adopt back in the day, not knowing any better); it's even stranger seeing El Aynaoui's disjointed, almost ungainly swipes at the ball. I'm amazed the Moroccan's strokes held up as long -- and as well -- as they did throughout 83 games.
A part of me is still that wide-eyed 8th grader as I watch Roddick collapse to the ground at the end of this epic. It was his breakthrough Grand Slam tournament -- even though he'd fall to Rainer Scheuttler in the next round, this win cemented his fighting ability and had to have played into the ruthless summer season he'd late enjoy under the tutelage of Brad Gilbert.
No matter what comparisons the match draws to Wimbledon 2010, it will go down in the books as one of the finest fights Rod Laver Arena has ever witnessed. When the men embraced at the net afterwards and walked off court together smiling, you kind of get the feeling they knew it too.
5. 2002 F: Jennifer Capriati d. Martina Hingis 4-6 7-6(7) 6-2
It's one of the greatest comebacks in tennis history -- and one of the most heartbreaking defeats the tennis world has ever had to bear witness to. It had it all: thrilling rallies; oppressive heat; blown match points; expletives as free-flowing as the groundstrokes. It may have even been responsible for ending a career.
I remember the final well, my entire family watching the drama unfold on our living room TV. Hingis opened ruthless as an axe murderer (much like Capriati did to her in the '01 final), building a 5-1 lead on her way to a 6-4 first set. She was anticipating with ease, coming in when possible, allowing for plenty of margin for error on her groundies. Capriati, on the other hand, was a nervous mess -- spraying balls and allowing Hingis to draw her off the court at will. And, in classic Capriati fashion, she also had something to say about the line calls. Her fury reached a pinnacle at the start of the second when, after feeling like yet another close one had gone against her, the American started cursing like a crippled sailor -- enraging the crowd and eventually drawing the tournament umpire out into the sweltering heat. She was allowed to continue, but the effort almost seemed in vain -- Capriati was down 0-4 in the second as Hingis continued to play patiently.
Capriati, never one to go down without a fight, turned the match on the dime. It was the American's fine play that got her back into the second set, but a large part of the outcome hinged on Hingis being able to capitalize on her chances to win by playing attacking, net-charging tennis -- the type that brought her to the final. But when the chips were down, she refused to do it. Capriati clawed back from 0-4 to 4-5, saving one match point in the tenth game. Hingis had another match point, 6-5 up with Capriati serving -- but her safe, tentative shots allowed Capriati to come to the net and close out a crisp volley. Then came the crucial tiebreak, where once again Hingis became the locked into dwelling on the baseline. Finally nabbing another major, breaking a three year drought without a Slam, entering the winner's circle that no one thought she'd be in again -- it was all too near. She faltered. In an instant, she lost the second set 9-7 in the tiebreak, and with that all but lost the match. Hingis did go up a break early in the third, but lost her serve with a couple foot faults and surrendered thereafter to Capriati's relentless hammering. On match point, the American smacked a cross-court forehand return winner, and it took a second for everyone -- including Capriati herself -- to register that she had actually just won the title.
Everyone except Hingis.
4. 2000 SF: Andre Agassi d. Pete Sampras 6-4 3-6 6-7(0) 7-6(5) 6-1
Down two sets to one, down 2-3 in the fourth set tiebreak, Andre Agassi stepped up to serve in a very precarious position. His opponent on the day, longtime nemesis Pete Sampras, had just hammered down a 116 mph second serve ace to inch ahead in the breaker, ever closer to breaking the male Grand Slam win record. "The presh-ah," said consummate South African tennis analyst Cliff Drysdale in measured tones, "is squarely on Agassi."
What unfolded in that tiebreak was typical of the complicated Sampras-Agassi rivalry. There were bombs for serves and obliterated returns, gallant net charges and blistering forehands cross-court, risks taken and risks paid off. You could say the breaker was one of the most important -- and most forgotten -- contests in the pair's history. If Sampras had taken it, no doubt he would have come away with the trophy -- an aging Yevgeny Kafelnikov waited in the wings -- and jump-started a year to rival all years. Instead, he lost the match and would win just three more tournaments in his career (granted, two of them were majors, so... not too bad of a stat).
For Agassi, the semifinal win and subsequent title -- he subdued the Russian comprehensively in the finals -- began a real love affair with the land Down Under. Starting with this tournament, he rode a 26-match win streak (eventually ended by Marat Safin in that other awesome semi) and established himself as one of the greatest conquerors of Rebound Ace.
My youth nearly straddles the line between Sampras-Agassi and Federer-Nadal -- I'll always recall the careers of the the latter two better, but the Americans were still a huge part of my childhood tennis idolatry. When delving more into this match (because it's the lone one on this list I have no recollection watching), I found a great old Sports Illustrated article that dished out its statistics. Thirty-seven aces -- 37! -- from Sampras. Unbelievable. But when you subtract that number from his winners total (86!), the winner/error ratio becomes about even. Agassi, meanwhile, hit 52 winners to just 19 unforced. Nineteen errors over five intensely competitive sets on a hardcourt against your worst foe? That's downright ridiculous. Other numbers of note: Sampras came to net 122 times and went 1 for 9 on break points, while Agassi won just six more points overall (apologies... I'm a stats junkie, so that all fascinated me).
Besides the match numbers, the SI article also did a great job at illuminating just how the two rivals brought out the best in each other (much like another duo nowadays): Only Sampras could make the best returner in tennis look feeble in a tiebreak shutout. Only Agassi could absorb 37 aces from Sampras and still find a way to win.
Finding a way to win... isn't that what 2-3 in the fourth set breaker is all about?
3. 2009 F: Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer 7-5 3-6 7-6(3) 3-6 6-2
"God, it's killing me," muttered the seemingly unflappable Roger Federer into the microphone at the '09 Australian trophy presentation, breaking down into tears mere minutes after losing this fantastic final.
You had it wrong Roger -- it was killing us. It pained me to watch my hero collapse while the world watched. It had an almost end of days feel to it... I remembered asking myself "Is this really happening?" What really drove the knife in further, though, was watching the man who defeated him -- the enemy! the rival! the hated one to Federer-philes 'round the globe! -- put his arm around the guy like any friend would do.
That's why, no matter where your loyalties lie in the great Federer-Nadal debate, you can't really ever summon the nerve to hate one or the other. As tennis fans, we've got to thank them for their rivalry and that classic matches it's produced. We've also got to thank them for defining what tennis is all about -- the titanic struggle, the artistry, the fight, the desire, the tenacity, the mental fortitude and emotional weakness.
In the '09 Aussie final, all of that was on display. Forget for a second the unbelievable way Nadal was able to bounce back after a draining semifinal and still track down every ball in sight (I'll cover all that in an upcoming slide...) Instead, just soak up the superhuman shotmaking from both men in the posted clip. We thought we'd seen it all at Wimbledon the year before, but this match offered up some tantalizing new glimpses of their strengths and weaknesses. I don't think Nadal's beautiful topspin arc forehand has looked any better or any more lethal. I also don't recall Federer's serve ever look so constantly under pressure. Double faults were the bane of his existence over the course of this match -- nerves seemed to chokehold the usually fluid, relaxed motion.
What this match makes me think of more than anything, though, is the way Nadal seems to feed off of the improbability of his situation. Fifth set against Federer on Wimby's Centre Court? After losing match points? Yeah, I'll just take him down 9-7 in fading daylight. What about a fifth set tussle on another trusted, Fed-tailored surface, not too long after playing the longest match in Australian Open history? I'll pull an Agassi and beat him 6-2 in the fifth. Rebound after a disappointing second half of '09 -- filled with personal troubles, injury and doubters galore -- by winning three consecutive slams the next season? Screw Wheaties, I'll have what he's having.
It's the out-of-this-world athletic ability from both men that makes this match a classic. I love Federer's casually struck forehand rocket up the line early in the fourth and Nadal's equally incredible forehand stretch winner in the crucial fifth game of the fifth. The match point is itself a force to be reckoned with -- Fed belting the ball millimeters from the baseline, Nadal blocking the shots back in a manic frenzy, waiting for one to float just a little too long...
It'd make you cry, too.
2. 2009 SF: Rafael Nadal d. Fernando Verdasco 6-7(4) 6-4 7-6(2) 6-7(1) 6-4
Yep, before Rafael Nadal went and crushed Roger Federer's hopes and dreams in that glorious final I just talked about, he... you know, embarked on the longest men's singles match in Australian Open history. Nothing special.
Prior to the 2009 season, Fernando Verdasco was thought of by many -- including myself -- as a flashy player who hadn't lived up to his surrounding hype. How that changed over the '09 Australian fortnight, where he blitzkrieged Radek Stepanek, pre-tournament favorite Andy Murray and former finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the way to the clash with Nadal. He was fit, fiery and armed with that ever-lethal forehand -- but possessed a newfound self-belief that had been sufficiently lacking prior to this run.
Too bad it wouldn't ultimately matter against his compatriot in the semis. I am convinced this tournament was played at the absolute height of the Spaniard's physical abilites -- no matter his accomplishments in 2010, I've never, ever seen someone defy geometry and physics and dimension like Nadal did on court at the '09 Aussie. I mean, what can I write that wouldn't make me sound like a total fool? He tracked down more balls than a golden retriever or a gay male prosititute? Nah.
I'd love to say "joking aside..." -- but really, all you can do is laugh at just how absurd Rafa's shotmaking is in this match. I love the ridiculous returns and uncharacteristic backhand swipes; theamazing point to open the critical tenth game of the fifth set. Underneath the sweaty bandana and fist-pumping exterior is a one-of-a-kind athlete -- one who was never going to be denied his first coveted hard court major.
Despite the loss, the tournament really was a mental and physical breakthrough for Verdasco. He's been a solid fixture in the upper echelons of the sport ever since, posting up much more consistent results. But this brilliant Australian run may have been his best chance to nab a major. In the end, as many Grand Slam hopefuls have done in the past six years, he lost to a downright better, more dogged, more phenomenal opponent. Verdasco has always been one of my favorite players (I've got a great armband souvenir of his from the '06 U.S. Open that I ran under the bleachers to track down) -- I'm just glad he got to take part in such a legendary match, one that showcased his outstanding arsenal of shotmaking. Let's hope next time he goes 5 hours and 14 minutes and combines for 150 winners, he comes out the victor.
1. 2005 SF: Marat Safin d. Roger Federer 5-7 6-4 5-7 7-6(6) 9-7
As I’ve discovered time and time again, there is no possible way to put Roger Federer’s prowess with a tennis racket into words. The truth remains: you’ve got to see it for yourself. And while Fed’s incredible talent has yielded, as we all know, an absurd amount of accolades, many of his most memorable matches are bone-crushing losses — think finals, like ’08 Wimbledon, ’09 U.S. Open, ’05 Tennis Masters Cup and the ’09 Australian I covered a couple posts ago.
Because the Swiss star’s level is at such an unfathomably high standard almost all the time, losses like those — as well as this semi against Safin — stand out most because opponents have had to raise their levels to equally extraordinary heights, transforming themselves into superhuman beings to slay peak Federer. That’s exactly what Marat Safin did during his ’05 run at the Australian. This encounter is long remembered for Federer’s blown ‘tweener on match point in the fourth-set breaker (I'd say he’s redeemed himself since) — but as true tennis fans know, the bout contained so much more than that showboat shot gone wrong. In my mind, there are few, few matches in the history of the sport that have seen two players at such an unbelievably high level.
The legendary Fed/Nadal 2008 Wimby final is, indeed, one of those matches — but in many ways, this semifinal is better. Before you throw your head back with a pitiless laugh, take these facts into account. First, Federer was in a much better place physically and mentally at the start of 2005 than in 2008 — which, of course, leads to better tennis. Second, consider the surface: while Fed and Nadal defied traditional conventions of grass court tennis that fateful day in ’08 with their unbelievable rallies, Fed and Safin were, at the time, playing on one of the slowest surfaces in the world — Rebound Ace was a sticky, high-bouncing, clay-like hardcourt. And lastly, the whole sporting world knows that Rafael Nadal brings it every. single. day. But to see a healthy, hungry, focused, top-of-his-game Marat Safin? During his bizarre career, that was a true rarity — and an unfortunate reason why he captured just two Grand Slams.
But the ’05 Australian was one of them. Safin would go onto conquer Hewitt in an entertaining four set final, but before that he had to defy both the odds and the tennis gods. My favorite part about the highlights above — besides the jaw-dropping point construction — is the way they truly capture Safin’s… well, Federer-esque poetry-in-motion. When flowing, his serve and backhand are two of the most beautiful shots in the Open Era. Equally impressive are the massive cuts off of the forehand, the surprising hustle from someone his size, the lightning quick, incredibly deep returns of serve. But just as amazing as Safin’s form was Federer’s confidence, the unshakeable foundation he built during his finest years — I had severe pangs of nostalgia. His forehand — especially in that third set — is the best I’ve ever seen him hit it. Throughout the match he comes over the backhand beautifully and approaches the net with gusto, despite knowing the lasers that would follow. Roger was offering the ultimate challenge to the Russian. These were the days before Nadal's rise, when Federer really stood alone at the top. He played like it.
Of course, like so many matches on this list, I watched this one live (or tape-delayed) on ESPN2, wishing just for one second I could hit like these immortals. I'd forgotten a lot of the intricacies comprising the match -- like the sublime Federer drop shots, cut hard and barely creeping over the net. Or the fact Fed didn’t just have match point in the fourth set, but that he also had a 4-1 lead in the breaker. Or that Safin led 5-2 in the fifth — I'd completely blanked on how hard Fed worked to bring that last set into overtime. But more than anything, the supreme attacking nature of the tennis caught me off guard the most. No matter about the ‘tweener — neither player gave an inch in this match. On the last point, Safin rockets yet another unbelievable down-the-line backhand — one that brings Fed to the ground in the Swiss' efforts to return it. Safin then bats a forehand winner into the open court, leaning back with a smile, realizing that he had felled — literally and figuratively — tennis’ greatest giant.
That’s something I’ll never forget.
11 Honorable Mentions
2010 F: Serena Williams d. Justine Henin 6-4 3-6 6-2
2010 4R: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga d. Nicholas Almagro 6-3 6-4 4-6 6-7(6) 9-7
2010 1R: Barbora Zahlavova Strycova d. Regina Kulikova 7-6(5) 6-7(10) 6-3
2008 3R: Roger Federer d. Janko Tipsarevic 6-7(5) 7-6(1) 5-7 6-1 10-8
2007 4R: Rafael Nadal d. Andy Murray 6-7(3) 6-4 4-6 6-3 6-1
2006 SF: Marcos Baghdatis d. David Nalbandian 3-6 5-7 6-3 6-4 6-4
2006 QF: Nicholas Kiefer d. Sebastien Grosjean 6-3 0-6 6-4 6-7(1) 8-6
2005 SF: Serena Williams d. Maria Sharapova 2-6 7-5 8-6
2005 4R: Lleyton Hewitt d. Rafael Nadal 7-5 3-6 1-6 7-6(3) 6-2
2002 SF: Martina Hingis d. Monica Seles 4-6 6-1 6-4
2001 SF: Andre Agassi d. Patrick Rafter 7-5 2-6 6-7(5) 6-2 6-3