The Top Eight of 2010
As we head into the new season of 2011, the first year of the second decade of the century, it is worthwhile reflecting in hindsight on the tennis decade that has been. Just a period of ten years can witness momentous changes and shift in the power-struggles atop men's tennis - the 70s and 80s, for instance, may be said to be the decades of Borg and Connors, and then of McEnroe and Lendl, for instance. How will the noughties of this millennium be remembered?
Admittedly, that may be a silly question. Of all decades, some may say, the noughties have been the decade for remembrance - one of the most glorious eras in men's tennis, beginning with the fading lights of Sampras and Agassi, who had enacted the second great rivalry of all time, peaking and ending with the greatest rivalry of all time, between our great Misters, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. We have witnessed two men who have forever re-shaped our notions of tennis greatness, who may each be on the way towards tennis immortality.
Yet among the giants of this age were also mavericks, mercenaries, and upstarts who warmed themselves to fans' hearts, and whose achievements are also worthy of note. The history of this decade was made largely by Federer and Nadal, and I have reflected that.Yet history is not all about the great winners, but also the lesser ones. Take a look at the noughties' great moments.
Pete Sampras' historic career was in many ways defined by his victory in 2000 at Wimbledon, where he defeated Patrick Rafter in a thrilling 4 set final, 6-7 7-6 6-4 6-2. Most significantly, it placed Sampras above Roy Emerson as the holder of the most grand slam titles in the history of men's tennis, at 13.
It was a difficult match, Sampras having to dig himself out of a hole, done a set and 1-4 in the second set tiebreaker, but would only add to the legend. Sampras had won 6 Wimbledons up to this time, a record in the Open Era at the time. With this victory he held 7, a number yet unequalled, and seemingly insuperable. With the match ending in darkness Sampras clinched victory, and later on clambered into the pavilion to see his parents, who for the first time witnessed one of his matches. Perhaps they had a knack for being timely.
While these were Sampras' closing years, it was a fine way to begin the millennium.
Part Rafter had lost the final the year before to Pete Sampras, and in 2001 had the chance to make amends, against another Wimbledon heartbreaker, Goran Ivanisevic. The Croat had lost three finals before, twice to Sampras and once to Agassi, and in 2001, at 30, this match looked to be his last chance to win the tournament he had so deeply sought after. But with Rafter last years beaten finalist it was to be the match of Wimbledon's hopefuls; something had to give.
It turned out to be a thriller, a fitting way to draw to a close the Croat's eventful career, with his winning in five sets, 6-3 3-6 6-3 2-6 9-7, breaking at last in the penultimate game to serve out, albeit nervously, his first Wimbledon victory, one he had waited for for over a decade.
While he would retire soon afterwards, Ivanisevic' win provides hope for another of the noughties' Wimbledon hopefuls, Andy Roddick the loser in three finals at the All-England Club thus far.
When the Swiss prodigy Roger Federer made it to his first final at the All-England Club in 2003, just two years after he had dethroned the great champion of the 90s, Pete Sampras, few might have foreseen that it would be the first of a record-making seven consecutive. He had had a game too many would kill to have, an all-rounded proficiency that should have secured him a slam at least in the year before. But how he made his mark in tennis this day, at the Wimbledon final in 2003.
He faced one the 90's fading lights, the one-time grand slam runner-up, big serving Aussie Mark Philippoussis. Yet while there were two tiebreaks in a 7-6 6-2 7-6 victory, there was little doubt of the superiority of Federer, as he continually dazzled the crowd, and Philippoussis, with breath-taking dexterity and shot-making prowess.
This victory in 2003 would be, after all, the first of (so far) sixteen, and in our 'political', winners-write-history history of men's tennis, the most significant of the early decade.
Just as Ivanisevic had won his last, and most meaningful slam in Wimbledon four years previously, so was ti to be the turn of Marat Safin, tennis' free-riding maverick Russian, who after stunning Sampras at the US Open in 2000, had only lost one other final, at the Australian Open in 2002. But this time, he faced Australia's greatest hope, the local favourite Lleyton, who had enjoyed his best run in Melbourne, and reached his first final (incredibly, his last grand slam final of the decade).
It was a match with something for both men to prove. Safin had downed the great Federer in 5 sets in the round before, and looked tired at first, losing the first set 6-1; but he soon regrouped, and proved his grand slam mettle, crushing Hewitt in the next three for the title, 6-3 6-4 6-4. While his celebration was muted, the win must have meant something deeply to the Russian, who had struggled, almost as a mercenary, with so many questions of expectation, and sought so much for a chance to demonstrate his standing among the giants of tennis history.
This may have been the last title of his career - but it was his greatest, and most memorable.
Rafael Nadal's victory at Roland Garros, his first, is comparable in its significance to Federer's own at Wimbledon in 2005, although much less known. At the time most people were merely in shock at his defeat of Federer in the semifinals, in just his third meeting with the world number one, incredibly with the loss of just a single set, 6-4 4-6 6-4 6-3.
In the final he faced a little known Argentine, now a truly unknown quantity, the lefty Mariano Puerta. Both men were playing in their first grand slam final, and the nerves were evident from both. While Nadal could easily take advantage of Federer's one handed backhand, playing another southpaw in the final proved, initially, more troublesome. Nadal, in fact, lost the first set in a tiebreak; who knows how things in tennis might have been in the next five years, had he lost two more - but it proved a chance for him to prove his grand slam worthiness, as he went on the clinch the next three, and the match, 6-7 6-3 6-1 7-5.
Puerta had a chance to take the match to five at 5-4 in the fourth, with a set point which clipped the net off a drop shot - for Nadal this match was not an easy one, and it really proved more an opportunity to demonstrate his celebrated determination and psychological fortitude, than utter clay court dominance. But still, the win was big for him, and for tennis, as it would prove the first of many more, glorious, grand slam victories.
When Federer entered Rod Laver Arena on men's final Sunday at the 2007 Australian Open, he had several records riding on him. He was about to play for his tenth grand slam, a number reached only by a handful of greats in the past. Moreover, victory here would mean his second stringing of three slam victories in a row, having done so from 2005-6. But the most significant possibility, most notable in that particular fortnight, was the chance to win a grand slam, for the first time since Borg had done so at Wimbledon in 1976, without the dropping of a set. In the modern era, it was simply unheard of - and practically impossible.
Yet Federer stood at the brink of achieving this, and coming off one of the highlight matches of his career against Andy Roddick in the semis he faced a familiar rival, Fernando Gonzalez, with whom he had duelled in several finals at the end of 2006. For a moment in the first set, Gonzalez had a chance to to put to bed a perfect 21-0 in sets for Federer, serving at 5-4 40-15. But the Swiss master roared back, broke back, and went on to win comprehensively, 7-6 6-4 6-4.
While clean-sweeping sets at a grand slam did not make for thoroughly exciting stuff, it was a magical moment in another way. The Aussie Open in 2007 was the moment in men's tennis, in the decade of the noughties, that Federer entered a new level, the realm of the impossible, making real the previously inconceivable. It was the moment he legitimately entered the GOAT debate
Federer had a further chance in 2007 to cement his position in the GOAT debate, at Wimbledon, where, in his fifth consecutive final, he sought to emulate the feat of Bjorn Borg from 1976-1980, in winning five straight Wimbledons. There he faced a familiar nemesis, the Spaniard Rafael Nadal, who had recently beaten him in a close heartbreaker at the French in four sets (a match reminiscent of their semifinal in 2005). Victory over him would surely make the accomplishment all the more sweet.
Early on, Federer looked typically dominant, as he had in the final of 2006, racing quickly to a 3-0 lead. But Nadal stunned him, and the crowd, in breaking back, and making a match of things. Clearly, the nervous and uncertain performance last year was clearly behind him, as he sought to prove his improved grass-court prowess.
In the first set tiebreak he saved three set points, at looked tantalisingly close to winning it, falling ultimately 9-7, off a defensive slice, which Federer promptly volleyed into the open court. Here, after, all, was the king of grass.
Matters got more interesting in the second, however, as Nadal broke Federer for the set, and seemed fascinatingly close to getting a two sets to one lead. For most of the third and fourth, in fact, he outplayed the Swiss, and in the fifth, held four break points on the Federer serve. Unbelievably, an upset seemed in the making.
Then, in a dramatic shift in events, Federer entered a new level, a world he had flirted with in the last few months of his career, but which Nadal had yet to fully understand - incredible winners went by him; the last of which being one of Federer's most defining, in a deft low slice which elicited a cracking forehand winner, for the crucial break. Only Federer could have, and should have, won a break point in the fifth set of Wimbledon like that.
It was a classic, and Federer ultimately prevailed, 7-6 4-6 7-6 2-6 6-2. But it was dangerously close, and how eerie his words in the post match interview - 'Lucky I got this one before takes them all' - have proved to be in 2011. But this one will always be one of his sweetest, nonetheless - it would be his last victory over Nadal in the decade.
Novak Djokovic's triumph at the Australian Open in 2008 came as a break from the dominant narratives of the decade of the noughties - it was the first time that someone other than Federer or Nadal had won a grand slam since 2005. It was also the first time that a grand slam final featured neither of the two, in fact the first such final for three years.
But it wasn't as if they hadn't had the chance to - Nadal had fallen in the semifinals (utterly destroyed, actually) by the surprise finalist, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, while Djokovic himself had been responsible for the straight sets felling of that giant, Roger Federer.
Djokovic looked determined to win his first major, having reached the final at the US Open in 2007, and narrowly lost it in straights, while Tsonga was playing simply with nothing to lose. A tantalising match-up beckoned.
For most of the first set Djokovic was nervous, and Tsonga took advantage in the tenth game to break with a stunning, unworldly forehand lob, which had the crowd in uproar. But his inexperience showed soon in the second and third, as he failed to convert on big opportunities to quickly fall two sets to one down. In the fourth he maintained his hold bravely, to push the match to a fourth set tiebreaker; but there his daredevil magic deserted him, and Djokovic claimed his maiden slam title, 4-6 6-4 6-3 7-6.
It was a pivotal moment, heralding a subtle shift in power, that cemented his place firmly as one of the Big Three, and would see the coronation of Rafael Nadal, and toppling of Roger Federer atop the men's rankings.
When Rafael Nadal, tennis' long time world number two, fell in triumph to the ground at the All-England Club in 2008, he ended one of the most spectacular grand slam runs of the decade, having completed for the first time in twenty-eight years the Roland Garros-Wimbledon duo.
But at the time most would have been marvelling at what had proved a truly magical finish to Wimbledon, having witnessed perhaps the greatest match ever played, for all the 4 hours and 48 minutes of it. To describe the emotion and excitement it had roused, to qualify Borg's bland description of an 'unbelievable match', would be quite impossible - such as the unique and serendipitous combination of drama, artistry, and history.
It ended in heartache for one: Roger Federer. His great Spanish nemesis, his partner in an increasingly engrossing rivalry, had finally defeated him on grass, a 6-4 6-4 6-7 6-7 9-7 victor. Few would have forgotten how close it had come to being a victory in four, however, with two of the greatest passing shots, by Nadal then Federer, of the decade occurring in the fourth set tiebreaker. They were the two shots that made this match come truly alive, and the two shots which, in many ways, defined their rivalry - the mundane and human being transcended by the miraculous and impossible.
This was the match that capped Nadal's remarkable year of 2008, when he would go on to win the Beijing Olympics, along with wresting the number one ranking from Federer for the first time in 247 weeks.
Many had thought that Nadal's incredible run in 2008 heralded a 'Change of Guard', that legendary, poignant shift in power at the top of men's tennis. Early in 2009 it had proved to be, as he won the Australian Open, leaving his Swiss rival in tears as he broke yet another dream - the chance to equal Pete Sampras' grand slam record.
For much of the first half of the season, until the fourth round of the French Open, Nadal dominated, while Federer struggled, making fine runs in tournaments, only to fall to the very best. It seemed like his best days were behind him. Then, out of a blue, a few fortuitous events ignited again the debate on his greatness.
It all started with the semifinals of the Madrid Masters, where Nadal fended off four match points in an epic win over Novak Djokovic, and seemingly, some shaky knees. Federer, on the other hand, cruised past Juan Martin Del Potro. A Federer-Nadal final, finally; yet while Nadal was the slight favourite it the final Sunday was to prove all Federer, as he exploited the visible exhaustion of his Spanish rival to clinch victory in straight sets. A dim light of hope seemed to dawn over his thus far disappointing season.
We all know how the French Open in 2009 turned out - the greatest upset, followed by the coronation of greatness. Nadal's loss to Soderling in the fourth round must certainly be counted among the most memorable and incredible upsets of the Open Era, as the big serving Swede halted Nadal's 31 match winning streak with deafening groundstrokes; the rule of Nadal, at last, was ended (albeit only temporarily, is it would prove). A weakness in Nadal's game had come to the fore at last - tendinitis on his knees.
Federer, however, did not have things any easier, and had to lose six sets on route to a fourth consecutive French Open final. For the first time in four finals, he didn't have to face Nadal, and was able at last to display his full repertoire at a Roland Garros final. Robin Soderling had looked stunning, almost godly, in his heroics against Nadal, but against Federer in that final was made to look silly - 'I realised that it wasn't that I was playing badly, but that he (Federer) made me play so' was the gist of his post-match assessment.
When Federer had served the last ball, and collapsed to his knees in triumph, an incredible odyssey, which dated back to his loss to Nadal at the French Open in 2005, was ended. For the first time in this decade a man had won all four grands slams, this being only the sixth time overall in the history of men's tennis.
At the end of the decade, as with all tennis decades, a new generation of elite players seemed to emerge. Djokovic's win at Melbourne in 2008 was but the first real indication of their penetration to the highest levels, and in 2009, at the US Open, there was a second.
It came in Juan Martin Del Potro, an Argentine prodigy, playing tennis with the physique of a basketballer. He made his first final at Flushing Meadows, crushing enroute a weakened Rafael Nadal 6-2 6-2 6-2, only to face the five time defending champion, Roger Federer. Victory here would have allowed Federer to equal Bill Tilden's haul of six straight championships.
For the first set and a half, Federer was in cruise control, and, serving for the second set, looked to clinch a straightforward, domineering victory. Then all of a sudden a slight blip, the roar of two blitzing forehand passing shots from Del Potro, and the match turned. From that point he lost all control, and all chance to win the match on his hands.
While he would come within two points of victory in the fourth, Del Potro held the cards, with a monstrous, swatty forehand, that bludgeoned Federer's backhand, and on occasion forehand, into an undignified submission. The last forehand proved too much for the mighty Swiss, as he floated a backhand long on championship point, Del Potro's third, to loss at the US Open for the first time in six years in the fifth set. Final score: 3-6 7-6 4-6 7-6 6-2.
For Del Potro this was cartharsis, an edifying moment in his young career. Certainly, it was by far the most glorious way to have won a grand slam, in defeating both Federer and Nadal, and he proved at the same time to have perhaps the new deadliest forehand on hard court. Perhaps Federer should have won this, but by the same token might Del Potro have lost it, had he not fully expressed his full destructive potential. The Grand Slam year of 2009 ended on a questionable note, then, with a brand new challenger on the blocks, a new man.
2009 was Federer's year, but 2010 was destined to be Nadal's. While he lost in the quarterfinals in Australia, to set ever more doubts over his health, and ability to regain the top spot, a win at Monte Carlo , ending nearly a year of title drought, was to prove the release of floodgates. Win after win followed, as he built on his years of confidence reserves - Rome, Madrid, and finally Roland Garros, the latter without dropping a set. There at Paris he faced his demons, and defeated Robin Soderling, who had stunned him the year before.
His golden summer continued, as he went on to win Wimbledon, struggling initially, but finding a rich vein of form in the latter part of the tournament, outclassing Andy Murray in the semifinals, before topping Tomas Berdych in straight sets. For the second time, he had completed the French-Wimbledon double.
In the early part of the American hard court season, Nadal looked shaky, as he suffered losses to Murray and Baghdatis. But during the US Open proper, he underwent a subtle change of service grip, which was immediately notable in his early matches. Nadal's serve, once a liability, suddenly became a weapon, as he regularly sent bombs over 200 km/h. Combined with his once in a million baseline game, he looked set to finally clinch a much sought-after US Open title.
But the draw gods smiled upon him, too, as he progressed relatively smoothly, without the loss of a set, and without the loss of valuable energy, to the final, having to complete a routine straight sets victory over Mikhail Youzhny in the semis. Moreover, the other semifinal of that Super Saturday proved a five set thriller between his rival Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, in which the Serb edged the six time finalist.
So, the final would be without Federer for the first time in seven years, a battle between a Spaniard and a Serb. It was a short affair, four sets, and Nadal for the most part just proved that bit too good, and emerged the winner, and champion, 6-4 5-7 6-4 6-2. He, too, now, joins the ranks of Federer and Agassi as one of the few men to have won a career grand slam. With this win we bring to a close the tennis decade of 2000-2010, which had begun with Sampras winning a record breaking slam, and Nadal a career-crowning one.