Ranking the 10 Greatest Australian Open Finals of All Time

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2014

Ranking the 10 Greatest Australian Open Finals of All Time

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    Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal after 2012 Australian Open finals
    Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal after 2012 Australian Open finalsScott Barbour/Getty Images

    We can only hope the men's or women's finals at this year's Australian Open will compare favorably with the men's 2012 finals or the women's 1981 title match.

    We ranked the 10 greatest Australian Open finals of all time based on the level of tennis displayed, the star quality of the participants, the closeness of the match and the captivating nature of the contest. Only matches in the Open Era (since 1969) were considered.

    Although the matches ranked No. 2 through No. 10 probably could be listed in almost any order, there is little debate about which match is No. 1.

10. John Newcombe Defeats Jimmy Connors, 1975

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    Jimmy Connors
    Jimmy ConnorsTony Duffy/Getty Images

    John Newcombe's 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 victory over Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Australian Open finals barely beat out Stefan Edberg's 1987 victory over Pat Cash for the final spot on our list.

    The Connors-Newcombe match carries a certain historic value that others lacked. Plus, these two players from different tennis eras didn't care much for each other, as noted in an Oregonian story.

    The 22-year-old Connors was dominating men's tennis at the time. He had won 99 of 103 matches during the just-completed 1974 season, including victories in the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He had displaced Newcombe as the No. 1 player in the world, but did not face Newcombe in any of his 1974 Grand Slam conquests.

    Connors breezed through into the Australian Open finals without losing more than four games in any set of his three matches preceding the title match.

    Meanwhile, bad weather had forced Newcombe to play his three matches leading up to the finals on consecutive days. All three were five-setters, and he won those three fifth sets by scores of 10-8, 10-8 and 11-9.

    The 30-year-old Newcombe figured to fade against Connors in the finals, and that looked to be the case after Connors powered his way to victory in the second set to even the match.

    An odd turning point arrived in the third set. With Connors serving at 2-3, three consecutive disputed line calls helped Connors take a 40-15 lead. Amid the boos from the Australian crowd supporting his Aussie opponent, Connors deliberately double faulted on the next point to make it 40-30, according to a Sports Illustrated account. Newcombe shook his head in disgust at Connors' ploy, which seemed to motivate the Aussie.

    Newcombe eventually broke Connors' serve in that game and won the third set.

    Newcombe's momentum carried into the fourth set as he employed more of a finesse game to counter Connors' power. It's the same strategy Arthur Ashe used to upset Connors six months later in the Wimbledon finals.

    Connors fought off one match point against him on Newcombe's serve to force a fourth-set tiebreaker, and Newcombe withstood one set point against him in the tiebreaker before closing out the match.

    It proved to be the last of Newcombe's seven Grand Slam singles titles.

9. Andre Agassi Defeats Pete Sampras, 1995

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    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    The 1995 Australian Open finals represented the 13th of the 34 meetings between Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Their contrasting styles made every one of their matches intriguing, but this one carried extra appeal for tennis fans.

    Agassi and Sampras were the world's top two players at the time, with Sampras' big serve-and-volley game being countered by Agassi's excellent return of serve and penetrating ground strokes.

    Agassi, sporting a close-cropped haircut for the first time after years of being identified with his long blond locks, had eased into the finals without the loss of a set.

    Sampras, meanwhile, had several difficult matches on his way to the title match and was weighed down emotionally by the fact that his coach and close friend, Tim Gullikson, had been diagnosed with brain cancer earlier in the tournament and had left Melbourne. Sampras had broken down in tears while serving in the final set of his five-set quarterfinal victory over Jim Courier.

    After Sampras won the first set of the finals, things seemed set up for a storybook ending. Sampras, long seen as a stoic power player with little flair, had suddenly become the crowd favorite because of his personal hardship and show of emotion.

    However, Agassi did not let it happen. He blew through Sampras in the second set and took control by winning the pivotal and enthralling third-set tiebreaker.

    Sampras won five straight points in that tense tiebreaker to overcome a 3-0 deficit, and he had a double set point at 6-4, putting him on the verge of taking a 2-1 lead in sets. But Agassi fought off the first set point, and Sampras missed an easy forehand volley on the second. Agassi then turned the tables on Sampras by approaching the net and hitting two forehand volley winners on the next two points to claim the tiebreaker 8-6.

    Agassi closed out his 4-6, 6-1, 7-6, 6-4 victory by breaking Sampras' serve in the ninth game and serving out the match.

    With the victory, Agassi replaced Sampras as the world's No. 1 player.

8. Mats Wilander Defeats Pat Cash, 1988

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    Mats Wilander
    Mats WilanderGetty Images/Getty Images

    The Australian Open was played on hard courts for the first time in 1988, and the riveting finals was filled with twists and turns.

    Mats Wilander's 6-3, 6-7, 3-6, 6-1, 8-6 victory over Australian Pat Cash turned out to be the first of Wilander's three Grand Slam singles titles that year—and this one may have been the most difficult of the three.

    Cash had beaten Wilander in their previous four meetings in Grand Slam events, but Wilander seemed to be in complete control at the outset this time, taking the first set and racing to a 4-1 lead in the second. But a rain delay interrupted Wilander's momentum, and Cash rallied to take the second set in a tiebreaker and won the third set as well.

    ''I played the best tennis of my career in the first two sets, and I don't know how I lost the second,'' said Wilander, according to a New York Times report. ''But that's one of Cash's strengths. He came back, and that's why he is going to be one of the great players.''

    Cash seemed to have things going his way after three sets, but Wilander turned things around again, blowing Cash off the court in the fourth set 6-1.

    Wilander took a 2-0 lead in the final set before Cash again reversed the momentum to even the fifth set at 6-6. Wilander broke Cash's serve in the next game and then held serve to close out the 4-hour 28-minute match.

    Cash said his feet were covered with blisters and were bloody at the end of the match, which was the longest final in Australian Open history at the time.

7. Serena Williams Defeats Venus Williams, 2003

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    Nick Laham/Getty Images

    The Williams sisters dominated women's tennis early in the century, and the 2003 Australian Open finals showcased their powerful brand of tennis.

    They 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 provided a much stiffer challenge this time in what was probably the most entertaining of their 24 meetings to date.

    The two engaged in their typical, hard-hitting exchanges, punctuated by the big serving of both. Unlike their previous three Grand Slam matchups, Venus was able to match her sister, as neither were able to gain control of the 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 toughness 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.

    Serena then showed her mettle, shaking off that disappointing eighth game to win the next two games and finish off a 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4 victory.  

    The final game was somewhat anticlimactic as Venus committed four errors while dropping her serve.

6. Mark Edmondson Defeats John Newcombe, 1976

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    Mark Edmondson (left)
    Mark Edmondson (left)Mark Dadswell/Getty Images

    The 1976 Australian Open finals may not have been the most thrilling contest, but the story behind Mark Edmondson's improbable victory made it a great match.

    That finals is particularly memorable for Australians, because no Aussie male has won the event since. It is odd, indeed, that Edmondson holds that distinction.

    The 21-year-old Edmondson 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 John Newcombe, the defending champion who had beaten Jimmy Connors in the 1975 finals.

    Edmondson took out Rosewall in the semifinals, but it seemed impossible he could continue that magical run against Newcombe. When Newcombe won the first set of the finals in a tiebreaker, it was assumed Edmondson's momentum and confidence would be broken.

    Such was not the case as Edmondson roared back to beat Newcombe 6-7, 6-3, 7-6, 6-1.

    Edmondson's ranking at the time and the fact that Edmondson never reached the finals of another Grand Slam singles event arguably makes his victory over Newcombe the biggest upset in the finals of a Grand Slam event in the Open Era.

    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.”

5. Monica Seles Defeats Steffi Graf, 1993

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    Monica Seles
    Monica SelesSimon Bruty/Getty Images

    Entering the 1993 Australian Open, Monica Seles had won six of the past seven Grand Slam events she entered and had displaced Steffi 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 1993 Australian Open finals seemed to pivot on a point in the sixth game of the third set. With Graf serving at 2-3, 30-0, Seles hit an amazing 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 to complete a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory.

    It was Seles' third straight Australian Open title, and it improved her match record at the event to 28-0. She was just 19 years old.

    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.

4. Rafael Nadal Defeats Roger Federer, 2009

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    Rafael Nadal (left) and Roger Federer
    Rafael Nadal (left) and Roger FedererMark Baker/Associated Press

    The rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer had captured the public's imagination after Nadal's five-set victory over Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, perhaps the greatest tennis match in history.

    Nadal's 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 victory over Federer in the 2009 Australian Open finals was almost as entertaining, and it provided a memorable emotional moment afterward.

    Nadal had to get past Fernando Verdasco in a five-set semifinal that lasted five hours and 14 minutes. However, Nadal showed remarkable endurance to vanquish Federer in the finals, especially since Federer seemed to have the upper hand on several occasions.

    Nadal rallied from 2-4 down to win the first set. After dropping the second set, Nadal received treatment on his right thigh during the third set. Despite the injury and his long hours on the court, Nadal fought 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 showed his toughness and stamina by controlling 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 an emotional display afterward.

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


3. Jennifer Capriati Defeats Martina Hingis, 2002

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    Jennifer Capriati
    Jennifer CapriatiAdam Pretty/Getty Images

    Jennifer Capriati had won the 2001 Australian Open to complete a remarkable comeback from personal problems that nearly ruined her career.

    However, her 6-4, 6-3 victory over Martina Hingis in the 2001 finals was not nearly as captivating as her three-set victory over Hingis in the 2002 Australian Open finals.

    Capriati saved four match points against her in the second set in 95-degree heat while pulling out a 4-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2 victory over Hingis in 2002.

    The match was also marked by a series of profanities unleashed by Capriati while arguing with the chair umpire about a linesman's call—she made a greater impression with her comeback, however.

    In the first set, Capriati 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, but 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. Martina Navratilova Defeats Chris Evert, 1981

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    Martina Navratilova
    Martina NavratilovaTony Duffy/Getty Images

    Two of the 80 matches between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert stood out above the others. The 1981 Australian Open women's finals was one of them.

    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.

    The 1981 Australian Open was played during a different tennis era.  It was considered the final Grand Slam event of the year then, not the first, and it was played on grass, with both players using wooden rackets.

    Navratilova had failed to win any of the nine Grand Slam singles events preceding the 1981 Australian Open. However, she was still a lightning rod for media attention because in the five months preceding the 1981 Australian Open she had become an American citizen and had revealed her sexual orientation publicly.

    Evert was still the No. 1 player in the world at the time, and Navratilova and Evert had already developed an intriguing rivalry. Navratilova had beaten Evert in three sets in the semifinals of U.S. Open three months earlier, but Evert had beaten Navratilova on grass in three sets in Sydney the week before the Australian Open.

    That provided the backdrop for a riveting Australian final in the 45th edition of the Evert-Navratilova rivalry.

    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 next point was pivotal and Navratilova won it after both players traded volleys from close range. Navratilova took that 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.

1. Novak Djokovic Defeats Rafael Nadal, 2012

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    Rafael Nadal
    Rafael NadalScott Barbour/Getty Images

    Although there may be debate about the ranking of the nine previous matches on this list, there is little doubt that the men's 2012 Australian Open finals deserves the top spot.

    The level of tennis as well as the emotional and physical effort exerted by two of the best players in history made Novak Djokovic's 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5 victory over Rafael Nadal in the 2012 Australian finals one of the best matches in history.

    “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...”

    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, and nearly every point was spellbinding, creating and 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 physical and mental effort put into the match was reflected 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.