Ranking the Top 5 Men's Finals in Miami Open History

Joe Kennard@@JoeKennardFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2015

Ranking the Top 5 Men's Finals in Miami Open History

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    The Miami Open has undergone many changes during its 30 years of existence. From sponsorship swaps to cosmetic upgrades of the facilities and even format changes, the tournament is constantly evolving.

    What's one thing that's stayed the same about the event? Its penchant for thrilling championship matches.

    The men's side especially has produced many classic finals over the years involving some of the greatest players in the primes of their careers as well as scrappy underdogs fighting for spring glory.

    Here is a look back at the five best men's finals in Miami Open history. The following slides will attempt to rank these matches based not only on the quality of play but also on who was involved and the enormity of the situation. So get out your history books and prepare to revisit some wild moments from the past.

5. (1985) Tim Mayotte over Scott Davis 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4

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    Not only does this match hold the distinction of being the first Miami Open final, but it's also remembered as one of the best.

    Referred to then as the Lipton International Players Championships and held in Delray Beach, Florida, this duel featured two tall Americans battling for an important piece of hardware. And their encounter lived up to—and even surpassedthe hype.

    Both players were known for their serve-and-volley tactics and produced an aggressive display of tennis on that windy day. After Scott Davis raced through the opening two sets, however, it looked like the trophy would soon go his way.

    And then Tim Mayotte turned the tide.

    Over the final three sets, Mayotte kept attacking and broke Davis' will. He had been 0-4 in finals during his career up to that point, but the 24-year-old Mayotte produced a clutch effort to close out the match and win his first title.

    Mayotte would go on to win 11 other singles titles in his career and rise as high as No. 7 in the world, but that journey started at the place we now call the Miami Open.

4. (1995) Andre Agassi over Pete Sampras 3-6, 6-2, 7-6 (3)

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    In 1995, there were no bigger stars in men's tennis than Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.

    And both players couldn't be any more different on or off the court.

    Sampras always seemed to be more mellow and down to earth. What he lacked in flash he made up for with a businesslike approach to the game. One of the greatest servers of all time, Sampras also possessed a massive forehand, which he used to attack the net and keep points short.

    Agassi, on the other hand, was the one who attracted all the attention and publicity. But his outward demeanor and showmanship contrasted the way he played. Opponents only knew the Agassi who was a bulldog from the baseline. Armed with a superb backhand, he was one of the greatest defensive players ever.

    These dichotomies between the two fostered a back-and-forth rivalry. After Agassi won their meeting in the 1995 Australian Open final, Sampras rebounded for a win at Indian Wells. When they squared off next in Key Biscayne, momentum would once again shift.

    While Sampras served his way to an early 3-0 lead and eventually clinched the first set, the match was far from over. With coach Brad Gilbert in his corner, Agassi steadied himself in the second set and began to break down the Sampras backhand. As the errors piled up on the opposite side of the net, Agassi forced a final set.

    Sampras kept raining serves and attacking the net. Agassi, as usual, was a menace from the baseline. It was only fitting that the match would come down to the first deciding-set tiebreak in tournament history.

    There, Agassi took command.

    He won six of the final seven points, using both patience and well-timed approaches to take out Sampras. As he held the crystal trophy high above his head, Agassi had once again swung the seesaw rivalry back in his direction.

3. (2000) Pete Sampras over Gustavo Kuerten 6-1, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (5), 7-6 (8)

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    By 2000, Pete Sampras had entered the twilight of his reign.

    He would still win two more majors before retiring, but his time as No. 1 in the world was over. These were the days before Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had become major forces, when the top of men's tennis was in flux.

    One of the contenders who popped up? A curly-haired Brazilian nicknamed Guga.

    Gustavo Kuerten entered Key Biscayne as a 23-year-old clay-court specialist. He won his first major at the French Open in 1997, but he wasn't seen as a threat on hard courts. Yet somehow he caught fire and took out Andre Agassi in the semifinals, ending up in his second career final on the surface.

    Against the great Sampras, Guga still wasn't seen as much of a threat. That forecast held true at the start of the match, when Sampras muscled his way through a commanding 6-1 first set. The fast conditions suited the American and his attacking style better, and Kuerten was left to just scratch his head.

    While the quality of tennis may not have been high in the opening set, it picked up fast.

    Sampras poured in ace after ace and made good use of the chip-and-charge strategy to disrupt Kuerten's rhythm. But the Brazilian wouldn't go away, despite trailing by a break in the second set. He eventually broke back and clinched the set in a tiebreak with the help of his looping one-handed backhands.

    The final two sets continued a similar pattern. Kuerten was content to camp out behind the baseline and get his opponent in long rallies. Sampras wanted to keep the points short and came in to the net at will. As Kuerten began to back up his own serve, another tiebreak was inevitable. 

    Facing mounting pressure from Kuerten, Sampras was able to respond with clutch serves, and he took the third set.

    In the fourth set, the two again held serve with iron grips. But at 5-6, Sampras suddenly gave Kuerten a look at a second serve on set point. Instead of playing it easy, the American chose to come in to the net, which forced his foe into an unforced error.

    Crisis averted.

    A few minutes later, however, Kuerten had another set-point opportunity. Again, Sampras came in behind his serve and put away a clean volley.

    With the match now well over three hours long, both men were gassed. The trophy waiting in the distance motivated them to keep going. For 18 excruciating points, they battled in a tense tiebreak. Sampras eventually went ahead 6-2 and was just one point from clinching the championship. 

    But Guga sprinted back to tie the match with authoritative hitting and untimely errors from Sampras. In all, Kuerten saved a whopping six match points in that final set. Even that wasn't enough, and Sampras served his way out of trouble to finish the match.

    Kuerten would have the last laugh with a victory over Sampras in the year-end championships. But in Miami, an aging Pistol Pete proved he still had some magic left.

2. (2011) Novak Djokovic over Rafael Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4)

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    When Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal took the court on that sunny April day, the dynamic in their rivalry had already started to shift.

    Prior to 2011, Djokovic had a big problem: Nadal. Up to that point, he was 7-16 against his Spanish rival, including 0-5 in finals. Too often in crucial matches, Djokovic would wilt under his foe's relentless pressure. But instead of giving up, he buckled down and worked tirelessly to improve his fitness and game.

    It paid off.

    Buoyed by his recent Australian Open win, Djokovic took the court against Nadal at Indian Wells with supreme confidence. He shook off losing the first set and surged back for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory. He had finally beaten Nadal for a title.

    As they headed toward another showdown in Miami the following week, Nadal was eager to prove the previous loss was just a fluke. Djokovic saw an opportunity to further demonstrate that he was a serious contender for the No. 1 ranking.

    With the balance of power in men's tennis up for grabs, they didn't disappoint.

    Hungry for revenge, Nadal wasted no time going after Djokovic and broke serve in the third game. He had an answer for seemingly everything the Serbian threw his way and stormed to a 5-1 lead.

    But Djokovic wouldn't go away easily. He started to adjust his tactics, aggressively stepping into the court to rip backhands up the line, which he mixed with deft drop shots. Though he couldn't quite complete the first-set comeback, he let Nadal know a grueling battle was ahead.

    In the second set, Djokovic secured an early break in the second game, an advantage he wouldn't relinquish. He pinned Nadal behind the baseline with the aid of powerful forehands and cruised into the deciding set.

    The final stanza in this legendary match pushed both men to the brink. Both players refused to yield, utilizing all their reserves just to hold serve and prevent precious momentum from slipping away. Each rally seemed to top the previous one. Eventually, they found themselves in a climatic tiebreak.

    Surviving early body blows from Nadal, Djokovic held his nerve and stepped up. After three hours, 22 minutes, Djokovic had clinched his fourth title of the year and a staggering 24-0 start to the season. 

    Their rivalry, once dominated by Nadal, had been forever altered that day in Miami.

1. (2005) Roger Federer over Rafael Nadal 2-6, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-1

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    They're widely regarded as the greatest players in history, and their historic rivalry has produced many legendary matches over the years.

    But Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal's first two encounters came at the Miami Open, and they provided a glimpse at what the next decade of men's tennis would look like.

    In 2004, a then-17-year-old Nadal shocked Federer 6-3, 6-3 in the third round at Key Biscayne and announced his arrival as a future star. Federer, who was fresh off wins at the Australian Open and Indian Wells, was left speechless by the long-haired and musclebound Spaniard.

    He'd have to wait a year to get his payback, but Federer would finally do it in the most memorable title match in tournament history.

    During 2005, Federer was just entering the peak of his powers. After winning three majors in 2004 and finishing as the year-end No. 1 for the first time in his career, the Swiss had all the momentum going into his rematch with Nadal. But the lefty from Mallorca, Spain, once again confounded him.

    In the first set, Nadal pummeled the Swiss from the baseline with hooking forehands and rock-steady backhands. Federer couldn't get many shots past his athletic foe, who was like a backboard. Even when he came to the net, Federer saw passing shots whiz by for winners.

    Momentum changed in the second set when Federer stormed to a 5-2 advantage. Even that lead wasn't enough to put away Nadal, who charged back to force a tiebreaker, which he coolly put away.

    Nadal, the youngest finalist in tournament history, looked anything but green as he raced to a 4-1 lead in the third set. Then suddenly, Federer finally righted the ship.

    Using monstrous forehands, Federer began to take control of rallies and put pressure back on Nadal. He even started to hit his backhand with more confidence and kept attacking the net. This coaxed more errors out of his Spanish understudy, who was just two points away from clinching the match. Eventually, the Swiss survived a tense third-set tiebreak to extend their battle.

    Aided by the best-of-five-sets format, Federer wore down an increasingly tired Nadal over the course of their nearly four-hour epic. In the final two stanzas, Federer found a rhythm on his opponent's serve and closed out one of the most impressive comebacks of his career.

    Federer improved to 32-1 on the year with the win and would finish 2005 with 11 titles and a staggering 81-4 record. But perhaps no victory that season was harder fought than the one in Miami over his future nemesis.

    All statistics courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted. 

    Joe Kennard is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. 

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