The start of the Australian Open means that tennis fans everywhere have come out of hibernation, salivating at the prospect of the high-octane clashes all set to unfold. And just two days into this year’s edition there have been a fair few quality matches already, so this is as good a time as any to take a trip down memory lane and recollect the best matches at the tournament from the past.
The ‘Happy Slam’, coming as it does at the start of the season when the players are fresh and injury-free, has a history of producing epic matches that make even the non-tennis world sit up and take notice. In fact, I had started this article intending to make it an all-time list, but had to change it to a collection of matches since 2000 – there have been just that many classic encounters in the past decade.
Note: You can watch all the action from the 2015 Australian Open live on Sony Liv Sports here.
So without any further faffing about, here’s the list of the top 5 Australian Open matches since the turn of the century:
5. Andy Roddick vs Younes El Aynaoui, 2003 quarterfinal
Andy Roddick would have been forgiven for thinking the world was at his feet when, as a precocious 20-year-old, he was anointed the heir apparent of American tennis – the successor to legends like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. But Morocco’s Younes El Aynaoui didn’t get that memo, as he stared down Roddick’s blistering serve and rocket forehand in the 2003 quarterfinals to produce a match for the ages.
The winners kept flowing all through the match, and for the longest time it seemed impossible to separate the two players. This was a shot-maker’s delight; both Roddick and El Aynaoui used the backhand slice generously, which brought an unusual hue to many of the points. Of course, back in 2003 Roddick hit his forehand much flatter than he did in the second half of his career, and that combined with his customarily big serve made for a charming contrast against the Moroccon’s dogged counterpunching and razor-sharp reflexes.
Both players did seem to get visibly exhausted as the battle wore on, but neither seemed willing to throw in the towel. After nearly five hours of gladiatorial fighting Roddick prevailed over his 31-year-old opponent, but there was no loser on this day.
Result: Roddick def. El Aynaoui 4-6, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4, 21-19
4. Francesca Schiavone vs Svetlana Kuznetsova, 2011 4th round
How do you decide whether a match qualifies as an ‘epic’? There are many factors involved, not least of which is the length of the contest. In that respect, the battle between Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova in the 2011 fourth round would hardly elicit any protests for being bracketed as one. Any match that finishes 16-14 in the third, taking up a mammoth 4 hours and 44 minutes, automatically enters a rarefied air. And Schiavone vs Kuznetsova was the rarest of the rare.
It’s not just the mind-boggling length of the match that made it so memorable. The unpredictability, the contrast of styles, the excruciatingly long and jaw-dropping rallies right until the end – there was nothing that the contest didn’t have. Kuznetsova’s power and inch-perfect offense inspired awe, but so did Schiavone’s court craft and speedy defense.
Incredibly, the quality of the match seemed to get better as it wore on. The reason the highlights clip below is 33 minutes long is because there were just that many spectacular points in the third set, which lasted a staggering three hours on its own. This wasn’t your average WTA hot mess that was filled with double faults and ghastly errors; this was tennis in its purest, most exhilarating form, where a winner was answered by an impossible get, and a big serve was followed by a breathtaking return.
Kuznetsova, a notorious headcase for the major part of her career, had as many as six match points in the third set, but wasted them all. Schiavone, meanwhile, served for the match at 10-9 and 11-10, only to get broken each time. When the Italian finally broke again at 14-14, she had had enough. But the rest of the world, watching in amazement, wanted the heroic saga to go on – perhaps forever.
Result: Schiavone def. Kuznetsova 6-4, 1-6, 16-14
3. Marat Safin vs Roger Federer, 2005 semifinal
The 2005 semifinal is one of the very few matches where we saw Roger Federer at his peak being stretched to his limit, and for that alone it deserves a place in this list.
Of course, to really challenge Federer in his prime, you either had to be named Rafael Nadal, or be blessed with the gift of otherworldly shot-making ability. Fortunately for the neutrals, Marat Safin fell squarely in the latter category, and produced the goods just when it seemed Federer was ready to turn the ATP tour into his personal playground.
The match had just about everything you expect in a classic – there were missed match points, comebacks from hopeless situations, and most importantly, unreal groundstrokes. The rallies – alternating between deft cat-and-mouses plays and ferocious hitting – were as entertaining as anything you’ll ever see on a tennis court. When a genius is pitted against another genius, and neither is making any attempt to descend into typical genius insanity, you’ve got to expect incredible theatre. And that’s exactly what this match provided.
Ever the showman, Federer attempted a tweener (which he netted) on match point in the fourth set; that shot will probably never stop haunting him. Safin on his part needed as many as seven match points to close it out, having allowed the Swiss to repeatedly climb out of seemingly bottomless holes. Ultimately, the Russian managed to halt the Federer juggernaut, in the process exorcising quite a few demons of his own.
Result: Safin def. Federer 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6, 9-7.
2. Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal, 2012 final
At 5 hours and 53 minutes, this titanic encounter is a shoo-in in any list of greatest matches of all time. Djokovic and Nadal are two of the most athletic and tireless players to have ever picked up a racquet, and this match was a perfect representation of their endurance, their stamina, their speed and their brute strength.
The points in this one were long and gruelling, and it was hard not to think we were in the midst of something extraordinary as the games – most of which went to multiple deuces – unfolded. As the players headed past the four-hour mark, we got the impression that they were both on their last legs. But then they went past the five-hour mark, and then came close to the six-hour mark, and all sense of normalcy went out of the window.
Clearly, these were not ‘normal’ human beings who would get exhausted by the simple matter of whacking a ball all around a court for what seemed like eternity.
Djokovic eventually prevailed to win his seventh match in a row against Nadal, but not before the drama of it all threatened to send the spectators into convulsions. The Serb seemed likely to wrap up the match in four sets when he earned three break points at 4-3 in the fourth, but Nadal sprang to life at that precise moment to steal the set away (Djokovic even held a 5-3 lead in the ensuing tie-break, only to give up the advantage).
The Spaniard rode his momentum all the way up to 4-2 in the fifth set, when he famously missed a makeable backhand to allow the Serb back into the match. Djokovic never loosened his grip from there, despite falling flat on his back after one particularly excruciating point late in the fifth set.
This was gruelling drama of the highest order, and perhaps the very personification of modern baseline tennis.
Result: Djokovic def. Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5.
1. Rafael Nadal vs Fernando Verdasco, 2009 semifinal
Placing the 2009 semifinal at the numero uno position may raise a few eyebrows, but I defy anyone who says that the shot-making quality of this match has been surpassed by any match, ever – even if you consider matches held outside Melbourne. In fact, I’d be willing to contend that not even the 2008 Wimbledon final can match Nadal-Verdasco in terms of sheer ball-striking brilliance.
For 5 hours and 14 minutes Verdasco threw everything, and then some, at his legendary countryman, but Nadal refused to yield. The rallies in the match see-sawed from the astonishing to the supernatural, and everyone who saw Verdasco strut his stuff that night would have walked away convinced that he was destined to be a multiple Grand Slam champion. His explosive groundstrokes darted and dive-bombed all through the court and left everyone gasping; on this day, Nadal had met his match, vicious lefty forehand for vicious lefty forehand.
Nadal withstood the barrage gamely, proving to be just an inch steadier than his less famous countryman. And when the situation demanded it, he came up with surreal shots of his own; the ‘banana forehand’ he struck at 4-5 in the second set was something else.
This was, arguably, Nadal at the peak of his powers; not even a Verdasco channelling his inner Superman was going to defeat him on this day.
Result: Nadal def. Verdasco 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4