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US Open: 5 greatest men's matches of all time

Novak Djokovic (L) and Roger Federer
Novak Djokovic (L) and Roger Federer
Mihir Gawade
ANALYST
Modified 01 Sep 2020, 15:57 IST
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The US Open has seen some riveting matches through the years. The final Grand Slam on the tennis calendar always produces some exquisite tennis with a thoroughly involved crowd that lives every second of the action along with the players.

There are exhilarating baseline rallies, as well as crisp serve-and-volley points. There are volatile hotheads, and ice-cool Marcus Aurelius reincarnates. There are swings not only of rackets, but also of momentum and emotions. The show courts of Flushing Meadows have it all.

Turning through the pages of the tournament's vast history books, we have picked out the five greatest men's singles showdowns at the US Open over the years. These matches were not only sky-high in terms of quality, but also extremely significant for the particular eras and associated legacies.

#5 Rafael Nadal vs Dominic Thiem, 2018 quarterfinal

Rafael Nadal (L) and Dominic Thiem
Rafael Nadal (L) and Dominic Thiem

The 2018 US Open quarterfinals saw two of the physically strongest players in men's tennis go toe-to-toe in a titanic battle of strength, tactics and wits that lasted over 4 hours and 49 minutes.

The then 25-year-old Dominic Thiem was playing in the last eight of a Grand Slam not named French Open for the first time. Looking to prove his hardcourt pedigree, the Austrian came out playing some blistering tennis and bagelled the top seed Rafael Nadal in the first set.

But the Spaniard quickly hit the reset button and played a very tactical second set to level the match. Nadal was the slightly better player over the next hour or so as he took the lead in the match by winning the third set too.

Thiem then showed that he's in it for the long haul, pushing the match to a deciding set after winning the fourth in a tiebreak.

The fifth set saw some of the best tennis ever played at the US Open as both players held their serve throughout and in spectacular fashion. The match eventually went to a winner-takes-all tiebreak shootout, as it deserved to.

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Despite having an inferior first serve, Rafael Nadal put himself in a position where only one fortunate point on return would be enough to seal the match. And that happened on the first opportunity, as Dominic Thiem fluffed an overhead at 5-6 to hand the Nadal the win.

Rafael Nadal was 32 at the time, and had already won 17 Slams and three US Opens at that point. But in another example of his desire to keep competing at the top, the Spaniard refused to yield in a battle of physical attrition against an opponent seven years younger.

Final Score: Rafael Nadal def. Dominic Thiem 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5).

#4 Novak Djokovic vs Roger Federer, 2011 semifinal

Roger Federer (L) and Novak Djokovic
Roger Federer (L) and Novak Djokovic

Any list of the greatest matches of all time at a Slam would be incomplete without each member of the famed 'Big 3' being in it. Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic follow their great rival Rafael Nadal in this list, with their epic 2011 semifinal clash ranking at number 4.

This contest will be forever be remembered for Novak Djokovic producing the greatest clutch shot in tennis history - a forehand return winner on match point down, off the first serve of one of the best servers in tennis history. But the match was so much more than that.

The first four sets produced some incredibly well-balanced tennis. Roger Federer established a 2-0 lead by being just a little smarter than his rival; his experience helped a great deal in that. But Novak Djokovic was having one of the greatest tennis years ever in 2011, and he rallied from the two-set deficit to dominate the third and fourth sets.

Federer regained his momentum in the decider, breaking at a crucial stage for a 5-3 lead. Just four swipes of his racket would have put him into the final, and at 40-15 it looked like he had done enough.

But in the end it wasn't enough. The Serb pulled off one of the greatest comebacks ever to win four straight games and complete a stunning 7-5 win.

Novak Djokovic had done something similar the previous year at the same stage against Roger Federer, saving two match points before going on to win. But the 2011 comeback was much more dramatic and significant, given that the Serb went on to win the final (over Rafael Nadal) this time.

Final Score: Novak Djokovic def. Roger Federer 6-7 (7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5.

#3 Andre Agassi vs Marcos Baghdatis, 2006 second round

Andre Agassi (L) and Marcos Baghdatis (R) at the 2006 US Open
Andre Agassi (L) and Marcos Baghdatis (R) at the 2006 US Open

You must be wondering what a second rounder is doing in a list of elite US Open matches. But this encounter was just as elite as any Grand Slam final, with its high drama and overflowing emotion keeping the spectators enthralled throughout its duration.

In 2006, it was a match of tennis' past against its future. The legendary Andre Agassi, who had announced that the US Open would be his last tournament before retiring, laid down his heart on the court to extend his career by just one more match. Marcos Baghdatis, on the other hand, was looking to further his prospects after having broken through at the Australian Open earlier that year.

The tension and emotion inside Arthur Ashe could be cut with a knife, as the home fans cheered on their hero to get one last hurrah. And that he did.

The will to play one more match superseded the young and cramping Cypriot's firepower. Agassi came out on top after five exhausting sets, in a match that saw some crazy momentum shifts.

The historic match is one of the best parting moments a tennis champion has ever had in tennis. Andre Agassi concluded his career in the very next match (losing to Benjamin Becker), but the lasting memory of his final tournament was the epic against Marcos Baghdatis.

Final Score: Andre Agassi def. Marcos Baghdatis 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5.

#2 Pete Sampras vs Andre Agassi, 2001 quarterfinal

Pete Sampras (L) and Andre Agassi
Pete Sampras (L) and Andre Agassi

Even though it was not a final, their last-eight match at the 2001 US Open is arguably the most memorable installment in the rivalry between Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.

The match had everything a US Open tennis fan could possibly want. Two established American stars who already shared 20 Grand Slam singles titles between them and had one of the biggest rivalries ever with their contrasting styles and personalities, fought tooth and nail over four impossibly close sets to create an unforgettable epic.

Sampras held a slim 17-14 lead in the head-to-head at that point, but hadn't won a Slam in more than a year. The four-set contest famously did not see a single break of serve throughout, despite featuring one of the best returners of all time in Agassi.

Both gladiators held each and every one of their service games, with each set going to a tiebreak. As one would expect, Sampras' superior serve came through over the course of four tiebreaks, to win him the epic battle.

The drama and shot-making in the match were accentuated by the US Open's night-session crowd, known for its loud involvement in matches. The New Yorkers showed their love for their sentimental favorites - a role that Agassi at age 31, and Sampras at 30, both fit perfectly.

When Sampras converted match point at 14 minutes past midnight, virtually everyone in the crowd of 23,033 at Arthur Ashe Stadium was still in attendance. The match has since been accorded the status of a cult classic, and is now the US Open broadcasters' favorite contest to feature re-runs of.

Final Score: Pete Sampras def. Andre Agassi 6-7 (9), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5).

#1 John McEnroe vs Bjorn Borg, 1980 final

John McEnroe (L) and Bjorn Borg
John McEnroe (L) and Bjorn Borg

John McEnroe provided fans not one, but two back-to-back epics in the same tournament on his way to the title at the 1980 US Open. His semifinal win over Jimmy Connors is as much a contender to be in this list as the final.

But the final had a different aura of its own. It marked a rematch of the McEnroe and Bjorn Borg's legendary Wimbledon final a few months before, which is often lauded as the greatest match of all time.

It was a clash of the top two players in the world, with their very different styles and personalities providing polar opposites on the court.

McEnroe looked on course to avenge the Wimbledon defeat as he raced to a two-set lead. But Borg displayed his unmatched resilience, hitting five clean winners to take the third set in rip-roaring fashion.

The Swede then won the fourth set to push another of their finals to a deciding set.

But McEnroe was determined. He held firm in the fifth set before breaking in the crucial seventh game, courtesy two uncharacteristic double faults from Borg.

The young American then served out the match to win his second straight US Open, title leaving Borg still trophy-less in New York.

The final didn't quite match their Wimbledon epic in terms of scoreline, but it is believed by many experts to rank higher in intensity and sheer quality of tennis on display.

Final Score: John McEnroe def. Bjorn Borg 7-6 (4), 6-1, 6-7 (5), 5-7, 6-4.

There are a few other matches that barely missed the cut in this list - the above-mentioned 1980 semifinal between John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, the 1988 final between Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl, the 1996 quarterfinal between Pete Sampras and Alex Corretja, and the 1976 final between Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg.

Published 01 Sep 2020, 15:57 IST
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