Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Best (Men's) Tennis Matches of the Year

1. R. Nadal ESP d. R. Federer SUI, 6-7 (0) 7-6 (5) 6-4 2-6 7-6 (5), Rome ATP Masters Series final.

An instant classic. It is already considered by some as one of the Top 10 matches of the 21st Century. 5 hours and 5 minutes long. 3 tie break sets. 2 match points saved by Nadal. The shot making was at an insanely high level. Federer was basically blasting multiple winners on single points because Nadal was able to retrieve so many balls. It was only when he would hit physically impossible shot (impossible for other mortals) that he would actually be rewarded with a winner. After hours and hours of this the Swiss player started to overhit and tire. He got himself into a winning position at 4-2 in the 5th set and had match points on Nadal's serve at 5-6 in the 5th. Federer was even up 5-3 in the tiebreak and uncharacteristically missed a sitter forehand to set up 3 match points. Instead Federer lost four consecutuve points to lose the match and give the Spaniard his 5th win in 6 matches. Nadal has now not lost on clay since April 2005 and is the unquestioned best player in the world on this surface. It was a testament to the quality of this match that both players pulled out of the Hamburg Masters Series tournament which started the next day, citing "exhaustion."

2. D. Tursunov RUS d. A. Roddick USA, 6-3 6-4 5-7 3-6 17-15, Davis Cup semifinal.

Which country would have the right to play Argentina for the Davis Cup came down (improbably) to the result of this match. Tursunov had a breakthrough year in 2006, and Roddick was in the middle of a mid-career correction after a peculiar slump. The 32 games of the final set is more than most matches on the tour last. The famous Becker quote is "The fifth set is not about tennis, it's about nerves." How about a fifth set on your worst surface in front of tens of thousands of screaming foreign nationals. No one can really question Roddick's stamina or mental toughness after this match. Either player could have won it.

3. R. Federer SUI d. R. Nadal ESP 6-4 7-5, Masters Cup semifinal.

True, this match was played recently and was fresh in my mind as I compiled this list. However, I believe it stands up when measured against many other matches played this year (see Honorable Mentions below). Both players were completely crushing the ball, repeatedly. Returning clearly winning shots with clearly winning shots. At 4-5 in the first set, the players had a 26-stroke rally where at least half of the strokes the ball was hit as hard as possible and landed precisely on the line. Federer had served for the set at 5-3 and been broken and was clearly determined to win the first set, which he did two points later. The number of "unforced errors" was very low in this match, when players hit the ball out of the court it was because they were hitting an "attempted winner," a category which I believe should be added to the statistics. Match point was another amazing 16-stroke rally which ended when Federer got to an excellent Nadal crosscourt dropshot and whipped it at top speed crosscourt right in front of Nadal out of reach, blistering the sideline.

4. J. Blake USA d. A. Roddick USA 4-6 6-4 7-6(5), RCA Championships final.

The African American had an absolutely stunning year. Prior to August 2005 he had exactly 1 ATP Tour title which he had won three years before. In 2006, he won five titles (Sydney, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Thailand and Stockholm), ending the year as the Top Ranked American tennis player with the World #4 ranking and a career high 8 titles. The RCA Championships final in Indianpolis was during the American hard court season leading up to the US Open and this match would determine bragging rights for "Best American player." Roddick came out blasting his serve with an incredibly high percentage in, averaging over 130 mph, and still barely won the first set. In the second set, Blake's superior movement allowed him to get some attempted winners by Roddick and return them for actual winners. Roddick had numerous opportunities to break in the third set but somehow Blake was able to save all 5 break points and the match was decided in the tiebreaker.

5. R. Federer SUI d. R. Nadal ESP, 6-0 7-6(5) 6-7(2) 6-3, Wimbledon Championships final.

Almost by definition, the Wimbledon final must be one of the top matches of the year. This year the hype was and importance of this match was raised to a near fever pitch. The 3-time defending Wimbledon champion did not drop a single set coming into the final, where his opponent was the 2-time French Open champion, the first person to ever beat Roger Federer in a Grand Slam final, which he had done a mere 4 weeks before. Clearly Federer rose to the occasion and Nadal started off nervously, getting bageled in an easy 24 minutes. Amazingly, after winning the first game of the second set (and his first game of the match) Nadal sprinted to the other side of the court, eager to continue the match. "Look at this kid," said commentator Mary Carillo, "he just got bageled and he thinks he can win this match." Through the next two see-saw sets which went to tie-breaks the Spaniard showed that he had modified his game to be successful on clay but when Federer raised his game at the end of the third set and beginning of the 4th set it soon became clear it would not be enough to deny Federer his 4th consecutive wimbledon title and 48th grass court match. The Swiss player is now the unquestioned best player on this surface.

A. Agassi USA d. M. Baghdatis, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5, US Open 2nd Round.
R. Federer SUI d A. Roddick, 4-6 7-6 (8) 6-4, Masters Cup Round Robin.

UPDATE 11/30/2006 20:53
To see what other tennis fans think was the Best Men's Tennis Match of the Year check out this poll at Craig Hickman's tennis blog (a site I just discovered but will be checking out more frequently in the future!)

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