Saturday, December 29, 2012

Best Men's Tennis Matches of 2012

Here are my picks for the Top 10"best" (or most memorable) tennis matches by men in 2012. These are basically the matches that had the most impact on me while they were occurring (or later on, upon subsequent reflection), feature some of the best play or most amazing shots, had the most impact on the rest of the tennis season or are matches that I would most likely to watch again in the future. You can see my lists from last year: Best Men's Tennis Matches of 2011 and Best Women's Tennis Matches of 2011. I also have lists of best men's matches for 20102009 and 2006. (There were no men's lists in 2007 or 2008.) I have also compiled lists of the Best Women's Tennis Matches for 2005200620072009, and 2010.

All of these lists can be accessed at my Tennis tab.

1.  N. Djokovic SRB d. R. Nadal ESP, 5-7 6-4 6-2 6-7(5) 7-5, 2012 Australian Open final, Melbourne.
     The third consecutive grand slam final in a row was a contest between  Nadal and Djokovic, this time on the hardcourts of Australia where the Serbian has had his greatest success. Even more importantly, it was the first time the two met after Djokovic completed one of the most amazing years in tennis history in 2011, beating Nadal in 6 consecutive tour finals, including the two previous majors (2011 Wimbledon final and the 2011 #1 match of the year, the 2011 US Open final). The primary question was whether Djokovic could extend his near-perfect record from 2011 into a new calendar year or would he be able to be stopped by the indomitable Spaniard. The result was a near 6-hour gladiatorial slugfest, a mental marathon and physical punishment, where the victor would secure their place at the top of men's tennis. By winning this match Djokovic proved that he was willing to do whatever it takes to win, even if meant reaching his physical and mental limits and going beyond them. 
     After dropping the first set (despite being up a break) and stealing the second (6-4), Djokovic used the subsequent momentum to easily win the third from his demoralized opponent. Djokovic then had victory at his grasp in the fourth set and was mere points from the win when some bad decisions in the tiebreak (after being up 5-3!) brought the match back to dead even again, with Nadal confident that his stamina and newly found momentum (due to his escape from defeat in the 4th set) would seal his victory. In fact, the Spaniard was up 4-2, 30-15 in the fifth and final set when he made two bad errors and lost his slim 1-break advantage. Although Djokovic seemed worse for wear, he managed to hold serve to again bring the match to dead-even again: 4-all in the 5th after nearly 5 and a half hours of play. But it was Nadal who blinked first, losing his serve in the 11th game of the set, and allowing Djokovic to serve out the match and win his 5th major title and 3rd Australian Open.
     This was the most significant match of 2012 in that it marked a 7 consecutive win of Djokovic over Nadal in as many final match-ups and confirmed that the Federer-Nadal duopoly at the top of men's tennis was now a trivalry between the top 3 players. Some have quibbled that the reason the match was so long was because both players refused to come to the net to finish points, as well as their deliberately unhurried pace between points. I don't see how anyone can complain about the level of the tennis and shotmaking involved, but what really sets this match apart from the others in 2012 was the sheer drama on the court and the stakes involved for men's tennis. It was so physically draining that both players nearly collapsed during the on-court trophy presentation and eventually someone noticed and brought the two combatants to sit down during the ceremony.

2.  A. Murray GBR d. N. Djokovic SRB, 7-6(10) 7-5 2-6 3-6 6-2, U.S. Open final, New York.
      For years Andy Murray could only watch while two (and then three) of the all-time greats gobbled up the lion's share of grand slam titles, usually beating him in the process. The problem for Murray, everyone said, was that in order for him to win a major title, he would almost certainly have to beat one, if not two, of either Federer, Djokovic or Nadal. Plus, no British player had won a major title since Fred Perry did it in 1936. And although the Scot had reached 3 major finals before his 24th birthday, he had not acquitted himself very well in any of them, failing to win a set in all three contests. However, despite losing his 4th major final at Wimbledon in July (to this same opponent!), Murray was able to come back a handful of weeks later and beat Federer on the same court to win a Gold Medal. He had been up a set and break in that 4th major final, and by actually winning a gold medal while his country was hosting the Olympics indicated that he had finally broken through whatever was hindering him from success in historically important matches.
     Many people stated that Murray would never win a major, but he had hired Ivan Lendl who also had lost his first four major finals but then Lendl went on to eventually win 7 majors and appear in a record 8 consecutive US major finals. Murray had played an astonishingly good match against Djokovic in the semifinals of the 2012 Australian Open, only eventually succumbing 7-5 in the fifth
     Through some good (and bad) fortune, neither Djokovic nor Murray needed to face Nadal or Murray in their path to the final, thanks to an inspired upset by Tomas Berdych of Roger Federer in the quarterfinals and Nadal's disappearance from the game due to injury after Wimbledon.
     The match itself was played on Monday afternoon, the fifth consecutive year the US Open men's final had been postponed due to the inclement weather. The wind definitely impacted the level of play at points but even so the two were able to combine for some absolutely incredible rallies and many momentum shifts and dramatic moments,beginning with an opening set decided by a 22-point tiebreak. Murray was able to use the momentum from winning the first set to take a presumed insurmountable 2-set leave but then Djokovic was able to dig deep and run away with next two sets to level the match. Almost everyone would have expected the more successful player to pull out the win at this point but instead Murray started playing more freely and was able to quickly break Djokovic's serve twice while holding on to his own to claim his first major title. Time will tell if Murray will be able to follow up this win with more victories in 2013

3.  R. Federer SUI d. A. Murray GBR, 4-6 7-5 6-4 6-3, 2012 Wimbledon final, London.
     This match result clarified many open questions about the state of men's tennis in 2012 and cemented Roger Federer's status as the Greatest Of All Time. Just by reaching the final of Wimbledon, Andy Murray made history and sent his entire country into paroxysms of joy mingled with anxiety. There is no player on tour who has faced as much pressure on him to do well as Murray has in the last few years since he became a serious contender to win majors, and possibly the Great Green One itself.
     Murray used the pressure to sneak the first set away from Federer and was quickly up a break in the second, which he probably should have won also. If he had, this match would probably have been the #1 match of the year instead. However, Federer was able to win the second set and once the roof was closed due to pouring rain towards the beginning of the third set the contest became a best-of-3 indoor match (albeit on grass) which gave the Swiss Master an overwhelming advantage which he used to his benefit to win his record-tying 7th Wimbledon and jaw-dropping 17 major singles championship. He also reclaimed the World #1 ranking, ensuring that he would finally hold the last major record he was lacking in his overstuffed list of accolades: Most Weeks at #1.

4.  R. Nadal ESP d. N. Djokovic SRB6-4 6-3 2-6 7-5, French Open final, Paris. 
     Novak Djokovic sealed his place in history by becoming only the third man in the Open Era to be one match away from holding all four major titles simultaneously (Rod Laver and Roger Federer). Amazingly, his opponent in all 4 consecutive major finals had been Rafael Nadal, the greatest clay court player of all time, and Djokovic had already bested him in three consecutive major finals. Nadal was also playing for history, trying to win his record 7th French Open final and end the conversation about who is the greatest clay-court player of all time. The two had met in clay-court finals twice earlier in 2012 (in Rome and Monte Carlo) and Nadal had won both times, ending the streak of 7 consecutive finals that he had lost to Djokovic in the previous 18 months. However, Nadal still led their overall head-to-head record 18-14 and Djokovic was playing in his very first Roland Garros final so the Spaniard was the overwhelming favorite.
     Nadal took the first two sets relatively easily on a cold, dreary Sunday morning and the match looked it would soon be over. However, after losing the first two games of the 3rd set Djokovic threw caution to the wind and started connecting with some go-for-broke shots and managed to throw some doubt in Nadal just as the weather conditions deadened the effect of his excessive spin as the balls got wetter and heavier. Djokovic ended up winning eight games in a row as Nadal grew more upset and more animated, petitioning the umpire to suspend play, and finally got his wish just after he was able to finally hold serve. When they came back Nadal was able to quickly break back in the very first gaand the two held serve until the 12th game when Djokovic's mental resolve finally crumbled and he double faulted on breakpoint which was also championship point.
     Nadal's victory was his 3rd consecutive win over Djokovic and brought him to 11 major titles. However, it may have been something of a pyrrhic victory, even while he was winning the French for a record 7th time he was grappling (and hiding) a significant knee injury which he was able to overcome while playing on the gentle clay but was unable to survive long on grass just a few weeks later and he was unable to compete for the rest of the year.

5.  L. Rosol CZE d. R. Nadal ESP, 6-7(9) 6-4 6-4 2-6 6-4, 2012 Wimbledon 2nd Round, London.
     It's not surprising that the four finals of the major tournaments are my picks for the Top 4 best matches of the year, although that has not happened on any of my previous year-end best-of lists. What is surprising is that the next match on the list is not even a final, it is merely a 2nd round match;  without question it was the Biggest Upset of the year, and had a profound impact on the order at the top of men's tennis for the foreseeable future.
     What made Luke Rosol's achievement so noteworthy was that it was a lightning strike, coming out of nowhere, and just as electrifying. Despite being a clay court wizard, Nadal's record at this grass court tournament on the day of his defeat was that he had been in 3 Wimbledon finals in his last 3 appearances in the tournament and he had won two of those (2008 d. Federer; 2010 d. Berdych; 2011 l. Djokovic). The idea that an unseeded Czech that no one had heard of could take Nadal to 5 sets (and very nearly beat him in straight sets--it was primarily lack of experience which led to Rosol's loss of the first set) was unthinkable.
     A key important point of the greatness of this upset is that the quality of tennis was high throughout. Nadal played well (although obviously not his best tennis--but then again he wasn;t in his best physical shape, as we learned later) but Rosol played absolutely at the complete peak of his ability and sustained it through 5 sets and with a crowd that was going absolutely insane with delirium at witnessing history. Nadal had a mere 16 unforced errors for the entire match (compared to Rosol's 29) but the lanky, powerful Czech youngster had a blistering 65 winners to the Spaniard's 41. The kid served out of his mind for the entire 5th set, and ended the match with a blistering ace, writing his name in indelible ink in the history books and ending Nadal's 2012 season.

6.  R. Federer SUI d. J.-M. del Potro ARG, 3-6 7-6(5) 19-17, Olympiad XXX semifinal, London.
     Federer and Juan Martin del Potro met eight times in 2012. At the beginning o the year, Federer had an overwhelming 7-2 record over the 6'6" gentle giant from Argentina. Del Potro was still recovering from wrist surgery after becoming the first man not named Federer, Djokovic or Nadal in over 5 years to win a major final (over Federer) in September 2009 in New York. By the end of the year the new head-to-head was 13-4 in favor of Federer. This showdown at the London Olympics semifinal was the 6th meeting of the year and the stakes were to ensure that the winner would be going home with an Olympic medal (either Gold or Silver). 
     The two were playing in Federer's house, Centre Court Wimbledon, where a mere few weeks after the GOAT had won his 7th men's singles crown. Most people predicted Federer to win relatively easily but Del Potro had been getting ever closer in his matches against Federer and really should have won their quarterfinal match at Roland Garros when his body (knee) started failing him after winning the first two sets. The decision by the London Olympics Committee to have a best-of-3 sets format with no tiebreak in the final set resulted in some incredibly long matches (the Tsonga-Raonic 48 game 3rd set should be noted here), such as this one. These contests are not really fair to the player, and it is my position that either this policy should be reserved to the final itself, or all matches should have a super tiebreak at some pre-defined point, say 12-all. For Federer, winning this match may have been a pyrrhic victory, because he did not win another showdown with del Potro for the rest of the year, and when he played Murray two days later in the Gold Medal match he lost meekly in straight sets.

7.  N. Djokovic SRB d. A. Murray GBR, 5-7 7-6(11) 6-3, Shanghai Masters final, Shanghai.
     Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray met 7 times in 2012. Djokovic had the slight edge, winning 4 to Murray's 3. But Murray won two of their most important meetings, at the 2012 US Open final and the London Olympics semifinal while Djokovic won their 2012 Australian Open semifinal.
     This match in the finals of the Masters tournament held in Shanghai was important for their rivalry because it was their first meeting after Murray became a grand slam champion and was during Djokovic's end-of-year push to reclaim the #1 ranking from Federer. Murray was the 2-time defending champion of the tournament (2011 d. Ferrer, 2010 d. Federer). The two ended up creating a classic, with the headline statistic being the handful of match points Djokovic managed to save in the second set. It was the most number of match points saved by any victor on the ATP tour in 2012. In addition to the match points saved, Murray and Djokovic put on a display of intense shotmaking and high drama for nearly 4 hours to make this the best regular best-of-three set ATP tour match of the year.

8.  N. Djokovic SRB d. J.-W. Tsonga FRA, 6-1 5-7 5-7 7-6(6) 6-1, French Open quarterfinal, Paris.
     In 2011 Djokovic dominated the year by winning and winning and winning. In 2012, Djokovic again prevailed all year long, but with a slight difference: he just refused to lose. This quarterfinal with Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga came a few days after Djokovic had been surprisingly pushed to 5-sets against Andreas Seppi of Italy, in a match he very well could have lost. Instead of taking advantage of the #1 seed's dip in confidence, Tsonga started off flat and was down a set and a break before he found the range on his shots. He won the 2nd and 3rd sets and in the 4th set he ended up having four match points, including one on his own serve but somehow, Djokovic managed to win each of those do-or-die points and then blew the devastated Tsonga out of the water in the final set.
     This match was an example of just how different a competitor Djokovic had become in just a few years. Where before he would retire in 2nd week grand slam matches now he won't even give up when he's down multiple match points, even against a player with a very good record against him. This match is an indication of how (and why) Djokovic is likely to be at the top of the rankings in 2013 and beyond.

9.  N. Djokovic SRB d. A. Murray GBR, 6-3 3-6 6-7(4) 6-1 7-5, Australian Open semifinal, Melbourne.
    One can tell that Djokovic was the most important player in 2012 by his presence on this Top 10 list: he appears in more than half of the best matches of the year (even when not in the winner's circle). This match is important because it indicated how close Murray was getting to breaking through into the trivalry at the top of men's tennis. It also cemented Djokovic's superior physical ability and mental toughness. Despite playing a nearly 5-hour-long semifinal against Murray, Djokovic was able to come back within 40 hours and play a nearly 6-hour-long final against Nadal. The only other person in the Top 4 who could possibly have won both of these matches was Nadal, but it's doubtful that even Nadal would have ended up victorious playing 11 hour of tennis against 2 of his 3 rivals.
     This match was another example, like other matches which also appear on this list (the Shanghai final, the US Open final, and the Australian Open final) of the new standard in men's tennis: blistering service returns, indefatigable rallies of 20, 30, 40 strokes and turning defensive shots into aggressive winners, all at a speed and intensity not seen before and almost entirely from the baseline. We shall see how long this style of play will dominate men's tennis, but for now it looks like it will continue to do so in 2013 as it did in 2012. And if so, the person who executes this style of play the best, which is usually Novak Djokovic, will also dominate the ATP tour.

10 M. Raonic CAN d. J. Tipsarevic SRB, 6-7(4) 7-6(4) 7-6(4), 2012 Chennai Open final, Chennai. 
    Just like the previous match can be considered the canonical example of the best of men's tennis in 2012, this last match can be thought of as an example of where men's tennis is (probably) going. Milos Raonic is a 6'5" 200-pound 22-year-old of Serbian descent who plays for Canada and has a gigantic first and second serve and improving, powerful groundstrokes on both wings. Raonic is in the mold of other "Big Guys" such as John Isner, Juan Martin del Potro, Tomas Berdych and Sam Querrey who have been predicted for years to break through and dominate men's tennis. So far it hasn't happened because none of these named players have really put all the pieces together consistently to do so, although it must be noted that del Potro won the 2009 US Open by basically overpowering Roger Federer in the final. 
     In this match there were no breaks of serve but despite the identical score in all three sets the match was anything but monotonous. Even though there were no breaks of serve there were very many breakpoints, all saved! The key to this match was incredible serving by the youngster. Despite being played at a pretty insignificant tournament during the first week of the year it should still be noted for it's potentially predictive nature of the future of men's tennis. Both Raonic and Tipsarevic ended up having very good years in 2012, with the former ending the year at World #13 an the latter at World #9.

The following matches are ones that should not be forgotten, but because of mathematical limitations, could not be in the Top 10 matches of the year. Each one either featured some amazing shots or extended periods of high-quality tennis or were entertaining or important to me as a tennis fan. (They are provided here, in no ranked order, for historical posterity, for your perusal, and to jog your memory of some great tennis matches that occurred in the last year.)

R. Federer SUI d. N. Djokovic SRB, 6-3 3-6 6-4 6-3, Wimbledon semifinal, London.
J.-W Tsonga FRA d. M. Raonic CAN, 3-6 6-3 25-23, Olympiad XXX 3rd Round, London.
T. Berdych CZE d. R. Federer, 7-6(1) 6-4 7-5 3-6 6-3, 2012 U.S. Open quarterfinal, New York.
D. Ferrer ESP d. J. Tipsarevic, 6-3 6-7(5) 2-6 6-3 7-6(4), 2012 U.S. Open 4th round, New York.
N. Djokovic SRB d. R. Federer SUI, 7-6(6) 7-5, 2012 Barclays World Tour Finals final, London.
R. Federer SUI d. J.-M. Del Potro ARG, 3-6 6-7(4) 6-2 6-0 6-3, 2012 French Open quarterfinal, Paris.
R. Federer SUI d. N. Djokovic SRB, 6-0 7-6(7), 2012 Western & Southern Financial Open, Cincinnati.
J.-M. Del Potro d. ARG R. Federer SUI, 6-4 6-7(5) 7-6(3), 2012 Swiss Indoors final, Basel.
R. Stepanek CZE d. N. Almagro ESP, 6-4 7-6(0) 3-6 6-3, 2012 Davis Cup final (Czech Republic v. Spain), Prague.
A. Roddick USA d. R. Federer SUI, 7-6(5) 1-6 6-4, 2012 Sony Ericsson Open, Key Biscayne.
R. Nadal ESP d.  R. Federer SUI, 6-7(5) 6-2 7-6(5) 6-4, 2012 Australian Open semifinal, Melbourne. 
J. Isner USA d. N. Djokovic SRB, 7-6(7) 3-6 7-6(5), 2012 BNP Paribas Open semifinal, Indian Wells.

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