Thursday, January 02, 2014

Best Men's Tennis Matches of 2013

1. R. Nadal ESP d. N. Djokovic SRB, 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7(4) 9-7, French Open semifinal, Paris. 
I believe this was the most significant match of the year because if the result had been different I am very sure that Djokovic would have completed his career slam, and of course, Nadal has only ever lost one match at Roland Garros so losing this match would have been a historic event by definition. Many observers claim that this clash is not only the best match of the year but also the best clay court match of all time, and I agree with both assessments. The shots the two were hitting were incredible, with both players exhibiting their strengths (amazing defense to offense transition from Nadal, and unbelievably flexible shotmaking from Djokovic). They did so for almost the entire 4-hours and 37 minute duration of the match. Nadal was two points away from winning at 6-5, 30-15 in the fourth set but somehow Djokovic was able to win that game and hung tough in the tiebreaker to force a fifth set. (This is only the second time Nadal has ever played a fifth set in Paris, after a 1st round 5-set meeting with John Isner in 2011.) Djokovic broke first in the final set and even led 4-2. The most pivotal point of the match was at 4-3, deuce with Djokovic serving when he had an easy put away overhead but after hitting the ball he touched the net and since the ball had not bounced twice he lost the point. Djokovic saved that breakpoint but two points later he was broken and never led again. Even though Djokovic ultimately lost this match, it is becoming clearer that he has the ability to beat Nadal on clay, and perhaps even at Roland Garros. In 2012, the Serbian lost the final against the King of Clay in four sets, in 2013 he lost this semifinal in five sets, so in 2014 I firmly believe Nole will get it done. And I think Rafa knows it too.

2. N. Djokovic SRB d. J-M. Del Potro ARG, 7-5 4-6 7-6(2) 6-7(6) 6-3, Wimbledon semifinal, London. 
Surprisingly, the second best match of the year is another semifinal. The second most compelling rivalry in tennis in 2013 was the one between Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro. (Of course the six meetings between Nole and Rafa was the top rivalry of the year.) del Potro's main claim to fame is the fact that he is the only player not named Federer, Nadal, Murray or Djokovic to have won a major title (the 2009 US Open) since the 2005 Australian Open! Most tennis enthusiasts believe that del Potro has the ability to win another major, and the 6'6" Argentinian is the only player to record wins against each member of the top 4 in 2013. However even though del Potro and Djokovic played each other five times in 2013, Djokovic won four of those meetings and now leads their head-to-head overall 11-3. However, their semifinal clash at Wimbledon was the longest Wimbledon semifinal of all time and incredibly dramatic from the first point to the last.  It is at least in the conversation of the best grass-court match of all time with the 2008 and 2009 men's finals. The result was most definitely in doubt for most of the match and I do believe that having to be out on court for nearly five hours was a contributing factor in Djokovic's historic loss to Andy Murray two days later in the final. The key point in the match was in the 4th set tiebreaker where Djokovic held two consecutive match points at 6-4 when del Potro won 4 consecutive points with powerful groundstrokes and thundering serves to even the match at 2-sets all. Amazingly, Djokovic was able to regroup and break del Potro's serve in the deciding set and by hitting big serves at crucial moments (22 aces!), reach his 2nd Wimbledon final after playing in his 4th consecutive Wimbledon semifinal.

3. R. Nadal ESP d. N. Djokovic SRB, 6-2 3-6 6-4 6-1, US Open final, New York City.
Typically these end of year lists are dominated by the finals of the major tournaments, since by 
definition major finals are the most historically significant matches of the year. However, they are not always the most exciting or compelling matches of the year. Of the four major finals this year, the US Open final between Djokovic and Nadal was the most interesting and significant to me. It was the match that determined whether Nadal or Djokovic would have the better year, since whomever won would have 2 major titles for 2013. Although Nadal was able to win it in four sets, Djokovic was able to use this result to motivate him to produce stellar tennis for the rest of the year, going on a 22-match winnings streak which resulted in four titles (Beijing, Shanghai Masters, Paris Masters and the ATP World Tour Finals), beating Nadal twice in straight sets during that period. When I re-watched the final in preparation for this end-of-year summary it became clear that the match was a lot closer than I remembered and that really Djokovic should have won that 3rd set. For a good 60-80 minutes Djokovic was the better player on the court, and it was during that period he won this amazing 54-stroke rally for which this match will be immortalized. The Serbian is now a 6-time major champion, which is impressive, but he has also lost an equal amount of major finals, which is not something someone who aspires to the pantheon of tennis greats should be happy with. (Federer is 17-7 in finals and Nadal is 13-5. Murray is 2-4.) So, even though they each won half of the matches they played this year, Nadal won both of their meetings in the majors, and that iswhat will be remembered. This may be why Djokovic stunned the tennis world by announcing he has hired 6-time major champion Boris Becker to join his coaching team. It should be interesting to see what, if any, impact Becker has on Djokovic's ability to come through these big 5-set matches with his main rivals.

4. N. Djokovic SRB d. S. Wawrinka SUI, 1-6 7-5 6-4 6-7(5) 12-10, Australian Open 4th Round, Melbourne. 
Some observers believe this match was the best match of the year and while I would agree that it does probably have the best match point of the year, I just find it hard to believe a 4th round match can be considered the best match of the year because the stakes of the match are not high enough to merit this honor. Does anyone think that if Wawrinka had won the match that he would have won the tournament? It is true that if Wawrinka had won, Djokovic would definitely not have won the tournament but the Serbian showed why he is now a 3-time Australian Open champion by refusing to go away even when facing an opponent playing at the top of his game while not being able to muster his best. Frankly, the first two sets were not great tennis but the fourth and especially the fifth sets were absolute barn burners. Wawrinka played fearless tennis throughout, putting on a clinic for how the one-handed backhand can be relevant in the men's game. It was clear that the Second Swiss had made a breakthrough in his game at last, and 2013 ended up being his best year ever, finishing in the Top 10, reaching the World Tour Finals and a major semifinal for the first time. In the end, though, Djokovic came out on top, as he has in 13 of their 15 meetings, despite taking over 5 hours to do so. 

5. A. Murray GBR d. N. Djokovic SRB, 6-4 7-5 6-4, Wimbledon final, London.
Of course for any British citizen this match was by far the best match of the year, hands down. I think everyone watching the match, and the nerve-wracking final game (4 deuces, 3 consecutive championship points and 2 breakpoints), was crying with and for Murray as he achieved his life's dream and fulfilled the wishes of a country as he became the first homegrown son to win the most prestigious title in tennis in more than 77 years. By winning, Murray shrugged off the naysayers who claimed he would be a one-hit (or no-hit) wonder and that he would never win Wimbledon, despite having reached the final last year and won a Gold Medal at Centre Court as well. He basically had to face down the most pressure put on an athlete (not just a tennis player) and perform at his best. Happily, he was assisted by an inspired Juan Martin del Potro who tired out his opponent in the other semifinal as well as the most upset-filled early rounds in recent history when 2-time champion Nadal and 7-time champion Federer were eliminated from Wimbledon by its 3rd day. Regardless, he is (and will always be) a British Wimbledon champion and that alone makes this a significant match. The tennis, on the other hand, really was not of a very high quality, although the match itself was very dramatic, especially its conclusion.

6. T. Haas GER d. J. Isner USA, 7-5 7-6(4) 4-6 6-7(10) 10-8, French Open 3rd Round, Paris. 
John Isner somehow manages to get himself into these marathon matches. This one was a 4 hour-37-minute match against the excessively talented Tommy Haas. One day after successfully coming back from 2-sets to none down against fellow American Ryan Harrison for the first time in his career, Isner found himself in the identical situation against the 35-year-old German veteran. Haas blew an even dozen match points in the fourth set (nine in the 12th game and then another three in the tie-breaker) and then promptly fell behind 1-4 in the final set. But the script contained even more twists! Amazingly, the American starting to cramp at this point, so the German battled back to even the set score at 4-all, and even saved a match point on his own serve in the 10th game of the match. Haas finally broke Isner in the 17th game and needed only one more match point (his 13th) to end the contest. It wasn't the best tennis of the year, but the last 20 minutes of the 4th set were some of the most thrilling tennis all year.

7. R. Gasquet FRA d. M. Raonic CAN, 6-7(4) 7-6(4) 2-6 7-6(9) 7-5, US Open 4th Round, New York.
Speaking of thrillers, nothing says thriller like a night time match at the US Open, especially one that starts during the day and keeps on going and going until it becomes a raucous affair in front of a slightly tipsy New York crowd on Court 17. That was the situation Richard Gasquet and Milos Raonic found themselves in during their 4th round match, each trying desperately to reach their first US Open quarterfinal. Gasquet has had a reputation of displaying a what some have called a Gallic lack of effort when the going gets tough but for the last year there has been a measurable increase in Gasquet's effort level, with concomitant results. The two repeatedly exchanged service breaks and the huge serving Canadian hit a stunning 39 aces (3rd most ever for a US Open match), contributing to a gaudy total of 102 winners (compared to 80 errors) in the 4-hour-40-minute match. The Frenchman's statistics were more modest, with 45 winners and 36 errors but he saved a match point during the fourth set tiebreak. The two continued trading breaks in the final set but the final break happened in the 11th game and then Gasquet was able to serve out the match surprisingly easily.

8. N. Djokovic SRB d. J.-M. Del Potro ARG, 6-1 3-6 7-6(3), ATP Masters Shanghai final, Shanghai.

This was the best men's match of the year not played in a major tournament. There's something about their playing styles (which are pretty similar) that brings out the best in each other. del Potro relies on his large serve and moves well for such a big guy while Djokovic relies on his movement and flexibility to blunt del Potro's power and has one of the best service returners on the ATP tour. This was del Potro's second ATP Masters Shield final of the year, another indicator that the Argentinian is creeping closer to the Elite Four at the top of the game. The most exciting way for a regular tour match to end is with a final set tiebreak and this was one of the rare finals this year in which this happened after two sets of high quality tennis.

9. S. Wawrinka SUI d. R. Gasquet, 6-7(5) 4-6 6-4 7-5 8-6, French Open 4th Round, Paris.
Wawrinka demonstrated that his stunning match against Djokovic in the Australian Open earlier in the year was no fluke by coming back from 2-sets-to-none down against a Top 10 French player at Roland Garros no less. Wawrinka is a very strong clay court player, as evinced by his appearance in the Mutua Madrid final where he lost to Rafael Nadal. However, he demonstrated a level of intransigence no one knew he possessed by simply refusing to lose this match. Happily, it was a high quality affair, with brilliant one-handed backhand winners flowing on both ends of the court. Unhappily for Gasquet, he was unable to join his countryman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in reaching the latter stages of his home country slam. 

10. S. Stakhovsky UKR d. R. Federer SUI, 6-7(5) 7-6(5) 7-5 7-6(5), Wimbledon 2nd Round, London and S. Darcis BEL d. R. Nadal ESP, 7-6(4) 7-6(8) 6-4, Wimbledon 1st Round, London.
It's hard to decide which of these two shocking results is more significant. Both of these results appeared to come out of nowhere. Nadal had one of his best years on tour at the majors despite missing the Australian Open. Federer is a 7-time Wimbledon champion and had just won his only tournament of the year on grass at Halle. Nadal had lost early at Wimbledon the year before and had not been able to play a professional tennis for 8 months after his stunning 5-set 2nd round loss to Lukas Rosol. So it was very surprising that Nadal lost this match and then went on to dominate the summer hard court season and win the 2013 US Open. For Federer, this was a very tough loss. He was one of 7 former #1 players who lost on the very same dayAmazingly, Sergiy Stakhovsky used the strategy of repeatedly serving and volleying to reduce Federer's playing options to devastating effect. This took impressive mental fortitude and execution which the unheralded player was able to display in order to complete one of the biggest upsets of the decade. 

Honorable Mentions for Best Men's Matches of the Year 2013
G. Monfils FRA d. T. Berdych CZE, 7-6(8) 6-4 6-7(3) 6-7(4) 7-5, French Open 1st Round, Paris.
J.-W. Tsonga FRA d. R. Federer SUI, 7-5 6-3 6-3, French Open quarterfinal, Paris.
J.-M. Del Potro ARG d. R. Federer, 7-6(3) 2-6 6-4, Swiss Indoors Open final, Basel.
R. Federer SUI d. J.-M. Del Potro ARG, 4-6 7-6(2) 7-5, ATP World Tour finals Round Robin, London.
R. Nadal ESP d. N. Djokovic SRB, 6-4 3-6 7-6(2), ATP Rogers Cup semifinal, Montreal.
G. Dimitrov BUL d. N. Djokovic SRB, 7-6(6) 6-7(8) 6-3, Mutua Madrid Open 2nd Round, Madrid.
N. Djokovic SRB d. S. Wawrinka SUI, 2-6 7-6(4) 3-6 6-3 6-4, U.S. Open semifinal, New York City.
T. Robredo ESP d. R. Federer SUI, 7-6(3) 6-3 6-4, 4th Round U.S. Open, New York City.
S. Wawrinka SUI d. A Murray GBR, 6-4 6-3 6-2, U.S. Open quarterfinal, New York City.
T. Haas GER d. N. Djokovic SRB, 6-2 6-4, Sony Open 4th Round, Miami.
A. Murray GBR d. D. Ferrer ESP, 2-6 6-4 7-6(1), Sony Open final, Miami.
A. Murray GBR d. R. Federer SUI, 6-4 6-7(5) 6-3 6-7(2) 6-2, Australian Open semifinal, Melbourne.
N. Djokovic SRB d. A. Murray GBR, 6–7(2), 7–6(3), 6–3, 6–2, Australian Open final, Melbourne.
R. Nadal ESP d. R. Federer SUI, 5-7 6-4 6-3, Western & Southern Open quarterfinal, Cincinnati.
R. Federer SUI d. J.-W. Tsonga FRA, 7-6(4) 4-6 7-6(4) 3-6 6-3, Australian Open quarterfinal, Melbourne.
D. Ferrer ESP d. N. Almagro, 4-6 4-6 7-5 7-6(4) 6-2, Australian Open 4th Round, Melbourne.
M. Youzhny RUS d. L. Hewitt AUS, 6-3, 3-6, 6-7,6-4, 7-5, 4th Round US Open, New York City.

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