Monday, December 19, 2011

Best (Men's) Tennis Matches of 2011

Here are my picks for the "best" (or most memorable) tennis matches by men in 2011. These are basically the matches that had the most impact on me while they were occurring, 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 previous lists: Best Men's Tennis Matches of 2010Best Men's Tennis Matches of 2009 and Best Men's Tennis Matches of 2006. (There were no men's lists in 2007 or 2008 for some reason.) I have also compiled lists of the Best Women's Tennis Matches for 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010. These can all be accessed at my Tennis tab.

1.  N. Djokovic SRB d. R. Nadal ESP, 6-2 6-4 6-7(3) 6-3, 2011 U.S. Open final, New York.
For the sixth time in 2011 the World #1 and World #2 met in tournament final, this time at the last grand slam of the year (with the ranking positions reversed from the 5 previous meetings), in New York where Rafael Nadal had had his career defining success the year before, completing the career slam by defeating this same opponent at this very same tournament.  After surviving a double match point against the Greatest Player of All Time in the previous round Novak Djokovic was playing with "house money" in the final. Surely the new #1 player from Serbia would be unable to snatch another major tournament title from the Spanish defending champion? The most amazing part of this match was that in my estimation Nadal played better tennis than Djokovic for the majority of the first two sets but somehow managed to lose them both. Djokovic seemed impervious to the score and just refused to go away in the first two sets, repeatedly responding to ridiculous shots and enervating rallies from Nadal with one more clear strike of the ball on or near the lines. The mental stakes of this match were even more important than the physical impact. By winning this match Djokovic showed that there was no question that he was the best player in the world, and that he had truly demolished the Federer-Nadal duopoly at the pinnacle of tennis, and was in the process of filling new pages in the tennis record books with the name of the new kid on the block, Novak Djokovic.

2.  R. Federer SUI d. N. Djokovic, 7-6(5) 6-3 3-6 7-6(5), 2011 Roland Garros Semifinal, Paris. This match was the only result standing between Novak Djokovic's astonishing 2011 season of three major titles, 5 Masters series shields, a record $12.6 million dollars and 70 tour wins and the rare, sheer perfection of a calendar year slam, which only a handful of male or female tennis players have ever accomplished. After all, Roger Federer has thrice won 3 of the 4 major tournaments in a year (2004, 2006 and 2007) while Nadal did it last year in 2010. Players like Mats Wilander (1988) and Jimmy Connors (1974), who are superb champions but arguably not indelible names in the tennis pantheon, have been able to win 3 major titles in a calendar year. But no man sincethe great Rod Laver has been able to win 4 in a year or 4 in a row. In this match, Federer demonstrated, for the umpteenth time, that he is the second-best clay court player of his generation, behind Rafael Nadal who is the Greatest Clay Court player of all-time, when he faced off against a Djokovic who had not lost a match for the entire year and who had dismissed Federer relatively easily (3 times!) in his 42-match winning streak through the first 5 months of the year. Djokovic's confidence was at its peak and he (and most observers) believed that he would win this match to face Nadal in the final. I sincerely believe that if Djokovic had won this match he would have beaten Nadal in the Roland Garros final and won the elusive calendar Grand Slam to cement his superlative year in the record books for ever. 2011 was the first year since 2002 that Federer did not win a major title but handing Djokovic his only defeat in a Grand Slam match all year long is something the Swiss will long remember and treasure even if his total remains stuck at 16 major singles titles.

3. N. Djokovic SRB d. R. Federer SUI, 6-7(7) 4-6 6-3 6-2 7-5, 2011 U.S. Open semifinal, New York.
Just to get to the final of the U.S. Open for the second year in a row, Djokovic had to face the best hard-court player of his generation, Roger Federer. Amazingly, for the second year in a row Federer held two match points against Djokovic and managed to lose! For Djokovic he had the added mental pressure that he was also facing the only player who had beaten him at a major tournament all year long. However, in the fifth set, having made the herculean effort to overcome a 2-set deficit to even the match, Djokovic faced a match point with Roger Federer serving at 5-3, 40-15. On a pretty good first serve Djokovic hit a forehand go-for-broke service return winner, smacking away a match point in jaw-dropping, history-making fashion. The second match point was lost on a difficult half-volley by Federer (caused by another Djokovic excellent service return) which hit the net and bounced out of bounds. It was this point, 5-3, Deuce in the5th set of the 2011 US Open semifinals that Federer will remember for decades. He should have been able to regroup and serve out the game by finding a way to win two points in a row on his serve but instead he lost the next two points and before he knew it Djokovic had held serve and the match was dead even at 5-all with a complete momentum switch and soon it slipped away completely. It is precisely these very small moments and individual points which extremely close matches can be decided on, and these kinds of matches often decide major championships which are remembered forever.

4. J-W Tsonga FRA d. R. Federer SUI, 3-6 6-7(3) 6-4 6-4 6-4, 2011 Wimbledon quarterfinal, London. 
Roger Federer had won 178 Grand Slam matches in a row when he had won the first two sets of a 5-set match at a major tournament, never losing a match with such a huge lead. He was playing at Wimbledon, in the quarterfinals, on a surface he had dominated for the better part of a decade, collecting 6 titles (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009). On the other side of the net was the wildly talented Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who had lost to Federer the last three times they had played but who had acquitted himself well in the Queen's Club warm-up tournament, losing a hard-fought final to Andy Murray. Somehow, after facing a breakpoint in the 1st set Tsonga was able to raise his service effectiveness to stratospheric levels and never even faced a break point in the subsequent 4 sets, managing to break Federer three times, once each time in the three final sets, which was enough to win the match. Federer did not play badly, but he did not play aggressively enough to jar the Frenchman from his self-conceived (and self-confident) game plan once he gained that 2-0 set lead. I believe that Federer was hurt by the fact that he had won so many times due to his opponent basically giving up at the thought of trying to win 3 consecutive sets against The Greatest Player of all Time that he was unprepared for the stiff resistance put up by Tsonga. It was literally a very unfamiliar position for Federer to be in. This match was critical to demonstrate to the rest of the field that Federer, like everyone else, can lose a match despite holding a commanding a lead, and providing a reminder that a match is ot ove runtil the final point is played. Tsonga also exposed the truth that Federer was no longer at the very top of the game, and that there were other players besides former and reigning Grand Slam champions, who could defeat the Swiss Maestro.

5. N. Djokovic SRB d. A. Murray GBR, 6-1 3-6 7-6(2), 2011 Italian Open semifinal, Rome.
Clay court tennis is almost a completely different sport from tennis played on harder, faster surfaces. It requires more patience, more guile and (often), more physical tenacity than hard court tennis. Amazingly, the best clay court match of the year did not feature the presence of the King of Clay Rafael Nadal, but instead was a brutal, brilliant 3-hour slugfest between the 3rd and 4th best clay court players in the world. Some observers call this semifinal clash between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic the best match of the year but I would disagree. For pure tennis entertainment, it probably is the best match of the year, featuring some of the longest rallies of the year but as for overall significance on the future of tennis or impact on me while I was watching it, matches that occur at majors have an inherent advantage of historical significance. I would also argue that the matches higher on the list may not have as many ridiculously long rallies (although the #1 match does) but they each have more eye-popping shots attempted (and frequently made) with tennis posterity on the line. That being said, this was a heck of a match, clearly the best non-final, non-major match of the year. Murray served for the match in the third set and his play throughout was able to partially erase his disappointing performance(s) in major finals and show why he belongs to be in the conversation when discussing the best players in tennis, but in the end, he again fell heart-wrendlingly short of the win, which is all most people will ever remember.

 6N. Djokovic SRB d. R. Nadal, 4-6 6-3 7-6(4), 2011 Sony Ericsson Open final, Miami.
This match was played a mere few weeks after Indian Wells where Djokovic had beaten Nadal for the first time in a final, after losing to him in the five previous finals they had contested. However, it was this match that really cemented in my mind that Djokovic had reached a brand new level of tennis.  Djokovic had a bad (16 losses 8 wins) head-to-head record overall with Nadal but all his 8 wins against the Spaniard had come on hard courts (but never in an important final). Nadal was the defending US Open champion and had shown that he could find a way to win on all surfaces, against anyone when it really counted, even the reigning Australian Open champion who was on a 24 match winning streak. The result was a very physical, tactical war of attrition played on a tennis court. And at the end of it all the tennis world was stunned to see Novak Djokovic standing victoriously while the indomitable Rafael Nadal looked exhausted and defeated. This was the match (along with the US Open semifinal win against Federer) that gave Djokovic the confidence to know that he could beat Nadal even if he was not playing his best tennis. After this match it was clear that would only be a matter of when, not if, Djokovic would shatter the Federer-Nadal duopoly at the pinnacle of tennis.

7. R. Nadal ESP d. R. Federer SUI, 7-5 7-6(3) 5-7 6-1, Roland Garros final, Paris.
This was the 25th career meeting between Federer and Nadal, two of the greatest players of all time. It was the 4th time they met in the final of Roland Garros and their 8th major final showdown (Nadal winning 5 times.). Nadal  had never lost a final at Roland Garros (in fact so far in his career he has only ever lost one match there!) and thus no one really expected this match to be close. Nadal lead their career head-to-head with 16 wins to 8 losses and had won all 3 previous clay court major finals, their only hard court final in Australia and also won their greatest match (which many people call the greatest match of all time), the 2008 Wimbledon final. There's no question that the physical match up between Nadal's lefty spin and power on both wings with Federer's shot-making and serving prowess is a bad one for the Swiss, but the mental challenge is even more devastating. No one else on tour wins 2/3rds  (and expects to win that many) of their matches against the 16-time major champion. So it was quite surprising for everyone watching this match when the first set was clearly on Federer's racquet after he played 40 minutes of crisp, aggressive clay court tennis to blunt and thwart Nadal's many advantages on the surface. An attempted drop shot winner from the baseline on set point which just bounced centimetres wide is what separated the two gladiators this time. Realizing that he had played better than Nadal for large stretches of the first set but had still lost it sapped Federer's mental resolve and he meekly succumbed to the inevitable defeat in four sets of elegant but futile tennis.

8.  N. Djokovic SRB d. R. Nadal ESP6-4 6-1 1-6 6-3, Wimbledon final, London.
This was the match that really reflected the fact that the changing of the guard was complete at the top of men's tennis and the new #1 was not named Federer or Nadal but Djokovic. This was Djokovic's first match after clinching his lifetime goal of being universally (and officially) acclaimed the best tennis player in the world. He was facing a 2-time Wimbledon defending champion who had not lost since the 2007 Men's final (having skipped the 2009 tournament due to injury). Did Djokovic really have the ability to take away a major title from a defending champion on that champion's turf? The answer was clearly yes as Djokovic showed how his game with an improved serve, flawless groundstrokes combined with unmatched confidence and stunning movement were a much more problematic match-up for Nadal than what he was used to facing against his arch-rival Roger Federer.  Surely having previously lost five finals in a row to Nadal in his career, Djokovic would not be able to beat Nadal in five finals in the same year? Again, the Serbian responded to the question in the affirmative and marked the official beginning of the Djokovic era by winning the most prestigious title in tennis in a convincing fashion.

9. N. Djokovic SRB d. R. Nadal ESP7-5 6-4, 2011 Madrid Masters final, Madrid.
Rafael Nadal has gone through entire clay court seasons (2006, 2010) without losing a match on the surface in which he is almost universally acclaimed as the greatest of all time. So, when earlier this year Nadal faced a still undefeated Novak Djokovic it was a canonical example of an unmovable object facing an irresistible force. Most observers felt that Nadal's clay court magic would carry him to victory in this match as it had in the 10 previous times the two had met on clay. This final is most important for the significance of the result: The first time Nadal was beaten by Djokovic in a clay court final.

10. A. Roddick USA d. M. Raonic CAN7-6 (7), 6-7 (11), 7-5, Regions Morgan Keegan Championships final, Memphis.
 This match is the only one not featuring any of the Top 4 players in the world, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer or Murray. However, it does feature one of the most incredible shots on match points ever (although I would still argue the 2010 US Open Fernando Verdasco-David Ferrer match has the best match point of all time). It also features Milos Raonic, who is almost certainly going to be joining the Top 4 within the next few years. The 21-year-old 6'5" hard-serving Canadian ended the year at #31 and reached a career high of #25 during the year. In this match he faced off against Andy Roddick, a player who was unlucky to be playing in the era of two of the greatest players of all time (Federer and Nadal), in the throes of a hot streak which included winning his first ATP Tour title the week before in San Jose. Roddick's performance in the 2009 Wimbledon men's final is still fresh in a lot of people's memories, where Federer finally broke Sampras's record of 14 major singles titles by outlasting a determined challenge from the American. After his one major win in New York in 2003, Roddick has amassed an impressively consistent record of winning at least one ATP tour title for the last 9 years, a record he shares with Federer thanks to his amazingly gutsy effort on the final point of his match against Raonic.

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. However 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 your perusal, and to jog your memory.)
J.-C. Ferrero ESP  d. G. Monfils FRA, 7-6 (5), 5-7, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 2011 U.S. Open 2nd Round, New York
D. Nalbandian ARG d  L. Hewitt AUS, 3-6 6-4 3-6 7-6(1) 9-7 , 2011 Australian Open 1st Round, Melbourne.
R. Federer SUI d. R. Nadal ESP, 6-3 6-0, Barclays ATP World Tour Finals round-robin, London.
A. Dolgopolov UKR d  R. Soderling SWE, 1-6 6-3 6-1 4-6 6-2, 2011 Australian Open 4th Round, Melbourne.
N. Djokovic SRB d. A. Murray GBR6-4 6-2 6-3, 2011 Australian Open final, Melbourne.
N. Djokovic SRB d. R. Federer SUI6-4 6-2 6-3, 2011 Australian Open semifinal, Melbourne.
A. Murray GBR d  A. Dolgopolov UKR, 7-5 6-3 6-7(3) 6-3, 2011 Australian Open quarterfinal, Melbourne.
N. Djokovic SRB d. T. Berdych CZE6-1 7-6(5) 6-1, 2011 Australian Open semifinal, Melbourne.
F. Lopez ESP d. A. Roddick USA, 7-6(2) 7-6(2) 6-4, Wimbledon 3rd Round, London.
K. Nishikori JPN d. N. Djokovic SRB, 3-6 7-6(4) 6-0, Swiss Indoors semi-final, Basel.
N. Djokovic SRB d. R. Nadal, 4-6 6-3 6-2, BNP Paribas Open final, Indian Wells.
D. Ferrer ESP d. R. Nadal ESP6-4 6-2 6-3, 2011 Australian Open quarterfinal, Melbourne.
R. Federer SUI d. F. Lopez ESP, 7-6(13) 6-7(1) 7-6(7), 2011 Madrid Open 3rd Round, Madrid.
N. Djokovic SRB d. R. Nadal ESP, 7-5 6-4, 2011 Madrid Open final, Madrid.
R. Gasquet FRA d. R. Federer SUI, 4-6 7-6(2) 7-6(4), Italian Open 3rd Round, Rome.
R. Nadal ESP d. J. Isner USA, 6-4 6-7(2) 6-7(2) 6-2 6-3, Roland Garros 1st Round, Paris.
A. Murray GBR d. J-W. Tsonga FRA, 2-6 7-6(2) 6-4, Queen's Club final, London.
J. Isner USA d. N. Mahut FRA 7-6(4) 6-4 7-6(6), Wimbledon 1st Round, London.
R. Nadal ESP d. J-M. Del Potro ARG, 7-6(6) 3-6 7-6(4) 6-4, Wimbledon 4th Round, London.
D. Young USA d. S. Wawrinka SUI, 7-6(7) 3-6 2-6 6-3 7-6(1), U.S. Open 2nd Round, New York. 
R. Federer SUI d. J-W Tsonga FRA, 6-4 6-3 6-3, U.S. Open quarterfinal, New York.
A. Murray GBR d. J. Isner USA, 7-5 6-4 3-6 7-6(2), U.S. Open quarterfinal, New York.
J-W Tsonga FRA d. M. Fish USA,6-4 6-7(3) 3-6 6-4 6-2, U.S. Open 4th round, New York.
J-W Tsonga FRA d. J. Isner USA, 3-6 7-6(1) 7-6(3), BNP Paribas Paris Masters semi-final, Bercy.
R. Federer SUI d. J-W. Tsonga FRA, 6-3 6-7(6) 6-3, Barclays ATP World Tour Finals final, London.
R. Nadal ESP d. J-M del Potro ARG, 1-6, 6-4, 6-1, 7-6(0), Davis Cup Final.

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