The last year ended with a bang, and a lot of questions. Will Rafael Nadal ever achieve the level he displayed at Melbourne? Will Roger Federer continue to survive against the tall, big hitters? Will del Potro, Robin Soderling and Marin Cilic continue to grow on the initial success? What about Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray? Have we seen their best?
Most of these questions have been answered. For one, Djokovic and Murray are going nowhere—in fact, they have only grown—and remain in contention in the midst of the top-two, and the big hitters, that the big hitters will always fail against the more suitably built, but less powerful players, and that big hitting comes with a price (del Potro’s wrist, Cilic’s uncertainty, Soderling’s struggle against the wind, and with his legs). And amidst all this, Nadal and Federer continue to remain the men to beat.
The spectacle of tennis was not as great as last year. Memorable matches were few and far in between, yet quality of tennis was not compromised greatly. So what will classify as the best tennis matches this season? Were they the most exciting, with nail biting finishes? Or with the highest quality of tennis displayed, even if they ended with one-sided finishes? A combination of both? What about off-court factors—the history in the making, the anticipation?
Lets see it for ourselves …
10. John Isner vs Nicolas Mahut, Wimbledon 1st Round
I did not make an attempt to watch this match fully. I couldn’t have, even if I tried. The quality of play wasn’t something to remember about. Why, then, did this marathon made my list? Because this is probably the only match which made me happy (it made the front page of the leading British newspapers at a time when England had reached the Quarter Finals of the Football World Cup), sad (felt really sorry for Mahut, this sport is cruel that somebody has to lose), bored (how many more aces do I have to see?), concerned (give the players a break. They are humans, after all!), inspired (their courage, the never-say-die spirit), amused (23-23? Ok, the match will end soon. 54-54? Ah, not so soon) and finally relieved (lets get on with other things!) … all during the course of the game. And the image of the happy Isner, devastated Mahut and the scorecard, which will never be forgotten.
9. Sergey Stakhowvsky vs Ryan Harrison, US Open, Round 2
I was going through the highlights of this match on YouTube where I saw one of the posters saying, “He shouldn’t have fallen on the floor. After all, he didn’t win a major final, he just beat a qualifier kid in the second round.”
Reading this comment made me further realize how spoiled we tennis fans are. We have reveled when Federer and Nadal have made chased, and made, history, but often ignored those tones of other players who play this game not for the history books but for earning a living. And even then, they crazily fight to win every point, every game, every set, every match they can, because they know this may be their last chance to win in a tournament, that a top player is already waiting to pounce on them in the next round. More than earning a livelihood, they also like winning.
The beauty of this match was everywhere. A fairy tale story (just like Taylor Dent or Melanie Oudin last year) if the young Harrison wins, staking his claims for the next Andy Roddick (guess the Americans will be happy with a new Roddick if not a Pete Sampras), the partisan New York crowd against Stakhowvsky, the superb all court display of tennis by both players, the domination of nerves as Harrison was a point away from victory, the despair is watching all of them go, and finally the triumph for the less popular opponent, who became the villain, but deserved his victory, and his falling dead to the ground like Nadal as if he had won a major.
This match was not big or significant enough to go into the history books, but good enough to end up in the year books.
8. Rafael Nadal vs Robin Soderling, French Open final
Nadal vs Soderling became a “rivalry” after Roland Garros ’09. On and off the tennis court. Soderling, and not Federer, was the answer to drill into Nadal’s clay fortress. It was a major final, Soderling wanted to prove last year was no fluke, Nadal seeked revenge, even if he had explicitly denied it. I had never seen weather being discussed so intently going into a clay court match (credit goes to Federer vs Soderling a few days before), and how rain was detrimental to Nadal’s chances, and maybe even a sunny day.
This match may not have been close, but Nadal showed the way clay court tennis is played. He saved all of his eight break points, fired one more ace than his opponent with a much bigger serve, and displayed not only one of the most exemplary lessons in defensive tennis, but also how to grab each offensive opportunity on the run. The result seemed like a mundane straight sets victory, it was anything but that.
7. Roger Federer vs Robin Soderling, US Open Quarter Finals
You may have noticed simultaneous mentions of Robin Soderling in this list. You may also have noticed how Soderling lost in both these mentions. He may have tasted only a couple of monumental victories over Federer and Nadal, but he is the one who gave his fellow players a belief that these two are invincible. That you can stare at their face without getting intimidated and challenge their supremacy.
Soderling had become a synonym of fear in the minds of fans followers of Federer and Nadal. Soderling had defeated Federer on heavy, slow red clay, but he was even more effective when the pace is high. Except …. when there was wind. The big serve vanished, the huge ground strokes sprayed outside the lines, and his already suspect movement became even more flat footed in the wind.
All the while, Federer eased through his service games as if he was playing in the perfect conditions of an indoor court, hitting lines on serve, and the forehands with gay abandon. He later admitted, “I can hit a serve even when somebody wakes me up at 2AM.” Indeed, it was the finest lesson on how to play fast tennis in swerving wind.
6. Juan Martin del Potro vs Marin Cilic, Australian Open
What was interesting in watching this match was not how hard they could hit the ball to finish the point. It was how hard they could run to retrieve every hammered stroke by their opponent. How well they could improvise when their powerful ground strokes were being retrieved. How well they could dance around the net despite their tall frames, and how higher they could lob to make the ball go past the other giants.
If I was witnessing one of the most power-filled tennis match, I was also witnessing finesse in between. If I was shell shocked with the extreme offense, I was petrified by the tireless defense. And whenever I laid the slightest of doubts about their fitness, they kept it up by increasing their level of play with each set.
They gave their all in this battle of giants. Del Potro nursed a wrist injury which grew after this epic five setter, while Cilic was faded away after winning the first set against Murray in the semis, and was nowhere to be seen for the rest of the year.
Great things were being expected out of them after 2009. In this match, they delivered.
Stay tuned for the top five matches in the next post.