Wednesday, November 28, 2007

2000 Wimbledon SF: Rafter def. Agassi

Rafter def. Agassi: 7-5, 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4.
Classic: Yes.
Rating: 96.

The Plot:
Patrick Rafter was bidding to reach the Wimbledon final for the first time in 2000. But first he had to defeat the best returner in the game, Andre Agassi, in the semifinal.

The Match: Both men take a few games before they settle in, but there are no breaks of serve until 5-6, when Agassi plays a poor service game to lose the set. Rafter gains the momentum and breaks in the 2nd set to go up 2-0, before Agassi comes roaring back. Both men are playing great tennis, but Agassi finds a higher gear and breaks Rafter with some phenomenal returns and passes to take the 2nd set.

The 3rd set is a strange affair. Agassi seems to be in the drivers seat, but he plays a horrible game to lose his serve and give Rafter a 5-3 advantage. Agassi breaks back, and holds serve until 5-6, when he again plays a horrible game to lose the set. Agassi then breaks Rafter in the opening game of the 4th set, and manages to maintain this advantage throughout the 4th set, even though Rafter is putting a lot of pressure on Agassi.

The 5th set is a tense affair. Rafter faces break points against him in the opening game, but gets out of it. At 3-2, Rafter breaks Agassi, playing some great tennis, and then holds onto the break advantage until he serves out the match at 5-4.

The bottom line: Rafter plays a tactically very smart match: On serve he sticks to his serve-volley game, but on the return games he uses a slow backhand slice that begs Agassi to attack the net. Agassi does not volley competently to do so, and so must hit winners off these slow shots, which creates a lot of unforced errors. Rafter plays many spectacular volleys at net; Agassi produces many good passing shots and lobs. The contrast in style makes for a great match. Rafter is playing his very best, but I feel Agassi is just slightly below his best, and he seems to get frustrated at times. All that said, this is an absolutely classic encounter, overflowing with spectacularly played points.

Available in the Wimbledon classic match series.

Monday, November 26, 2007

1985 Australian Open SF: Edberg def. Lendl

Edberg def. Lendl: 6-7, 7-5, 6-1, 4-6, 9-7
Classic: Yes.
Rating: 95

The Plot:
Stefan Edberg won his first Australian Open in 1985, at 19 years of age. In the semifinal he had overcome then-world no. 1 Ivan Lendl who was going for the 3rd Grand Slam title of his career.

The Match: Stefan Edberg is playing superb tennis in the first set and has numerous break-chances against Lendl, who seems slightly agitated. But Lendl is able to save all the break points he face, and the set is decided in a tie-break. In the tie-break, Edberg's level suddenly drops, and Lendl wins the set. The 2nd set is an exact reversal of the first, as it is Lendl who has all the break opportunities against Edberg's serve, without ever converting. Finally, it is Edberg who breaks in the 11th game to take the set.

The 3rd set proves a disaster for Lendl, who seems irritated and edgy. But he gets his game back on track in the 4th and breaks Edberg to take a 2-1 lead. Edberg breaks back to draw even at 4-4 when rain delays the match.

When the match resumes, Lendl has regained his composure and breaks Edberg with some stunning returns. He takes the set 6-4, and then breaks Edberg in the 1st game of the 5th set. But the lead is a brief one as Edberg breaks back in the next game. The players hold serve for the remainder of the match, but it is Edberg who is wearing down Lendl. He has break points when Lendl serves 3-4, three match points at 4-5, and match points again at 6-7. Lendl hangs on, but when serving at 7-8, he goes down 30-40, and Edberg finally wins the match with a passing shot down the line.

The bottom line: This is a highly dramatic, superbly played tennis match. Edberg plays excellent tennis throughout, and so does Lendl except for in the 3rd set. Both men serve and volley (Australian Open was played on grass at that time), and in addition to many fine net-points there are also many great passing shots and lobs. This is without doubt my favourite Edberg match of all time, and it is astonishing to see how brilliant he was even as a 19-year old. The match gets my warmest recommendation.

Bonus info: In the last game of the match, Lendl's smash goes under the net, but the umpire doesn't see it. Luckily, Edberg returns it for a winner, but is clearly surprised that there is no call from the umpire.

Friday, November 23, 2007

1999 Wimbledon Final: Sampras def. Agassi

Sampras def. Agassi: 6-3, 6-4, 7-5.
Classic: No, but a must-have for Sampras fans.
Rating: 86

The Plot: Sampras put in possibly his greatest performance ever at Wimbledon in this 1999 final. Agassi was playing amazing tennis prior to this final after having miraculously won the French Open the month before. But Sampras put his foot down and showed who was the master at Wimbledon with a performance reminiscent of Edberg's defeat of Courier in the 1991 US Open final.

The Match: Early in the 1st set things are tight, and Agassi has 4 break chances early on Sampras' serve. Sampras saves them all with great serves, and then seems to kick into a higher gear, as Agassi lets down his guard in the next game. From then on Sampras is completely dominant for the remainder of the match. He takes the first set 6-3. Agassi gets a bad start on the 2nd set and loses serve, and is in danger of going down a double break. He doesn't, but all attempts at getting back on level terms are thwarted by Sampras. In the 3rd set Agassi manages just barely to stay on serve until 5-5 when he drops serve, and Sampras serves out the match in the next game.

The bottom line: Sampras is overwhelmingly dominant, and Agassi is not at his best. Sampras is a joy to watch as he not only serves great, but also plays some great volleys, including two spectacular diving volleys. But unless you're a great Sampras fan (like me), you probably don't need to see this match.

Monday, November 12, 2007

1988 Wimbledon final: Edberg def. Becker

Edberg def. Becker: 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2.
Classic: Almost
Rating: 90

The Plot: This is the first installment in a series of 3 consecutive Wimbledon finals played between Becker and Edberg from 1988 to 1990. In 1988, Stefan Edberg won his first Wimbledon title by defeating 2-time champion Boris Becker in a match that took 2 days to complete due to rain. Edberg, who had come back from 2 sets down against Mecir in the semifinal, was decidedly the underdog, having lost most of his previous matches against Becker, and Becker was hungry to regain the title he first won at age 17, in 1985.

The Match: Edberg gets a quick start and takes a 3-0 lead, but Becker starts to return Edberg's high-bouncing serve better and gets back on serve. At 3-2, rain delays the match. When the match resumes (a day later), Becker runs off another 3 games to make it 5-3, and eventually wins the set 6-4. (I believe there is another rain delay?)

The 2nd set is a tight affair, and both men are playing excellent tennis amid cold, windy conditions. It goes to a tie-breaker which Edberg takes, playing great tennis. Having gained the momentum, Edberg starts to play with more confidence in the 3rd set and starts to return Becker's serve better and breaks early in the set. Becker is getting very frustrated with his inability to return Edberg's kick-serve and is screaming at himself and throwing his racquet. Edberg wins the set, and seems to only get better in the 4th set where he is blanketing the net in his trade-mark fashion. Boris loses his serve twice to go down 4-1. Edberg serves for the championship at 5-2, and wins on his first championship point as Becker drills a backhand into the net-cord.

The bottom line: The first two sets are classic, but then Becker's level seems to slip in the 3rd and 4th set. Edberg is playing great tennis throughout: Not as smooth as he would become later in his career, but he blankets the net beautifully and his backhand passing shots are amazing. While the story-line of the underdog winning after losing the 1st set is obviously compelling, I don't feel the match is a "classic" because Becker fades so badly in the 4th set. But it is a very enjoyable match, in particular for those who remember the Becker/Edberg rivalry.

Availability: Why Wimbledon has not released the Becker/Edberg finals as a box-set is beyond me. I have a version recorded from TV with Dick Enberg and Bud Collins doing the commentary for NBC, and they're just awful to listen to. Try to get a BBC version if you can, which can only be better.

Friday, November 9, 2007

1995 Australian Open QF: Sampras def. Courier

Sampras def. Courier: 6-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.
Classic: Yes
Rating: 96

The Plot: This is the famous match where Sampras starts crying at the beginning of the 5th set. Sampras coach, Tim Gullikson, had flown back to the U.S. after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Courier knew all about this, being a close friend of Sampras and having had dinner with Sampras and his team the night before. Sampras had struggled in previous matches, and Courier must have liked his chances to turn around his losing streak against Sampras.

The Match: Courier makes an all-out attack on the shaky Sampras backhand from the start of the match, and Sampras, who seems a little despondent at times, is only hanging in there because of his serve. There are no breaks in the first two sets, which are rich on fierce backhand-to-backhand exchanges, and Courier wins sets 1 and 2 in tie-breakers. Then in the 3rd set, Sampras starts to play a lot better and breaks Courier twice to take the set.

In the 4th set, Courier breaks in the 5th game, and seems well on his way to victory as he consolidates the break to go up 4-2. But Sampras once again seems to raise the level of his game and breaks back. Eventually, he wins the set as Courier misses an easy overhead on set-point.

At the beginning of the 5th set, a fan yells out "Do it for your coach, Pete", which causes tears to well up into Sampras eyes. Serving at 1-1, he can barely keep his composure and Courier, famously, yells over the net "We can do this tomorrow, you know." Sampras, feeling that Courier is mocking him, then serves aces to get out of the game. Courier's level seems to drop from then on in the 5th set and he loses serve a few games later, and Sampras serves out the match.

The bottom line: This is one of the most dramatic tennis matches I have ever seen. The level of tennis is very high throughout, and the ball is being struck as hard as you would ever see. The baseline rallies are exciting stuff, and Sampras adds some variation by serving and volleying on the 1st serve most of the time. There are many great points, winners and "gets". I feel perhaps that Sampras performance is a fraction below his best in sets 1 and 2, and Courier is not playing his best in set 5. Other than that, this is an almost perfect match, both for its drama and its high quality tennis. It is highly recommended

1991 US Open final: Edberg def. Courier

Edberg def. Courier: 6-2, 6-4, 6-0.
Classic: No, but a must-have if you're a big Edberg fan.
Rating: 87

The Plot: Edberg played possibly his best tournament ever at the 1991 US Open. In the final, Edberg played one of the very best matches of his career, beating Courier (the French Open champion) in the most emphatic fashion.

The Match: It is a hot day in New York, and the on-court temperature is in the 90's (F). Both players seem a little lethargic at first. In the 3rd game, Courier runs into trouble on his serve and the game goes to 6 deuces before Edberg breaks. A few games later Edberg hits top form and is near perfect for the rest of the match. He takes the set 6-2. In the 2nd set, Courier puts in a great effort to turn the tide of battle, but he is broken early in the set and can't recover against Edberg, who is playing out of his mind and holding serve with ease. After losing the 2nd set Courier is clearly deflated and is bageled as Edberg unleashes a storm of winners from every part of the court.

The bottom line: If Courier had been able to give Edberg more resistance, as he does in the 2nd set, the match could have been a classic. Instead, he seems to spend sets 1 and 3 being upset with the linesmen and the noisy New York crowd. Edberg's performance is flawless from midway through the 1st set. There are many brilliant volleys from Edberg (along with some fine winners off the ground) for the serve-volley enthusiast to marvel at, but I hessitate to recommend the match unless you're a big Edberg fan (like me.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

2001 Wimbledon 4th rd.: Federer def. Sampras

Federer def. Sampras: 7-6, 5-7, 6-4, 6-7, 7-5.
Classic: Yes
Rating: 93
Available from: Wimbledon Classic Matches (search

The Plot: This is the only match that Federer and Sampras, arguably the two greatest players of the last 20 years, ever played on the ATP tour. At the time, Federer was a 19 year old player making his Centre Court debut, and Sampras, 29 years of age, was a 13-time Grand Slam champion (7 times at Wimbledon) in the twilight of his career. That day, Federer ended Sampras reign at Wimbledon and announced his arrival at the top echelon of the pro game.

The Match: There are no breaks of serve in the 1st set, and both men are playing superb tennis, serving and volleying most points. The set is decided in a tie-break. In the 2nd set, Federer has numerous chances to break Sampras serve, but can't convert. Eventually, it is Sampras who breaks to take the set 7-5.

Federer finally breaks Sampras in the 3rd set, but Sampras breaks back immediately. However, when Sampras is serving at 4-4, he misses a slam-dunk overhead at break point, and Federer serves out the set in the next game.

Sampras plays his best tennis in the 4th set tie-break, hitting at one time a 136mph 1st serve, and taking the tie-break 7-2. The 5th set is a thrilling affair, as both men face multiple break points against their serve, but save them with great play. But when Sampras serves at 5-6, Federer hits several great returns to earn two match points at 15-40. He takes the first with a return winner down the line - and sinks to his knees in triumph.

The bottom line: Federer plays an outstanding match: He is never nervous, he sticks to his game plan, he serves almost as well as Sampras, and plays all the big points well. Sampras is playing very well, too, but he seems to believe for too long that Federer will let himself down, and when he raises his level in the 4th set it seems too late. Federer winning the 1st set gets the plot going, and the crowd senses what may happen (they are very loud at the end.) My only real misgiving is that the match is a little bit short on exciting points and winners, at least from Sampras end of the court. All the same, it is a great match and no tennis enthusiast should miss it.

Bonus info: Tears of joy well up in Federer's eyes as he sits down after the match. It wouldn't be until 2003 we would see those tears of joy again, when he won his first Wimbledon Championship.

Wimbledon DVD release: I don't find the official Wimbledon release is very well produced. There is no real introduction, and throughout the match you can faintly hear the commentators communicating with the technical staff in the background. It seems that the DVD has been rushed to the market.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

1980 Wimbledon Final: Borg def. McEnroe

Borg def. McEnroe: 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6.
Classic: Yes!
Rating: 100

The Plot: Possibly the most famous tennis match in memory. Bjorn Borg was gunning for a 5th straight Wimbledon title, but a young John McEnroe, whose game was seemingly tailor made for grass, was standing in his way. The two were already engaged in a tense rivalry after meeting in the US Open final the previous year (which McEnroe won.)

The Match: McEnroe gets an unbelievably quick start against Borg, who is out of sorts attempting to return McEnroe's heavily sliced serve. But McEnroe, owing possibly to fatigue from his previous matches, can't keep up the level, and Borg works his way into the match in the 2nd set. Fully in control, Borg breaks to take the 2nd set, cruises through the 3rd and is seemingly on his way to victory when he breaks McEnroe late in the 4th set. But when Borg is serving for the match at 5-4, McEnroe suddenly produces the most thrilling tennis, and breaks Borg.

The 4th set goes to a tie-breaker. This is the most famous tie-break in tennis history, in which Borg has 5 match points (in addition to two held during the 4th set), and McEnroe has 7 set points. Eventually McEnroe prevails to take the match to a deciding 5th.

In the 5th set, Borg raises the level of his game, winning 28 of 31 points on serve in the set. McEnroe is tiring, and is on several occasions down 0-40, but gets out of trouble every time. But when serving at 6-7, McEnroe goes down 15-40 and Borg finally wins the match with a cross-court passing shot.

The Bottom Line: I have often felt while watching this match that modern-day tennis is being invented right before our eyes. The tennis of 1980 is of course very different from today's tennis because of the use of wooden racquets. Baseline winners are virtually non-existent, and attacking tennis means rushing the net. Both men serve and volley mostly, which was the style of the day on grass. Yet a contrast of style is apparent: Borg often stays back on 2nd serves, and he is overall so much more adept on his ground strokes and passing shots. McEnroe is a virtuoso at net, of course, but his returns and ground-strokes are rather lacking. But during the best parts of this match, Borg and McEnroe produce such thrilling and fast-paced tennis with incredible winners, passes and volleys, that you're left wondering how they could do that without modern day graphite racquets.

Even though Borg has a slow start and McEnroe seems a little tired at times, it is overall hard to imagine a more superbly played tennis match. So I am giving this highly dramatic and thrilling match a perfect score of 100.

Availability: This match is available on DVD in Wimbledon's Classic Match series. Check out or similar places online.