Monday, April 21, 2008

The best matches reviewed so far

At present, the highest ranked matches reviewed in these pages are (with score in parenthesis):

1. 1980 Wimbledon Final: Borg def. McEnroe (100)
2005 Australian Open SF: Safin def. Federer (100)

2. 1996 ATP tour Championships: Sampras def. Becker (97)

3. 1995 Australian Open QF: Sampras def. Courier (96)
2000 Wimbledon SF: Rafter def. Agassi (96)

4. 1985 Australian Open SF: Edberg def. Lendl (95)
2006 Rome Masters final: Nadal def. Federer (95)
2007 Wimbledon Final: Federer def. Nadal (95)

5. 1988 Australian Open Final: Wilander def. Cash (93)
1989 French Open final: Chang def. Edberg (93)
2001 Wimbledon 4th Round: Federer def. Sampras (93).

This list will of course change as more matches are reviewed.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

1988 Australian Open: Wilander def. Cash

Wilander def. Cash: 6-3, 6-7 (3), 3-6, 6-1, 8-6.
Classic: Yes.
Rating: 93

The Plot:
The first Australian Open to be played at the new complex at Flinder's Park (later renamed Melbourne Park) featured a most memorable men's singles final. Pat Cash was the hometown hero against Sweden's Mats Wilander. It would be Cash spectacular athleticism and shot-making against the Wilander's strategic genius, and it would not disappoint.

The match: Wilander dominates proceedings early in the 1st set, as a nervous Cash neither serves well, nor seems to be able to keep the ball in the court. Wilander takes it 6-3 with two breaks of serve. The 2nd set promises to go the same way when Wilander has 3-0. But a rain-delay saves Cash, who regroups and manages to get back on serve at 4-4. The quality of tennis is now far higher, and the set goes to a tie-break, which Cash wins with some stunning play. Cash being in the ascendancy takes a 3-0 lead in the 3rd set, and maintains the advantage to take the set 6-3 as Wilander is now playing with far less conviction than in the 1st set.

The 4th set proves to be a disaster for Cash, who has a serious lapse of concentration. Wilander runs away with it 6-1. Cash's woes continues in the 5th set as he loses serve in the 1st game. But he then finds his form again to even things at 2-2. Wilander serves great in this set, and Cash's only real chance is an extended deuce game at 4-5. The players stay on serve until 6-6 when Cash finally wilts under the pressure. Wilander serves out the match to love in the next game and wins the match 8-6 in the 5th.

The bottom line: The match really catches fire after the rain delay in the 2nd set. From then on it is a nail-bitingly exciting affair. Cash is the ultimate entertainer and athlete, and he pulls out one amazing shot after another at net. It is somewhat disappointing that it is Wilander's steady but less spectacular play that wins the day, but the contrast in styles contributes to the greatness of this match. I would rate it higher, but both players have some let-downs, and the first set and a half is not too interesting. All the same, it is highly recommended viewing.

Bonus info: Mats Wilander went on to win two more majors that year: The French Open and the US Open. It was his best year on tour.

1995 US Open Final: Sampras def. Agassi

Sampras def. Agassi: 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5
Classic: No (!)
Rating: 86

The Plot:
It was the match to not only determine the 1995 US Open champion, but the no. 1 ranking for the year. Agassi had won the Australian Open and Sampras had won Wimbledon that year. Once again, Sampras proved he was the better player on the big occasions.

The match: On a blistery, windy day in New York, the players are struggling to figure out the wind. There are some sporadic good rallies in the 1st set, but Sampras eventually breaks to take it, and is clearly relieved. Set point is one of the finest rallies of the match. In the 2nd set Sampras plays very well indeed, and Agassi offers little resistance. The 3rd set looks to go the same way as Sampras has a 2-0 lead before Agassi comes back. Sampras clearly is having a let-down and eventually loses the 3rd set. The 4th set is not high quality, but Sampras overcomes sloppy play early, firms up his game and eventually breaks to take a 5-4 lead and serves out the match.

The bottom line: This match inexplicably has ended up on Steve Flink's list of the greatest matches of the 20th century as no. 21, incredibly beating a true classic like Edberg v. Lendl at the 1985 Aussie open (no. 28.) I can't second that opinion. Agassi simply never manages to make the match competitive. It is Sampras all the way, and it would have been Sampras in straight sets if he hadn't had a mental let-down in the 3rd set. Granted, Sampras plays well in the first two sets, but he is allowed to do so by his opponents somewhat lackluster performance. Unless you're a die-hard Agassi v. Sampras fan I don't see any reason for revisiting this match.

Bonus info: It has been alleged that this match was the start of the tail-spin that sent Agassi's ranking to no. 141 in the world. True or not, it has been widely publicized that Agassi took this loss very badly.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

1984 French Open final: Lendl def. McEnroe

Lendl def. McEnroe: 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5
Classic: Yes
Rating: 90

The Plot:
McEnroe had not lost a match all year and was the prohibitive favourite in this French Open final against Lendl, who was still seeking his first Grand Slam title at the age of 24. On this day in Paris, Lendl staged a remarkable comeback to hand McEnroe a bitter defeat, and proved that he had the caliber of a Grand Slam champion.

The Match: McEnroe is irate from the onset, but his tennis is on fire in the 1st two sets and Lendl seems a little tentative or even nervous. McEnroe breaks for 4-2 in the first set and holds on to take it. The 2nd set is even more one sided, as McEnroe displays great form and imposes his game to take the set 6-2 with two breaks of serve. Everything is going McEnroe's way until the beginning of the 3rd set, when at 1-1, 0-30 against Lendl, McEnroe gets upset with noise coming from the headset of a camera man, and he walks over to scream something into the headset. Excitement builds at 2-2. when Lendl breaks McEnroe, only to be broken back a few games later. Eventually this see-saw, but well-played set goes to Lendl 6-4.

In the beginning of the 4th set McEnroe has a great opportunity after he breaks and takes a 4-2 lead. However, his 1st serve is letting him down badly and Lendl gets back to 4-4. After an extended game at 6-5, Lendl secures the 4th set. The 5th set is an exciting affair, as McEnroe holds breakpoints against Lendl in the 6th game, but can't convert. Lendl seems to grow in strength after this, and McEnroe is looking ever more tired at this point in the match. Eventually McEnroe goes down 15-40 when serving 5-6. He saves one match point, but then pushes a very makable volley just wide on the 2nd to hand Lendl the match.

The bottom line: This match has a special status in tennis legend. McEnroe's apparent melt-down at 1-1 in the 3rd set is an oft-told story at many a tennis gathering. However, reliving this moment I don't find it all that dramatic, nor that it has such a great impact on the match. It is the missed opportunity at 4-2 in the 4th set that is of real interest in my opinion. At this point, the match becomes very much alike the later Chang-Edberg final of 1989, since McEnroe, like Edberg, simply runs out of gas and is unable to hold on to any lead from then on. That being said, and while the match has a very exciting storyline, it is tennis-wise not of the highest level, and in particular, there are only few moments where both players play well at the same time. There are many fine points and strokes, but it is the drama that pulls this match into the 90+ category, and makes this a classic match. For that it is recommended, but for the quality of tennis other matches are better.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

1996 ATP tour championships: Sampras def. Becker

Sampras def. Becker: 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4
Classic: Yes
Rating: 97

The Plot: The thrilling finale to the 1996 ATP Tour, contested between Sampras at the height of his powers, and his most formidable opponent not named Agassi.

The match: Becker opens the match by serving four straight aces, an indication of Becker's form. Sampras has chances to break in the 3rd game, but otherwise Becker is holding serve with great ease, and making Sampras work to hold his serve. Eventually Becker breaks Sampras and wins the set. Becker continues to dominate on serve in the 2nd set, but Sampras is gradually getting better, and it goes to a tie-break. Sampras wins it 7-5, and is clearly relieved to have leveled the match. Sampras continues to improve in the 3rd set, but it is again decided in a tie-break, where Becker gets (what he thinks is) a bad call on the baseline against him, and loses the tiebreak 4-7. The 4th set is highly dramatic, but no where more so than the inevitable tie-breaker, which is a nervy affair where neither man seems to be able to dominate with his serve. Sampras has 2 match points in the tie-break, but it is Becker who eventually takes is 13-11. The 5th set is tense from the start, but features superb tennis. It is Becker who cracks first at 4-4 when Sampras breaks with a backhand down the line and then serves out the match in the next game.

The bottom line: The level of play is outstanding throughout, and the match is as close as can be. The 4th set tie-break is a minor epic in itself. There is an abundance of good serve and volley points, but the players also stay back on many 2nd serves, so there is far more variety in this match than what people who remember 1990's tennis may think. This is an almost perfect tennis match, but I share the sentiment of match commentator Frew McMillan that neither player is able to come up with the occasional spectacular shot when they are in a defensive position. This is a very minor shortcoming that may be attributed to the lightening-fast indoor court. The match gets my highest recommendation.

Stat of the match: Becker had 31 aces in the match, and won 178 points to Sampras' 166.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

1990 Wimbledon Final: Edberg def. Becker

Edberg def. Becker: 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4.
Classic: no.
Rating: 86

The plot:
For the third straight year Edberg and Becker met in the Wimbledon final. Becker was the defending champion, having won in straight sets the previous year, but Edberg was the only man to have beaten Becker on centre court, two years previously in the 1988 final.

The match: Becker is struggling from the onset of the match, allowing Edberg, who seems to be playing at the top of his game, to dominate and take the 1st set 6-2. In the 2nd set Becker is trying to rouse himself and get into the match, but Edberg continues to play superb tennis. Only at the end of the set does Becker seem to start returning Edberg's serve better, a telling sign. Returning better, Becker breaks Edberg early in the 3rd set and takes it 6-3. The level of tennis picks up in the 4th set, but once again the backhand returns of Becker breaks Edberg's serve to give him a 3-2 lead. He breaks again to win the set. Edberg has Becker down 15-40 in the 1st game of the 5th set, but fails to capitalize. Eventually Becker breaks to take a 3-1 lead, but is broken back immediately by Edberg. At 4-4, Edberg puts together several great returns to break Becker, and then serves out the match in the next game.

The bottom line: Becker is not playing very well at all in the first two sets, and Edberg takes advantage. There are some deligthful volleys from Edberg, but things only get interesting in the 3rd set as Becker seems to "wake up". The 4th and 5th set clearly feature the best tennis of the match, as both men play well at the same time. Edberg's volleys, backhands and topspin lobs provide much joy for the viewer, but Becker is only sporadically inspired to do great things. The match never becomes the battle the scoreline suggests, and while the 4th and 5th set are worthwhile, this match is only recommended for the die-hard Edberg fan.

Bonus info: Becker has later claimed that he had taken a large dose of sleeping medication the night before the final, and was "sleepwalking" when the match started. It certainly is consistent with his performance in the first two sets, but it seems unfair to not give Edberg credit for his high level of play in the first two sets.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Australian Open 2008

I have been watching the Australian Open 2008. I will review any potentially classic matches in the future. At this stage I feel that the best matches this year have been (with preliminary rating in parenthesis)

Kohlschreiber def. Roddick (91?)
Federer def. Tipsarevic (90)
Tsonga def. Nadal (91)

I missed Hewitt v. Baghdatis, but will watch it at a later stage.

Let's all hope for a terrific match tonight between Federer and Djokovic.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

2005 Australian Open SF: Safin def. Federer

Safin def. Federer: 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (8-6), 9-7.
Classic: Yes!
Rating: 100.

The Plot:
An argument can be made that this is the best tennis match played since the 1980 Wimbledon final. Safin defeated the seemingly invincible Federer in a 4 1/2 hour match, ending temporarily Federer's strangle hold on tennis' major titles.

The match: The first set is scintillating tennis from the word play, but there are no breaks of serve until Safin serves 5-6. Federer breaks to take the set, and seems to be in the drivers' seat. But Federer then goes off the boil a fraction and Safin breaks in the 3rd game if the 2nd set. Holding onto this advantage, Safin levels the match at 2 sets a piece, before Federer picks up his game again and plays an immaculate 3rd set. The 4th set is thrilling tennis, but goes to a tie-break in which Federer has match point at 6-5, and Safin saves it with positively brilliant play. Eventually Safin prevails to take the match to a deciding 5th set. Federer is treated by the tour trainer early in the 5th set, and seems to be tiring. Federer barely hangs on to hold for 3-5, and faces match points when Safin serves for the match, but he saves them to get back on serve. He saves match points again at 4-5, and again at 6-7. Safin continues to hold serve with relative ease, and at 7-8, Federer goes down 15-40 in his serve to face another two match points. Federer saves the first with an ace, but loses the 2nd (7th total), when he falls while retrieving Safin's shot, and Safin then safely steers the last shot into the open court.

The bottom line: The level of tennis in this match is probably the highest I have seen since the legendary 1980 Wimbledon final (Borg def. McEnroe). It surpasses Sampras/Courier's 1995 AO quarter final and the Rafter/Agassi Wimbledon 2000 semi-final. In the category of spectacular points, winners and "gets", there is an abundance. One may object that Federer is ailing in the 5th set, but he plays so well when it really counts, and it adds to the drama of the match. So a perfect score of 100 points it is for what is undoubtedly one of the finest matches in tennis history.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

2000 Australian Open SF: Agassi def. Sampras

Agassi def. Sampras: 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (0), 7-6 (5), 6-1.
Classic: no.
Rating: 89.

The plot:
Agassi was trying to make his fourth straight major final, but first he had to beat long time rival Sampras in the semis.

The match: Sampras seems to have the upper hand early in the 1st set, but his level drops off, and Agassi takes advantage to take the set 6-4. Agassi continues to be dominant early in the 2nd set, but Sampras hangs tough, then elevates his game and breaks Agassi, and takes the 2nd set 6-3. Sampras continues to dominate in the 3rd set, but without any breaks, it is decided in a tie-break. Here, Sampras plays the most unbelievable tennis to win it 7-0. He continues to pressure Agassi early in the 4th set, but Agassi slowly gains the upper hand. The set is decided in a tie-break, where Sampras is up a mini-break twice, only to see Agassi eventually take it 7-5. Agassi breaks Sampras in the 2nd game of the 5th set, and Sampras is looking a little despondent now. Sampras loses serve again 6th game to go down 5-1, and Agassi serves out the match.

The bottom line: The level of tennis is very good in sets 1-4, and is even exhilarating at times in sets 3 and 4. But whereas Agassi plays a very clean match, with less than 20 unforced errors in 5 sets, Sampras misses a few too many shots. There aren't that many good rallies because Sampras almost invariably makes an error. Sampras plays some good volleys and serves great (30+ aces), but the match isn't really a feast for the eyes when it comes to winners and gets. The 5th set is a let-down, when Sampras seemingly is too tired to keep fighting. Sets 3 and 4 are very exciting stuff, and the match is worth seeing because of that. But heed my warning: this is not a classic, it is simply a very good and entertaining grand-slam semi-final.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

2001 US Open QF: Sampras def. Agassi

Sampras def. Agassi: 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6
Classic: Yes
Rating: 91

The Plot:
In 2001, Sampras was in the twilight of his career but was seeking one last major. He had not had a great year, but was playing up to former standards at the 2001 US Open. On the other side of the net was his old rival Agassi, who had succesfully stayed competitive at the top of the game by adopting a strict physical training regiment. The match went four sets without a single break of serve, with Sampras eventually edging out Agassi.

The match: The quality of tennis is very high from the beginning. Both men have break chances early in the 1st set, but neither can convert. The set goes to a tie-break, which Sampras appears to be winning when he has a 6-3 lead. He makes consecutive errors to let Agassi back in, and Agassi wins it 9-7. Then 2nd set is entirely without break points, and goes to a tie-break. Agassi makes some unforced errors to hand Sampras the breaker. The 3rd set is a similar story. In the 4th set, both men have break points again for the 1st time since the 1st set, in particular Agassi who has 30-40 in Sampras serve at 3-4. But once again the set is decided in a tie-break, which Sampras wins 7-5 when Agassi dumps a forehand in the net.

The bottom line: The match features a very high level of tennis and there is a very festive atmosphere around the court, as the who's who of New York have come out to watch these two champions play. However, the match is something of an acquired taste due to its unique storyline and the dominance of each player one serve. It is very much worthwhile watching this match to study the strategies of the two players: Agassi serves 80% to Sampras' backhand, and generally attacks that wing during rallies. Sampras serves about 50% to each wing of Agassi, but almost exclusively serves to Agassi's forehand (the weaker return) when he needs to win the point. Among Sampras v. Agassi matches this is no doubt one of the best, but it is a little short on spectacular points, winners and gets, and while both men execute their strategies to perfection, neither man finds a way to counter the other man's strategy on serve. That said, there is much joy to be found in this match.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

2007 Wimbledon final: Federer def. Nadal

Federer def. Nadal: 7-6 (9-7), 4-6,7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-2
Classic: Yes.
Rating: 95.

The Plot:
Roger Federer was going for his 5th consecutive Wimbledon title and a chance to tie Bjorn Borg's open-era record. In his way stood Raphael Nadal, who incredibly had made it to the final after having looked like he was out of it in both the quarter and semi-finals.

The match: Federer gets a quick start as he breaks Nadal in the 2nd game and then takes a 3-0 lead. But Nadal works his way into the match, breaks back, and the set goes to a tie-break. At 6-3, it appears that Federer has won the breaker when Nadal's shot is called out, but Nadal gets the call overturned using the electronic line-calling system. Federer squanders his next two set points, but eventually wins the breaker 9-7. The 2nd set is a tight affair and goes with serve until Federer serves at 4-5, when Nadal breaks, playing inspired tennis. The 3rd set is similarly tight, and the tennis is superb. Both men have chances, but it is decided in a tie-break which Federer wins.

Just as one might think Federer is in the ascendancy, he plays a rather poor opening service game when Nadal again gets a line-call overturned using the electronic line-calling system. It has to be said that the ball looks like it is about an inch out on the TV replay, and one has to keep in mind here that Hawkeye isn't perfect, either. Federer is clearly rattled and asks in vain for the system to be turned off. He eventually loses serve again to go down 0-3. Leading 4-1, Nadal calls the trainer for a knee problem. Afterwards Federer seems content to try to extend rallies, while Nadal is trying to end points quickly. Federer's tactic turns out to be a mistake, since Nadal seems to move perfectly well, and strikes winner after winner.

In the 5th set both players hold serve to 1-1, but in the 3rd game Federer goes down 15-40 on serve. He saves it with some fantastic serves. In the 5th game, Federer once more goes down 15-40, but saves it with great play. At 2-3, Federer takes his game up a notch and breaks Nadal. Playing like a man renewed, he then holds for 5-2. Federer wins the match when he breaks Nadal again, putting away an overhead on match point.

The bottom line: The match is fantastically exciting from start to finish. The first three sets are tennis of the highest quality. The last two sets are not quite as fine as the tennis goes, but they hold much drama. It should be said that while the match has a good number of spectacular points, winners and "gets", the match is also at times very tense and grinding, which unfortunately doesn't seems to leave room for the kind of virtuosity we know both players otherwise posses. All the same, it is a truly outstanding Wimbledon final.

Availability: Released in the Wimbledon Classic Match series. The DVD unfortunately doesn't feature a proper introduction to the match, but it is otherwise well produced. Jimmy Connors provides great expert commentary.