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.