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.