Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Top 9 Men's Matches of 2009



2009 was a magical year in men's tennis in so many ways. Whether you were consumed by Roger Federer's quest for immortality or Rafael Nadal's push for a 5th consecutive French Open. Whether you were rooting for Andy Murray to become the first man from Great Britain to win the Championships since 1936, or pulling for Juan Del Potro to become the first Argentine to win a Slam since Guillermo Vilas — there was something for you.

The only difficult part was knowing exactly where the magic was going to happen, and who it was going to be provided by. Luckily for fans, there was a steady supply of classics to choose from.

Classic Match #9: Ferrer's Comeback vs. Stepanek in the Davis Cup Final

Momentum is everything in tennis, and David Ferrer's valiant comeback against Radek Stepanek kept the Davis Cup momemtum where it has been for most of the decade: With Spain.

It looked almost certain that Stepanek would finish Ferrer off in straight sets when he jumped out to a commanding 6-1, 6-2 lead, but Ferrer dug deep inside himself to find his best form — eventually he pushed through to capture the match in dramatic fashion, prevailing 8-6 in a 5th and deciding set. His heroic effort vaulted Spain into control of the tie, and it also pushed his all-time Davis Cup record on clay to a remarkable 8-0.

It may have been a disappointing year for Ferrer in terms of Slams, but when it came time to grunt it out for his country, he went a perfect 6-0, including a huge win over Novak Djokovic in the Serbia tie.

Classic Match # 8: Radek Stepanek's marathon win over Dr. Ivo in the Davis Cup Semis:

It wasn't all about heartbreak for Stepanek in Davis Cup play this season. In a true test of stamina, patience, and mental toughness, the quirky Czech was able to withstand a 78-ace performance from Karlovic in the first match of this long awaited showdown between the two Eastern European powers.

The 5-hour and 59-minute match was the longest match in Davis Cup play since the tiebreak was introduced in 1989.

"I feel like I was in a 10-round boxing match," Karlovic said of the match. "Everything hurts."

Classic Match # 7: Roddick Ends Murraymania At Wimbledon

The only thing that kept me from ranking this match higher on the list was that it didn't go the distance. The madness surrounding Andy Murray's deepest Wimbledon run of his career reached a fever pitch in this match. After the two split the first two sets, Murray found himself down a break late in the third, but some late heroics got him back on serve in a dramatic set that was eventually decided in a tight tiebreaker in which both players had set points.

The fourth set was also a nailbiter. Niether player gave an inch, but it was Roddick who jumped out to a 5-2 lead in the fourth set tiebreak. With the crowd squirming in agony, Murray drew to 5-4, and he made a miraculous passing shot as Roddick served for the match at 6-4.

Murray's 20th unforced finally did him in, and Roddick was on to the final to play another classic match against Federer. "To be fair, he had all the pressure on him and I just had to swing away," an elated Roddick told the press after the match.

Classic Match # 6: Soderling over Gonzo in the French Open Semifinal:

2009 will forever be remembered as the year that Robin Soderling came of age. The 24-year-old wasn't content with pulling what might have been the most shocking upset in the history of tennis — he wanted more. And against Fernando Gonzalez in the French Open Semis, he got more.

Trailing 4-1 in the 5th set, Soderling remained on the attack. He employed his newfound sense of belief and stole the final five games from Gonzalez. The bold and brash styles of both players made this a thoroughly entertaining semifinal, and it was one that had the Parisien crowd exercising its lungs regularly.

"I did what's supposed to be impossible, beating Nadal on clay," said Soderling. "It was great, but today was a semifinal." His heroics landed him in the first Grand-Slam final of his career, where he fell in straight sets to Roger Federer.

Classic Match# 5: Haas Over Cilic in a Wild Third Round Wimbledon Match

This one started with a bang, ended with a bang, and had a lot of banging in between. Young upstart Marin Cilic, looking for a second consecutive signature win (after taking out Sam Querrey in 5 sets in the 2nd round), ran into a cool and calculated Tommy Haas, and the two outlasted the daylight. This set the stage for a fast and furious series of games the following day that eventually saw Haas move through to the 4th round.

Before he knew it, the Croat had squandered a 3-0 lead in the first set and found himself in the unenviable position of being down two sets to Haas. But Cilic, ever the battler, set himself straight and started to seize the momentum with his trademark power game that can leave an opponent dumbstruck when it is in full effect.

After fighting off two match points in the fourth set, the two were even, and the tension would only heighten as the light started to fade.

Cilic took a 3-0 lead in the final set, but Haas fought back to level. Then Cilic broke again — this time he would serve for the match only to find that Haas was not going to die. The match was called due to darkness just as it began — with neither player holding the advantage.

Play resumed the following day, and Haas, the savvy veteran, found a way to get through by breaking Cilic and holding on for the win.

Classic Match # 4: Nadal Squeezes Past Djokovic in the Madrid Semis

Once upon a time, when Nadal was still invincible on clay, there was a man named Djokovic who used to give him a run for his money.

This Classic from The Magic Box in Madrid had a little bit of everything, and in the end it had a lot of what we all expected — Nadal's 33rd consecutive win on clay, and 14th career win over the Serb. But before Rafa could raise his arms in victory, Djokovic scored several big body blows that would open the door for Federer to take out the Spaniard in the final — a win that had huge implications for the rest of the 2009 season.

Nadal fought off two Djokovic break points at 4-4 in the second set, then faced three match points in the third set tiebreaker before he finally closed out this epic struggle — while Djokovic was ultimately unable to score the knock out, his body blows left Nadal vulnerable for what was soon to come.

Classic Match# 3: Verdasco Pushes Nadal to The Brink in Australia

Add Fernando Verdasco to the list of players who spend time with Gil Reyes over Xmas and get results. Verdasco, unfazed by the oppressive Melbourne heat, found himself cruising easily to victory over Andy Murray in just over three hours in the quarters. Next up would be a monumental 5-hour and 14-minute struggle with Nadal that would end up becoming the longest match in Australian Open history.

The tone of the match was set during a 75-minute first set that featured awe inspiring baseline play from both players, and as the match wore on, both players stayed in the zone. The awesome tennis had fans on their feet between points, and as Verdasco took the fourth set tiebreak, 5th set drama brought the atmosphere to a fever pitch.

Finally, while serving at 4-5 to stay in the match, Nadal had his window to crawl through. Down 0-40, Verdasco fought off two match points but then double faulted at 30-40, as both players fell to the ground in exhaustion.

"In the last game, at 0-40, I started to cry," said Nadal. "It was too much tension."

Classic Match #2. Nadal Over Federer in Crazy 5-Set Australian Final

It is the rivalry that defined the decade. Their matches will be forever remembered in tennis lore, and the 2009 Australian Open final was no exception.

While many remember the teary post-match celebration, this match also contained a great deal of improbably good tennis, played by the two premier players of the era. The indomitable Rafa Nadal, seeking to expand his tennis empire to the hardcourt, and Federer, the genius who was seeking to find a way around the one player that seemed to have his game figured out.

The shot making was absolutely brilliant, and the rallies were just as mind-blowing as the ones that we witnessed at the 2008 Wimbledon final. Although Federer actually won one more point than Nadal, it was the decisive 5th set that said so much about each players psychological well-being.

Federer was apprehensive in that deciding set, while Rafa played with enough fire to burn down Constantinople. When Rafa had sealed the deal, what would be perhaps the most memorable part of this match took place in earnest. An emotionally jaded Federer burst into tears the likes of which we've never seen. It was a rare and raw glimpse into the emotional mindsets of these two great champions — one that was haunting, and surely will never be forgotten.

Classic Match # 1: Del Potro Breaks Through Against Federer in U.S.
Open Final



This match came in like a lamb but went out like a lion. And so did Juan Martin Del Potro. After looking like anything but a Grand-Slam contender for the better part of the first two sets, the lanky Argentine with the blistering ground strokes pulled a houdini act that would have made even Roger Federer proud.

With Federer serving for the 2nd set, and up 30-0, Del Potro summoned some kind of otherworldly shot making prowess which enabled him to take four consecutive points to tie the set at 5. Del Potro's magic didn't stop there, he found his range again in the 2nd set tiebreaker, and when it was over, the crowd was stunned, Federer was stunned, and Del Potro was on his way.

Subtle strategical changes by each player made this match intruiging in more ways than one. Federer seemed to abandon what worked for him in the first set — feeding Del Potro a steady diet of slice — and soon found himself in an arms race that gave Del Potro an advantage. Meanwhile, the big serving Del Potro abandoned his ballistic first serve, instead choosing to sacrifice power for putting a higher percentage of first serves in the box.

For two more sets these heavyweights traded blows in the crisp September air.

Federer took the third and as they headed to a 4th set tiebreak it appeared that Roger was close to clinching a record sixth straight U.S. Open title.

But Del Potro, just 20-years-young, continued to display grace under pressure that was way beyond his years. He took the 4th set tiebreaker and quickly jumped out to a lead in the 5th set. It was a lead he would never relinquish. In the first 5-set final since Andre Agassi defeated Todd Martin in 1999, Juan Martin Del Potro had vanquished the mighty Federer.

"Good feeling with my forehand I think was the key to the match," Del Potro would later say.

It was the understatement of the day. The Argentine hit the forehand with such power and precision in the latter stages of the match that there may never have been a Grand-Slam final in which a single stroke played such a prominent and pivotal role. The words that kept coming to mind as we watched were: FREAK OF NATURE.

In additon to what fans witnessed on the court, there may be more implications from this match if one reads between the lines. This match may have marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. The improbably powerful strokes of this devilishly tall kid from Tandil may be a sign of what is to come on the ATP tour. Del Potro possesses a rare form of power and speed and raw athleticism that may take the game to new heights.

Federer, who Andre Agassi referred to as having "the most regal game of any player he's ever seen," ran into a buzzsaw of fire and ice in Del Potro.

He'll have to come out fighting in 2010 if he wants to take the power back.

62 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, these are interesting matches all. But I really think (and this may be a bit picky) that "Nadal Over Federer in Crazy 5-Set Australian Final" doesn't quite do justice to Nadal. Especially since he "squeezed" by Djokovic, and got "pushed to the brink" by Verdasco. True, Nadal's opponents in each of these matches played their hearts out. But Nadal won in glorious fashion, using his genius (he's so much more than "indomitable" - though he is that most definitely)and his shotmaking and his thorough greatness. If Nadal is not a tennis genius, I don't know who is.

The Fan Child said...

Well said, my friend - I definitely did not mean to do Rafa any injustice - he is, was, and always will be a tennis god!

His performance in Australia was one of the most impressive back-to-back match performances that I've ever seen!

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