10 greatest battles at Melbourne Park, Australian Open

We are through the first week at the first slam of the year and as a loyal tennis fan I thought it would be fun to take a stroll down memory lane and remember a few epic second week battles from men’s singles over the years. The result is these 10 matches, presented in chronological order.

1. Pete Sampras Def. Jim Courier

6-7 6-7 6-3 6-4 6-3( 1995 QF)

Sampras showed his champion’s make up when he battled fatigue, an opponent’s superior record on the surface and memories of his gravely ill coach and friend to defeat Courier coming from 2 sets to love down. What is even more remarkable was Sampras was coming off another 5 setter against Larsson in the previous round. This and his QF against Corretja later the same year at US open are the two best examples of Sampras’ fighting qualities which never got the same appreciation that his talent and work ethic got. In his best days Pete was impossible to catch once he was ahead and never out when he was trailing.

2. Andre Agassis def Pete Sampras

6-4 3-6 6-7 7-6 6-1 ( 2000 SF )

So if you are world’s top male player and you hit your opponent with 37 aces (yes that’s right) in a match, you would expect to be the last man standing, don’t you? Especially if you are up 2 sets to 1 one and 5-4 in the fourth set tiebreak?? Umm, actually no, not if your opponent is on his delayed march to the summit of greatness. In one of the best hard court matches ever, a resurgent Agassi mounted a furious comeback from 4-5 in the fourth set tie breaker and after leveling the match in 4th he simply blew Pistol Pete away in the 5th. If you ever get into an argument with anyone about who was the best returner of serve, please show them this match as an argument for Andre.

3. Arnaud Clement Def Sabestian Grosjean

5-7 2-6 7-6 7-5 6-2(2001 SF)

Pair of Frenchmen in the last 4 at Melbourne is about as common as a pair of Americans meeting in the finals of Roland Garros. But the year it happened the result was nothing short of spectacular. Facing match points in the 3rd and 4th set Clement came back from the dead and finally went past his fellow countryman to earn a place against Andre Agassi in the finals. One of the favourites. Sadly Clement had nothing left in the tank in the finals and Agassi simply blew him away.

4. Andy Roddick Def Younis Al Aynaoui

4-6 7-6 4-6 6-4 21-19(2003,QF)

It’s ironical that a year when the final went for just 69 minutes, the quarterfinal featured a final set that went on and on and on. For 2 hours and 23 minutes to be exact. The brash American and the veteran Moroccan went at it like a couple of hunters on the prowl, Roddick hung on and on and finally went past Younis in a score line that read like a badminton final more than tennis. Roddick went on to claim his only grand slam later that year in NY and I personally think the confidence this tough dogfight gave him went a long way in helping him take that final step as a champion 8 months later. How Roddick must have wished he had shown the same tenacity in 2009 Wimbledon final when Federer came back from 2 sets to 1 down to defeat him 16-14 in the 5th.

5. Andre Agassi Def Rainer Schuttler

6-2 6-2 6-1 (2003 Final)

When Agassi clubbed South African Wayne Ferreira in 90 minutes in the semi-final, we all asked “can it get any more one sided?” the answer, of course, was a resounding yes. Rookie German Schuttler had all the confidence in the world having taken out two rising stars Nalbandian and Roddick in the previous two rounds, but faced with veteran 3 time champion Schuttler was completely listless. Agassi dropped 5 games and took 69 minutes to wrap it up. A duration and score line his wife Steffi would be proud of. This was Agassi’s 8th and last Grand Slam title. His first Grand slam in 1992 at Wimbledon was earned after a 3 hour dogfight with Ivanisevic. First slam won the hard way and last slam on a cruise control is perhaps an apt mirror to Andre’s personal struggles early in his career and his later stage monk like focus.

6. Marat Safin Def Roger Federer

5-7 6-4 5-7 7-6 9-7 (2005 Semi Final)

After winning the 2000 US open everyone waited for Safin to check in with his enormous talent and dominate the men’s game. Injuries and lack of focus prevented that from happening but when he briefly caught fire again the results were spectacular. In 2004 he halted Agassi’s 26 match winning streak at the AO to make his first final here. He lost to Roger Federer in straight sets but next year when they met a match early, the big Russian was ready. Down two sets to one and facing a match point, Safin dialled in his huge ground strokes and forced a 5th. The 5th set, a combination of a bare knuckle boxing match and a pistol fight at fifty paces, went to the wire. Safin’s ground strokes proved the difference and he prevailed 9-7 in 5th. This match also gave us one of the funny moments off court when commentator Jim Courier offered and hugged an emotionally drained Marat Safin during the post-match court side interview.

7. Rafel Nadal Def Fernando Verdasco

6-7 6-4 7-6 6-7 6-4 (2009 SF)

Such was the intensity of this 5 hr 19 min dogfight that when Verdasco was serving in the final game at 4-5 , you could see both the players crying, yes actually crying, from sheer exhaustion and desperation at their opponent who would just not give up. In a match between 2 lefty Spaniards with very little to separate, finally Rafa held his nerve just a little better than Verdasco and crossed the finish line 6-4. The length of the match was a record till last year, but you would have to see the long rallies and the amount of close points to realize how intense it was and how much of physical and mental toll this kind of fight can take on its participants.

8. Rafel Nadal Def Roger Federer

7–5, 3–6, 7–6(7–3), 3–6, 6–2 ( 2009 final)

& after this 5 hr 19 minute street fight Rafa came back less than 48 hours to take down world’s number one male player in another 5 setter. Rafa looked like he had legs of rubber by the time his semi-final was over, Federer had made it to finals without dropping a set and still in the 4th and 5th set it was Rafa who was going for his shots and doing all the running. This was the match where Rafa finally got through Federer’s facade of calm superiority and the result was the icy Swiss breaking down in tears at the final ceremony.

9. Novak Djokovic Def Rafel Nadal

5-7 6-4 6-2 6-7 7-5 (2012 F)

Rafa met his match in stamina and ability to go toe to toe in the shot making marathon in the form of the Serb, when even 6 hours of baseline hostility did not earn him the winner’s trophy. Djoko matched Rafa in stamina and stroke making and out thought him in the strategy department. Rafa had a break of serve in 5th but that was not enough to sit Djoko down. Only time in my Rafa fan career I grudgingly admitted that clearly the better man won.

10. David Ferrer Def Nicolos Almagro

4-6 4-6 7-5 7-6 6-2 (2013 QF)

In yet another All Spanish encounter the unheralded Almagro opened a 2 set to love lead over veteran Mr. Consistent David Ferrer. Then he broke Ferrer in third and served for the match. Ferrer somehow held on and forced a fourth set. Almagro regrouped and broke Ferrer in 4th. Ferrer broke back. Almagro broke again and served for a place in the semi-final. Ferrer Broke. Almagro had one more chance to serve and Ferrer just refused to cave in. When Ferrer took the 4th set in a tie breaker, you could see Almagro mentally slowly leaving from the tournament. Ferrer ran away with the last set 6-2, cementing his already fierce reputation as being the biggest overachiever on the tour.

Mayur Didolkar is an avid tennis follower, a marathon runner and a novelist

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