The 10 Greatest Matches of the Open Era
The 10 Greatest Matches of the Open Era
11/1/03 0:01 AM
Battles of the Gods
From the November/December 2003 issue of TENNIS Magazine
Photographs by Steven Szurlej
When you’ve been fortunate enough to witness a truly great tennis match, you know it---one that pits two players of consummate skill and fierce wills in a clash whose outcome is anyone’s guess until the last ball is struck. At which point the fans, as drained emotionally as the players are physically, exhale a bittersweet sigh of relief while the players meet at the net, wearily acknowledging their shared accomplishment. Though one of them may be crushed by the final score, he or she can take solace knowing that, over time, the historic matches attain their status by transcending the question of which player held up the trophy.
Since the advent of Open tennis in 1968, there have been hundreds of classic confrontations, from which we’ve attempted to select the very best. Besides the obvious criteria of quality of play, occasion, historical context, and the stature of the participants, we asked ourselves, which matches have stayed with us over the years? Which are already legendary, or are destined to become so? After weeks of discussion (and a round of last-minute squabbling to decide some close calls), here are---ta da!---the 10 greatest matches of the Open era. --The Editors
Margaret Smith Court d. Billie Jean King
EVENT: 1970 Wimbledon final
SCORE: 14-12, 11-9
It was eerie, almost as if Margaret Smith Court and Billie Jean King felt obliged to give the new Open game a gift from the women, one that would match the marathon between Pancho Gonzalez and Charlie Pasarell on the same lawn the year before. In completing the mission, Court and King set the bar for generations of women to come.
Court was the top player in the world. A shy, tall (5-foot-9), and soft-spoken Australian, she had a lean physique and erect carriage. She was consumed by one goal: Becoming the second woman in history to complete a Grand Slam. With the first two legs, the Australian Open and French Open, in hand, Court was halfway there.
Court’s opponent was in many ways her opposite: Billie Jean King was just over 5-feet-4 and bouncy, outgoing, and fond of the spotlight. And King, playing in her fifth straight Wimbledon final, was the only player capable of beating Court. At that time, the British weren’t enamored of the outspoken Yankee. They far preferred Court, who showed proper deference to Wimbledon and its traditions.
Each woman was injured. Court, nursing a sprained ankle, was injected with an anesthetic shortly before the match. King had an aching knee; she would have surgery a few weeks later.
The first set was a see-saw battle, each woman serving and volleying almost exclusively. Three times---at 5-4, 7-6, and 8-7---King served for the set. Each time, Court broke. The next nine games were holds. Serving at 12-13, after having brushed aside a set point in her previous service game, King blinked. Court won the longest first set in a Wimbledon singles final, 14-12.
In the second set, Court took command and King had to fight to stay in the match. At 9-10, King served to save the match for a sixth time, but Court relentlessly pressed the advantage, taking King to match point five times before finally converting for the title. The shy Aussie had shown her inner steel. And later that year, at Forest Hills, she would complete the first Grand Slam since Maureen Connolly’s in 1953. --Tony Lance
Pancho Gonzalez d. Charlie Pasarell
EVENT: 1969 Wimbledon first round
SCORE: 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9
In 1968, as the major tennis events began a new era by opening up to professionals, Peter O’Toole appeared on-screen in The Lion in Winter, the story of an aging king who can’t stop fighting. A year later, Pancho Gonzalez enacted the on-court version at Wimbledon and, with former understudy Charlie Pasarell, gave the new game its first legendary match.
Gonzalez was 41 as he walked onto Centre Court, but it was only his third Wimbledon appearance in 20 years. After turning pro in 1949, he was banned during his prime. Even now, though, the “Lone Wolf” had his powerful serve and even more powerful will to win.
Pasarell, 25, was a U.S. Davis Cup stalwart who had studied with Gonzalez; now he faced the master. Their clash would be the longest in Grand Slam history in games played--112, a record that, with the institution of the tiebreaker, will almost surely never be broken.
The first set was a match in itself. The two held serve 45 times, until Pasarell finally hoisted up a lob winner on his 12th set point. The light was dying, but the umpire ignored Gonzalez’s requests to stop play. Angry and dispirited, Gonzalez lost the second set 6-1. After play was postponed, he skipped the customary bow to the Royal Box and was booed as he stalked off.
When play resumed the next day, the sun was out and Gonzalez had gathered himself. The two began by holding 29 times before Gonzalez hit a forehand pass to break Pasarell and win the set 16-14.
Gonzalez continued his excellent play in the fourth set, but Pasarell began to match him again in the fifth. Gonzalez, exhausted, was leaning on his racquet between points. At 4-5, he went down 0-40, triple match point for Pasarell. But he narrowly missed two lobs and Gonzalez eventually held.
At 6-5, Pasarell again reached 0-40. Gonzalez--steadily making first serves--came back to hold. At 7-8, Pasarell had another match point; again, Gonzalez saved it. The score went to 9-9 and Pasarell finally buckled, losing serve at love.
Gonzalez staggered to a hold in the 112th game. As Pasarell’s lob on match point went long, the older man smiled wearily and the crowd stood. Though he would go on to lose to Arthur Ashe in the quarterfinals, the king had survived 20 years in exile to rule tennis’ greatest stage on this afternoon. --Stephen Tignor
Ken Rosewall d. Rod Laver
EVENT: 1972 WCT Final, Dallas
SCORE: 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (5)
The 1973 Battle of the Sexes in Houston between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs is often cited as the match that put tennis on the general public’s radar screen. Actually, it had happened in Texas a year earlier, when two Australian legends labored for five sets on behalf of a fledgling professional circuit called World Championship Tennis (WCT).
The WCT Final in 1972 featured perhaps the greatest player of all time, Rod Laver, against the most underrated, Ken Rosewall. They squared off in Dallas’s sweltering Moody Coliseum before 9,500 fans and a television audience that would grow to an unprecedented 21 million viewers before the final ball was struck.
Although Rosewall was 37, he still had an effortless, energy-efficient style. Laver, 33, who had already won two Grand Slams, was bowlegged, scuttled across the court like a crab, and had a racquet arm that hung beside his otherwise small body like a lobster claw. A year earlier, Rosewall had snatched the first WCT Final from him. In ‘72, Laver was out for revenge.
The match started inauspiciously, with each man playing well in streaks--Laver broke out to a 4-0 lead in the first set, then Rosewall came back and coasted through the second.
But by the end of the third set, the level of play was off the charts, and it would stay that way for the rest of the night. In the final set, Rosewall used his backhand, one of the game’s most celebrated strokes, to build a 4-2 lead, only to see Laver wipe it away with a series of furious topspin forehands and superb volleys. Ultimately, Rosewall reached a match point with Laver serving at 4-5, 30-40, but the Rocket dismissed it with an ace.
A match-deciding tiebreaker was inevitable. When it arrived, Laver seemed to have more energy left. He jumped out to a 3-1 lead but then double-faulted to let Rosewall back in at 3-3. Still, at 5-4, with two serves to come, Laver had the match, and the championship, on his racquet. In typical Laver fashion, he went right at his opponent’s stronger side. But Rosewall was up to the challenge, cracking a pair of backhand returns to win the next two points.
At 5-6, Laver smacked Rosewall’s next serve into the net. The match was over--and men’s professional tennis was on the American sports map. --Peter Bodo
Jimmy Connors d. Adriano Panatta
EVENT: 1978 U.S. Open fourth round
SCORE: 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 7-5
It took the USTA National Tennis Center, the new home of the U.S. Open, just four rounds to produce a signature match. To no one’s surprise, it featured Jimmy Connors.
Heading into his round-of-16 encounter with Italy’s Adriano Panatta, the second-seeded Connors was in a bit of a slump. A year earlier he had lost his Open title to Guillermo Vilas, and that summer he had suffered a straight-set loss to arch-rival Bjorn Borg in the Wimbledon final.
But a victory on the hard courts at Flushing Meadows would enable Connors to complete a unique triple---winning the U.S. Open on three different surfaces (he had won on grass in 1974 and clay in ‘76). First, though, he would have to get by Panatta, and that was no sure thing. The Italian had beaten Connors once before, had won the French Open two years earlier, and his combination of touch and power could be lethal on any given day.
This was one of those days. As the match unfolded, it became apparent that the streaky Panatta had brought his A game. The men split the first four sets, and Panatta served for the match at 5-4 in the fifth. But from 30-30 in that game, Connors broke and then held easily for 6-5. He smelled blood.
Panatta fell behind 0-40 on his serve but saved all three match points. He staved off another match point with an ace. On the second deuce of the game, Connors fired tennis’ version of the “shot heard round the world.” Flying forward and wide toward Panatta’s sharply angled volley, Connors stretched and hit a one-handed backhand that never went over the net---it whistled past the netpost and landed just inside the singles sideline for an astonishing winner.
A shaken Panatta double-faulted to lose the match. From there, Connors would go on to win the tournament without dropping another set. After the match, Panatta summed up his opponent: “In Italy we have a saying that means ‘He does not want to die.’ That is Jimmy.” --David Rosenberg
Bjorn Borg d. John McEnroe
EVENT: 1980 Wimbledon
final SCORE: 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6
Eighteen-sixteen. The numbers are burned in the mind of every tennis fan. They are, of course, the score of the most famous tiebreaker in the game’s history, the battle that would help make the first Grand Slam war between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe into a classic.
This was a match that Don King might have promoted the way he had the Ali-Frazier bouts of the 1970s. It was the two best players in the world bringing their contrasting styles to the game’s biggest stage: the baseliner Borg against the serving-and-volleying McEnroe, the aloof Swede versus the Superbrat from New York.
They jabbed from across the court with probing serves, sharply angled volleys, and dipping passing shots, hoping to find and exploit a weakness. When the four-time defending champion Borg took a two-sets-to-one lead, he seemed poised to deliver the knockout punch as he had on this court so many times before. Then, once McEnroe won the endless tiebreaker after saving five match points, it was impossible to imagine how Borg would rally.
But rally he did. Despite the disappointment of the fourth set, Borg remained uncannily cool in the fifth, winning 28 of 29 points on his serve and finally passing McEnroe cleanly on his eighth match point. In classic Borg fashion, the winner failed to show even a flicker of emotion until the conclusion of the match, when he collapsed to his knees in his signature gesture of victory. Afterward, he told NBC’s Bud Collins, “That was probably the best match that I’ve ever played at Wimbledon.”
Even the loser remembers the day fondly. During McEnroe’s induction into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1999, he declared that among all the matches he had played, this one meant the most. “The vibrations and goodwill that I get from people from that match are incredible,” Mac said. “It’s far and away my most talked-about match.” --James Martin
John McEnroe d. Mats Wilander
EVENT: 1982 Davis Cup quarterfinal, St. Louis
SCORE: 9-7, 6-2, 15-17, 3-6, 8-6
Bjorn Borg dropped out of the game in 1982, but John McEnroe wasn’t off the hook. That summer, he and a new stoical Swede, 17-year-old Mats Wilander, began their own rivalry by playing the longest singles match in history.
At the time, nobody would have predicted it. Going into the fifth and decisive match in this U.S. vs. Sweden Davis Cup tie, McEnroe was the prohibitive favorite. He had represented the U.S. in Davis Cup since 1978 and led the team to victories in ‘79 and ‘81; he had won four majors; and the surface in St. Louis was a fast indoor carpet that suited his attacking style.
Wilander, by contrast, was a rookie who had won his first pro title a few weeks earlier. OK, so that title happened to be the French Open. But while he was consistent and mentally tough, Wilander would have to fend off the world’s best before a U.S. crowd.
While McEnroe won the first set 9-7, the tone for the match was set by Wilander. His willingness to retrieve any ball and ability to hit precise passing shots let everyone in the building know that this was going to be a long night.
The momentum didn’t begin to shift until the third set. Down two sets to love, Wilander hung in for two and a half hours and 32 games to wrest away the third set. He took control in the fourth and suddenly the most talented player in the world seemed on the verge of succumbing to a teenage grinder.
The final set proved once again that McEnroe could play his best even when he was at his worst. In the first game, he was hit with a point penalty for swatting a ball at an official to protest a call. But Mac settled down and won the game anyway. From there, both players held steady until Wilander, finally feeling the pressure, served at 6-7 and fell behind 15-40, two match points for McEnroe. The Swede saved one, then rushed on the next point and missed a crosscourt forehand. It was an anticlimactic end, but at six and a half hours, the seeming mismatch had given fans more great tennis than they could ever have expected. --James Martin
Chris Evert d. Martina Navratilova
EVENT: 1985 Roland Garros final
SCORE: 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-5
These tennis icons of the 1980s tangled 80 times, creating one of the greatest rivalries in the history of any sport (Navratilova held the final edge, 43-37). Many of those matches were memorable, but their 1985 final at Roland Garros produced the ultimate in drama, significance, and entertainment.
Navratilova came into Paris for their 65th meeting with a slim 33-31 lead in the series, but she had won 14 of their last 15 matches, including a 6-3, 6-1 demolition of Evert in the previous year’s French final. That was a particularly galling loss for Evert because clay was her favorite surface, and she conceded after that debacle that the rivalry was becoming embarrassingly one-sided.
Still, as a five-time French champion, Evert knew that if Navratilova was vulnerable on any surface it was clay. And Evert was further encouraged when the conditions on the morning of the final were wet and windy. She was a counterpuncher who had grown up playing on clay in Florida, where the weather is often unpredictable. Navratilova, who played a precise serve-and-volley game, preferred more stable conditions and could be thrown off her game under pressure.
Evert reeled off three games to start the match, surrendered three, and took the set by winning the next three. She broke to a 4-2 lead in the second set and ultimately served for the match, but Navratilova rallied and brought the set to a tiebreaker, which she won 7-4, forcing a deciding third set.
Evert immediately rallied, bolting to a 2-0 lead in the third, and at 5-3 she found herself again serving for the match. Again she was broken. Navratilova then held and ran out to a 0-40 lead in Evert’s next service game. Somehow, though, Evert clawed her way back to hold for 6-5. With Navratilova serving, Evert finally got to match point--and cashed in with a remarkable winner, a down-the-line backhand passing shot on the run.
“Chris played well. No question,” Navratilova recalled. “But that was one match [coach] Mike Estep and I overcooked. We went overboard on strategy and I didn’t let my instincts play any role. I just kept reacting and didn’t create.”
Evert later confessed that at the time she was beginning to doubt her ability to keep pace with Navratilova. The win, which gave her a record sixth French Open title (with yet another to come in 1986), was more satisfying than any other major title in her career. --Jon Levey
Monica Seles d. Steffi Graf
EVENT: 1992 Roland Garros final
SCORE: 6-2, 3-6, 10-8
This was supposed to be the match that set the tone for a rivalry that would pick up where Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova had left off. Instead, it now stands as a melancholy reminder of all that was lost to tennis when, fewer than 12 months after this championship match at Roland Garros, Seles was stabbed by a deranged Graf fan, left the game for 28 months, and never played at the same level again.
Still, at least we have this one. It was a battle between belter and runner. Graf, the nimble, leggy, blond pride of tennis-mad Germany, had dominated the game in the late 1980s. Then Seles, built like Olive Oyl but armed with the power of Popeye, emerged from Yugoslavia, via Bradenton, Fla., and Nick Bollettieri’s academy, to mount a serious assault on Graf’s reign, earning her first major title at Graf’s expense at Roland Garros in 1990 and taking the No. 1 ranking from her in ‘91.
As the two women prepared for the 1992 final in Paris, Graf still led 5-2 in head-to-head matches, but it had been a year since they had played. To reach the final, Seles had battled back from a 1-4 third-set deficit to beat Akiko Kijimuta of Japan in the fourth round and then recovered to win from a 2-4 deficit in the third against Gabriela Sabatini.
In the first set, Seles attacked Graf’s strength, her forehand, and broke it down. But Graf lifted her game, using that forehand to drive Seles back from the baseline and win the second set. The third set provided some of the most entertaining tennis ever seen, an endless back and forth between two unyielding champions. There were break points reached and break points dismissed, winners that answered apparent winners, and errors that were not flubs but bold statements that fell just short of making their point.
Ultimately, Graf fended off five match points, but she couldn’t wrest control from Seles. It seemed only fitting that the match ended when Graf unloaded one of her famous forehands, which smacked the tape and seemed to hang in the air forever before it fell back on her side of the net.
“It definitely was a special match,” Graf said afterward, unable to know that Paris would never be quite as magical a place for them to meet again. --Peter Bodo
Pete Sampras d. Boris Becker
EVENT: 1996 ATP World Championship final, Hannover, Germany
SCORE: 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-7 (11), 6-4
The most memorable words of the 1996 ATP final were spoken by the man who lost. Although Boris Becker, who was in the twilight of his career, had won Wimbledon at 17 and was one of the game’s most passionately competitive players, he characterized his heartbreaking loss to world No. 1 Pete Sampras as “the ultimate match for me.”
For his part, Sampras would say years later that the contest featured the best atmosphere he had ever experienced, anywhere. “That’s what the game is all about, the great matches.”
The hype surrounding this clash between living legends had been building for some time. From 1990 to ‘95, Germany and the United States produced 11 of the 12 finalists in the ATP’s year-end round-robin (the exception was Sweden’s Stefan Edberg, the runner-up in 1990). But Becker and Sampras, each a two-time winner, were the elite. This was their rubber match.
The Expo 2000 Tennis Dome was jammed with a boisterous crowd of 13,000 for a match that had Hollywood fanfare. The players entered under a spotlight with the theme from Rocky thundering over the crowd noise.
Feeding off the audience, the home-court favorite pounded four straight aces to open the match--and proceeded to take the first set emphatically, despite Sampras’ solid play. “That first set,” Sampras said, “it was the best tennis anyone ever played against me.”
The players went toe-to-toe over the next three sets--all of them ending in tiebreakers. When Becker won the 24th and last point in the fourth-set breaker, the roar was deafening. The deadlock continued in the fifth, until, at 4-4, Sampras broke Becker’s serve for the first time in the match. Sampras reached match point on his serve, and the players engaged in their longest rally--a dizzying demonstration of potent strokes that ended when Becker netted a backhand, giving Sampras the match.
Immediately afterward, as Sampras and Becker embraced, the heartfelt words these friendly rivals exchanged were lost in the din. That too, seemed appropriate. Words alone could not have done this match, and their emotions, justice. --Christopher Chung
Patrick Rafter d. Andre Agassi
EVENT: 2001 Wimbledon semifinals
SCORE: 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 8-6
Pete and Andre---that was the great rivalry of the age, right? One problem: It was Pat and Andre who gave us the best matches.
As they stepped onto Centre Court in 2001, Patrick Rafter and Andre Agassi were coming off a pair of see-saw Grand Slam duels---Rafter had won the previous year in the Wimbledon semis in five sets, and Agassi had returned the favor in another five-setter at the Australian Open. This match, which featured athletic shotmaking, momentum swings, controversial calls, and a crushed and furious loser, would top them both.
Here were two contrasting stylists---Rafter the serve-and-volleyer, Agassi the pinpoint counterpuncher--in peak form. While Sampras often drowned Agassi in a sea of service winners, Rafter relied on his kick serve and quickness at net to win points, a strategy that gave Agassi more chances to unload his famous return. The results were electric: rapid-fire rallies that pitted Agassi’s short-hop, laser-like passes against Rafter’s lunging, full-stretch volleys.
The biggest point of the match would follow this script. In the fifth, Agassi jumped out to a 2-0 lead and was up 15-40 on Rafter’s serve. During the ensuing point, Agassi hit two bullet passes at Rafter, the second a sure winner. But Rafter guessed right and reflexed a volley for a miraculous putaway. “[That] was the big turning point,” Rafter would say after the match. “If I lost that game, the match was over, as simple as that.”
Still, Agassi served for it at 5-4 only to see Rafter play a brilliant game to break. At 6-6, Agassi gathered himself, reached break point, and hit a low return; Rafter responded with a perfect drop volley. But the most significant moment of that game occurred between points. After missing a shot, Agassi cursed under his breath--apparently not far enough under, because a lineswoman heard him and reported it to the umpire, who issued a warning to the American.
Distracted, Agassi was quickly broken for the match. He wasn’t quite done, though: As he walked to the net Agassi fired a ball in the direction of the lineswoman who had tattled. “I think he pretty well snapped,” Rafter said afterward. An inconsolable Agassi delivered his own sotto voce post-mortem. “The quality of the match is for everyone else to judge,” he said softly. “Nothing comes to mind right now except kicking myself.” --Stephen Tignor
AND WHO CAN FORGET...
Goran Ivanisevic d. Patrick Rafter, 2001 Wimbledon final, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7 Cinderella would have had trouble believing that Ivanisevic, a
perpetual Wimbledon also-ran, could win this title in his last year as a singles player there. When the smoke from his tournament-record 212 aces had cleared, Goran’s fairy tale had come true.
Steffi Graf d. Jana Novotna, 1993 Wimbledon final, 7-6 (6), 1-6, 6-4
Novotna built a 4-1 third-set lead and then couldn’t make a shot. In fact, she could barely keep the ball in the stadium. Graf came back and Novotna got the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder to cry on. But all was set right five years later when she finally won the Big W.
Kathy Horvath d. Martina Navratilova, 1983 Roland Garros fourth round, 6-4, 0-6, 6-3
Navratilova came to Paris with a trainer, coach, strategist, and nutritionist---and three of the last four major titles. But it wasn’t enough against Horvath, an unseeded 17-year-old American. She outsteadied the world No. 1 and kept her from realizing the only perfect season of the Open era. Martina would go 86-1 for the year (and not drop a set to Horvath in seven future matches).
Pete Sampras d. Andre Agassi, 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinals, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5)
It was a regular love-in: a very well-played match by the game’s two biggest American stars in front of New York’s most famous scene-makers, including some tennis fans. But with no breaks of serve, this one was all tension and no release--48 games, and the vast majority of them routine holds.
John McEnroe d. Ilie Nastase, 1979 U.S. Open second round, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2
The original bad boy of pro tennis, Nastase orchestrated the “Monday night massacre” despite the subdued behavior of his understudy, McEnroe. It began with a typical argument over officiating, but before it was over Nasty had been defaulted and then reinstated because officials feared that the well-lubed New York crowd would riot.
Jimmy Connors d. Aaron Krickstein, 1991 U.S. Open fourth round, 3-6, 7-6 (8), 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4)
Yes, CBS has shown it too many times, but you can’t turn away, can you? Year after year, Connors tells us “this is what they came to see.” Year after year, we wish we could see another match as ridiculous and entertaining.
Andre Agassi d. Pete Sampras, 2000 Australian Open semifinals, 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (0), 7-6 (5), 6-1 This was Sampras-Agassi for the ages, though it happened halfway around the world. There were momentum swings, exciting points, excellent shotmaking from both players, and, in the tight fourth-set tiebreaker, a dramatic peak.
Arthur Ashe d. Jimmy Connors, 1975 Wimbledon final, 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4
Fans watched slack-jawed as the 31-year-old Ashe, playing with astonishing purpose and poise, picked apart the seemingly unbeatable enfant
terrible of the men’s game with a repertoire of chips, dinks, and slice serves.