Yes, tennis! There sure was a lot of it in 2009, the busy calendar combining with enough epic five setters to boggle the minds of the sharpest tennis savants. So let’s take advantage of the off season and savor some of our favorite tennis matches of 2009 – before the tours start up in a few weeks and our memories are muddled forever. Obviously this is not a comprehensive list – you may call it shoddy and selective. And I’m “saving” some matches for future “Best of” lists. . .Fedophile Moments, anyone?
TOP TENNIS TOURNAMENT OF 2009
Roland Garros! This was the Major of the Year for me. Roger’s and Rafa’s storylines, alone, had enough drama for a year’s worth of Masterpiece Theater episodes. We watched the King of Clay fall to the Prince of Darkness (I’m sure Soderling doesn’t mind the nickname) and Roger “2nd best on clay” Federer finally get his G.O.A.T. (and it wasn’t just John McEnroe saying it) after running a gauntlet of agonizingly close five setters (Haas, Del Potro) and unexpected challengers (Paul Henri Mathieu? Jose Acasuso?).
Ahhhh. . .sweet relief!
These couple weeks in Paris were also some of my proudest moments as a Fed Fan. Not because Roger completed the career slam (that helped) but because I sat through so many gut wrenching matches. I kept my eyes glued to the shoddy live stream of del Potro vs. Federer even when my instincts were urging me to run out of the house and throw myself on the nearest funeral pyre. The tournament was also an important – if unpleasant – one for Nadal fans, as his fall to Robin Soderling in the round of 16 ignited worries about the Spaniard’s health and longevity and strong negative emotions towards the fickle French crowd.
There were many compelling stories on the women’s side in Paris, including Kuznetsova making good on her potential, Dinara combusting in the final (“Why am I such a chicken?!”) and Sam Stosur coming out as a serious singles talent. Sveta had a spectacular Roland Garros. Her gritty three set win over Serena in the quarters was one of the best women’s matches of the year, as was the three-setter she played in the semis against Sam Stosur. I still remember the blazing inside out forehand Stosur hit down 2-5 in the second set tiebreak. I can’t find the shot on youtube, but I can find Dinara Safina’s reaction:
BEST TENNIS MATCH OF 2009
TOP PICK: Rafael Nadal def. Fernando Verdasco in the Australian Open semifinals: 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (1), 6-4
“But today was, yeah, one of these matches you gonna remember long time, no? Well, the emotion was big, because in the last game with the Love‑40 I start to cry. Was too much tension, no?” – Rafael Nadal after the match.
There are tennis matches that are great because of drama (Soderling vs. Rafa in Paris) or because of an underdog’s determination to win (Oudin vs. Sharapova at the US Open.) But the best kinds of matches involve two top talents playing their best possible tennis for the highest of stakes. And in my mind, Nadal vs. Verdasco Down Under was the purest example of this kind of play.
I defy you not to tingle:
Besides the extreme shot-making and the fantastic night match atmosphere, we were also treated to ‘Nando’s crazy face and starfish hand:
And the match wasn’t a fluke – Rafa, of course, won his first hard court major that Sunday, showing incredible resilience to beat Roger Federer in another five set match. Verdasco had a career best year, finishing strong with a rookie appearance at the World Tour Finals and a doubles victory in the Davis Cup final. (Although in ‘Nando’s case, I wonder if he’ll ever play as well as he did when he lost to Rafael Nadal.)
TOP WTA MATCH:
Serena Williams def. Elena Dementieva in the Wimbledon semifinals: 6-7, 7-5, 8-6
On the women’s side, the Wimbledon semifinal between Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva is the popular pick for best match of the year. Serena won it in 2 hours, 29 minutes (the longest women’s Wimbledon semi in at least 40 years), saving a match point along the way. One sure-fire indicator that it was a great match: non-tennis watching friends sent me “did you see that?” emails afterwards. And check out these stats: Serena served 20 aces and had 45 winners – and STILL faced a match point on her serve. “I wasn’t sure if it’s Serena or Andy Roddick on the other side,” Elena said later. A fantastic effort by Elena, but this near-win made me feel even gloomier about her Major-winning potential. Serena, of course, went on to win the title over her sister, Venus.
Here’s a taste of the action:
Sidenote: Serena’s hard-fought victory was in stark contrast to Venus’s destruction! annihilation! brass knuckled beat down! over then-World No. 1 Dinara Safina: 6-1, 6-0 in one of the most one-sided Wimbledon semifinals of all time. Venus hit only one unforced error in the match.
This quote from Richard Williams summed it up: “Serena nearly gave me a heart attack. Venus played as if she had someplace to go and she was in a major league hurry to get a great dinner.”
But it was Serena holding the plate in the end.
BEST OF THE REST:
Roger Federer def. Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon final; 5-7, 7-6(6), 7-6(5), 3-6, 16-14
This is the ATP’s match of the year (click here for their full list) and I’m not saying they’re wrong. I just enjoyed Rafa vs. Nando more because I wasn’t so emotionally invested in the outcome (I watched half of Fed vs. A-Rod through the spaces between my fingers and almost blacked out entirely during the final set.) But in terms of the quality of play (Fed hitting a career-best 50 aces and 107 winners, yet only breaking Roddick once), drama (Fed winning six straight points to save himself in the second set tiebreaker and scoring his sole service break in the 30th game of the fifth set) and stakes (Sampras, Laver and Borg watching from the stands, anticipating Fed’s record breaking 15th major), it was good enough to make even Jon Wertheim, author of Strokes of Genius; Federer, Nadal and the Greatest Match Ever Played counsel us to “think hard before including a superlative in a book title.”
It also broke a match length record, a theme of many of the best matches of this year: at 77 games, it was the longest final in Grand Slam history, eclipsing the previous year’s 62-game final between Rafa and Roger.
Excuse me while I rub away my goosebumps.
Rafael Nadal def. Novak Djokovic in the Madrid Open semifinals: 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(9).
Controversy time! I’m putting this match on the list because I know it’s considered by some (like Jim Courier) to be one of the best three-set matches of all time. And at over four hours, it’s definitely the longest. But here’s the rub: I don’t want to watch a three set match for four hours! I got fidgety during the second set and turned off the television. I think I went to the car wash. Shame on me. But even though I wasn’t enthralled by the action, I admit that this match had some huge implications for the rest of the season. The scrambling, punishing style of his victory came to represent all that was potentially damaging to the longevity of Rafael Nadal’s career. For Nole, who squandered three match points during the match, it took months to recover mentally. He went from being a serious dark horse contender at Roland Garros to losing to Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round.
“I can admit now that after that match I experienced a little mental breakdown,” Djokovic said this autumn, when he finally bounced back to win titles in Beijing, Basel and Paris.
With this match leaving Rafa lame and Nole a basketcase, Roger Federer was the one with the Major mojo going into the thick of the season. And the rest is history.
Andy Murray def. Stanislas Wawrinka in the Wimbledon 4th round: 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3
This was a notable match if only for the time it ended: 10:39 p.m. It was the first full match played under the Wimbledon roof and – though Roger Federer might disagree – the first unofficial night match in the tournament’s history. But it wasn’t just the novelty that made this one great. There was also the drama of seeing Murray tested by both a game opponent (with a silky one-handed backhand) and the crushing enthusiasm of the British crowd. Watching this footage again, it looks like Murray was playing the final, not the fourth round:
Sidenote: I also very much enjoyed Murray’s first round battle with the diving American everyman, Robert Kendrick.
And now, some HONORABLE MENTIONS for the ladies, who played a number of memorable matches this year.
Amelie Mauresmo def. Elena Dementieva in the Open GDF SUEZ finals in Paris: 7-6 2-6 6-4. The retiring french star’s unexpected – and impressive – win over one of the hottest players on tour gave me hopes for a third major. Uh, oookay.
Marion Bartoli def. Venus Williams in the Stanford finals: 6-2, 5-7, 6-4. Marion was at her freaky best in this match, smacking that two-handed forehand, taking practice swings between every point and cracking everyone up with her bowlegged serve. She still won, though. And Venus still hasn’t won an American hardcourt tournament since 2002.
Flavia Pennetta def. Vera Zvonareva in the US Open 4th round: 3-6, 7-6, 6-0. This wasn’t a consistently great match, but there were some sublime moments at the end of the second set, when Flavia Pennetta battled to save 6 match points. Tennis on tightrope:
Kim Clijsters vs. Serena Williams in the US Open semifinals: I’ll save the “tirade” for another list, but let’s not forget how well Kim played the “real” No. 1. to win the match 6-4, 7-5. Part of me wonders if the proud and “passionate” Serena went nuts not because of the calls but because she was being squarely outplayed by an unranked opponent.
Melanie Oudin racked up quite a few spectacular matches in the “determined underdog” genre, starting with her clutch victory in the first round of Fed Cup, then her third round upset of Jelena Jankovic at Wimbledon, and finally, her great run to the US Open quarterfinals, knocking out four Russians along the way (Pavlyuchenkova, Dementieva, Sharapova and Petrova).
So this was my incomplete and imperfect recollection of the best tennis of 2009. What did I forget?