The greatest tennis matches have come from the greatest rivalries -
McEnroe-Borg, Connors-McEnroe, Ashe-Connors. Unfortunately, the
development of high-tech rackets has emphasized power and destroyed the
chess match quality of tennis that used to make it so special.
The matches here reflect, perhaps, my bias for the competitive matches of
the early 1980s. Since 1987, no truly great rivalries have emerged - Andre
Agassi has had a few good runs but has never approached Pete Sampras in
calibre - and before 1970 tennis had yet to emerge from the days when only
amateurs could play the tournaments, and many of the game's best would not
participate in the majors.
8, 1984 1984
U.S. Open: The Greatest Day
OK, OK - this isn't a single game, so I'm cheating. Still, I
just had to include it: it was the greatest day in tennis
history, and it occurred on semifinal Saturday at the U.S.
Open in 1984. Each of the four matches on stadium court
went the distance, and the line-up involved a Hall of Fame
First, Stan Smith defeated John Newcombe in the men's over-35
semifinals. Then, Ivan Lendl and Pat Cash battled in the
first men's semifinal, in which Lendl prevailed 3-6, 6-3, 6-4,
6-7, and then 7-6. In the third match of the day, the greatest
rivalry in women's tennis brought Martina Navratilova and
Chris Evert together again. After dropping the first set,
Navratilova hung on to win her second of three titles, 4-6,
6-4, 6-4 for the women's title.
And the best for last - top-seeded John McEnroe defeated his
nemesis, Jimmy Connors, in a wonderful five-set epic semifinal
match: 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3.
Play started at 11:07 a.m. and ends at 11:16 p.m.
8, 1984 1984
Wimbledon Final: McEnroe v. Connors
finest display of tennis ever.
In the most
one-sided Wimbledon men's final since Don Budge also allowed
just four games in 1938, John McEnroe plays a virtually
perfect tennis match and trounces two-time champion Jimmy
Connors, 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 in only 80 minutes. It was the sixth
straight time he defeated Connors, to raise his record to
15-12 against him.
McEnroe's serve was
devastating, both on his slices wide and his hard one up the
middle. The left-hander connected on 74 percent of his first
serves, had 10 aces, no double faults and lost only 11 points
in his 11 service games - which said a lot because Connors'
return game was the best ever.
Most remarkably, Mac didn't commit his first unforced error
until midway through the second set - and that on a very
questionable line call. He committed only four unforced errors
in the entire match, a record low for any Grand Slam final
since they began recording match statistics.
Davis Cup: Budge v. Von Cramm
Earlier in the
month, American Don Budge had an easy time in vanquishing
Germany's Baron von Cramm in straight sets in the Wimbledon
final. But today, on the same court, in the fifth and deciding
match of the Davis Cup Interzone finals, the contest was much
more competitive. When it's over, many in attendance are
considering it the most dramatic match ever played.
Von Cramm, who received a phone call from Adolph Hitler before
taking the court, won the first two sets, 8-6 and 7-5. But
Budge rallied, becoming more aggressive, and won the next two
sets, 6-4 and 6-2.
Playing the match of his life, von Cramm took a 4-1 in the
final set. Budge rallied again, breaking back to tie the match
at 4-4. Each player held serve until the 13th game, when Budge
broke von Cramm at love. The German, though, refused to yield
easily, saving four match points in the 14h game before Budge
finally prevailed, 8-6, to win the match.
In the stands, Germany's coach, Bill Tilden, was so distraught
over von Cramm's defeat that according tohe Associated Press
he "all but cried when the fair-haired lad was
beaten." The next week, the United States won the Davis
Cup for the first time since 1926, with Tilden playing for the
U.S., by beating England in the final.
U.S. Open Final
The greatest rivalry in men's tennis history added it's second
chapter, a closely fought, five-set thriller at Forest Hills.
Bjorn Borg's pursuit of the U.S. Open is one of the great,
though tragic and futile, pursuits in professional sports: Borg owned Wimbledon and the French Open,
winning 11 titles in 12 trips to the finals, but he could
never win the U.S. Open.
Four times he went to the finals, but each time he came away
empty - he lost to Jimmy
Connors in 1976 and 1978, and to McEnroe in 1980 and again in
1981. After his four-set loss to Mac in 1981, he walked off
the court, refused to talk to the press, never played in a
major pro tournament again, and effectively retired at the age
1980 was the only time when Borg was ranked #1 in the world.
He had beaten McEnroe at Wimbledon two months earlier, and was
favored to beat the defending champion. This was the second
thrilling, epic five-set match that these two played in 1980:
when it was over, John McEnroe had beaten back a Bjorn Borg
comeback and triumphed 7-6,
6-1, 6-7, 5-7, and 6-4.
Wimbledon Final: Ashe v. Connors
There was no love lost between Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors: Connors
had announced a $5 million libel suit against Arthur Ashe for
having criticized Connors' refusal to join the U.S. Davis Cup
team two weeks before this match, and had previously filed
three other suits for a total of $20 million against the
Association of Tennis Professionals, of which Ashe was
in case Connors had forgotten about the Davis Cup controversy,
Ashe came out for the warm-up wearing a blue jacket with
"USA" in red on the chest.
On paper, this looked like it should have been Connors' match
to lose - he was the defending champion and hadn't lost a set
in the tournament. Oddsmakers made Ashe a 5-1 underdog, and an
even bet to win a single set. But after Connors win the first
game, Ashe simply took him apart. Relying on "junk"
to beat the #1-ranked Connors, Ashe chipped and lobbed his way
to 12 of the next 13 games. His 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 victory
enabled him to become the first black man to win Wimbledon.
When the dismantling is complete, Ashe puts one more dagger
into his adversary, pointing out how Connors had put about 70
percent of his errors "into the middle of the net. He
hardly ever put the ball beyond the baseline - that's a sign
19, 1925 1925
When Bill Tilden
lost to Bill Johnston, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3, in the final at the U.S.
Nationals in 1919, it was because Johnston exploited his weak
backhand. After that, Tilden moved to Newport, R.I., and made
a deal with a wealthy insurance executive who owned one of the
few indoor courts in the country. He agreed to regularly play
tennis with his son, in exchange for being free to work on his
own game indoors.
Obsessively, Tilden developed a topspin backhand - chopping
wood daily to gain strength - and hitting backhand after
backhand. The work paid off when he again met Johnston at the
1920 U.S. Nationals final and beat him in five sets.
Suddenly, Tilden was transformed. He won seven U.S. singles
titles, finishing with 73 victories in 80 matches. He won
three Wimbledons, and could have won a lot more - after
winning in 1920 and 1921, he found victory so easy that he
declined to continue going back to London on a slow boat
simply to complete a fast victory everyone knew was
inevitable. He didn't compete at Wimbledon from 1922-26; the
next three years he lost in the semifinals before becoming the
oldest man to win a Wimbledon's singles title, at 37 in
1930. He won seven U.S. clay court titles, five U.S.
doubles titles and four national indoor titles while also
leading the U.S. to seven consecutive Davis Cups from 1920-26,
including 13 straight singles victories in Cup competition. He
didn't lose a match in 1924 and won 57 consecutive games at
one stretch in 1925.
His greatest match was the 1925 U.S. Championship final,
against his nemesis Bill Johnston. Since 1919, Tilden had not
lost a match in the tournament, winning the title 5 straight
times. In a tense and grueling match, Tilden won his sixth
straight U.S. Championships with a 4-6, 11-9, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3
victory at Forest Hills.
This was the fifth time that Big Bill beat Johnston in the
final, and the third time in five sets. In the second set,
Tilden was three times a point away from falling two sets
down. Each time he won the point, and eventually he took the
set. In the deciding set, the score was 3-3 when Tilden took
12 of the final 16 points to gain the championship. Of the 380
points played, Tilden won 191, Johnston 189.
4, 1996 U.S.
Of all the great
matches which Pete Sampras has won, this one most truly
defines his championship qualities. During the 1995 Australian
Open, his coach and friend Tim Gullikson collapsed as a result of the complications of a brain tumor.
Sampras wept openly during his quarterfinal match against
two-time champion Jim Courier when a fan yelled to him,
"Win it for Tim!" but he regained his composure, and
overcame a 2-set deficit to defeat Courier. Although he lost
in the final to Andre Agassi, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6, 6-4, his performance in that epic
five-setter was a classic.
The other was an even gutsier performance at the 1996 U.S.
Open. Tim had died earlier that year, and Sampras had
considered quitting tennis, but he decided to continue.
Sampras, who has won 6 of the last 7 Wimbledon titles, took
his one defeat there in the quarterfinals, to the eventual
champion, Richard Krajicek.
Two months later, a despondent Sampras took his
shot at his 4th U.S. Open title - unfortunately, he came down
with a stomach flu. At one point during that match he was issued with a delay-of-game code
violation for vomiting on the court. Sampras battled for 4 hours and 9 minutes against his body, mind and a gallant
Spaniard named Alex Corretja.
this night, the diminutive Spaniard had come to play. By the fifth set,
Sampras' legs had started to buckle, and he began going for
winners earlier and earlier in order to preserve energy. But
his big serve kept him even in the fifth, and he hung on grimly
to force a tie-break to decide the
tie break was manic. Corretja, who would break into the top 20
in the men's ranking after the tournament, led 7-6 at one
point, and had a match point on serve. However, he was foiled by a
spectacular, lunging Sampras volley. Corretja's mistake was to
play across court: anything down the line would have left
Sampras stranded. Sampras was next to serve, and his second serve ace thrilled the gallery and
bewildered the Spaniard. Corretja
then double faulted to lose the match.
In his dazed stupor,
Sampras looked over to Tom (Tim Gullikson's twin brother), who
was at courtside, and in a sense his year came to
a head right there. Later, Sampras said: "Everyone asks
me if I had to win the Open for Tim. I tell them I didn't have
to do it for anybody but me. But perhaps it closed the book on