With the ATP World Tour Finals in the books, we can finally close down the 2012 season. Looking back, it was certainly a year of memorable matches, from the near six-hour epic between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final, to Victoria Azarenka’s near-upset of Serena Williams at the U.S. Open, to Andy Murray’s breakthrough at the U.S. Open. In between the drama on the biggest stages, we had some wild matches week in and week out that produced some quality tennis, even if the sport’s biggest titles weren’t on the line.
This week’s Toss features a panel of tennis writers who spent the last 10½ months watching every kind of match — good, bad and ugly — to try to answer a seemingly simple question.
Today’s Toss: Which matches stood out as the best of the year?
Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining this week’s discussion, everyone. As the ATP and WTA seasons have officially wrapped up — yes, there’s the Davis Cup final this weekend, but seriously, at some point we must draw a line — the offseason has finally arrived and with it an ever-so-brief respite for those of us who have spent virtually every day of the last 11 months watching tennis. So we should obviously use this break to keep talking about tennis, right? Right.
This week I wanted to get your wise input on some of the best matches of the year. I’m not sure there’s a match that stands out as being the obvious or unanimous choice this year. We’ve had long matches, we’ve had historic matches and we’ve had memorable matches. But what exactly do we mean when we say one single match was great or even the best?
Ben Rothenberg, New York Times tennis blogger: As you say, Courtney, we’ve all watched a dizzying amount of tennis this year, so I think we should probably do this in somewhat of a pyramid format so as not to drown immediately.
Let’s start from the top with the Slam finals. For me, the best of them was the men’s Wimbledon final, where Roger Federer beat Murray. I know, I know, the Australian Open final between Djokovic and Nadal was incredibly long and intense. But when I think back to which one I’d rather watch again, it’s Wimbledon. The momentum swings were meaningful, the occasion was massively important to both and the tennis was consistently strong. The Aussie final was more of a Sisyphean stalemate that lasted nearly six hours, and I’m not sure I want to put myself through that again.
High marks also go to the U.S. Open women’s final, but I think Serena’s walkabout in the middle of the match takes some shine off of what was ultimately the most dramatic finish to a women’s Slam final in years.
And the worst, by far, was the women’s Australian Open final. After Maria Sharapova got off to that 2-0 lead it was complete one-way traffic the rest of the way, and it was perhaps the least entertaining Slam final I can remember. Azarenka deserves massive props for bringing the best tennis of her career to the biggest match of her career.
For some, a great match needs only to present drama. For example, the U.S. Open final between Murray and Djokovic was an unpredictable, lengthy affair that had some large implications for the ATP landscape, allowing Murray to rightfully enter the Big Four once and for all. But in reality, that match was a bit of an error-fest. Both players were nervy. Sure, there was some excellent shotmaking at times, but I wouldn’t call it a great match, quality-wise.
One match that stands out to me was that second-round match at Wimbledon between Lukas Rosol and Nadal. Aside from Rosol’s scoring arguably one of the biggest upsets in recent history, both players were playing outstanding tennis at the same time. Winners-to-unforced differential doesn’t always tell the full story, but Rosol hit 22 aces, 65 winners and 29 unforced errors. Nadal hit 19 aces, 41 winners and just 16 errors. It was one of the best (and most dramatic) matches I saw this year because it was won on the merits of great tennis, and not because one player was making more errors than the other.
ROTHENBERG: I agree. Rosol’s toppling Nadal will go down as the most memorable match of the year. Results on the ATP Tour have become wildly predictable (injuriously so, I would say), and that match stands as the biggest shock of the last 10 or so years. So many better players have fallen short of what Rosol did that day, losing to the Big Four in a way that seems to be almost deferential. But Rosol wanted no part of deference.
I saw him nearly get triple-bageled in Melbourne by non-legend Philipp Petzschner. But that day at the All England Club, Rosol played fearless, out-of-his-mind tennis, and was nearly unbeatable in the fifth set, either hitting outright aces or first-ball winners on nearly every service point. It was really something to behold.
That performance was massive not only because of Rosol’s refreshing display of cojones but also because of what it did to Nadal’s year. It was Nadal’s final match of 2012 and it completely changed the landscape of the men’s game. It arguably helped Murray reach the heights he did, and it shrunk the Big 4 to a Big 4(-1).
Erik Gudris, tennis writer and blogger: For me, there wasn’t one truly great match this year, but a few very good ones with some low points thrown in. I agree with Ben that that while many will pick the Aussie final as the best men’s match of the year, the fact that it took FOREVER to finish turned it into one of those rare Slam finals that you almost didn’t care who wins, as long as someone did.
Step back a round and you get my pick for the best men’s match: The Aussie semi between Murray and Djokovic was packed with dramatic ebbs and flows and it was the first time we had really seen Murray fight like that with his back against the wall.
For the women, I again agree with Ben that the U.S. Open final between Williams and Azarenka was the best. Serena’s drop in level in the second set aside, that dramatic third set left everyone guessing who’d prevail.
By far the worst match of the year on either side of the aisle also involved Serena. Her first-round loss to Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros was a slow-motion train wreck of nerves from the first point. Not to negate Razzano’s fighting against cramps and the umpire in the last set, but that was a match Williams should have won.
NGUYEN: Interesting call on Rosol-Nadal. Once Amy noted stats from that match, it all started coming back to me. My memories from that match mainly revolve around laughter. Lots of laughter. “LULZ,” as the kids call them these days. ROTFLMAO in response to Rosol’s audacious shotmaking and his ability to somehow make Rafa look … mortal. But whether that match changed the course of the 2012 season, I’m not so sure. I don’t know if I buy into the idea that Rosol took Nadal’s knees out from under him. The fact remains that was the last match Rafa played, but it’s hard to really get a handle on the “what if” Rafa had been around the second half of the season.
Going back to the broader question of what makes a match “great,” I think it’s a combination of the match’s importance, the quality and the sheer entertainment value, with the percentages shifting according to your own subjectivity. I mean, I was thoroughly entertained by Kaia Kanepi’s three-set win over Caroline Wozniacki in the third round of the French Open, but that match was horrible. I enjoyed it for the human drama and some of the ridiculous (in a bad way) shotmaking.
I agree with all of you on the Australian Open men’s final, which was high stakes and at times high quality. But in the end I did not find a six-hour match like that entertaining in the least. Kind of hard to call something the best match of the year when you find yourself praying for it to just … end.
So for me: The best men’s Slam final was definitely Federer’s win over Murray at Wimbledon, and the best women’s final was Serena’s narrow win over Azarenka at the U.S. Open. That said, I’m not sure either was the match of the year.
What about some of the year’s unsung matches? Sharapova’s three-set win over Sam Stosur in the Stuttgart quarters was a flat-out awesome match. As was Serena’s straight-set win over Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon, which was pure offensive tennis at it’s finest. And how about Azarenka’s grinding win over Angelique Kerber at the WTA Championships a few weeks ago? Or perhaps the biggest upset in the women’s game this year: Laura Robson sent Kim Clijsters into retirement with a remarkable display of lefty hitting. Each one of these matches was high quality from beginning to end and, honestly, I’m not sure that many people even watched them.
GUDRIS: I totally forgot about Kanepi vs. Wozniacki in Paris until Courtney just reminded me. Thanks a lot. That one might just outrank Williams-Razzano as the worst match of the year.
What makes a match great? A lot depends on who is playing, the stakes and, yes, the quality of play, to a certain extent. But a great match could also be a singular performance. Serena’s complete dismissal of Sharapova in the gold-medal round of the Olympics wasn’t a match, yet it was “great” simply because we were able to sit back and marvel at Williams’ level of play.
Another quality match that I think deserves a mention is the U.S. Open quarterfinal between David Ferrer and Janko Tipsarevic that slowly built into a dramatic and satisfying final-set tiebreak. It’s a shame in some ways that it got scheduled during the middle of an afternoon session. I hope those who didn’t see it then will carve out some time in the offseason to watch and appreciate it. (SI.com’s Richard Deitsch had it as the best match of the tournament up to that point.)
ROTHENBERG: If we’re talking about memorably comprehensive performances, how about the absolute shellacking that Kerber laid on Clijsters at Wimbledon? Nobody really talked about that match at the time because A) it was on Court 3 on the second Monday, meaning it was largely overshadowed, and B) the lopsided beatdown of a beloved mother made people a little uncomfortable.
Kerber also played a starring role in one of the great melodramas of the year later that week in an all-German quarterfinal against Sabine Lisicki, a match that I will remember forever for its incredible momentum swings and suffocating sarcasm. The match was so ridiculous that it’s currently being developed into a German musical called “Zwei verärgerte blonde Frauen in Großbritannien.” Well, no, not really. But it should be.
FETHEROLF: Speaking of Kerber, my vote for the best women’s match of the year goes to the round-robin match at the WTA Championships between Kerber and Azarenka that Courtney mentioned earlier.
In a tournament that usually suffers from the effects of a long season with fatigued players, Kerber and Azarenka played one of the most dramatic and hard-fought matches of the year. Even though the physical toll of the match ended up perhaps costing Azarenka the chance to reach the final of the Championships, it was an appropriate bookend to her incredible season. In fending off two match points and winning an intensely competitive match that lasted more than three hours, she proved that her newfound mental strength is very real.
I think when Azarenka won the Australian Open in January, many were skeptical that she could sustain her positive attitude, since it seemed like such a sudden change. Of course, she backed up her excellent results and earned the year-end No. 1 ranking, but her mental strength was especially impressive in that match against Kerber.
ROTHENBERG: Azarenka’s consistency is what was most impressive. Her ability to tough out tight match after tight match (e.g. vs. Mona Barthel in Indian Wells, vs. Stosur in New York) is what kept her at No. 1 for so long. Even if you think Williams has had the better year, it’s tough to say that Azarenka hasn’t done the ranking proud.
But one of the matches that most pops out to me is one that broke from a consistent, established pattern. Andy Roddick went into Miami with a 2-21 record against Federer, his inability to break through against the Swiss champion largely defining how his career was seen by many. But in what he knew would be his final year on tour, Roddick saved his best for last.
Roddick still finished his career 3-21 against Federer (more of a lopsided football game than a normal head-to-head for two former No. 1s), but the top match on their ledger will stand as a “Roddick W” for the rest of time.
GUDRIS: Ben, I’m glad you mentioned Roddick’s win in Miami. I remember before that match he had said he felt like something good was coming. And, of course, I thought, “Yeah, Roger Federer.” But that match felt almost like it was scripted by Hollywood. Roddick goes in as a massive underdog but wins the first set, then has a depressing second set that makes everyone think it’s a foregone conclusion. Instead, Roddick rallies with some of his best tennis to win the match and then closes with a final acknowledgement to the heavens honoring his late friend and agent Ken Meyerson. Classic three-act structure with a feel-good cathartic ending. See you at awards season, Andy.
NGUYEN: All right, so real quick before we wrap this up: Most overrated match of 2012? Ready, set, go.
ROTHENBERG: That interminable Jo-Wilfried Tsonga-Milos Raonic match at the Olympics that went 25-23 in the third set. On the one hand, I liked it because it showed that best-of-three is plenty. On the other, it was treated like some sort of all-time classic when it was little more than a serve-fest.
FETHEROLF: I’m going with that U.S. Open final between Murray and Djokovic. I don’t question its significance, and I’m truly glad it settled the endless “When is Andy Murray going to win a Slam?” questions. But I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by the match itself. I heard commentators call it a “classic” match, and started to wonder whether we were watching the same thing. To me, quality-wise, it was the fourth-best Grand Slam final of the year. (Behind, in order: Wimbledon, Australian Open and Roland Garros.)
At the risk of sounding anti-U.S. Open, an honorable mention goes to the women’s final in New York. Azarenka played really well to force a third set, but had Williams not suddenly started playing shockingly poorly, it wouldn’t have even gotten to that point.
GUDRIS: Though I agree with Amy that Djokovic-Murray in the U.S. Open final was just OK, I still think Djokovic-Nadal in the Australian Open final gets my vote for most overrated match of 2012. Mainly because it will continue to be lauded as an epic when really it was just very, very long.