The Beyond The Baseline awards are our look back at the best — and worst — of the tennis season. Today we highlight some of the best men’s singles matches, with an emphasis on the Grand Slam tournaments. (Hence no room on our list of 10 for Rafael Nadal-Ernests Gulbis at the BNP Paribas Open and Italian Open; Novak Djokovic-Grigor Dimitrov at the Madrid Open; Nadal-Djokovic at the Rogers Cup; and others.) Click here for our complete archive of year-end awards.
Novak Djokovic d. Stanislas Wawrinka 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10 in the fourth round of the Australian Open.
This was supposed to be a routine victory for Djokovic, who had won 10 consecutive meetings dating to 2007. But the 17th-ranked Wawrinka stunned everyone by coming out full of belief and rifling any ball in his strike zone. He took the first set in a hurry and led 5-2 in the second set before Djokovic stormed back to win six consecutive games to level the match.
The remaining three sets were a phenomenal blend of shot-making, guts and scrambling defense. Djokovic won the third set but Wawrinka refused to go away, taking the fourth in a thrilling tiebreaker. From there, little separated the two until, on his third match point, Djokovic prevailed in an incredible coda to a five-hour victory:
From first ball to last, this was, unexpectedly, the highest-quality match of the year. They also played a five-setter at the U.S. Open that was a contender for this list, but their clash in Melbourne was a cut above, in part because Wawrinka had little track record of challenging the elite.
Novak Djokovic d. Juan Martin del Potro 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (6), 6-3 in the semifinals of Wimbledon.
The longest semifinal in Wimbledon history (4 hours, 43 minutes) seemed to go by in a blink of an eye, thanks to the top-notch, riveting play. Del Potro’s heavy artillery pitted against Djokovic’s relentless defense, along with the showmanship of both players, made for intriguing stuff in all five of their meetings this year (including a dramatic final at the Shanghai Masters). But they saved their best for the All England Club, where del Potro reminded everyone that he was re-emerging as a Slam threat and Djokovic confirmed yet again how difficult it is to knock him out.
Del Potro had beaten Djokovic in the bronze-medal match at the 2012 London Olympics at Wimbledon and again in the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open in March, but the big-hitting Argentine fell just short of recording his first victory at a Slam against the Serb.
Rafael Nadal d. Novak Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7 in the semifinals of the French Open.
The first three sets weren’t memorable, but arguably the most important match of the year culminated with two of the most dramatic and surprising sets this season. Nadal led by a break twice in the fourth set and was two points from winning while serving at 6-5 but couldn’t put away his stubborn rival. Djokovic broke early in the fifth set only to get broken while serving at 4-3 in a game in which he was called for an inadvertent net touch. Nadal broke Djokovic at love to clinch his victory in 4 hours, 37 minutes and deny the Serb a chance to win his first French Open title and complete the career Grand Slam.
Richard Gasquet d. Milos Raonic 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 2-6, 7-6 (9), 7-5 in the fourth round of the U.S. Open.
Tommy Robredo’s surprising straight-set victory against Roger Federer at Louis Armstrong Stadium was the dominant storyline on Labor Day Monday, but as fans got word that something special was happening on Court 17, they filled the seats and created an electric atmosphere for Gasquet-Raonic.
Both players were seeking breakthroughs: Gasquet came into the match with a 1-15 record in fourth-round matches at majors, while Raonic had yet to make a Slam quarterfinal. The intensity was high from the outset. After losing the first set in a tiebreaker, Gasquet chucked his socks on the court in frustration (as one does). But the Frenchman hung tough, defying his reputation for being physically and mentally fragile. He overcame Raonic’s 39 aces to win in 4 hours, 40 minutes on his way to his first major semifinal in six years.
Stanislas Wawrinka d. Richard Gasquet 6-7 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 8-6 in the fourth round of the French Open.
The best match of the season featuring two one-handed backhands, Wawrinka came back from two sets down to break the hearts of the home fans who were hoping to see two Frenchmen in the quarterfinals (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga reached the semifinals). The pro-Gasquet crowd heightened the intensity of the match between two former French Open junior champions, with Wawrinka arguing with the chair umpire over his control (or lack thereof) of the crowd and a number of line calls. Even as the match approached and then surpassed the four-hour mark, the fifth set featured entertaining rally after entertaining rally and no shortage of crisply struck winners. It was a heartbreaking loss for Gasquet, who was as emotionally demonstrative as we’ve ever seen.
“I have a little pain in my leg at the moment, but more in my soul for sure,” Gasquet said.
Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 in the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern Open.
Federer produced the best tennis of his season in easily the most competitive of the longtime rivals’ four matches this year. Federer’s serve and forehand were firing consistently, a rare sight this year, and the scene in Mason, Ohio, was electric after he played an excellent first set to take the lead. Federer had a chance in the second set to earn a break advantage, but Nadal, ever the competitor, refused to cede. Nadal finally got his first break to win the second set, and his early break in the third set held up even though Federer saved four match points. The Spaniard improved to 21-10 in the series.
Andy Murray d. Novak Djokovic 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 in the final of Wimbledon.
This match makes the list more for historical significance than overall quality. Even when Murray was a mere point from becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years, he still felt miles away. Djokovic was no doubt taxed by his five-set effort against del Potro two days earlier, but Murray was playing under enormous pressure. After taking the first set, Murray rallied from a 1-4 deficit to grab a two-set lead. Serving for the match, Murray coughed up a 40-love lead, but he fought through his nerves and demons to convert his fourth match point.
“I was s******* myself,” Murray admitted.
Sergiy Stakhovsky d. Roger Federer 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (5) in the second round of Wimbledon.
Serve-and-volley tennis briefly returned to relevance on a wild Wednesday at Wimbledon, where the 116th-ranked Stakhovsky used the tactic to end Federer’s record streak of 36 Slam quarterfinals and hand the Swiss his earliest exit at a major in a decade. Stakhovsky, who had been 0-20 against top-10 players, bragged afterward that he could now tell his grandchildren that he ”kicked the butt of Roger Federer.”
The match signaled that Federer’s 2013 slump was more than minor. One year after winning Wimbledon and regaining the No. 1 ranking, Federer looked mortal against a journeyman who entered the tournament with one career victory at Wimbledon. The four-set match was decided by razor-thin margins, and Stakhovsky’s dynamic, old-school style was fun to watch.
Roger Federer d. Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 7-6 (2), 7-5 in group play at the ATP World Tour Finals.
With a semifinal berth on the line in the season-ending tournament, Federer rallied repeatedly before an energized crowd at the O2 Arena in London. The six-time champion fell behind 1-5 in the first set, 1-3 in the second set and 0-3 in the third set, but Federer came back each time to either close the gap or overtake del Potro.
Andy Murray d. Roger Federer 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-2 in the semifinals of the Australian Open.
Murray was the better player throughout the match, but Federer’s intensity and resolve helped him steal the second and fourth sets in tiebreakers. Murray was broken when serving for the match at 6-5 in the fourth set, but he rebounded in the fifth set to register his first victory over Federer at a major in four attempts.