Return with us now to those thrilling matches of yesterday when the hero won facing an inspired opponent and often impossible odds. Who gave the best performance by a male tennis player in 2009?
The list awaits—arranged in chronological order. You read, you judge and then you vote.
In order of appearance, contributors: Claudia Celestial Girl, Chloe Francis, Donald Marhefka, JA Allen, Marianne Bevis, Feng Rong, and antiMatter.
(1) Rafael Nadal—Finals, 2009 Australian Open
Unbreakable. Federer told the world later that he didn’t expect to "ever" be in a fifth set with Rafa in the Australian Open. Rafa had played a very physical semifinal match in Australia against compatriot Fernando Verdasco—a "once in a 20-year match," it has been called some of the most physical tennis ever witnessed. The longest semifinal match in Australian Open history.
And he had 44 hours to get "rest" before the final. He’d previously shown that with insufficient rest he would not have enough reserves and would lose (example: against Roger on one day of rest after playing a lengthy semifinal against Carlos Moya in Chennai).
During the match, Rafa had begun to wobble. He’d taken a painkiller during a changeover, and called for the trainer. He’d started to hit inexplicable forehand errors. He’d played a good first set, providing a fantastic hitting contest to entertain the crowd, but had a let down in the second set and was broken.
In the third set, leading 4-3, on Rafa’s serve, Roger had his chance to finish Rafa off. Up 40-love on Rafa’s serve, Roger had three break points. But it didn’t happen. Somewhere, Rafa found reserves of energy and will, to fight off these break chances with lengthy rallies in one of the longest games of the match. He went on to win the third set tie-break, 7-3.
In the fourth set, there would be more exchanges of breaks of serve, with Rafa winning one more of those than Roger. In the fifth, Roger would not be able to find the concentration to stay engaged in the contest. That moment in the third set proved to be pivotal to the entire contest. A moment when Rafa was "unbreakable."
No match was anticipated more: the manifestation of The Rivalry in a hardcourt major. No one expected Rafa to be able to win a hardcourt major (his first), especially given the circumstances of his expenditure of energy to get through the semifinal. He was given very little chance.
It was an amazing exhibition of virtuosity on the Plexi-cushion surface by both players, with groundstroke winners going around the net post, key gets from well outside the doubles alley, key saves of overhead smashes, and rallies where the groundstrokes from both players that would have been winners against any other contestant would end up back in the court. It was an exceptional match, and an exceptional performance by Rafa in key moments.
Taken together, the 9.5 hours of tennis between the semifinal and the final represent the most amazing consecutive hours of virtuoso tennis we have ever witnessed from some of the most talented practitioners of the sport. And moments of graciousness during the award ceremony probably shouldn’t be forgotten either.
Nominated by Claudia Celestial Girl.
(2) Roger Federer—Finals, 2009 Masters Series Madrid
It was the victory about which the ramifications were to reverberate around the tennis world for months.
After a few despairing and desolate months at the beginning of 2009, including Grand Slam defeat, the continued unattainability of the No. 1 position and the much media-scrutinized racquet-smashing, it seemed that Roger Federer had truly lost his tennis mojo.
Yet the Madrid Master's final was the triumph that acted as the trigger for ultimate supremacy.
In comprehensively defeating Rafael Nadal in straight sets during the clay-court final, Federer seemed to find and unleash the power and skill that had seemingly been dormant for months.
In the weeks that followed, Federer won the French Open—his first victory at Roland Garros and 14th Slam overall (equalling Pete Sampras), granting him a Career Grand Slam—and Wimbledon, where he won his record-breaking 15th Grand Slam by beating Andy Roddick in an epic five-set final.
Of course, on the Sunday in May when Federer won in Madrid, these events were yet to be uncovered, yet to be dreamed. But even looking at the event individually, it was clear that the tide was turning for the Swiss.
With his personal life settled—Federer and "his Mirka" married in April and—injury woes abating—Federer was able to revert back to his perfectly relaxed self on the tennis court.
Reaching the Madrid final with ease, Nadal, the clay court king, was outclassed from the baseline and the net with stunning cross-court, down-the-line and net winners.
Despite Federer’s recent woes, and historical matchups in favor of the Spaniard, Nadal just couldn’t keep up with Federer’s power, precision, and poise.
The final in Madrid was the start of something huge for Federer and the tennis community. It signaled the eve of another new era.
Nominated by Chloe Francis
(3) Robin Soderling vs. Rafael Nadal—2009 French Open
Why was Robin Soderling’s win over Nadal the best performance of 2009? There’s no denying that it was the biggest upset. Also, I think it had the greatest significance. I remember watching the match.
Actually, I didn’t see the first set but was following it at www.wimbledon.com. Soderling had won the first set. As a Federer fan, I thought this was sensational news. Rafa actually lost a set at Roland Garros.
Never fear, he will definitely win the tournament, I thought. But maybe there’s a chance that Roger can win a set too. Didn’t he just beat him in Madrid? Isn’t Madrid in Spain? Isn’t it on clay as well? The match was now on TV live and I began to watch it.
The second set went to a tie-breaker, which Rafa easily won, 7-2. He will now easily win, won’t he? But what a performance by Soderling—actually winning a set!
As Gomer Pyle would say: “Surprise, surprise.” The third set almost replicated the first set that Soderling won by 6-2. This set he won by 6-4. Further, he was dominating the match. Rafa’s high bouncing kicker was just sitting up in Soderling’s wheel-house. The Swede was serving lights-out.
The fifth set went to a tie-break again. But Soderling dominated it just as he had dominated the first and third sets. I had just watched the greatest upset of all time.
Soderling has subsequently proven that it was no fluke. He has lost only to Federer in the last three slams of 2009. At the ATP Masters Cup, he again bested Nadal, this time in straight sets.
Is he just a journeyman player on a hot streak? I don’t think so. He is currently ranked No. 8 in the world. His performance in Paris has earned him regal status in his home country of Sweden. Well done, Robin.
Nominated by Donald Marhefka
(4) Roger Federer—Finals, 2009 French Open
Federer fans never expected the day to happen. They could never conceive of a final at Roland Garros without Rafael Nadal bouncing up and down, facing Federer as the two met at the net during opening ceremonies.
Meeting Federer on this Sunday, however, was Sweden’s Soderling, who had defeated Rafael Nadal on his way to the final. It ended a winning streak that went all the way back to 2005, and included 31 consecutive match wins. Soderling had played the match of his life taking out Nadal and was having the tournament of his life in the process.
In order to get to the finals, Federer had to defeat the awesome Argentine Juan Martin del Potro in five challenging sets, 3-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4. This match finally went to the man who wanted it most—and no one in the world wanted this French Open crown more than Roger Federer.
Soderling had to overcome Fernando Gonzalez to make the finals—also in a thrilling five-setter, 6-3, 7-5, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4.
With the threat of storms rumbling in the distance, Federer played a brilliant match by not following the strategy of previous Soderling opponents who tried to outhit the Swede. Federer—whose serving was impeccable—sliced, diced, and peppered Soderling with an array of brilliant drop shots.
He allowed the Swede no opportunity to find a rhythm or a solid footing in the match. This fact plus Soderling’s lack of Grand Slam final playing experience and perhaps being overwhelmed by the occasion, resulted in a straight set win by the Swiss.
Federer won the first set, 6-1 in 23 minutes. It was over before people had settled into their seats. The rain-soaked second set was very tight, with Soderling returning to form, but Federer took the tie-break, 7-1.
The third set and the match went to Federer, 6-4, who fell to his knees once the victory was his. Federer captured his first French Open Crown, giving him a career Slam and his 14th major, equalling Pete Sampras’ record.
The crowd roared their approval as the skies darkened and thunder rumbled. The tennis gods were appeased—at long last.
Nominated by J.A. Allen
(5) Roger Federer—Finals, 2009 Wimbledon
Hot on the heels of the match many rated as the best ever—the 2008 Wimbledon final—came another contender in 2009. It was the same event and same occasion at the men’s final at Wimbledon. And Federer, who had lost in such dramatic fashion the year before, was there again, attempting to claim back his crown.
Although Federer had equaled Pete Sampras’s Grand Slam record at Roland Garros just weeks before, this title would arguably confirm Federer as the “greatest ever.”
He could regain his No. 1 ranking. He could record his longest ever winning streak, begun in Madrid two months earlier. And he could do it at the scene of his first Slam triumph in 2003, against his oldest rival, Andy Roddick.
The match drew the most illustrious audience in living memory, including former record holders Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver, and Pete Sampras. So the pressure and expectation were enormous.
The match itself was extraordinary, lasting almost four and a half hours, and at a terrific pace. Its 77 games set a new record for a Slam final, and the last set, a battle of 30 games and one and a half hours, was also a record. There were just three breaks of serve in the match, and Roddick’s only one, in the 77th game, cost him the title.
But Federer’s performance was also extraordinary—one of the most focused, determined, and consistent of his career. Despite being a set down and 6-2 down in the second set tie-break, he won six points to level the match. In the third set tie-break, he went up 5-1 only to be pulled back to 6-5, yet he sealed the set on his serve.
Federer was then broken in the fourth set, taking the match into a nail-biting fifth of near perfection. There were just three break point opportunities in the entire 30 games, and Federer converted his only opportunity to win the Championship.
The quality of the tennis, too, was relentless. The standout feature was the speed and crispness of the shot-making. The snap of flat drives interspliced with near-silent slice, followed by the touch of a stop volley was a classicist’s dream. The alternating sliced and top-spun drives were a modernist’s signature.
Federer attacked the net (59 times), even during Roddick’s service games, took overheads, and picked balls from his feet to make winning returns.
Against one of the fittest and most determined competitors on the Tour, Federer showed himself to be even fitter and more determined. He even outserved one of the Tour’s best servers: Federer’s 50 aces fell short of the Wimbledon record by just one.
Federer had to be at his fittest, most accurate, chess-master best to defeat a resurgent and gutsy Roddick on that day. He deserved every plaudit that followed: most particularly “the greatest ever.”
Nominated by Marianne Bevis
(6) Juan Martin del Potro—Finals, 2009 U.S. Open
Del Potro entered the 2009 US Open final against Roger Federer as a heavy underdog. The odds against him were staggering:
1. It was his first Grand Slam final, without even a Masters shield to his credit, while his opponent had won a record 15 Slam trophies.
2. His head-to-head record against Federer stood at 0-6.
3. In their last hard-court meeting, at the Australian Open earlier this year, he was soundly beaten by Federer 6-3, 6-0, 6-0.
4. Federer was the five-time defending champion in New York, and was on a 40-match winning streak at the Open.
5. Nobody besides Rafael Nadal had beaten Federer in a Grand Slam final.
6. Nobody had beaten both Nadal and Federer in a single Grand Slam.
However the "Big Boy" from Tandil, Argentina, accomplished the improbable, becoming the tallest Slam champion ever and the first South American victor in New York in 32 years.
When the match started, things went the expected way. Federer came out of the gate all guns blazing, racing out to a 5-2 advantage in the first set. Though struggling with nerves and confidence, del Potro showed the first sign of a great champion as he won five straight points serving at 2-5, 0-40, forcing Federer to serve out the first set.
Though broken in the first game of the second set, things were actually looking up for del Potro as he was able to stay in the rally more and Federer was struggling with his serves. All he needed to do was to cut down his unforced errors. Still, he soon found himself down 3-6, 4-5, 0-30 with Federer serving for the second set.
Note that Federer's record was 148-0 in Grand Slams when leading 2-0. So, in a way, Federer was serving for the match and was two points away from the victory.
Del Potro was unfazed. He fought back to 30-30 and then hit two consecutive forehand down-the-line passing shots to break Federer for the first time in the match.
All of a sudden, the outrageous forehand started clicking and the big first serves became more penetrating. Del Potro took the second-set tiebreak, 7-5.
Del Potro took the first lead of the match in the third set, breaking Federer at 3-3. However, Federer immediately broke back. Serving at 4-5, the pressure got the better of del Potro as he served two consecutive double faults to hand the third set to Federer.
Hands over his head, del Potro almost seemed to be holding back tears. But he quickly regained his composure, poured some cold water over his head, took a deep breath, and went back to the battle.
After saving a break point at 1-2 in the fourth set, del Potro broke Federer at love to go up 3-2 and this time he held his next service game to stay ahead 4-2. But the great Swiss hit back in the eighth game to level the set at 4-4. Down 4-5, 15-30, del Potro was two points away from defeat for real. The young Argentine showed no signs of nerves and sent down two big serves and a tremendous forehand winner to hold serve.
After wasting two break points on Federer's serve at 5-5, Del Potro held to love to send the fourth set into a tiebreak, which he readily won at 7-4.
Del Potro was now completely into the game and relaxed. Breaking Federer and then saving a break point, del Potro raced out to a 3-0 lead in the decider. He then broke Federer again to seal the dramatic victory 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2.
The maturity, composure, confidence, talent, and above all heart of a great champion that del Potro showed in the epic final was phenomenal. His winning effort against the best tennis player of all time was for sure one of the best winning performances of a historic 2009 season.
Nominated by Feng Rong
(7) Nikolay Davydenko—2009 ATP World Tour Finals
“The Invisible Man” of tennis shares only one quality with H.G. Wells' villainous character—being invisible to fans and media. In every other way, he could be an antithesis of the same, content with his introverted life, and content with putting in year after year of constant efforts and results.
And needless to say, even after putting up the best year-end season along with Djokovic, Davydenko was not even considered to be a prospective semifinalist.
The wild-card entry, Soderling, on the other hand, had all the hype in the world surrounding him, given that Nadal was in his half of the round robin and that this was the Swede’s favorite time of the year.
“Four Slam winners—Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Del Potro—were in the draw as well as a prospective future slam winner in Murray. Who won the WTF in the end? Davydenko. WTF?!” That would not be a remark again to appear in another tournament.
The consistency of Davydenko coupled with his raised level of play were instrumental in getting him the cup. He defeated Nadal, Federer and del Potro on the way, thus establishing himself a contender for the top four spots in Slams.
Davydenko must carry the momentum he gained into the beginning of next year. Hard, dedicated work, a disciplined training regime, mental toughness and an invisible hunger to succeed—such a combination comes together in this man.
And that combination has materialized in front of everyone with this win. Let’s not forget that the Masters Cup maybe only the next best thing to a Slam. With his stellar performance, Davydenko has proved that he has what it takes.
Nominated by antiMatter
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