Sports writer and tennis enthusiast Paul Fein says that a classic tennis match is an event so momentous that the world almost stands still and watches, an episode so fascinating that we remember, even savor, it for years. The U.S. Open has treated us to several such dynamic and often career-changing duels. Let’s take a walk down Memory Lane and revisit these legendary matches.
1980 Final – John McEnroe def. Bjorn Borg 7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4
“I want to be remembered as the greatest champion ever,” declared Bjorn Borg after he out-dueled John McEnroe in the thrilling 1980 Wimbledon final. Many experts considered the 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6 smorgasbord of scintillating shot-making the greatest match ever. With his fifth straight Wimbledon crown seized soon after his fifth French Open title, the stoical Swede needed two more majors, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open (then played in December), to achieve a rare Grand Slam and his “greatest ever” ambition.
Borg and McEnroe have been forever linked after their two 1980 epic battles at Wimbledon and the US Open.
On the opening day of the U.S. Open, defending champion McEnroe said, “I just want to win the tournament, but if I knew beforehand that I’d win, I’d rather play Borg in the final. Say 22-20 in the fifth set.” Perhaps the irascible New Yorker should have been careful what he wished for since the tireless Borg had won his last 13 five-set matches. But pundits could also favor the sinistral McEnroe because lefthanders had captured the previous six men’s singles titles, and Borg had been frustrated in his previous eight tries to win the Open, losing six times to lefties.
This time, after a disastrous second set, Borg gamely fought back by whacking five clean winners in the third set tiebreaker and then grabbing the fourth set. Could McEnroe, who had outlasted Jimmy Connors in a grueling five-set, four-hour marathon the night before, finish off the fresher Borg and avenge his Wimbledon loss?
Neither combatant matched their sublime Wimbledon performances. But Mac attacked relentlessly and intelligently to notch the crucial service break for 4-3 with a crosscourt backhand, and then served and volleyed with near perfection to finish a stretch in which he took 17 of 20 service points. Afterward, the exhausted McEnroe confided, “I felt my body would fall off.”
With his dream of a 1980 Grand Slam dashed, Borg skipped the Australian Open, which like the U.S. Open, he would never win.
1995 Final – Steffi Graf def. Monica Seles 7-6, 0-6, 6-3
Classic matches feature a riveting rivalry, star appeal, a premier event, contrasting playing styles and personalities, competitive balance and brilliant tennis. The 1995 U.S. Open women’s final offered these dynamic elements and even more drama because of the highly unusual circumstances.
Click photo to view on website: Monica Seles had dominated the women’s game before a deranged fan stabbed her in the back during a changeover at a Hamburg tournament and kept her off the tour
In May 1993, Monica Seles had won seven of the previous nine Grand Slam events and dethroned arch-rival Steffi Graf before a deranged Graf fan stabbed her in the back during a changeover at a Hamburg tournament. The once-innocent and exuberant Seles underwent 120 sessions with a psychotherapist and left the pro tour for 27 months. While Seles had finally escaped her traumatic past, star-crossed Graf was trying to forget her troubled present, namely the imprisonment of her father on tax evasion charges.
In August 1995, the hyper-competitive Seles came back with a vengeance. She routed five opponents to capture the Canadian Open, and then at the U.S. Open blitzed No. 10-ranked Anke Huber, No. 4 Jana Novotna and No. 3 Conchita Martinez. That set up the most eagerly anticipated women’s showdown since the flamboyant Suzanne Lenglen, an idol of Seles, beat Helen Wills in 1926.
The “dream final” more than lived up to those great expectations. Powered by passion and pride, the two queens fought ferociously. Graf, renowned for her potent forehand and athleticism, staved off a set point to grab the sensationally played opening set, but Seles’ double-handed groundstrokes steamrolled Graf in the second set. Graf then outplayed her exhausted archrival to finish the 7-6, 0-6, 6-3 masterpiece that Graf called “the biggest win I’ve ever achieved.” After her victory Graf burst into tears, and the tournament’s most emotional moment came when the two champions embraced at the net.
Graf’s 18th career Grand Slam singles title tied her with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert and made her the first player—male or female—to win four singles titles at each of the four Slam tournaments, an extraordinary achievement. For Seles, simply being back, rather than winning, meant everything. She had exorcised the demons that had so long beset her and declared she was “ecstatical.”
2001 Quarters – Pete Sampras def. Andre Agassi 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6
The best men’s rivalry of the 1990s ironically showcased its best match in 2001 when all-time greats Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were in their 30s. Before their epic, Sampras said, “Andre brings out the best in me.” Indeed, Agassi often did, especially at the U.S. Open where Sampras whipped him in the 1990, 1995 and 2002 finals.
Pete Sampras raises up in celebration after beating arch rival Andre Agassi in perhaps the greatest match in US Open history.
In their 32nd clash, an astonishing array of thunderous serves, dazzling returns, pinpoint passing shots, and athletic volleying, as well as fierce battling for every point, elicited roars of appreciation and several standing ovations from the electrified Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd of 22,911. All told, Sampras and Agassi belted an amazing 178 winners (out of 338 points) against only 59 unforced errors.
In the first of four tiebreakers, Sampras built a 6-3 lead but couldn’t convert three set points–thanks to an Agassi winner and two Sampras unforced errors–and eventually succumbed 9-7. Agassi, a supreme frontrunner, had amassed a 49-1 Open record after winning the first set, but Sampras regained his composure quickly.
Incredibly, neither player lost his serve during the 3-hour, 33-minute duel, so the outcome hinged on tiebreakers. Serve-volleyer Sampras constantly pressured baseliner Agassi with 137 net approaches (versus only 21 for Agassi) and captured the next two tiebreakers 7-2.
Before the fourth set tiebreaker, the crowd gave both valiant warriors a standing ovation, which Agassi later called “chilling … I’ve never experienced that.” Down 2-3 in the breaker, Sampras whacked 116 and 128 mph aces to lead 4-3, but Agassi lost the most crucial point when he blew an easy backhand to fall behind 6-3. Even though Agassi survived two championship points on Sampras’ serve, the end came at 12:14 a.m. when he netted a forehand.
“The atmosphere was phenomenal. Awesome. I thought going into the match, this could be a classic. And I think tonight it was,” Sampras said afterward. CBS analyst John McEnroe, a four-time U.S. Open titlist, raved, “It was one of the most phenomenal matches I’ve been a part of in all my years of broadcasting this great game.”
1977 Final – Guillermo Vilas def. Jimmy Connors 2-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-0
The last U.S. Open staged at the historic West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills and on clay was the most bizarre because of all the firsts. The point penalty system and a 42-year-old transsexual, Renee Richards, made Open debuts along with an anti-apartheid demonstration and the notorious double-strung “spaghetti” racket that was soon banned. A spectator was mysteriously shot by an unknown sniper, another slashed his wrists, the women’s locker room had a bomb scare, and fans, angered by a program change, threw rubbish on the court.
In the last US Open played at the historic West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hill (and the last one played on clay), Guillermo Vilas defeated Jimmy Connors for his only US Open win.
Jimmy Connors, the brash rebel from the wrong side of the tracks in Belleville, Illinois, usually relished controversy and chaos. But it would prove his undoing at this Open. Guillermo Vilas ignored the distractions by talking only to his coach, Ion Tiriac, saying, “I must concentrate completely or I go crazy.”
While both were 25-year-old lefthanders, the similarity ended there. Defending champion Connors blasted flat groundstrokes, especially with his deadly two-handed backhand, contrasting sharply with the handsome Argentine’s heavy topspin style. Vilas, the introspective French Open champion who wrote poetry, had beaten 41 straight clay-court opponents, but Connors hit through the gusting winds and overpowered him 6-2 in the opening set.
After Vilas overcame 0-30 and 0-40 deficits to save his serve in the first and third games of the second set, he relaxed and began turning the match around. He shrewdly sliced backhands to exploit Connors’ vulnerability on low forehands. Showing mental toughness again in the third set, Vilas rebounded from 1-4, 30-40 and saved two set points serving at 4-5, 15-40.
When Vilas, buoyed by hundreds of boisterous Latin American supporters, took the pivotal third-set tiebreaker, Connors looked demoralized and tired. Then the muscular Vilas, renowned for his eight-hour training sessions, stepped up his attack—highlighted by dazzling backhand passing shots—and routed Connors 6-0 in the final set.
The fourth championship point ended the final controversially. The noise of the crowd drowned out the call of a linesman who seemed to hesitate at first. A confused Connors thought his forehand had been good. It wasn’t. Vilas verified the call. Infuriated, Connors skipped the awards ceremony and quickly tried to escape a berserk crowd overrunning the court. While some of Vilas’ overjoyed fans carried him on their shoulders around the arena, an angry Connors punched out a fan during his ignominious getaway.
2010 Semifinals – Novak Djokovic def. Roger Federer 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5
Many observers believe Novak Djokovic’s Davis Cup Final heroics last December became the springboard for his phenomenal 2011. But the more likely turning point in his career can be traced to the 2010 U.S. Open. After Djokovic demolished Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals, ESPN analyst Darren Cahill commented: “Djokovic and Murray have been the two Robins to the two Batmans, Nadal and Federer. So it’s about time Novak put on his own cape and came through and won it [the Open]. He can do it. He’s playing much better. He has the belief now.”
Click photo to view on website: At last years Open, Djokovic was not afraid to trade forehands with the mighty Fed.
Djokovic would need that belief because he hadn’t beaten a top 10 player all year and The Mighty Fed had easily ousted him the past three years at Flushing Meadows. He would also need to play aggressively, particularly on crucial points, and pressure Federer’s second serve and vulnerable backhand. The 23-year-old Serb did all of that plus served better than he had all season and played superb defense. He also executed a smart but potentially dangerous tactic.
In the spectacular deciding set, Djokovic frequently traded powerful forehands mano a mano with Federer, like two heavyweight boxers, even though the 29-year-old Swiss boasts the most formidable forehand in tennis history. The highly partisan crowd cheered loudly for Federer, and it looked like the five-time U.S. and 16-time Grand Slam champion would come through for them yet again.
But Djokovic, trailing 4-5, 15-40, courageously staved off two championship points with winners—a swinging forehand volley and a rocket forehand. Then he smacked two more forehand winners to hold for 5-all. Ironically, Djokovic forced Federer into seven forehand errors in the last two games to pull off the upset.
Afterward, an ecstatic Djokovic said, “It’s one of those matches that you will remember for the rest of your life, not just because you won against one of the best players that ever played this game, but coming back from match points down and playing good tennis to win in the end. I am very proud of myself.”