Let's celebrate the post number 50 of this blog reviewing the season 2009 considering the five best matches of the year. Our selection confirmed that tennis, as opposed to what often happened in soccer, reserved his best emotions on the big stages, and in latter rounds.
Our review starts with the epic Australian Open semifinal between Rafa Nadal and Fernando Verdasco, an all Spanish derby that became the longest match in the tournament history.
Then, another marathon-match, another epic semifinal: Nadal-Djokovic in Madrid, the longest best-of-three match in the Open era. A match of passion and legend meant to be a turning point for the rest of the season of both players.
A season that assumed a different color in the historical Roland Garros 4th round, when Nadal was defeated for the first time in his French Kingdom, by a hammering Robin Soderling taking his revenge from the 2009 Rome Masters (when he won just one game) and the 2007 Wimbledon marathon, covering five days and five sets, when he lost despite being two sets up, and imitated oncourt all Rafa's pre-serve tics and rituals.
The conclusion is inevitably for Roger Federer, and the celebration of his record 15th Slam in the Wimbledon final against Andy Roddick, in the longest Grand Slam final since 1927, who lost the Championships title-match to the Swiss for the third time and will have to regret that backhand volley that could made him go 2 sets to none up.
In the end, we decided to tribute two "Pandas" of serve & volley, Taylor Dent and Ivan Navarro, protagonist to one of the most upsetting, thrilling and enjoying Us Open matches.
Nadal d. Verdasco 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4. Australian Open Semifinal
Before the match, nobody would have risked a bet on Fernando Verdasco, few would have believed he could have highly contested his berth into the Australian Open final to Rafa Nadal. Fernando, after his American holiday with Gil Reyes, had outlasted, outpowered the predestined winner, Andy Murray, and Cassius Clay Tsonga, the big sensation in the first Slam of the season 12 months before, capable to mince Rafa. The Mallorcan arrived to the semi without dropping a set, having faced only a set point, at 6-2 4-5 30-40 in the quarterfinals against Gilles Simon.
Instead, the Mallorca-Madrid derby, the first all-lefty Australian Open semi since 1979 (Guillermo Vilas vs Victor Amaya) was one of the most remarkable match of the year. Fernando, mentally and physically consistent even over his standards, at his first semi in a major in career, stood his ground forcing the first set to a tiebreaker and dominating it 5-4. They went on with serve to 5-4 Nadal in the second; Fernando appeared more and more on the ropes, saving an amount of break points and cracking in his decisive service game from 40-15 up with a wasted forehand at open court. Match finished?
Only seemingly, although the impression was strong when Rafa broke immediately and flew 2-0 in the third. Nando is confused, appealed to the HawkEye on clearly lost points, but unbelievably he found some unsuspected energy and resource inside him to display a smart return game and counter-broke. Tiredness started to become a factor, Nando, until then very effective with his forehand, rose his unforced error from his left side. Every game is an endless battle, and after another break exchange, the second tiebreaker became the more foreseen solution, and Nadal returned the perfect machine of his best days and dashed out 7-2.
The Verdasco "post Mar del Plata" is another player, opposed to the fool and humoral genius he used to seem before the Davis Cup triumph. He hammered constantly, while Rafa accused some negative vibrations. The fourth set was memorable. Apparently "on one leg", Nando imposed to Rafa the "law of the windscreen wiper" having made another victim, Andy Murray. Verdasco forced another tiebreak, dominated it with 7 winners, arriving to sum up 90: Nadal was ko, 7-1.
When the fifth hour was approaching, Verdasco entered in the minefield, the preferred habitat for the Mallorcan fighter. Nando went down a bit, Rafa immediately seized with his teeth forcinf Verdasco to save 3 break points (they'll be 20 in the whole match). Nadal was a point far to go 5-3 and serving for the match, Verdasco erased that chance with his usual forehand. In the very next game, Nadal drowned to 0-30 before coming back before being swallowed by the shadows hanging over him. At 5-4, on Verdasco's serve, Nadal went 0-40. Nando saved the first two set points, then surrendered in the worst possible way, with an excruciating double fault (the second in the set, the third in the match).
Nadal went on to win the final, Federer will finish all tears because "this is killing me", but this match will be remembered as the best match of the Australian Open. And also, as the longest in the tournement history: 5 hours and 14 minutes, 3 more than the previous record, resisting since 1991, when Boris Becker defeated the Italian Omar Camporese 7-6 7-6 0-6 4-6 14-12.
Nadal d. Djokovic 3-6, 7-6, 7-6. Madrid Masters Semifinal
It was seemed only a marvellous tennis show after the handshake, and instead this match revealed to be a keystone for the immediate future of this sport. Nadal confirmed he "couldn't lose", without implying a Jose Mourinho's style of acceptation, but simply confirming he is exhalted in the fight for survival. Djokovic, as opposed to what happened in the only slightly less epic 2008 Hamburg Masters semi, remained focused also in the third and decisive set, and went incredibly close to inflict to Rafa his fifth defeat on the clay in 154 matches. The result was passion, upset, legend.
Djoko was never disposed to welcome the inevitable without battling to reverse his destiny and opened his match winning the first set 6-3 and transforming 21 of his 26 service points. The match went on on a subtle wire of balance and tension, with the two fighters almost perfect on serve. But Djoko was a bitter "more perfect": he had the first break points of the set, that Nadal faced and saved with a mix of patience and luck, because Djoko didn't play them at his best. At 6-5 the Djoker faced the first set point to Rafa, but the Mallorcan wasted a backhand and forced the set to a tiebreaker. The fight became a mental matter, Nadal prevailed 7-5 and delayed the verdict to the third.
The novel was enriched by an endless series of tics, rituals and pauses, of tension suspended in the air. Between the points sometime there were more than 40 seconds, Nadal maintained all his gestures before serving, Djoker displayed all his tricks in accusing cramps he not always suffered and recurred to unnerving innumerable rebounds before serve. Every game is highly contested, and organisers were forced to postpone the start of the second semifinal fixed at 8 pm (Nadal and Djoko started at 4 pm). Djoko could crack, and instead he went 3-1 up. But Nadal broke him again and only a second tiebreak decided the winner. Djoko went 6-5 up and on serve, but Rafa's forehand was a poisoned arrow and made the Magic Box explode in ruptures. Djoko had a second match point, at 7-6: Rafa hammered with his forehand, folded Djoker's resistance and remained alive, again. Even Djoko cheered his opponent: a very uncommon beau geste. Also Rafa had his first match point, but Djoko with a classy combination of drop and passing shot survived the menace. But flew a forehand at his third match point before, like Hector against Achilles, bend his knees towards the Fate when, at 10-9, he thought to save the match point for Nadal with a serve & volley, but Rafa found a passing shot Djoko couldn't defend.
Rafa won in 4 hours and 3 minutes, simply the longest best-of-three match in the Open era. But the season will arride more to the Serb, protagonist of a good fall and winter, while this remained as the last great victory for Nadal, uncapable then to defeat again a top-8.
Soderling d. Nadal 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6. Roland Garros 4th round
The match that changed the history. The seeds of the greatest upset on the Philippe Chatrier, were planted two years before, in a marathon-match at Wimbledon, covering five days and five sets, when Soderling, who wasted a two sets advantage, started to imitate Rafa, tugging at the rear of his shorts. Nadal wasn't amused. In the Rome Masters, few days before the meeting at the Philippe Chatrier, Rafa conceded to the Swede only one game.
Soderling was everywhere: he served out nine aces, with no doubles, attacked with pace and slammered innumerable forehand winners. He came to the net whenever possible, and was merciless once there (27 winners in 35 tries). The Swede converted 5 out of 6 break points, allowing Nadal only four and saving two, despite being forced 11 times to deuce.
Number that could be enough to explain the entity of the task. Soderling was pumped up from the first exchanges, and it was blindingly clear that the Rome match was only a far memory. The Swede broke twice in the first set and sealed it in just 34 minutes. As a rule of course, when the underdog takes the opener against the reigning champion in such a way, the upset is usually followed by normal services resuming. Not this time. Nadal raised his game, he was less passive than before, broke to lead 2-1 and served for set at 5-4, but Soderling rewrote history again levelling the match with a brilliant backhand volley. But he finally showed some nerves, in the tiebreak, summing up too many unforced errors and gifting it to Rafa 7-2. It was the last time the ice-eyed Swede left space to emotions.
The tiebreak was no way precursor for Rafa to cruise towards the success. Soderling restarted finding the lines and hammering with his forehand to devastating effect. At 3-3 30-40 he slammed a winning return wrong-footing Rafa before serving out for 6-4.
Even then, many believed Rafa, never pushed to a fifth set in his Parisian kingdom, would have emerged as the winner. But neither this time he was forced to the decider, because Soderling imposed himself before, in 3 hours and a half. At 4-5 Soderling found himself 15-30 down, but with three big serves levelled things. He went down again, at 5-6, and finally held despite being twice taken to deuce. The King of clay was on the bad side of a one-sided denouement. He fought, but won only one of the first seven tiebreak points (enjoying a lucky net cord) while Soderling thundered winners on winners and celebrate the greatest victory of his live when Rafa dug out a volley which drifted and landed just out. So his reign was stopped after 31 match victories and 4 triumphs.
Federer b. Roddick 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14. Finale di Wimbledon.
Gianluca: torneo che è da sempre l'asse cartesiano del tennis, Wimbledon regala anche una terza partita dell'anno. E' la finale, ed entra nella decina non tanto per il suo livello tecnico (con un Federer per larghi tratti contratto dal peso della storia) quanto per la sua importanza storica ed i suoi numeri monstre. Come quelli del quinto set...
Nicola: la finale dei 50 aces (!!!) e dei 15 slam, degli antiestetici occhiali da sole di Sampras e del ciuffo biondo del sindaco di Londra Boris Johnson, della voleè di Roddick direttamente nel Tamigi invece che in campo per il 2 set a zero mancato, del Roger che non si tuffa in terra dopo la vittoria e dell'Andy risentito perché Federer afferma di sapere come si sente l'americano...
Federer d. Roddick 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14. Wimbledon final
The match of the records for Federer: 50 aces (only one away from the absolute record in Wimbledon held by Ivo Kaarlovic) and 15 Slams won by the Swiss, in front of Pete Sampras, who with unfashion sunglasses watched RF become the greatest tennis player in history and accepting Roddick excuses in post-match oncourt interview. It was the longest men's Grand Slam final, 77 games, breaking the previous record of 71 from 1927 in Australia. The 30-game final set was the longest decider in a major final, surpassing the 20 games from 1927 in France. Federer's straight sets victory in the first two rounds were each shorter than the fifth set of the final.
In the end, Federer had an incredible total of 107 winners, compared with 38 unforced errors. Roddick had 27 aces, 74 winners and 33 unforced mistakes. Playing his 20th Grand Slam final, and sixth in a row, Roger had his first chances in the first set at 5-5, but Roddick saved four break points in a 16-points game and then broke in the next game to take the set, sealing the opening upset with a deep backhand forcing a forehand error by the Swiss. The second went on serve until the tiebreaker, which Roddick let vanish from his hands after leading 6-2 up and letting Federer save the fourth set point with the sadly famous backhand volley finished nearer to the Thames than to the line. The Nebraska native saved another break point in the sixth game of the third set with an ace and they went on with serve until another tiebreak. Federer went leading 6-3, the American saved two set points, but on the third Federer reach a drop shot and found a forehand winner.
At that stage, Federer might have been expected to ride the momentum. Yet Roddick broke for the second time in the fourth game, thanks to a sliced shot and a backhand pass that Federer couldn't handle. At 5-2, Roddick slipped on the baseline with his right leg. But he shook it off and served out the set to send the match to the fifth.
The fifth set was a remarkable battle, a back-and-forth fight with the player slugging huge serves and offering few chances to break. Roddick saved a break point in the second, and Federer erased two key points at 8 all 15-40 with a pair of big serves. Finally, in the last moment Roddick blinked and, after saving six break points, lost his serve for the first time: at 14-15, at the second deuce, he misplayed a forehand gifting Roger a place in the legend. After 4 hours and 16 minutes Roger Federer became the tennis player with more Grand Slam titles than everyone else, defeating Roddick for the third time in a Wimbledon final, and the 19th in total.
Dent d. Navarro 6-4, 5-7, 6-7, 7-5, 7-6 Us Open 2nd round
Unbelievably, a match between two journeyman, on a seconsary court, attracted a delighted crowd to admire the incredible comeback of Taylor Dent, who passed 13 months immobilized in a bed for a series of spinal surgeries. Taylor and Ivan are two species facing the risk of extintion, their match was an sos for the nostalgic fans of serve and volley, of a tennis made of elegant gestures. Phil's son, before the match, was instructed by his longtime friend Justin Gimelstob that Navarro (who sometime ago decided to elide his second surname, Pastor) was far from correspond to the traditional image of the Spanish fence sitter.
In fact, the players went to the net 255 times (146 the Spanish, 109 the American) in 252 minutes. The show was hard to forget, and in many ways singular. For example, the game was suspended for 7 minutes because a 138 mph serve by Dent unseated the net: the same American, at 4-4 in the decider, saved a break point with the fastest serve of the tournament at 147 mph. The Spaniard, who use two different racquets, one to serve and one to return, with the difficult due for the ballboys to change them every two points in the tiebreaks, was unplayable on his serve, closing with the 81% of first serves, and came often to the net displaying first volleys often not decisive, but enough venomous to make it difficult for Dent to pass him. Taylor went down 2 sets to one, and in the decisive tiebreak came back from two minibreak down. But it didn't seem his day when he wasted the second match point with a crosscourt forehand volley easier to close than to slip up that bounced into the tramlines. Soon after, he risked at his best, on a match point for Navarro, a second serve bouncing on the line and closed the point with a down the line forehand being well inside the baseline. The rupturing crowd followed the final stages practically standing up and after the winning return down the line that gave Dent the match, exploded in chants and chores while Dent ran in total delight giving the five to all the first row all around the court.