In a companion to our article on the five most memorable women’s matches of 2012 so far, we repeat the countdown for the men. Some selections may surprise, while some almost certainly will not.
5) Tomic d. Dolgopolov, Australian Open
From the first week of almost every Australian Open springs an epic to remember, usually featuring two players with no real chance to win the title. The 2012 episode of this series provided five thrilling sets from two of the ATP’s most imaginative, mercurial shot-makers in an era relatively low on imagination. Known for their tendency to vary peaks with valleys, Tomic and Dolgopolov chose one of the sport’s largest arenas as the platform from which to soar like Icarus towards unfamiliar heights. Mesmerized spectators saw nearly every stroke and tactic known to man, many of which never would appear in a match between the game’s legends. Mirroring the personalities of its protagonist, this encounter’s rollercoaster rhythm concealed a surprise around almost every corner and offered a reminder of how much pure pleasure one still can gain from a sport where suffering has loomed large lately. With little of substance at stake, style could reign unapologetically supreme.
4) Roddick d. Federer, Miami
As the second Masters 1000 of the season began, Federer stood in a loftier position than he had since reaching the Roland Garros final last year. His first title since 2006 at Indian Wells, where he had defeated Nadal, had followed a stirring February during which he had burdened his Netjets craft with two more trophies. Conversely, Roddick had struggled with injury and fading form early in 2012, winning just five matches as he retired from the Australian Open and lost on home soil to Istomin and Malisse. On a sparkling evening in Miami, both of those trends reversed in a worthy revival of this famously one-sided rivalry, which had spanned nine major finals and semifinals. Always had those meetings ended in a familiar manner with Federer graciously ushering his befuddled opponent to the exit. On a less significant but still notable stage, Roddick withstood a mid-match surge by the Swiss to record an improbable triumph. Still without a victory since then, the American former #1 can bask in its glow whenever his spirits sag. Should this pair never meet again, their Miami clash provided a worthy coda, just as the 2009 Wimbledon final did to their collisions at majors.
3) Nadal d. Djokovic, Roland Garros
With history hovering over their shoulders, the top two men played a final that will not rank as the best of their 33 matches or even their best on clay, an honor that still belongs to their Madrid semifinal three years ago. Considering the enormous expectations placed upon it, however, probably no spectacle of superhuman brilliance would have provided a level of drama proportional to the moment. Significant less for its quality than for its broader significance, the Roland Garros final still overcame Mother Nature’s best efforts to sabotage it and delivered some of the scintillating, court-stretching rallies that we have grown to expect from this rivalry. Nadal’s career-defining achievement established him as the beset on clay, but he might have gained even more satisfaction from solving the greatest conundrum of his career. After disappointments in Monte Carlo and Rome, meanwhile, Djokovic demonstrated again that he can threaten a healthy Nadal in his bastions of clay as no other foe ever has. Its deflating conclusion notwithstanding, the most anticipated match of the season allowed both men to leave Paris with their heads held high, one filled with emotional release and the other with hope renewed. Most importantly of all, fans left the tournament more eager to see the sequel than ever before.
2) Djokovic d. Tsonga, Roland Garros
Two years ago, the world #1 would not have survived this match, when an inspired underdog outhit him for most of three consecutive sets as a partisan crowd reveled in the favorite’s discomfiture. On the other hand, one would not have expected Tsonga to turn a match that he began by losing nine of the first eleven games into an epic. First the Frenchman and then the Serb rose to the occasion, halting the bursts of momentum generated by the other while one sustained the hopes of a nation and the other the pressures of history. In addition to the (melo)dramatic setting, the tennis itself consistently inhabited the area between the compelling and the sensational from early in the second set to late in the fourth. A fascinating contrast of styles also developed between Djokovic’s baseline impenetrability and Tsonga’s forward-seeking explosiveness, which brought him to the brink of victory. Showing that he belongs among the game’s greatest champions, however, the world #1 showed no fear in seizing control of each match point. Although the contest ended in anticlimactic—albeit symmetrical—fashion, one last image endures of the Parisian spectators abandoning their habitual harshness to chant Tsonga’s name as he covered his face with a towel. When a loser earns the approval of these notorious throngs, something special always must have happened.
1) Djokovic d. Nadal, Australian Open
Sometime after midnight for a California viewer, the longest men’s final of the Open era began. By the start of the third set, the moon had disappeared. Midway through the fourth set, the birds started chirping. A few games into the fifth set, the first rays of an all-too-punctual sun started to seep through the blinds of the room where this writer watched. As Djokovic and Nadal staggered towards the podium to accept their trophies, commuters staggered towards their offices at the start of a new week. But those who, like me, saw every shot, every scramble, and every clinched fist of this six-hour epic will find no cause to envy those who had yielded hours before to the demands of Morpheus. With the season’s first major at stake, each of the two men who tower above the sport played the best hard-court match of his career on the same night in Melbourne. After three and a half sets, a four-set Djokovic victory looked like a foregone conclusion. After four and a half sets, a five-set Nadal triumph looked just as probable. Like any rewarding screenplay, the final featured just enough momentum shifts to sustain dramatic intrigue but not so many that it descended into chaos. Not until Djokovic lashed the last searing forehand into a corner, moreover, did the winner become clear. Producing unthinkable levels of athleticism and physicality, this match claims a place as the greatest in Australian Open history and set the bar dauntingly high for the rest of 2012.
What goes up must come down. We recount the three most disappointing men’s matches that 2012 has produced so far.
3) Federer d. Nadal, Indian Wells / Djokovic d. Federer, Roland Garros
Perfectly decent matches by ordinary standards, these semifinals fell well short of the standards expected for two prongs of the ATP’s exalted trivalry. Under an ominous sky and before a less-than-capacity crowd, Roger and Rafa submitted an effort only a little better than their disaster in Miami last year. (Perhaps we shouldn’t regret the absence of their collisions at the US Open, for North America seems to bring out the worst from them.) While Federer certainly impressed, Nadal struggled to find the court with routine groundstrokes in a match even less eventful than the 6-3, 6-4 scoreline suggested. In Paris, the Swiss played the role of the legend who looked much less than legendary in a straight-sets loss to Djokovic, himself distinctly below his best. Leading early in each of the first two sets, Federer scarcely resembled the formidable competitor who defeated the Serb there a year ago as he littered Chatrier with embarrassing errors and exuded little competitive appetite.
2) Federer d. Del Potro, anywhere
If the younger man’s collapse after holding a two-set lead in Paris represented “progress,” one can understand just how far this once-promising rivalry has sunk. On the one hand, Del Potro’s game can bring out Federer’s finest form on days when his vintage self strides onto the court, and losing a major final to the Argentine doubtless spurs the veteran’s motivation. On the other, much more significant hand, the 2009 US Open champion does little credit to his talent with capitulation after capitulation in matches where his mood ranges from spineless and defeatist to sour and petulant. Just as champions find a way to win in matches that they should lose, Del Potro seems to find a way to lose in matches against Federer that he certainly can win. Meet the ATP version of Azarenka vs. Radwanska.
1) Tipsarevic d. Stepanek, Davis Cup quarterfinal
In the swirling whirlpool of emotions that national team competition produces, many competitors lose the grace and gentility that they might bring to an individual event. And one hardly can blame Stepanek for feeling crushed after squandering multiple match points in a five-hour marathon against a vulnerable Tipsarevic as the Czechs battled the Serbs in a World Group quarterfinal. Nevertheless, one cannot excuse the unprofessional lapse that followed, which diverged so starkly from the implicit codes of conduct that separate tennis from other sports.