Are you feeling the love yet? In Part 1, I gave you three of my favorite ATP tennis matches of all time. As good as the tennis was, they qualify just as much because of the back story, the accomplishments, the history. For Rafael Nadal, it was improving little by little each year until he was able to defeat Roger Federer on grass. For Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, it was the heated rivalry between the two. And Bjorn Borg and McEnroe gave us a five-set match that had one of the greatest finishes of all time.
Now, I present to you my final two top matches in men’s tennis singles history.
Goran Ivanisevic vs Patrick Rafter, 2001 Wimbledon final
If you want to talk about one of the greatest achievements in sports history, not just tennis, then you have to include Goran Ivanisevic in that conversation. As it was with my other top moments, the tennis within the match was great, but in this case it was the sheer significance of what a player accomplished through the entire tournament.
Ivanisevic earned the title of 2001 Wimbledon champion and the word “earned” is such an understatement. He became the first unseeded player to win the Wimbledon title since Boris Becker in 1985 and the first (and still the only) wild card to win a Grand Slam singles title. Entering the tournament, he was ranked 125th in the world and was not even listed on the betting odds. In fact, he was +2500 as part of the FIELD to win it all.
The journey Ivanisevic had to take in order to accomplish this feat was truly remarkable. Here’s a look at his route to the title.
First Round: Fredrik Jonsson
Second Round: Carlos Moya (No. 21 seed)
Third Round: Andy Roddick. In 2004, Roddick took the record for fastest serve, topping 155 mph, and even today he still holds a top seven spot.
Fourth Round: Greg Rusedski. In 1998, Rusedski had the record for the fastest serve, topping 149 mph, and today still holds a top 15 spot.
Why do these records matter? Both were during times before the racquet technology changed the game we see today.
Quarterfinals: Marat Safin (No. 4 seed). All I can say is he was a super talented Russian player who I miss watching today.
Semifinals: Tim Henman (6 seed). He made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1998, 1999, 2001 and 2002.
Finals: Patrick Rafter (3 seed). Rafter had arguably the best net game on tour at the time.
And it wasn’t just Ivanisevic’s ride from start to finish, it was how everything needed to happen exactly as it did in order for him to make history.
For one, Pete Sampras was the four-time defending champ and the +200 favorite to win the tournament. However, he was eliminated in the fourth round by a young Roger Federer. Andre Agassi, the second favorite at +350, was ousted in the semifinals. Federer, although he beat Sampras, lost in the quarterfinals to Henman.
Ivanisevic’s finals match against Rafter was a wild one, going a full five sets. It was a Cinderella story. Ivanisevic was not supposed to win but he did and it was magic. We may never see a wild card win a Grand Slam again.
David Nalbandian vs Roger Federer, 2007 Madrid Masters
Tennis, man. It tugs at my heartstrings. An unseeded David Nalbandian put on an exceptional performance to achieve a rarer than rare feat of besting the top three players in the world in the same tournament, becoming only the second player since Boris Becker in 1994 to do that. I mean, this stuff is truly the work of the gods. You couldn’t write a better story.
Nalbandian entered the tournament 25th in the world and before facing the top three had to make it through No. 9 seed Tomas Berdych in the second round and up-and-coming countryman Juan Martin del Potro. He then made it through world No. 1 and Madrid Masters defending champ Roger Federer, world No. 2 Rafael Nadal and world No. 3 Novak Djokovic to clinch his first Masters Series title.
Nalbandian’s first shot at the top three was against second seed Nadal and what a destroyer Nalbandian was. He demolished Nadal 6-1, 6-2 in the quarterfinals.
Let’s remember that Nadal’s strength is not hardcourt. Nadal has a heavy topspin ball and on hardcourt, that is just not effective against a player who can take the ball on the rise like Nalbandian could. While Nadal’s strength is setting up a wicked forehand to a right-handed player’s backhand, I will die on this hill – come at me – and say that Nalbandian has the best two-handed backhand of all time. Period.
Beat world No. 1: Check
This set up a semifinal match against world No. 3 Djokovic. Though Djokovic was No. 3, he was still a bit of an up-and-comer. The “Big 3” was not yet a thing but it was still a heck of a win. Djokovic had just finished as runner-up to Federer in the U.S. Open final a few weeks before.
Beat world No. 3: Check
The finals match against Federer was a whirlwind. He got wrecked in the Sportsbook set, losing 6-1, but went on to win the next two sets 6-3, 6-3 to take the title.
It’s worth noting that Federer and Nalbandian came up in the junior world rankings together. They knew each other’s game really well but Nalbandian was certainly the kryptonite for Federer. Nalbandian had answers for all of Federer’s tactics. Backhand vs backhand, Nalbandian wins. Against Federer’s attempts at coming to the net, Nalbandian was one of the best lobbers on both the forehand and backhand side. He also had a really good feel at the net. All recipes for success if everything clicks. And everything clicked.
Beat world No. 2: Check
What Nalbandian was able to do, achieve something so great, so remarkable – it still gives me chills to this day.
There are so many great matches to reference but these set up the love story today. I love football but I love tennis. It’s the cleanest form of boxing. You are sparring with a person 78 feet across from you and testing them with different shots and combinations. It’s a beautiful game. A love affair uncontested.