By Joe Samuel Starnes
To take several years to write a 352-page novel about a tennis player (including early drafts that were much longer), you have to first be obsessed with the game. Part of being obsessed means watching thousands of tennis matches—the majority on TV, but many in person. For those I couldn’t watch or the many brilliant battles that happened before my time, I’ve looked deep into the game’s history in search of the epics.
For my personal ranking of the thirteen best men’s professional tennis matches of all time, presented here in reverse order, I’ve included five I attended, five I watched on television, and three I read about. Like all such “best of” rankings, there is nothing scientific or objective about it.
THIRTEEN: Fabrice Santoro def. Jan-Michael Gambill in second round of the 1999 U.S. Open.
This one will make no one else’s list, but how often do you see a men’s match where both players hit two-handed forehands and backhands? And how often do you see a player like Santoro with all the spins and funkiness? Since Santoro, also known as The Magician, retired in 2009, never. I was there in the stands of the Louis Armstrong Stadium for this one, watching Santoro’s steady underspin, two-handed forehand, hit deep and with no pace, aggravate Gambill to no end.
The three-and-a-half hour match ran from a hot afternoon into the evening. After double-faulting to go down 40-love at 4-4 in the fifth set, Gambill flipped his racket into the net and quit. He cited cramps, but from where I sat, it looked like more frustration with the Frenchman’s funky junk balls.
TWELVE: Andy Roddick def. Younes El Aynaoui in 2003 Australian Open quarterfinal.
I lost an entire night’s sleep following this five-hour match that went to 21-19 in the fifth set between 20-year-old Roddick and the 31-year-old Moroccan journeyman. The match featured brilliantly played points and supreme sportsmanship and also generous good humor, including a moment when the weary players handed off their rackets to two ball boys who played out a point.
ELEVEN: Facundo Bagnis def. Julien Benneteau in the 2014 French Open first round.
I’ve loved watching the French Open all my life but have been to Roland Garros for exactly one day. We had great seats in the vaunted Bullring, but it looked like we were going to be rained out after watching an injured Kei Nishikori lose a sloppy first round match against Martin Klizan. Then the skies cleared and the qualifier Bagnis played a brilliant match against a scrappy Benneteau that went 18-16 in the fifth set. I was so inspired that I wrote more than 4,000 words about it.
TEN: Pancho Gonzalez def. Charlie Pasarell in 1969 Wimbledon first round.
I’ve only read about this one, but the winner’s date of birth (May 9, 1928) and the score tells you all you need to know. Gonzalez was 41 years old when he outlasted Pasarell in a match that was extended over two days. This pre-tiebreaker era match saw Gonzalez lose the first set by the score of 22-24, and then the second 1-6 before darkness fell. He came charging back the next day and won three sets in a row: 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. It was, at the time, Wimbledon’s longest match.
NINE: John Isner def. Nicholas Mahut in the 2010 Wimbledon first round.
Gonzalez’s epic wouldn’t be the longest match forever, even after the advent of the tiebreaker in the first four sets. I followed much of the famous Isner-Mahut tennis triathlon from my desk at work via the delightful Wimbledon Radio internet broadcast. I kept thinking I’d get back to what I was doing as soon as the fifth set ended. Of course, that fifth set went to 70-68, dragging on for three days until Isner emerged the winner.
The Guardian’s live blog by Xan Brooks is a stunning piece of spontaneous writing, including this description of the match when the fifth set score was only 18-18: “On and on they go. Soon they will sprout beards and their hair will grow down their back, and their tennis whites will yellow and then rot off their bodies. And still they will stand out there on Court 18, belting aces and listening as the umpire calls the score. Finally, I suppose, one of them will die.”
EIGHT: Bob and Mike Bryan def. Nikolay Davydenko and Igor Andreev in the 2007 Davis Cup final.
After the Russians put a scare into the nervous twins in a first set tiebreaker, the Bryans dominated, winning in three straight sets. This match is on my list for what it meant: The greatest doubles team in history clinching a Davis Cup championship for the U.S., the American team’s first win in twelve years and, the way tennis is trending, maybe the last. This is also on the list because my mom and I were in attendance, enjoying the raucous Davis Cup celebration in Portland, which I blogged about at length.
SEVEN: Don Budge def. Gottfried Von Cramm in the 1937 Davis Cup final.
According to Budge, Adolf Hitler called Von Cramm in the locker room before the match to give the closeted-gay German a pep talk. The Fuhrer’s alleged phone call didn’t help him, however, as Budge fought back from two sets down to overcome Von Cramm and win the decisive fifth match and claim the big silver cup for the U.S.
Marshall Jon Fisher’s book A Terrible Splendor is a marvelous account of the match, the people, and the ominous time when it was played.
SIX: Arthur Ashe def. Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final.
Connors was red hot and dominant and on the rise at the age of 22, while Ashe was 31 and considered over the hill. But Ashe outfoxed and outplayed Connors, winning in four sets in what is often considered the greatest upset of all time. Peter Bodo, a longtime tennis writer, covered the match and has written a book about it for the fortieth anniversary. I look forward to reading Ashe vs Connors: Wimbledon 1975, Tennis that went beyond Centre Court.
FIVE: Pete Sampras def. Alex Correjta in the 1996 U.S. Quarterfinal.
Sampras cramped up and got sick, vomiting in the back of the court and receiving a delay warning, but somehow managed to snap out of his zombie state and fought his way back to beat the clay court specialist by a score of 9-7 in the fifth set tiebreaker. I jumped out of my easy chair and watched much of this match standing up. Sampras was carried from the stadium like he was dying. He went on, of course, to win his fourth U.S. Open.
FOUR: Sampras def. Andre Agassi in the 2002 U.S. Open final.
Like the Bryan brothers’ Davis Cup clincher, this was not a scintillating competition, but it’s on my list for two reasons. One: I was there! I had a press pass and a good seat in the press section, so I could actually see the players’ faces. Normally in the cavernous Ashe Stadium I would end up in the nosebleeds. Two: It was Sampras’s final match. The 31-year-old retired soon after, going out on top after his fourteenth Grand Slam title.
The truth about this match is that old format of playing the semis on Saturday and the finals on Sunday compromised the quality of play. Agassi was very tired, having beaten Lleyton Hewitt in a long dogfight that dragged late into the afternoon while Sampras had an easy, earlier match. It’s a shame they couldn’t both have been fresh for this last match up of two great American champions, but there were still moments of brilliance right in front of my eyes. It also was the last time two American men played in a Grand Slam final, and like the U.S. Davis Cup championship, it most likely will be a very long time before it happens again, if ever.
THREE: Novak Djokovic def. Radek Stepanek in the second round of the 2007 U.S. Open.
The hardcore U.S. Open fans know that the best matches of the tournament are the early rounds on the courts other than the Ashe Stadium. My mom and I got there an hour before the gates opened, waited in a very long line, and then I ran to a spot in the Armstrong Stadium and snagged prime seats for us to watch then No. 3 seed Djokovic against Stepanek. They played a beauty of a match, five long sets that included 104 rallies of eight shots or more. It lasted almost five hours, ending in a tiebreaker. At the rarefied level they played, we would have been happy to watch them play for another five hours.
TWO: Rafael Nadal def. Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final.
Peter Bodo and Jon Wertheim declared this the greatest tennis match in history, and it did have it all—a clashing of contrasting, exceptional styles; a valiant comeback (Federer lost the first two sets but fought back in the next two, saving two match points in the fourth-set tiebreaker); gorgeous lighting as the gloaming enveloped Centre Court; and ultimately the Spaniard’s Wimbledon breakthrough at 9-7 in the fifth, not long before the match would have been postponed for darkness.
I watched the fourth set and the end of the fifth on the communal TV in the Green Valley Tennis Club in Haddon Township, N.J., in between going out and playing two sets with my friend Marcelo Pascale. During the long Nadal-Federer match, I beat Marcelo, a transplanted Argentine, in two sets on clay, and anytime you beat an Argentine on clay you have done something special (In fairness, he was recovering from knee surgery). The tennis on the TV looked far better than we did, like an other-worldly game, but it’s still not my favorite match.
ONE: Bjorn Borg def. John McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon final.
I was so inspired by this match that three decades later I chose to start the first scene in my tennis novel with it. The intensity and beauty of the competition serves as the inspiration for my main character to become a tennis player. It had all the elements that Federer-Nadal in 2008 did and slightly more: the contrast in style and personalities (the groundstroking Iceman versus the net-charging Superbrat); an amazing fourth-set tiebreaker with not just two but seven saved match points by McEnroe; the same beautiful setting of Centre Court; and Borg’s record setting fifth Wimbledon victory, an astounding accomplishment for a baseliner more suited for clay.
I was 13 at the time, and on that day my dad and I drove to Atlanta and he bought a ball machine I hoped would improve my woeful backhand. We watched the entire Borg-McEnroe fourth set tiebreaker on a bank of televisions in the Ellman’s department store.
Even with the ball machine, I still never resolved my weak backhand, but I had seen something beyond special: A tennis match that would inspire me for many years to come.
Joe Samuel Starnes’s new novel, published last month, is Red Dirt: A Tennis Novel, which can be described as the rural Rocky of tennis fiction. He has published two previous novels, Calling (2005), which was re-issued last year as an ebook by MysteriousPress.com/Open Road, and Fall Line (2011), selected to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Best of the South” list. He has had journalism appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and various magazines, as well as essays, short stories, and poems in literary journals. In 2008, he wrote about a search for Bill Tilden’s grave for Tennis magazine. In 2010, he played a 15-year-old girl ranked 920 in the world, winning six games and writing about it for Peter Bodo’s blog.