The past two days, ATPTour.com has reflected on the most memorable ATP Tour match comebacks of 2021. Now, continuing our review of the 2021 season, we look at the best Grand Slam comebacks of 2021, featuring Felicano Lopez, who rolled back the years, and Dominic Thiem, who edged Nick Kyrgios in Australia.
5) Australian Open, Second Round, Feliciano Lopez d. Lorenzo Sonego 5-7, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4
Imagine you are a 19-year-old playing in the very first Grand Slam match of your career, facing a fellow countryman you have idolised. It happened to Feliciano Lopez at Roland Garros in 2001 against Carlos Moya, only three years removed from his breakthrough title there.
“I think I got killed in the first round, if I’m not wrong,” Lopez remembered two decades later.
He wasn’t wrong; Lopez managed to win all of five games against Moya. Don’t feel too sorry for the strapping Spaniard because he put together a terrific career. This year’s Australian Open was his 75th consecutive appearance in a major draw – an all-time record for both genders he would extend to 78 at the US Open. It’s a staggering accomplishment of consistent excellence – sometimes literally.
Heading into the season’s first major, that unbroken run was in jeopardy. Not only was the global pandemic wreaking havoc with travel plans, but Lopez’ wife Sandra had recently given birth to a son, Dario.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to come here,” he said following a first-round victory over Li Tu. “I was until the last minute thinking about what should I do, if I come or if I finally stay home.”
And so the 39-year-old Lopez stepped onto a plane a few days after the birth and, eventually, onto the court for a second-round match against Italian Lorenzo Sonego, who was 30 spots higher at No. 35 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, and 14 years younger. In stifling conditions at Melbourne Park, Lopez promptly lost the first two sets.
Historically, though, Lopez has exhibited a flair for the dramatic. He advanced to four major quarter-finals in his career, including three at Wimbledon, and later that season he would beat world No. 5 Andrey Rublev in a Davis Cup match. When you’ve finished in the Top 100 for 19 consecutive years, you learn not to give in when adversity visits.
“After two sets to love, you don’t expect the 39-year-old guy is going to come back,” Lopez said, charmingly referring to himself in the third-person.
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But that 39-year-old guy did come back. Playing a more forceful game, he converted the only three break points he was offered, winning each of the final three sets. Exhausted by the effort, he hid his head under a towel as he sobbed.
“To win a match in a Slam for me now is very special,” he said. “If I do it the way I did today, even more. So, to be in the third round now, it’s something very special for me. That’s why I’m very happy today.”
Lopez became the oldest player in nearly a half century to come back and win a major match after suffering a two-set deficit. It was the sixth time he’d done that and, perhaps, he said, the most memorable.
“It was very hard for me to leave my family at home,” he said afterward. “I was kind of emotional about the whole situation in general. Because of the gift life has given me of being able to be in the third round of a Grand Slam at my age. You have to try and make the most of it.
“At almost 40 years of age, I wouldn’t consider coming here in the current situation, if it weren’t for tournaments like this that give me the desire to train every day. That’s what keeps me excited.”
4) US Open First Round, Maxime Cressy d. Pablo Carreno Busta 5-7, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (7)
Back in the day, the serve and volley was more often the weapon of choice. First-strike tennis – the ultimate, in-your-face, all-or-nothing aggression. Gradually, though, that one-two gut punch left the game as consistent baseliners became the rule thanks to evolving equipment technology and increasingly slower courts. To the point that the serve and volley today is all but extinct.
On the rare occasions it resurfaces, it can be thrilling to watch – unless, of course, you were Pablo Carreno Busta at this year’s US Open.
Having already dropped the first two sets to the No. 9 seed, two-time US Open semi-finalist and Olympic bronze medalist, qualifier Maxime Cressy starting hitting aces and coming to net. Even when the Spaniard was serving, the 6-foot-6, 185-pound athlete kept chipping and charging forward.
Born in Paris, an American citizen and a four-year player at UCLA, Cressy’s net game was honed in doubles. He and Keegan Smith went 26-0 in 2019 and were NCAA champions. At the relatively late age of 22, Cressy turned professional and two years later he was battling Carreno Busta, leveling the match at 2-sets each.
The match was played in the semi-obscurity of Court 4 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, but as it progressed the crowd grew dramatically. By the time the players had reached the fifth-set tie-break, the court was surrounded by spectators – turned around in seats on adjacent courts, looking through fences – the cheers and chants were deafening.
Ultimately, order seemed to be restored when the heavy favourite ran out to a 6-3 lead, earning four match points. Cressy, ranked No. 151, was not deterred. He won the next two points at net and drew even when Carreno Busta double faulted. Two points later, Cressy saved another match point with a forehand volley and followed it with a service winner. His last rush forward caused Carreno Busta to miss a forehand and Cressy was a 9-7 winner.
To the chants of “Maxime! Maxime!” Cressy wind-milled his long arms and exulted after the biggest win of his career and one of the more memorable upsets in recent years at the US Open.
The statistics, as you might expect, were astonishing. Cressy:
• Stroked 44 aces and 81 winners.
• Won 46 of 70 serve-and-volley points.
• Took 64 of 97 points at net.
Despite all those abbreviated points, the match clocked at 3 hours, 33 minutes. In only the third major tournament of his career, Cressy managed to reach the second round in all of them.
And while he would eventually fall to Nikoloz Basilashvili, for one, giddy, incandescent match, Cressy’s retro performance brought back some serve-and-volley excitement to the game.
3) Australian Open, Third Round, Dominic Thiem d. Nick Kyrgios 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4
Nick Kyrgios, at his flashy, prime-time best on a friendly home court, opposite a Grand Slam champion is must-see theatre, but what if the dramatic stakes were raised even higher? What if there was a clock ticking on such a rousing, pivotal match?
That’s just what happened in the third round of the Australian Open. When Victoria’s state Premier Daniel Andrews ordered a snap, five-day lockdown after a hyper-infectious strain of COVID-19 leaked from an airport quarantine hotel. Tournament organisers informed ticketholders that they would have to leave the grounds by 11:30 p.m. – potentially before the end of Kyrgios’ scheduled match with World No. 3 Dominic Thiem in John Cain Arena.
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After his second-round win over Ugo Humbert, Kyrgios knew he was in for a physical test opposite Thiem. “It already hurts just thinking about it,” he quipped.
Three hours before they met, Kyrgios posted this on Instagram: “Haven’t felt nerves like this in a long time.”
When the start of the match was delayed, with John Cain filled to capacity, the fans probably felt the same way. Based on recent history, this one shouldn’t have been close. Thiem had won his first major, the US Open, in 2020 while Kyrgios elected to stay home in Canberra and not contest a match after a February retirement in Acapulco.
The Australian had lost seven straight matches Top 5 players, but he came out firing against Thiem, breaking him in the first and ninth games to take the first set. When he took the second set, the crowd roared. Somehow, it got louder when Thiem found himself down two break points in the first game of the third set.
“There are easier things than playing Nick at his home tournament on his favourite court,” Thiem said later. “He is a huge player when he is on fire like today. When I was down two break points in the first game of the third set, I was considering the prospect of losing.
“But I kept fighting and I thought there was a chance to turn it around.”
Thiem won the next four points and that momentum carried him to the third set. And the fourth. And the fifth.
The atmosphere, cinematic in a real sense, was electric, with Kyrgios tossing in exquisite drop shots, tweeners and even a few underarm serves. Still, Thiem was steadier in the end – which, fortunately, came just ahead of the imposed curfew.
After three hours, 21 minutes, Thiem was through to the fourth round in Melbourne for the fourth time in five years.
“He’s a hell of a player,” Kyrgios said of Thiem. “He’s so disciplined. He’s so composed. His level doesn’t drop. I’m not disappointed at all. I was 11 months away from the game, and to produce that level and go toe-to-toe with one of the best players in the world, I’m pretty proud.
“It was an amazing atmosphere. The energy out there was special.”
On court, Thiem said, “Since US Open, I know that impossible is nothing.”
Later, he would add, “I always prefer playing in front of a crowd, even if they are for their local hero, but I accepted it. Tonight was epic and it was a great match.”
Read more from our Best Of 2021 series here.