Yesterday ATPTour.com looked back at three of the best Grand Slam comebacks of the season. Now, continuing our review of the 2021 season, we will complete the top five with the two best Grand Slam match comebacks of 2021, featuring top five stars Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
2) Roland Garros, Final, Novak Djokovic d. Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-7(6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4
The effort required to beat Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros comes at a price. When Robin Soderling did it in 2009 he fell in the final, as did Novak Djokovic six years later.
In 2015, after upsetting Nadal in the quarter-finals, Djokovic fell one match shy of completing the career Grand Slam against Stan Wawrinka. That first Roland Garros title came a year later, and five years on, he became the first man to beat the Spaniard twice in Paris.
The Serbian required more than four hours to subdue defending champion Nadal less than two days earlier. Now one match win from a second Roland Garros crown, he came up against first-time major finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The Greek had weathered his own battle in the semi-finals after he let a two-set lead slip before he righted his ways and stormed home in the deciding set against Alexander Zverev. It was the first time he had passed the semi-finals of a major on his fourth attempt. Djokovic, 11 years his senior, was through to his 19th Grand Slam final, his sixth in Paris and his third straight this season.
Djokovic was not without his chances in a 70-minute opening set after he failed to serve it out at 6-5 and missed a set point in the subsequent tie-break before Tsitsipas clinched it. In 30-degree heat, the World No. 1 appeared strained as he surrendered his opening serve of the second set and when he conceded it 6-2 it was clear the weight of history was bearing down.
Only five players before him in the Open Era had recovered from a two-set deficit to win a Grand Slam final. Never before had the 34-year-old done it, but he had bounced back from two sets down once already this tournament against #NextGen ATP Italian Lorenzo Musetti in the fourth round.
The pivotal break came in the fourth game of the third set and from there Tsitsipas looked increasingly vulnerable as his opponent’s confidence only grew. The Serbian had regained the mental and physical edge as he levelled at two sets apiece. As the match passed the four-hour mark in the fifth set, Djokovic saved break points for the last time.
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He secured his place in history on his second championship point 6-7(6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. He was the first man to win all majors twice in the Open Era and closed to within one Grand Slam title of Roger Federer’s and Nadal’s all-time mark.
“I couldn’t be happier and more satisfied with this kind of scenario in the last 48 hours,” said Djokovic after the four-hour 11-minute final. “Probably ranks at the top three all‑time achievements and experiences that I had in my professional tennis career.”
Defeat ended Nadal’s hopes of pulling clear of Federer with a 21st major and consigned him to a seventh Australian Open quarter-final exit. Tsitsipas was only the second player after Fabio Fognini at the 2015 US Open who had beaten Nadal from two sets down at a major.
“I missed a couple of balls in the [third set] tie-break that I could not miss if I wanted to win… I think Stefanos played great in the fourth and fifth sets,” Nadal said. “I think I stayed positive all the time during the match, fighting. And [it] was not enough.”
Read more from our Best of 2021 series here.
1) Australian Open, QF, Stefanos Tsitsipas d. Rafael Nadal 3-6, 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-4, 7-5
Following a breakthrough run to the Australian Open semi-finals in 2019, when he dethroned his idol Roger Federer en route, Stefanos Tsitsipas had been earmarked as a potential successor to the Big Three on the Grand Slam stages. The Greek had since entrenched himself in the Top 5 and played himself comfortably into the second week at Melbourne Park, after he survived a five-set scare against Thanasi Kokkinakis in the second round.
For the 13th time in the past 15 years, his opponent – 20-time major champion Nadal – was through to the Australian Open quarter-finals. The second seed had not dropped a set, a run that included a dominant fourth-round dismissal of 16th seed Fabio Fognini in which he conceded only nine games.
Melbourne had been plunged back into a snap five-day lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so the pair squared off before an empty Rod Laver Arena under the lights. It mattered not to the Spaniard as he looked headed for a comfortable victory after he secured the opening two sets in 81 minutes.
Photo Credit: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
To say things looked bleak for Tsitsipas would be a gross understatement. In his career, Nadal had only failed once to close out a match after leading two sets to love.
The two could not be separated on serve throughout a 54-minute third set and it was the Greek who reeled off four of the last five points to land the tie-break. The fifth seed was determined to extend his stay and continued to press on Nadal’s serve, while he had increasingly fewer problems on his own in the fourth set, as he levelled the contest after two hours and 12 minutes.
Nadal had fallen just once in eight ATP Head2Head encounters with his opponent and had been in this situation countless times before in his career. Momentum was hard to come by in the deciding set as neither conjured up a break point until the 11th game when Nadal dropped serve for only the second time.
It handed Tsitsipas a chance to serve for the match at 6-5 and in the tensest game of the final set, he steadied to secure his passage on his third match point 3-6, 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-4, 7-5 after four hours and five minutes.
“I’m speechless,” Tsitsipas said on court. “I have no words to describe what just happened. It’s an unbelievable feeling to be able to fight at such a level and just be able to give it my all on the court.
“I started very nervous, I won’t lie, but I don’t know what happened after the third set. I just flew like a little bird, everything was working for me. The emotions at the end are indescribable.”