Last week, ATPTour.com looked at the best ATP Tour matches of 2021. Now, we will reflect on the best Grand Slam matches from Australia to New York.
An Andy Murray thriller under the roof at Wimbledon and Frances Tiafoe digging deep at the US Open are among three of the top five Grand Slam matches of the season.
5) Wimbledon, Second Round, Andy Murray d. Oscar Otte 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2
This is what Wimbledon fans live for: Darkness descending, Sir Andy Barron Murray leaving it all out there on the grass of Centre Court, playing every point as if his life depended on it. Truth be told, that’s what Murray lives for, too.
It’s why the 34-year-old was still playing the second round of this year’s Wimbledon tournament – 16 years after his debut there and for the first time in four years – after a pair of career-threatening hip surgeries. The second, in January 2019, involved two metal implants. And while Bob Bryan had a similar hip resurfacing procedure, playing doubles is a world away from the fearsome wear and tear of singles.
Murray’s season had begun modestly, in a Biella, Italy Challenger (he lost in the final) and he had played only five matches coming into Wimbledon as a wild card. After dispatching 24th seed Nikoloz Basilashvili in four sets, he faced German qualifier Oscar Otte, a 27-year-old ranked No. 151 in the world. Otte reached the second round by beating Arthur Rinderknech 13-11 in the fifth set – the match required two days.
Later, Otte would reveal that he shed tears when he watched the documentary that chronicled Murray’s injury struggles.
In 12 previous Grand Slam meetings with qualifiers, Murray had authored 11 victories, but that history seemed irrelevant when he found himself down two sets to one. This one was messy; after winning the first set (and leading 3-1 in the second), Murray suffered numerous unforced errors and bad decisions. The lanky, bearded German kept him off balance with a consistent array of big serves. Murray had a difficult time keeping his feet on the slippery slope that makes Wimbledon so unique. Later, he would attribute that to his lack of match play.
At that point, though, Murray began to channel his previous Centre Court exploits: the finals victory over Roger Federer at the London Olympics in 2012, the major titles in 2013 and 2016. With the score 2-2 in the fourth, the setting sun forced the closing of the roof. That was the end of Otte.
Murray won the fourth set with two winners, a volley and a backhand. The fifth was a Murray highlight film, backed by the unbridled cheers of the spectators. The last stroke was a lob for a winner but that hardly mattered. Murray, against great odds, had survived.
“I enjoyed the end,” he told the crowd, preaching to the choir. “The middle part not so much. What an atmosphere to play in. The whole crowd was amazing but there were a few guys in there who were getting it fired up. I needed everyone’s help tonight.”
Photo Credit: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
After his second surgery, Murray said it was for “quality of life” and to decrease the everyday pain he felt. But a return to elite tennis was always his goal. And while he would lose to Denis Shapovalov in the third round, Murray had achieved it.
“It’s been tough,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why I’m still playing is because of moments like that. Why would you want to give that up? The atmosphere the last – I mean, it was good the whole match, but especially the last hour and a half was brilliant.
“I still enjoy that.”
4) Australian Open, Second Round, Stefanos Tsitsipas d. Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-4
Eight years earlier, the world had been full of possibility for Thanasi Kokkinakis. The 17-year-old Australian reached the final of the Australian Open juniors, losing to countryman Nick Kyrgios. He would later win the Wimbledon junior doubles title with Kyrgios and advance to the US Open junior final, before losing to Borna Coric.
Based on recent performance, however, this shouldn’t have been much of a match. Kokkinakis, coming off his first Australian Open match victory in six years, had a long history of injuries and illness. He found himself at No. 267 in the FedEx ATP Rankings and was playing on a wild card. Tsitsipas, meanwhile, was ranked No. 6, had a semi-finals appearance in Melbourne on his resume (defeating Roger Federer on the way in 2019) and had dropped only four games in his first-round win over Gilles Simon.
At 22, the Greek was attempting to become the youngest Australian Open champion since Novak Djokovic in 2008. He had never lost a Grand Slam match to a player ranked as low as Kokkinakis, but after losing a taut first-set tie-break on a double fault that suddenly looked like a possibility.
It was an ATP Cup-like atmosphere at Rod Laver Arena; Kokkinakis was buoyed by the cheering crowd that included family and friends as well as Kyrgios. Kokkinakis, who had saved his first eight break points, finally cracked on his ninth and Tsitsipas took the second set.
Statistically, Kokkinakis was outplayed in the fourth set but he was phenomenal in the critical moments. Saving a match point, he forced a tie-break, winning it with a backhand winner down the line. The fifth set belonged to Tsitsipas – in his first Australian Open match to go the distance – as his heavier shots and edge in fitness became the deciding factor. Kokkinakis, his serve under siege, was finally broken in the fifth game and Tsitsipas forged a decisive edge.
To a standing ovation, the two swashbuckling, charismatic players met at net, four hours, 32 minutes after they began.
“I just want to go for an ice bath right now,” Tsitsipas said afterward, “That’s all I’m thinking. Thanasi is a great competitor and a great fighter.
“He wasn’t able to play all these years due to injuries that he had, and it was a big shame because we were missing someone who was not there with us on the tour. I’m very happy to see him back competing at a very high level.”
For Kokkinakis, who fired 23 aces in defeat, it was his finest moment in 2021, a year that saw him contest only six tour-level matches. And a reminder of what he is capable of.
In the end, Tsitsipas hit an astonishing 78 winners. He proceeded to beat quarantine training partner Mikael Ymer in the third round, Matteo Berrettini in the fourth and Rafael Nadal in the fourth (in five sets) before falling to Daniil Medvedev in the semi-finals.
“I fought like a real warrior out there,” Tsitsipas said. “It was an amazing ending with lots of emotion and great spirit.”
3) US Open, Third Round, Frances Tiafoe d. Andrey Rublev 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (6), 4-6, 6-1
Photo Credit: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
In a sport with more than its share of extraordinary backstories, consider the unlikely trajectory of Francis Tiafoe:
His mother, Alphina, escaped civil war in Sierra Leone when she received a rarely granted visa to the United States. Frances Sr., working on a construction crew at a junior tennis center in College Park, Md., was eventually offered a job there as a janitor. That’s where their son learned to love the game, and eventually master it.
In 2014, Tiafoe met another precocious 16-year-old in the junior quarter-finals of the US Open, Andrey Rublev. The American prevailed in three sets and they wouldn’t meet again until seven years later at the same venue – with drastically higher stakes. This time, Rublev – ranked No. 5 in the world – was a heavy favourite.
It was no surprise, then, that Rublev had the third set, and a formidable advantage, on his racquet at 6/5 in the tie-break. But rushing a second serve, the Russian double faulted into the net and Tiafoe escaped with the set – sending the Arthur Ashe Stadium late, late night crowd into hysterics. Tiafoe artfully worked the spectators and they helped him build a 4-2 lead in the fourth. Rublev came back, winning four straight games and the match was level.
Friday night had long since passed into Saturday morning when Tiafoe overpowered the Russian, winning six of the last seven games. He played aggressively, with unnatural confidence, hitting 14 winners – an average of two per game – and finished with a total of 69.
It was 2:14 a.m., and what was left of the crowd roared after a three-hour, 45-minute classic. Tiafoe walked stoically to net, congratulated his opponent, set his racquet down – and then ripped his off his shirt. He bounded to the edge of the stands and lifted his arms in triumph, nodding his head.
“You guys are the reason I got it done tonight,” Tiafoe said. “You guys stuck with me all the way through.
“I’ve lost a lot of tough matches on this court. I wasn’t going to leave this court without a win tonight.”
Fun footnote: It was tied for the fifth-latest finish in US Open history. Incredibly, Tiafoe’s coach, Wayne Ferreira, was involved in the other 2:14 a.m. ending, losing a memorable four-set match to Younes El Aynaoui in 2002.
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It was the second straight year for Tiafoe in the fourth round of the US Open, but he would lose to Felix Auger-Aliassime four sets.
“I love these matches,” Tiafoe told the crowd. “This is why you work. This is why you put the time in, to play the best guys in the world. These are the matches I get up for.
“I want these guys. I want to put it on my resume. I came out today and I was like, ‘I’m going to beat him.’ I grew up with this guy, I don’t fear any of these guys. Let’s keep going.”
Read more from our Best of 2021 series here.