Earlier this week, ATPTour.com looked at the best ATP Tour and Grand Slam match comebacks of 2021. Now, we will reflect on the best ATP Tour matches from another pulsating year on the circuit. (The Top 5 Grand Slam matches of 2021 will follow soon.)
From a final classic in Paris between the Top 2 players in the FedEx ATP Rankings, to thrillers in Serbia and Antwerp, these are three of the top five ATP Tour matches of the season.
5) Rolex Paris Masters, Final, Novak Djokovic d. Daniil Medvedev 4-6, 6-3, 6-3
Tennis, at the highest level, is a game of adjustments. Seemingly slight tweaks in strategy can have a huge impact, as Novak Djokovic illustrated in the final of the Rolex Paris Masters back in November. In the seven weeks after his crushing defeat by Daniil Medvedev in the US Open final – that cost him a rare Grand Slam – Djokovic obsessively watched the video of his downfall.
“I tried to read the patterns of his serve and the ball toss,” he said in a Tennis Channel interview. “I tried to look for the small details, because it was a match of small margins. I thought it was only a matter of time when I was going to read his serve better, and start to make some plays.
“You can’t go through him. You have to find a way to play with controlled aggression, play the right shots at the right time and make him come in.”
Indeed, the 6’ 6” Medvedev, according to former Grand Slam champion Jim Courier, moves better than any big man he’s ever seen. This enabled him to play deep behind the baseline, giving him the time to attack Djokovic’s backhand, pinning him in the Ad side corner. The Serb’s solution was to serve and volley in critical moments, to open up the court with some wide serves and follow them to net. He would win 19 of 22 points by employing that element of surprise – and despite faulting on another 17 serve-and-volley points, this kept Medvedev off balance.
That’s how the World No. 1 defeated the World No. 2 in a two hour, 15-minute match that brought him a record-breaking 37th ATP Masters 1000 title. And this came just one day after he had secured a record seventh year-end No. 1 finish in the FedEx ATP Rankings. It was his sixth Bercy crown and he celebrated by hugging his children, Stefan and Tara.
4) Serbia Open, SF, Aslan Karatsev d. Novak Djokovic 7-5, 4-6, 6-4
Home … it’s where the heart is, and there’s no place like it. In so many ways, this was Novak Djokovic’s tournament. After a nine-year hiatus, the player’s family organised the event in his home town of Belgrade, with brother Djordje serving as director. The venue was Djokovic’s training facility, the Novak Tennis Centre.
Thing is, no one informed Aslan Karatsev that the host was supposed to win. The 27-year-old Russian had come whistling out of obscurity at the Australian Open, qualifying his way into the main draw, then advancing to the semi-finals, where he fell to Djokovic in straight sets. He was the first man in the Open era to reach the semi-finals in his major debut.
It was no surprise when Djokovic opened the first two sets with a 2-0 lead, but Karatsev broke back immediately each time. The Russian took the first set and was up 4-2 in the second before Djokovic took the last four games to force a third set. While his aggressive play came with unquestionable risk – Karatsev faced an incredible 28 break points – ultimately, he was rewarded with a stunning victory. In the end, Karatsev saved 23 of those break points, all 10 in the decisive third set.
The rousing match required 3 hours, 25 minutes, at the time, the longest ATP match of the 2021 season.
“It was a long, tough match,” Karatsev said afterward. “You have to put [in] like 200 per cent to beat this guy, it’s like playing against a wall. I stepped on the court to win. I was believing, and I said to myself that I would play every ball no matter what.”
Karatsev would lose the final to Matteo Berrettini in a third-set tie-break. The win against Djokovic was, Karatsev said, the biggest of his career.
“Definitely, it’s the World No. 1,” he said. “I’m really happy, I put everything on the court.”
3) European Open, First Round, Andy Murray d. Frances Tiafoe 7-6(2), 6-7(7), 7-6(8)
For three-time major champion Andy Murray, the long comeback from two hip surgeries, in 2018 and 2019, required a level of patience he didn’t possess in his early playing days. In his first tournament of 2020, the Western & Southern Open, the wild card defeated Frances Tiafoe in the first round and No. 7-ranked Alexander Zverev in the second – his first Top 10 victory in more than three years.
It was a notable peak in a series of peaks and valleys along the way. Back in August, in Winston-Salem, there was a distinct valley, when Tiafoe knocked him out in the first round. They met again, two months later in the first round of the European Open.
The 23-year-old American had put together a solid season, winning the title in Nottingham and advancing to the fourth round of the US Open, as well as Miami and Toronto. Murray, at 34, was coming off a respectable third-round showing at Indian Wells. Still, nothing could have prepared either player for what followed. In an epic match that featured three tie-breaks, Murray prevailed when he converted his second match point with a clever backhand drop shot that eluded Tiafoe.
Already on Murray’s side of the net, the American gave him a heartfelt hug and congratulated him on his effort.
“I think that’s the first time in my career I’ve played a 7-6, 6-7, 7-6 [match],” Murray told the crowd afterward. “I think it’s the longest three-set match I’ve played by quite a distance. I’m tired right now.”
The 3-hour, 45-minute match was the longest best-of-three-set match of 2021, snapping by seven minutes the standard set by Rafael Nadal and Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Barcelona final.
“Nowadays obviously my body is old now,” Murray added. “I’ve played a lot of matches on the Tour. I don’t mind playing long matches, but that was taking it to another level,” Murray said. “Brilliant match, amazing atmosphere, thanks to everyone who came and supported.”
Next Up: The Top 2 ATP Tour matches of 2021.
Coming Soon: The Top 5 Grand Slam matches of 2021.
Read more from our Best of 2021 series here.