2013’s tennis best bits: Djokovic, Del Potro, Wawrinka in magical matches

2013’s tennis best bits: Part two in our review of the year’s most compelling matches looks at numbers one to three

novak djokovic
Novak Djokovic's semi-final win at Wimbledon was a thriller Photo: Marianne Bevis

Part two in our review of the year’s most compelling matches looks at numbers one to three.

1. Wimbledon semi-finals: Novak Djokovic beat Juan Martin del Potro, 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (6), 6-3

On one side of the net was Novak Djokovic, world No1 and top seed, who had reached his fourth consecutive semi at the All England Club without dropping a set.

On the other side was one of the few Grand Slam champions in the draw, winner of the US Open in 2009, Juan Martin del Potro, who had also reached this semi face-off without dropping a set. What’s more he had won his only previous match against Djokovic on grass to take the Olympic bronze in 2012 as well as their last match in Indian Wells. But few anticipated a match of such remarkable quality and emotion-sapping spectacle.

Even the opening was intense, taking 30 minutes to reach 3-3. Del Potro, serving second, bore the brunt of the early pressure, facing a break point in the fifth game as Djokovic pummelled his backhand. Eventually the Argentine survived five deuces and one remarkable rally of 29 strokes to hold.

Djokovic had still not dropped a point on his first serve as he edged to 4-3, and now threw in drops and lobs to probe the big Argentine’s movement. The pressure finally told, and the Serb broke to take the set, 7-5.

Gradually, though, del Potro cranked up the power. The first six games lasted almost as long as those in the first set, and almost ended in disaster for del Potro again. Once more he resisted, fighting off the first of four break points in the sixth game—with a volley, then an ace and a backhand winner—and held. And this time he hit straight back, reaching a drop shot for a put-away winner to go 40-0, and broke with a backhand winner down the line. He served out to love, 6-4, but the battle was only just starting.

At the start of the third, it was del Potro who looked more in control, and his forehands could do no wrong. He ran down some remarkable returns and had Djokovic not just facing break points but twice flat on the ground. The Serb could only look on with hands on hips, as del Potro both thrilled with his tennis and engaged the hearts of the crowd between points.

In the tie-break though the top seed showed why he was just that, and sealed the 69-minute set. The match was already three hours old, and del Potro looked as though he had thrown everything he had, while Djokovic looked like a well-oiled machine.

Sure enough, the Serb broke through in the seventh game, but del Potro’s body language belied his condition: He broke straight back and they headed to another tie-break.

The crowd was almost beside itself with each cracking forehand from one side, each sliding retrieval from the other, and lifted del Potro when Djokovic reached two match points. He responded to win yet another exhausting baseline rally and, with the clock at four hours, took a standing ovation along with the set, 8-6, in another 69-minute marathon.

In the fifth, each faced a break point mid-set but now del Potro looked more weary, and when his forehand began to miss its mark, Djokovic took advantage to break in the eighth and took the victory, 6-3.

It was the longest ever men’s semi-final at Wimbledon, though that was of little consequence alongside the unbroken quality and spirit of a match that boasted 128 winners and 67 points won at the net. Best of all, they hugged one another at the net like old friends before taking their ovations from the crowd and walking off together.

2. Australian Open Round 4: Novak Djokovic beat Stan Wawrinka 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7(5), 12-10

Few of the 15,000 who settled back for this particular show may have expected the most dramatic match of the tournament nor one of its most consistently high-quality displays of tennis. And although Stan Wawrinka would lose, it would herald his emergence from the shadow of friend and fellow Swiss Federer to boost Wawrinka’s confidence and take him to his best-ever season after 10 years on the tour.

Right from the start, the Swiss showed the kind of tactical aggression that would mark success after success against the top players. His much-admired single-handed backhand forced errors from the Djokovic two-handed version, to bring a quick break, and then an acute backhand zipped beyond the sprinting legs of Djokovic for a second break and a 4-1 lead.

Wawrinka was ‘in the zone’, and Djokovic raced, reached and slipped around the court to no avail. Serving a third time, Djokovic found himself facing break point again courtesy of a skimming backhand, and Wawrinka pounced on a second serve to take game and set, 6-1.

They exchanged breaks in the second, but the Swiss broke again to serve for the set at 5-3. However a change of shoes by Djokovic brought a momentum shift. A flurry of testing baseline exchanges piled up the Swiss errors and the Djokovic defence hit its stride. He broke and took the second set, 7-5.

The Serbian storm continued with a break in the first game, and then a decisive break in the ninth game to serve out the set, 6-4. But Wawrinka fought on, went for his shots, attacked the net to force Djokovic to survive several break chances but they headed to a tie-break. Wawrinka saw a 4-1 advantage dwindle to 6-5 but played a textbook one-two—a wide backhand followed by a winning forehand—to level the match. The crowd roared their approval as an evening’s entertainment became a night-time spectacle.

The final-set drama began immediately with two breaks of serve. Djokovic faced two more break points in the third but survived with some extraordinary defence. By 3-3 and 154 points apiece, cramp began to take hold of Wawrinka and he hit his first double fault of the match.

Four hours down, and the Swiss was break point down, but he survived again, only to earn three break points against Djokovic in what would prove to be the pivotal ninth game. If Wawrinka could break, he would serve for the match, but his stiff legs could not contend with some timely drop shots from Djokovic. It took nine minutes, but the Serb held.

They were still locked together at 10-10 after almost 100 minutes. It took Djokovic three match points, but right on cue, he produced a backhand cross-court winner, and ripped open his shirt at the 12-10 victory.

It had taken more than five hours, yet a near-full Rod Laver arena, at 2am, rose to acknowledge both men.

Djokovic would go on to win the title for a third time, while Wawrinka reached his first Grand Slam semi at the US Open by beating Murray in a sizzling display of attacking tennis, before again pushing Djokovic to the limit, leading two sets to one before losing another classic in five. He ended the year at a career-high No8 with nine top-10 wins to his name—but he has still to beat Djokovic for the first time since 2006.

3. ATP World Tour Finals RR: Roger Federer beat Juan Martin del Potro, 4-6, 7-6(2), 7-5

Federer’s last win of the year, to take him to the WTFs semis for the 11th straight time, was perhaps his most significant: a rip-roaring, never-say-die tussle that proved, if proof was needed, that the Swiss man’s desire to win burns as bright as ever.

But not only did it boost a confidence damaged by unexpected losses and a slump to No7 in the rankings—hindered by back problems twice during the season—but reasserted himself in one of the rivalries of the last few years. He beat del Potro twice in under two weeks, after the Argentine had scored three consecutive wins, two of them in the Basel final.

But they had met eight times in 2012. At Roland Garros, Federer had come back from two sets down to win their quarter-final. In the next, he survived, 19-17, in the Olympics semis. That would mark the first of six consecutive three-setters—and they would end up with three apiece.

Yet in London, it looked as though del Potro would deny a nervous Federer an upbeat end to his year. A catalogue of Swiss errors handed over an immediate break and Federer gave up a 40-15 lead in the fifth game, losing five straight points, to be broken and trail 5-1. The Swiss, though, gritted his teeth and fought his way back—first with a love hold, then a love break, and then an aggressive net-attacking game to reach 4-5.

Already the crowd could barely contain its excitement, but when Federer teased and powered his way to another break point with a winning lob, the arena rocked. Del Potro saved it with a big serve, as he did the next and a 134mph ace held for the set, 6-4.

In the second, Federer followed an easy hold of serve with an easy break in the third. It was all the more surprising because he held the next to love and then broke to love, now playing the kind of all-court, flamboyant tennis for which he is loved.

They edged to a tie-break, and the Federer tennis continued to flow to take it, 7-2. But in the decider, Federer was yet again broken quickly and del Potro led 3-0, before yet again, Federer claimed back the break.

If ever there was a test of the Federer nerve and confidence, this was it, for he served second as they edged to 5-5. He upped his assault to break and serve for the match, but the drama continued to the bitter end as del Potro unleashed his signature cross-court forehand to bring up break point. Returning to the tried and tested tactics, Federer sliced the ball to each wing, threw in some changes of pace, and drew the error from a weary pair of Argentine knees. Federer had the set, 7-5, for what was clearly a highly emotional win. Federer put his hand on his heart and lifted his face to the heavens.

These two seem always to bring the best from each other, and their contrasting strengths make for gripping all-court tennis. Yet they are the best of friends—one more layer in this great rivalry.

Other contenders

US Open Round 4: Richard Gasquet beat Milos Raonic 6-7(4), 7-6(4), 2-6, 7-6(9), 7-5

Richard Gasquet, on his way to his finest season since 2007, proved how maturity and fitness have brought increased confidence and endurance to the Frenchman’s creative style of tennis. It took him four-and-three-quarter hours to fend off the huge Canadian Raonic and his 39 aces, ending the match with 12 fewer points out of the 402 they played but with an impressive victory.

Not content with that, he took three-and-a-half hours and another five sets to beat No4 seed Ferrer in the quarters to reach his first US Open semi-final, and his first Major semi since his only previous one at Wimbledon in 2007. Nadal proved a step too far, as he has in every other meeting, but Gasquet put together a strong end-of-season, including tight three-set losses to Djokovic and del Potro in London.

Roland Garros semi-finals: Rafael Nadal beat Novak Djokovic, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7

As Paris gathered around Philippe Chatrier court on final Friday, it was a match that would draw world-wide attention, for the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry has become one of tennis’s most intense, and this their 35th meeting equalled the most between any pair of players in the Open era.

They would go on to play four more times in 2013, and share the honours three all, but this one perhaps meant the most to both.

For Nadal, returning after seven months of injury onto the South American clay, hoped to cap his summer with a record eighth French title and avenge his only loss since the first week in February to Djokovic in the Monte Carlo final. Djokovic had made no secret of his desire to claim the only Major missing from his resume—and fulfil the prophetic words of his first coach, Jelene Gencic, that he would bring home the Coupe des Mousquetaires.

The match would see-saw back and forth, just as their rivalry had done through the years. Nadal served out the first set, 6-3, against an error-prone Djokovic. Nadal broke first in the second, but the Serb switched his attack to the Nadal forehand, broke and broke again to level.

After a tussle of an opening game, containing the longest rally of the match, Nadal raced to a 5-0 lead in the third set, and Djokovic only narrowly avoided a bagel.

The fourth saw exchanges of brilliance and errors as each broke the other twice, but Djokovic levelled the match in a tie-break. At 1-3 down in the final set, Nadal withstood renewed pummelling to his backhand with some glorious winners to hold. In the eighth game, Djokovic touched the net after putting away a smash to offer up break point. He saved it, but Nadal sensed his moment and broke at the second chance: It was all square again, 4-4. Now both men attacked and defended like tigers, yet slowly Nadal found his strut, even made a hot-dog winner. He broke at 7-7 and stole the win, 9-7.

Their semi-final at the Montreal Masters would prove just as close, Nadal taking victory in what would become one of three hard-court Masters titles, and then the US Open—also against Djokovic. Finally, Nadal would take the No1 ranking, too, leaving everything to play for in 2014.

Also in this series:

2013’s best bits: New and late bloomers
2013’s best bits: Young women make strides
Federer, Nadal, Djokovic wear it well
The year’s best matches – Part one

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