2013’s tennis best bits: Murray, Hewitt, Dimitrov thrill in 3 continents

2013’s tennis best bits: The latest in our review of the season looks at the most compelling men's matches of the year

andy murray
Andy Murray beat Roger Federer in a five-set thriller in Australia Photo: Marianne Bevis

The latest in our review of the 2013 tennis season looks at the most compelling matches. The selection attempts to balance entertainment, drama and special rivalries and is, as usual, entirely personal! We start with Nos 4-6.

4. Australian Open semi-final: Andy Murray beat Roger Federer 6-4 6-7, 6-3, 6-7, 6-2

With no Rafael Nadal in the draw, the big question ahead of the Australian Open was in which half would No3 seed Andy Murray fall: with No1 Djokovic or No2 Roger Federer? It was the latter, setting up a highly anticipated encounter after five intriguing battles during the previous 12 months.

In a 2012 summer of high drama, Federer beat Murray in the Wimbledon final, Murray came back to beat the Swiss in the Olympic final, and they split their subsequent two hard-court contests.

All three of their previous Grand Slam meetings had been in finals, and Federer had won all of them, but the Swiss had one big problem this time. Where Murray had sailed through the draw without dropping a set nor facing a tie-break, Federer ran into the scintillating No7 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters to provide a match that was a serious contender for this list. Federer won 7-6(4), 4-6, 7-6(4), 3-6, 6-3.

So for the 20th meeting in this rivalry, there was a palpable sense that the balance was about to shift from the 31-year-old Federer to the superfit Olympic and US Open champion, Murray.

By the time Murray broke in the third game of the opener, it was clear this would be a bruising encounter and already the greater muscle in the Murray shot-making was making inroads, especially in some demanding backhand exchanges.

Federer mixed things up in the next to get the chance of a quick break back but Murray snuffed it out with some weighty serving and penetrating drives to the Federer backhand, and the Swiss struggled to generate the same kind of weight on his own serve. Murray held his advantage for the set, 6-4 with 16 winners to Federer’s six.

Murray controlled things in he second, as well, and by 4-4, had made twice as many winners and repeatedly passed the net-attacking Swiss, but somehow Federer stayed in the match and they reached a tie-break. They both produced a purple patch, both smiled at the other’s bravado, but the Swiss seized the set.

Murray regained the momentum, playing superb defence that transitioned easily into attack, and took the break and the set, 6-3, making a strong statement with his closing service game: ace, winner and ace. Could Federer resist the surge?

Although Murray had the first break point, a fall, together with some inspired serve-and-volley attacks from Federer, kept things level. They exchanged one break, each pulling off spectacular winners by turn, running each other ragged, and Murray got what looked like the decisive break to serve for the match. But he was not ready for the aggressive reply: Federer attacked the net and the backhand wing to level for a tie-break, which he took with ease.

Now, this intensely physical and emotionally demanding contest began to tell on Federer. He opened with an error-strewn game to concede the break. A 21st ace took Murray to 5-2 and a final affirmative break sealed the match, 6-2.

The scoreline was a testament to the competitive desire of Federer, but it belied another undercurrent. Murray was the dominant player for most of the match, imposing his speed, agility and muscularity on almost every point. They would not play again in 2013—first one then the other coping with back problems—and it would not be until the end of the year that Federer found similar form.

When both return to the 2014 fray, both with backs in good working order, theirs will again be one of the match-ups sure to fascinate.

5. US Open Round 4: Mikhail Youzhny beat Lleyton Hewitt 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 6-4, 7-5

The ‘big’ match of this particular afternoon, a day that would conclude the line-up for the quarter-finals of the US Open, was between the world No1 and Australian Open champion Djokovic and Marcel Granollers.

In under an hour, Djokovic was two sets up, but across on Louis Armstrong, the real match of the day, one of the best of the tournament, was hotting up nicely. For no matter when or where the youngest ever No1 in the men’s game, Lleyton Hewitt, plays, there will be blood, sweat, tears and plenty of drama.

By the time the 32-year-old Australian, top of the pile a full dozen years ago, took on the 31-year-old 24-ranked Mikhail Youzhny, he had already put in three characteristically big-hearted performances.

Hewitt’s opener was four sets. His second was, in truth, a contender for this very list, a super five-setter against del Potro that saw the Australian two-sets-to-one down before pulling out a tie-break fourth and sailing to a 6-1 victory after more than four hours. In the third round, he took almost three hours to beat Evgeny Donskoy in four sets, and finally he almost reached the quarters in another four-hour delight of a match before losing 5-7 in the fifth.

Of course Youzhny, these days a father like Hewitt and twice a semi-finalist in New York, was a key factor in making this such a great ‘watch’. His intense personality, his (PhD-level) intelligence, his picture-book single-handed backhand, his tactical nous all provided the perfect foil to Hewitt’s harrying, all-court fire. The scene was set for a match of rhythm, tension, a mix of placement, spin, angle and zipping ground strokes.

At a set apiece, Hewitt broke after a scintillating 46-shot rally, to serve for the set, but Youzhny defended it and forced the break back for a tie-break. Hewitt went into overdrive to win it, and then took a 3-0 lead in the fourth, but the Russian broke twice to level the match.

And the final set did not let up: Hewitt took a 5-2 lead, but Youzhny broke back only to make a third decisive break for the match.

The statistics spoke of a match poised beautifully between the two men: Hewitt served 146 points and also ended the match with 146 points. Youzhny served 145 times and ended the match with a total of 145 points. Their fastest serves were identical, their returns in play were separated by just two. In short there was nothing in it—except victory and loss.

It deserved to be played on the big stage to the biggest audience, but then the energy that is generated by the full cauldron of Armstrong is a special experience. Perhaps it was in the right place after all.

6. Madrid Masters Round 2: Grigor Dimitrov beat Novak Djokovic 7-6(6), 6-7(8), 6-3

The signs had been there for a long time for the not-yet-22 Grigor Dimitrov, but Djokovic had been on a roll in 2013: Australian Open champion, Dubai champion, semis in Indian Wells, and victor over the king of clay in Nadal’s own kingdom to take the Monte Carlo Master title. The Serb arrived in Madrid with a huge margin at the top of the rankings and not a little confidence on clay.

But he faced one of the most talented and charismatic players of the new generation. The Bulgarian may have been burdened, since winning the Junior titles at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2008, by comparisons with Federer, but he was growing steadily into his bounteous skills, and slowly but surely was climbing the rankings.

He opened 2013 with his first final in Brisbane and went on to his first 500 semi in Rotterdam, before giving Djokovic himself a run for his money in a first-set tie-breaker in Indian Wells. He proved that was no fluke by making a strong run in Monte Carlo, taking the opening set from Nadal in the quarters. Even so, few expected the 21-year-old No28 to halt Djokovic in the Serb’s opening match.

But as he had in Indian Wells and in Monte Carlo, Dimitrov looked every inch the top-10 player, firing glorious backhand winners at will, angling his exaggerated forehands wide, making and retrieving drop shots—seemingly every shot in the book. He tumbled, picked himself up, and wasted not a moment to get back to work—and the crowd lapped it up.

But in those former contests with Djokovic and Nadal, nerves had gripped Dimitrov at the decisive moments: Not this time, though. And he was buoyed up by the increasingly enthusiastic support of the packed stadium, especially when Djokovic made the tactical mistake of challenging some line calls. He then criticised the umpire for a time-violation warning and finally was taunted into a sarcastic thumbs-up at the crowd as he levelled for the tie-break. He paid the price: The crowd swung wholly behind Dimitrov, urging him from 4-1 down, via set points, to take the opener, 8-6.

However, the drama was only just beginning. Dimitrov survived an eight-minute third game of the second and then broke Djokovic in the sixth to lead 4-2. But with a break-back point in the seventh, Djokovic slipped, turned over his right ankle, and took a medical timeout before returning to seal the break.

Then it was Dimitrov who suffered physical difficulties: At 5-5, deuce, he began to cramp, and only two distracted errors from Djokovic kept him in the race. They would contest another tie-break.

Now Djokovic was in the ascendancy and went 3-0 up, but Dimitrov edged his way back with some great baseline shots to level, and even held match point at 7-6.

By now, the crowd was chanting Dimitrov’s name, even cheering Djokovic’s errors, but a bold net attack gave the increasingly angry Serb the set, 10-8—and it looked just a matter of time until he also took the match.

Again the pendulum swung, and a revitalised Dimitrov scampered, tumbled some more, outplayed Djokovic from the baseline, and broke for a 2-0 lead. Bloodied in leg, arm and fingers, he visibly regained his poise, defied break points in the fifth and, leading 5-3, made a conclusive break to take set and match, 6-3.

Dimitrov wept, for this did, indeed, feel like a momentous milestone for the popular Bulgarian: It proved that he could live with the best.

And that confidence buoyed him to more success as the year went on. Djokovic gained revenge at Roland Garros, but Dimitrov again took Nadal to three sets in Cincinnati and beat David Ferrer to win his first title in Stockholm. Thriving with new coach Roger Rasheed, and rapidly becoming one of the most popular players on the tour, he may look back on Madrid as the place where he stepped into the big league.

Other contenders

Montreal Masters semi-final: Milos Raonic beat Vasek Pospisil, 6-4 1-6, 7-6(4)

The two young Canadians had met only on the Futures tour before facing one-another in, of all places, their home Masters in Montreal. It could not be anything other than a dramatic, enthusiastic, indeed joyous occasion as the tall 22-year-old duo went head to head, in the semis no less, both having taken out top-10 opponents: Tomas Berdych and del Potro.

Both men had multiple chances to break in the opening games, and it took 23 minutes to reach 2-2, but Raonic managed the only break in the sixth to take the set, 6-4. Pospisil, showing a boldness and energy that clearly captivated the crowd, surged back to break twice for the second set, 6-1.

The third was nip and tuck, with not a break point on either side. It was decided, appropriately, by a tie-break that was edged 7-4 by the more experienced Raonic, though he had won fewer points—92 to Pospisil’s 100—and had made fewer aces. Both, though, went on to reach career highs and the prospect of a very fine rivalry—and not one played out from the baseline—in the coming years.

Wimbledon Round 2: Sergiy Stakhovsky beat Roger Federer, 7-6(5), 6-7(5), 5-7, 6-7(5)

The quality of the tennis of the 116-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky when he beat defending champion Federer, in a jaw-dropping display of first-strike, forward-moving tennis, seemed to be lost in the shock of the moment. Federer’s second-round loss was his earliest at Wimbledon since 2002 and the first time he had fallen in the first week of a Grand Slam since Wimbledon 2004.

He would go on to face a similar torrent of attacking play from old adversary Tommy Robredo at the next Major, the US Open, this time in the fourth round in three sets, and this time, in a performance suffused with errors. Against Stakhovsky, Federer made only 13 errors to 57 winners, but the Ukrainian hit an astonishing 72 winners to only 17 errors. By the match’s conclusion, Federer trailed by a single point, 161-162—but it was enough for one of the biggest upsets of the year.

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 two

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