Tennis matches of the year 2011: Djokovic and Nadal dominate

We pick out some of the first half of 2011's most memorable matches in a list dominated by Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal

djokovic and nadal
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal played out some classic matches in 2011 Photo: Marianne Bevis

djokovic and nadal

Where to begin with a selection of favourites matches of 2011?

What counts in those hundreds of face-offs: the impact of winning or losing on player or ranking, the prize at stake or the record broken?

Is it the closeness of the score and the length of the match, or do the best contests need personal as well as scoring drama?

Or does it all, in the end, come down to the quality of the tennis””and if it does, how to measure quality? The aesthetics of a forehand? The fewest unforced errors or most outright winners? Superior athleticism or brilliant tactics?

Often, it is a subtle mix of many ingredients plus some intangible touch of magic that simply bring a smile to the face.

In 2011, it was difficult to see beyond the intensity of the conflict between four men locked into the drama at the top of the rankings””a shift in power from the pair of alpha-males who had dominated the last few years, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, to a new top dog, Novak Djokovic. And snapping at their heels””indeed breaking into the top three for several weeks””was Andy Murray.

Easy, then, to find match after match humming with anticipation. After all, these four filled every Grand Slam final””indeed they filled 14 of the 16 semi-final spots””so Major conflicts were thick on the ground. They also filled five of the nine Masters finals and took every single Masters title, including the World Tour Finals trophy.

The women’s side could not have been more of a contrast, as leading ladies peaked and then faded, young faces broke into the top ranks to be replaced by experienced late-bloomers. The sport for onlookers was to pick the next new name on a trophy””four Slams, four different players, and 11 different Premier event winners.

Amongst this entirely subjective pick, then, there are more recurring faces from the men’s side than the women’s. There is at least one pick from each Grand Slam””the most significant tournaments in kudos and points””and in each case at least one that is not a final. The rest are is restricted to Masters and Premiers.

And within those loose parameters, all are influenced by the impact of the result, the record at stake, the inherent drama of a match and, finally, by personal preference. How else, in the end, to select favourites?

Australian Open

David Nalbandian v Lleyton Hewitt, R1

Both former top-three players, both heading towards their 30th year, both plagued by injury and coming back from surgery, this first-round match jumped off the page from the moment it was drawn.

It added still more spice that it was a replay of one of the most memorable matches ever seen in Melbourne””the 2005 quarter-final that went Hewitt’s way, 10-8, in the fifth set. This time, as the clock ticked past 1am and four-and-three-quarter hours, it was Nalbandian who won with the sweetest of cross-court lobs, 3-6 6-4 3-6 7-6 9-7.

Subsequently, both succumbed to further injury setbacks. Hewitt had foot surgery, Nalbandian went under the knife for a groin injury, and both missed Roland Garros. Hewitt, though, also had Robin Soderling on the ropes in R2 of Wimbledon and squandered a two-sets lead and a break advantage in the fifth to lose once again.

Francesca Schiavone v Svetlana Kuznetsova, R4

Already across the 30-year-old threshold, the feisty Italian who had won only her first Grand Slam last year found herself facing the two-time Slam champion, Kuznetsova for what became a record-breaking contest: the longest women’s Slam match of all time: 4hrs 44mins.

Kuznetsova had already beaten multiple Slam champion, Justine Henin, in R3″”it proved to the Belgian’s last ever match as she retired from tennis straight afterwards. Schiavone had taken a hard route to the fourth round via two more three-setters.

It began as an error-laden match but the drama cranked up through the final set as each broke the other to serve for the match time and again. By 10 all, both needed the trainer but then both continued through the three-hour set, victory coming at last to Schiavone, despite fewer overall winners and points in the match.

She went on to lose, from a set up, to top-seed Caroline Wozniacki in the quarter-final, later reached her second French Open final, played the third longest women’s match in R3 of Wimbledon””this time only 3hrs 41mins””and was second only to Federer in consecutive Grand Slam appearances, 45, at her 12th US Open. There, as the oldest remaining player, she lost to the youngest, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in R4″”from one set up.

Honourable mention:

Alexandr Dolgopolov v Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Robin Soderling, R3 and 4

At Wimbledon 2010, the Ukrainian levelled from two sets down before losing the fifth, 8-10, to Tsonga. In Melbourne, he turned the tables, coming back from a two-sets-to-one deficit with a storming 6-1, 6-1 finish. He then did the same to No4 seed Soderling, 6-2 in the fifth. He finally lost to Murray in the quarters in four sets.

Spring Masters/Premiers

Rafael Nadal v Novak Djokovic, Miami final

The competition between these two men became the drama of the year as Nadal fell in one Masters final after another. Coming into Miami, Nadal had already seen the Indian Wells title slip away from one set up and was now about to see history repeat, but this time in a desperate battle that became the longest three-set final of the year.

It took Djokovic 3hrs 22mins and a final set tie-breaker to affirm his superiority over all-comers on the hard courts, already carrying wins over Federer in both the Australian Open and Indian Wells semis. Most, however, anticipated a reversal of fortune against Nadal come the clay: the Spaniard’s home soil and home territory: Madrid.

Roger Federer v Feliciano Lopez, Madrid R2

Lopez hovered at 40 in the rankings when he took on another 29-year-old, Federer, and was showing signs of a real resurgence: a three-tie-break loss to Juan Martin del Potro in Sydney, a three-set loss to Djokovic in Dubai, the finals of Belgrade the week before Madrid. But few expected the display he served up in Madrid.

The strong, left-handed serve-and-volleyer pushed the Swiss to three-tie-breaks in a three-hour thriller. Each faced set points in the gripping first-set shoot-out and each produced aces to save them, but Federer took it 15 points to 13.

The second tie-break was all Lopez: In a flurry of winners, he took it for the loss of just one point. In the third tie-break, too, Lopez led 5-2, now with 23 aces to his credit, before missing an overhead in the floodlights that would have brought up four match points. Federer levelled, saving match point with his 25th ace of the match””the most aces he has hit on clay or in any non-Grand Slam event””and took the set, 9 points to 7.

Lopez went on to reach the quarters at Wimbledon, beat Mardy Fish in another five-setter in the Davis Cup in the US””a vital part in Spain’s end-of-year triumph””and broke into the top 20 for the first time in six years.

Federer lost to Nadal in three sets in the semis but Nadal went on lose his third straight final in a row to Djokovic and his first match on clay since the 2009 French Open final””37 matches.

Novak Djokovic v Andy Murray, Rome semi-final

By now on a 38-match-winning streak, Djokovic survived, just, a late-night thriller against a man who, for more than three hours, tested him around the baseline harder than anyone had done for much of the year. Murray pulled back a one-set deficit, exchanged breaks with Djokovic in the third and had the chance to serve out the match at 5-4.

But Djokovic turned on the heat again, broke back and won the final tie-break with a perfectly executed drop shot. Once more, the Serb faced Nadal in the final and this time, it took him just a couple of 6-4 sets to do the deed: four straight Masters titles, four straight losses to the Spaniard.

Nadal’s knight in shining armour came, eventually, in the unlikely shape of Federer.

Honourable mentions:

Daniela Hantuchova v Victoria Azarenka, Vera Dushevina and Vera Zvonareva, R1,2,3, Doha.

The 28-year-old Slovak reached No5 eight years ago but came into Doha on the back of only her first title, in Thailand, in four years. Now ranked 30, she beat Azarenka from a set down, Dushevina from a set down, and finally lost out to Zvonareva, from a break up in the third, in more than three hours.

French Open

Roger Federer v Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, semi and final

After his own semi-final victory over Murray, Nadal described the other as “the best player of the world today against the best player of history.”

The last time Djokovic had been beaten was in the semi-finals of the World Tour Finals in November 2010″”by Federer. But the Serb had beaten the Swiss in their three subsequent meetings, including a straight-sets win at the Australian Open. He had supplanted Federer as No2 during the spring hard courts and was aiming to confirm his place at the top by taking the No1 ranking in Paris.

All he had to do was beat Federer, and Djokovic had points to take the first set, but Federer, playing one of his most aggressive matches of the year, resisted to take the first set tiebreak.

The high-octane tennis continued into the second set, the Swiss taking that too, but amid memories of his comeback to win the 2010 US Open, Djokovic upped his game to take the third set, 6-3.

After a break apiece in the fourth, they needed another tie-break and Federer sealed the victory with his 18th ace. Although their embrace at the net was warmer than usual, Federer’s raised index finger and roar to his box spoke volumes. As for the BBC commentary: “It’s just absolutely mind-blowing, a beautiful tennis match.”

Their next meeting would be in the US Open semi-final again, another contender for match of the year”¦but more of that to come.

Now, though, Federer went on to face Nadal for the fourth time in a Roland Garros final and continued his aggressive play to lead the first set 5-2. He missed a set point drop shot by a whisker and lost the set. They then shared breaks in the second, Nadal taking the tiebreak. Federer won the third set, 7-5, only to buckle under the Nadal assault in the fourth.

It marked perhaps Federer’s best performance against Nadal in Paris, and was second longest final of the year. Nadal, though, would not win another title in 2011.

Honourable mention:

Marsel Ilhan v Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, R2

The Turkish Ilhan made it into the draw as a lucky-loser, having retired in his last qualifying match, but beat Tommy Haas in four sets to face the No30 Spanish seed in one of the contests of the tournament. With 24 aces, 77 unforced errors but winning only one point less than his opponent, 173, Ilhan finally fell 11-13 in the fifth set after more than four hours.

Stan Wawrinka v Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, R3

The crowd on Philippe Chatrier watched a four-hour-plus drama unfold between the Nos 14 and 17 seeds, big hitting all-rounders both, and Paris favourite Tsonga looked home and dry after taking the second set tie-breaker for a two sets lead. But Wawrinka dug deep to take the third-set tie-breaker, broke early in the fourth and then, as the day edged into evening, served out the fifth set for an impressive victory.

However, chaos then broke out as the scheduled closer of the day between Djokovic and Del Potro had already been transferred to Suzanne Lenglen. Thousands poured from one court to the other but were not admitted, and so loud were the crowds that Djokovic complained of the noise. A pity: It overshadowed what had, in fact, been the match of the day.

Part two, from Wimbledon to year-end, will conclude the story.

More in this series:
– Novak Djokovic’s year to remember
– Petra Kvitova’s golden year

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