The Magnificent Seven: Memorable Men’s Matches from the First Half of 2013

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Made for this sport, and for each other.

Made for this sport, and for each other.

Just past its halfway point, the year 2013 has featured twists and turns, tastes of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and plenty of memorable matches to recall.  This first of two articles counts down the seven most memorable men’s matches of the first half.  Not necessarily the longest, the closest, or those that featured the best tennis, each of them connected to narratives broader than their specific outcomes.

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7) Grigor Dimitrov d. Novak Djokovic, Madrid 2R, 7-6(6) 6-7(8) 6-3

During the first few months of 2013, Dimitrov progressed slowly but surely in his ability to challenge the ATP elite.  First, he served for the first set against Djokovic and Murray in Indian Wells and Miami, respectively.   Then, he won a set from Nadal on clay in Monte Carlo.  Dimitrov’s true breakthrough came at the next Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid, where he withstood an extremely tense encounter against the world No. 1.  When Djokovic escaped the marathon second-set tiebreak, the underdog could have crumbled.  Instead, Dimitrov rallied to claim an early third-set lead that he never relinquished.  Having won the Monte Carlo title from Nadal in his previous match, Djokovic showed unexpected emotional frailty here that undercut his contender’s credentials in Paris.  (He did, however, avenge this loss to Dimitrov when they met at Roland Garros.)

Stakhovsky

6) Sergiy Stakhovsky d. Roger Federer, Wimbledon 2R, 6-7(5) 7-6(5) 7-5 7-6(5)

Ten years before, almost to the day, a youthful Roger Federer had burst onto the tennis scene by upsetting seven-time champion Pete Sampras at the All England Club.  An aura of invincibility had cloaked Federer at majors for much of the ensuing decade, contributing to a record-breaking streak of 36 major quarterfinals.  That streak forms a key cornerstone of his legacy, but it ended at the hands of a man outside the top 100 who never had defeated anyone in the top 10.  Federer did not play poorly for much of this match, a symbol of the astonishing upsets that rippled across Wimbledon on the first Wednesday.  Rare is the occasion when he does not play big points well, and even rarer is the occasion when an unheralded opponent of his plays them better.  Stakhovsky needed the fourth-set tiebreak almost as much as Federer did, and he struck just the right balance of boldness and patience to prevail.

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5) Andy Murray d. Roger Federer, Australian Open SF, 6-4 6-7(5) 6-3 6-7(2) 6-2

Murray ended the first half of 2013 by thrusting not a monkey but a King Kong-sized gorilla off its back.  He rid himself of another onerous burden when the year began, nearly as meaningful if less publicized.  Never had Murray defeated Federer at a major before, losing all three of their major finals while winning one total set.  A comfortable win seemed within his grasp when he served for the match at 6-5 in the fourth set, only to see a vintage spurt of inspiration from the Swiss star force a fifth.  All the pressure rested on Murray in the deciding set after that opportunity slipped away, and yet he composed himself to smother Federer efficiently.  Murray’s third consecutive appearance in a major final illustrated his improving consistency, a theme of 2013.  Meanwhile, his opponent’s sagging energy in the fifth set revealed another theme of a season in which Federer has showed his age more than ever before.

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4) Rafael Nadal d. Ernests Gulbis, Indian Wells 4R, 4-6 6-4 7-5

Although South American clay had hinted at the successes ahead, neither Nadal nor his fans knew what to expect when he played his first marquee tournament since Wimbledon 2012.  Even the most ambitious among them could not have foreseen the Spaniard winning his first hard-court tournament since 2010 and first hard-court Masters 1000 tournament in four years.  Nadal would finish his title run by defeating three straight top-eight opponents, but the decisive turning point of his tournament came earlier.After falling behind the dangerous Ernests Gulbis, he dug into the trenches with his familiar appetite for competition.  To his credit, Gulbis departed from his usual insouciance and stood toe to toe with Nadal until the end, even hovering within two points of the upset.  But Nadal’s explosive athleticism allowed him to halt the Latvian’s 13-match winning streak in a series of pulsating exchanges.  He ended the match with his confidence far higher than when it began.

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3) Novak Djokovic d. Juan Martin Del Potro, Wimbledon SF, 7-5 4-6 7-6(2) 6-7(6) 6-3

Here is a match that does belong on this list simply because of its extraordinary length, tension, and quality, even if it ultimately lacks broader implications.  Neither man had lost a set en route to this semifinal, and its 283 blistering, sprawling minutes showed why.  Refusing to give an inch from the baseline, Djokovic and Del Potro blasted ferocious serves and groundstrokes while tracking down far more balls than one would have thought possible on grass. The drama raced to its climax late in the fourth set, when the Argentine saved two match points with bravery that recalled his Indian Wells victories over Murray and Djokovic.  Triumphant at last a set later, the Serb emitted a series of howls that exuded relief as much as exultation.  We will not know for the next several weeks what, if anything, will come from this match for Del Potro, but it marked by far his best effort against the Big Four at a major since he won the US Open.

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2) Novak Djokovic d. Stanislas Wawrinka, Australian Open 4R, 1-6 7-5 6-4 6-7(5) 12-10

Just halfway into the first major of 2013, everyone concurred that we already had found a strong candidate for the match of the year.  The second-ranked Swiss man lit up the Melbourne night for a set and a half as Djokovic slipped, scowled, and stared in disbelief at his unexpectedly feisty opponent.  Once Wawrinka faltered in his attempt to serve for a two-set lead, though, an irreversible comeback began.  Or so we thought.  A dazzling sequence of shot-making from Djokovic defined proceedings until midway through the fourth set, when Wawrinka reignited at an ideal moment.  Two of the ATP’s most glorious backhands then dueled through a 22-game final set, which also pitted Wawrinka’s formidable serve against Djokovic’s pinpoint return.  The underdog held serve six times to stay in the match, forcing the favorite to deploy every defensive and offensive weapon in his arsenal to convert the seventh attempt.  Fittingly, both of these worthy adversaries marched onward to impressive accomplishments.  Djokovic would secure a record three-peat in Melbourne, and Wawrinka would launch the best season of his career with victories over half of the top eight and a top-10 ranking.

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1) Rafael Nadal d. Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros SF, 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7(3) 9-7

The stakes on each side loomed a little less large than in the 2012 final, perhaps, with neither a Nole Slam nor Nadal’s record-breaking seventh Roland Garros title on the line.  One would not have known it from watching a sequel much more compelling than the original, and one of the finest matches that this rivalry has produced.  Somewhat a mirror image of their final last year at the Australian Open, it featured a comeback by one man from the brink of defeat in the fourth set and a comeback by the other from the brink of defeat in the fifth.  Nadal led by a set and a break and later served for the match before Djokovic marched within six points of victory, but one last desperate display of will edged the Spaniard across the finish line.  Few champions throughout the sport’s history can match the resilience of these two champions, so the winner of their matches can exult in a hard-earned triumph.  While Djokovic proved how far he had progressed in one year as a Roland Garros contender, Nadal validated his comeback with his most fearless effort yet against the mature version of the Serb.  Only time will tell whether it marks the start of a new chapter in their rivalry, or a glittering coda that illustrates what might have been.

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Check back in a day or two for a companion article on the seven most memorable women’s matches.

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