We’re wrapping up our “best of” matches list here at TENNIS.com, although to me it’s just as much fun to look back at the “worst of” the year as well. Just call me Grinch.
But really. Truly horrific matches are as much a part of the pro game as certifiably great ones, and in their own way can be just as fascinating. The interesting thing is that dog matches are just about as rare as epic, unforgettable ones. I’m not talking about first round mis-matches here, of course. I’m referring to much-anticipated meetings between well-matched players at major events.
Could it be that the same Stanislas Wawrinka who had a career year in 2013 and pushed defending Novak Djokovic to five brutal sets at the Australian Open got just six games off Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals of the French Open?
Okay, we know this is the King of Clay we’re talking about here, but still.
Most matches are played in the gray area where, even when the result is a straight-sets loss, each player is a little black, a little white. But it isn’t always like that. And while there are scads of stinkers in any year, the number shrinks strikingly when you look for them in the late stages (quarterfinals on) at Grand Slam events.
So here are my nominations for the five most disappointing matches of this Grand Slam year, in ascending order, culminating with the No. 1 hot mess of 2013:
5. U.S. Open quarterfinals, Wawrinka d. Murray, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2
Sure, Andy Murray was probably suffering an emotional hangover from his big Wimbledon win, and his back was sore—so troublesome that he would pull the plug on the rest of his year soon after taking this loss. But this was still a delicious match-up that crumbled in no time, right before our eyes.
Given that Murray is known for his defense, it’s hardly surprising that Wawrinka clocked 45 winners to just 15 by the defending champ. But here are the match killers: Wawrinka won 31 of his 42 forays to the net. He also won 88 percent of his first-serve points, and Murray didn’t record a single break point, never mind break serve.
What was that about brilliant defense?
As my colleague Richard Pagliaro wrote in the lead to his Racquet Reaction on the clash: “Remnants of the wreckage—the mangled orange racquet and sweat-soaked shirts—were strewn about the court at Andy Murray's feet.”
4. Australian Open semifinals, Djokovic d. Ferrer, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1.
There’s no shame in losing to Novak Djokovic in Melbourne. Since 2007, the Serb has lost before the quarterfinals just once, and has bagged four titles. And while David Ferrer may not be famous for winning Grand Slam or even Masters 1000 titles, he is renowned for his grit and fighting spirit.
Not this time.
Djokovic put on a stunning display of firepower in this one, and while that’s impressive in its own right, it doesn’t always make for an interesting match. And if there’s one guy who usually manages to give us a persuasive match, win or lose, it’s Ferrer.
As it turned out, this was one of those times when Ferrer’s shortcomings were in much greater evidence than his considerable skills and powers. Djokovic took advantage of Ferrer’s lack of power and relatively slight stature to simply freeze him out. Djokovic was seven of seven on break points, won 13 of his 16 net approaches, and he lost just seven points in his 11 service games.
The most remarkable stat, though, had nothing to do with winners or errors—it was the duration; Djokovic won in all of 89 minutes.
In a recent interview with the New York Times’ Chris Clarey, Maria Sharapova talked at length about how hurt her shoulder was during the clay-court season, and claimed that she kept the injury secret. Could it be that she was already suffering those complications in her right, serving shoulder in Melbourne?
Sharapova won her first two rounds without losing a game in four sets, then dismissed Venus Williams, 6-1, 6-3. Then, afer two more routine wins, she learned that Sloane Stephens had vanquished her nemesis, Serena Williams, in the quarterfinals. With the path cleared, Sharapova went out and served four consecutive faults to start her match with Li—and it only got uglier from there.
The big surprise was, as my colleague Steve Tignor wrote from Melbourne, was “. . . that Li’s early peak wasn’t followed at some point by a deep valley.”
The Australian Open may be the tournament at which Li most consistently plays her best; she’s been to two finals and a semi, but hasn’t won the title. But Sharapova has often nailed it in Melbourne: She won there in 2008, reached two other finals, along with a brace of semifinals. This had the makings of an epic, but it turned into an epic dud.
2. French Open semifinals, S. Williams d. Errani, 6-0, 6-1
Serena may seem like the big, bad, bad wolf to Sara Errani’s Goldilocks—after all, the Italian is officially listed as standing 5’4” and 132 lbs, while Williams logs in at 5’9” and 155 lbs. Yet the facts are inarguable: Williams has frequently struggled at the French Open, and before this year she’d won exactly one of her 15 Grand Slam titles in Paris.
Errani, on the other hand, has been able to compensate for her lack of size and power in exactly the right way to bamboozle Williams. A tireless retriever, she’s expert at wearing down opponents with her formidable skills at trench warfare. Her abilities are such that she’s established herself in the Top 10, and has played a French Open final (l. to Sharapova in 2012).
All of which meant squat to Serena in June. She won the first set in 21 minutes, won 52 points to her opponent’s 16, hit 40 winners, and ultimately closed out the spunky Italian in a 46-minute laughter.
It’s the ultimate nightmare for promoters and tennis nuts of every stripe. An awful Grand Slam final that might have casual viewers scratching their heads and wondering, “This is supposed to be exciting?”
Anyone reading this already knows all about this king—or should I say queen—of all bummer matches. Faced with the greatest opportunity in her life, Lisicki simply fell apart. After slashing her way to the final on the heels of rousing, impressive performances, she turned into a deer in the headlights of history.
Were it not for a late and basically irrelevant surge by the tear-stained German, this would have gone down as one of the all-time blowouts in an Open-era Grand Slam final.
However, the mitigating circumstances surrounding this match soften the cruelty of the scoreline. Lisicki was playing in her first major final. Bartoli had been to a final in Wimbledon before (way back in 2007, yet she had never duplicated the feat at any major in the interim. Thus, this was an enormous opportunity for both women. Perhaps because of her experience, Bartoli was able to handle the nerves, while Lisicki could not. Lisicki won just 51 points to Bartoli’s 72, and just 52 percent of the first-serve points she dished up.
Bartoli declared herself retired just a few weeks after the match despite being just 27 years old. She said it couldn’t get any better, but she might have said it couldn’t get any easier.