With 2017 nearing its close, it's time to decide what was the year's best match. Steve Tignor will conclude his top 10 contest countdown over the next two weeks—but which was your favorite? We want to know, so vote for your favorite match in our poll.
Tennis Channel will air the Top 3 matches with the most votes on December 31st, in full.
It was déjà vu all over again—and again, and again—for Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open semifinals.
After four and a half hours, Nadal was locked at 3-3 in the fifth set with Grigor Dimitrov in Rod Laver Arena. Both men were playing with a punch-drunk, half-staggered grace. One minute it looked like they might fall over, the next they were chasing a ball into the corner and curling a passing shot around their opponent for a winner.
This is how it had gone for much of the first four, back-and-forth, push-and-pull sets. Extreme spins, acute angles, 100-m.p.h. ground strokes, stretch volleys, leaping overheads and much more: Nadal and Dimitrov had exhausted the game’s possibilities, and themselves, in their effort to reach the Aussie Open final, but they were still all even. The commentators had run out of ways to say “unbelievable,” so they just kept repeating that word, three, four, five times each game. Dimitrov had hit 20 aces and 79 winners, while Nadal had countered with some of his best tennis in three years.
“I think Grigor played great,” Nadal said. “I played great. So was great quality of tennis tonight.... I think both of us deserve to be in that final.”
We had seen Rafa star in this midnight—or 3:00 A.M.—movie more than once in Melbourne. In its sustained excellence and marathon length, the match with Dimitrov was a throwback to his five-set, five-hour win over Fernando Verdasco in the 2009 semifinals on the same court. Once upon a time, this way the type of close match that Nadal would find a way to survive; but over the previous two years, he had lost more epics than he had won.
Which would it be this time? As the fifth set progressed, we saw signs of the old, stubborn Rafa, as well as the new, nervous Rafa. At 2-2, he played aggressively to reach break point, only to tighten up and loop a nervous forehand long. When he went down 15-40 on his serve at 3-4, Nadal looked spent. One more point for Dimitrov and he would serve for it.
Now it was time for the old Rafa to assert himself. At 15-40, he took a backhand earlier than he usually does and hammered it for a winner. At 30-40, he followed a forehand to the net and knocked off a volley winner. Seemingly pleased with that effort, he did it again, sending a high ball to Dimitrov’s one-handed backhand, ghosting in behind it, and poking a forehand volley into the open court. These sudden, successful bursts forward turned back the clock on Rafa’s career, and turned the match back in his favor.
“Just think I feel very happy to be part of this match, no?” Nadal said when he was asked what was going through his mind down the stretch. “Arrive moment in the fifth set that for sure I wanted to win. I say to myself, I am giving my best, I am playing very well. If that’s it, Grigor deserves, too.”
At 4-4, Nadal kept the momentum and reached break point. In that rally, he fought off a Dimitrov attack with a hooked forehand pass. Dimitrov popped up his next half-volley, and the ball landed short. As Nadal raced to put it away, his mind may have raced back to another early-morning, five-set marathon he had played—and lost—on this court, the 2012 Aussie Open final against Novak Djokovic.
Late in the fifth set of that match, Nadal had a similarly short backhand to essentially clinch it, but he had pushed the ball wide. It may have been the most nightmare-inducing miss of Rafa’s career. This time he looked determined not to repeat it. Instead of sliding the ball up the line, he drilled it into the corner for a winner.
Over the course of five hours, neither Nadal nor Dimitrov had held a lead for long, so it was fitting that Dimitrov fought back and made Rafa’s service game at 5-4 a see-saw, shriek-producing, multiple-deuce affair. Dimitrov saved two match points—one with a jump-back smash—but on the third he sent a backhand just over the baseline. When Nadal beat Verdasco here in ’09, he laid down flat on his back; this time he went face down.
“Means a lot to me,” Nadal said. “I feel the love of the people here. They give me a lot of positive energy.”
Dimitrov also felt that love as he walked off the court. Did his defeat come with its own sense of (positive) déja vù? Could it end up serving the same purpose in his career that Stan Wawrinka’s five-set, five-hour loss to Djokovic on the same court in 2013 did for his? That failure by Stan was what finally convinced him he could succeed.
“I’m happy with a lot of things,” Dimitrov said. “I’m going to stay positive and keep my head up high.... At least one thing I can say is that I left it all out on the court.”
As Nadal said, this push-and-pull match could have gone either way. Rafa had been on the wrong end of a few five-setters recently, but this time he got in the last push. It was also the first step on his road back to No. 1 in 2017.
“Was a great fight,” Nadal said. “Finally it was me. I feel lucky.”
“These kind of matches, even for the body, destroys your body, but that’s tennis. That’s special.”