The last ten years have brought us a cavalcade of pulsating battles in every corner of the globe, meetings that have left a lasting impression, duels lingering in our minds for a wide range of reasons. It was indeed a stirring decade for the sport.
The way I saw it, the most memorable men’s match was surely the Novak Djokovic-Roger Federer final at Wimbledon in July, and on the women's side, the 2012 US Open final pitting Serena Williams against Victoria Azarenka.
Djokovic d. Federer, 2019 Wimbledon final
There were all kinds of historical implications surrounding this showdown. It was the third time in six years that these two luminaries collided in a Centre Court final. Federer was in full pursuit of a ninth crown on the lawns of the All England Club and 21st major title, while Djokovic was chasing a fifth Wimbledon crown title and had his heart set on his16th Slam.
All of the ingredients were in place for a classic confrontation at the game’s shrine, and that is precisely what transpired. I sat there mesmerized for nearly five hours in the Centre Court press section, flanked by Kurt Streeter of the New York Times on my left and the colorful Italian Ubaldo Scanagatta on my right. As our trio of veteran journalists watched it all unfold from our excellent seats behind the court, we marveled at the level of play displayed by both competitors.
To be sure, Djokovic was well below par in two critical areas. His return of serve—indisputably the best in the game—was nowhere near peak efficiency. And in two of the five sets he served abysmally by his normal standards. But once the rallies commenced and the Serbian could shift persuasively from defense to offense, he played top of the line tennis and outperformed the Swiss overall from the back of the court. Federer, meanwhile, acquitted himself remarkably well in all five sets. He dictated more than his share of baseline exchanges—especially on his own serve—and his virtuoso shotmaking was often breathtaking.
Trailing 5-3 in the tie-break, Djokovic swept four points in a row to secure the first set. That clutch stand was a clear sign of things to come. After Federer took a one-sided second set—breaking the top seed three times— Djokovic’s big point superiority was established again in the third set. At 4-5, he produced an excellent first serve into the body at set point down, held on gamely and eventually captured that set in another tie-break.
Leading two sets to one, Djokovic appeared to have the upper hand once more. But the Centre Court crowd was enraptured when Federer raised his game decidedly in the fourth set, racing to a two-service break lead, fending off Djokovic at the end. Not until late in that set did Djokovic break serve for the first time in the match. Fittingly the two great players settled it all in one whale of a fifth and final set.
It was as if the ending had been scripted by the tennis gods. Djokovic moved out in front 4-2 but tightened up considerably in the seventh game. Federer got back on serve. The Swiss served for the match at 8-7 and delivered consecutive aces to reach double match point at 40-15. But the steely resolve of an uncommonly placid yet powerfully driven Djokovic could not be extinguished. He erased the match points with astonishing poise under pressure, and made his way to yet another tie-break.
This one, however, took place at 12-12. Wimbledon had instituted a fifth set tie-break for the first time, but this was the first singles match ever to be settled in the 12-12 tie-break. It was an ideal way to finish off a Wimbledon final that in my mind ranks only behind Rafael Nadal-Federer in 2008 and Bjorn Borg versus John McEnroe in 1980. As was the case in the two other tie-breaks, Djokovic did not make a single unforced error. He came through 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3) for the most monumental mental victory of his career. He won 204 points across five enthralling sets, 14 fewer than the Swiss. But when it really counted, Djokovic was not found wanting.
He told Tom Rinaldi of ESPN immediately after leaving the court, “This was definitely one of the most exciting matches I was part of and one of those matches when you don’t know where the next point will take the flow of the match. I never stopped believing, although I was very close to losing. I thought he played at a very high level. I went up and down. But I managed to find my best tennis when it mattered the most.”
In my view, the five hour, 53 minute five set skirmish that Djokovic won over Nadal in the 2012 Australian Open final was a higher caliber contest from beginning to end and a greater match in many ways, but the Djokovic-Federer Wimbledon appointment this year was marginally more memorable.
Serena d. Azarenka, 2012 US Open final
Williams was a few weeks away from her 31st birthday and was moving toward one of the most productive periods of her illustrious career. She had won Wimbledon earlier in the summer but was seeded only fourth at the Open. Azarenka was the top seed in New York and had captured the Australian Open at the start of the year. She would finish the year at No. 1 in the world.
The Williams-Azarenka matchup was a singularly appealing matchup. Serena, of course, had the greatest serve in the women’s game. She could demoralize adversaries with the speed and precision of her first serve and the incomparable depth of her second delivery. In turn, Serena was awfully intimidating from the baseline, returning commandingly off second serves, blasting winners at will, setting the tempo from the backcourt.
But Azarenka was unafraid of Serena because she was arguably the best returner in women’s tennis at the time, a wily point constructer and a match player of the highest order. At 23, she was in her prime, and determined to collect her second major title of the season with a victory in New York.
Although Azarenka walked on court with a 1-9 career record against Williams, the fact remained that she liked her chance against one of the sport’s all-time greats. Serena’s ultra aggression carried her to a quick 3-0 lead. She won the first set 6-2 in 34 efficient minutes, dropping only one point in the last two games. But Azarenka found her range in the second set. She broke early, coaxed errors from Williams with excellent ball control, and won the set comfortably 6-2.
The final set was fought valiantly on both sides of the net. They exchanged breaks early before Azarenka broke Serena again in the seventh game at love and then made her way to 5-3. The woman from Belarus was one game away from claiming the crown. Williams missed four of six first serves in the ninth game and was two points from defeat. But she held on and never looked back, taking the match on a remarkable four game run, garnering a fourth Open title.
The match had everything on both sides of the net and kept the fans fully immersed all the way through, but in the end Williams succeeded because down the stretch she had the better big match mentality. I witnessed a good many great women’s matches over this last decade, but this captivating collision between Williams and Azarenka on the hard courts in New York seven years ago stands out most prominently in the eye of my mind.