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Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Top men's matches of the decade

By Joel Drucker
Special to ESPN.com

In the tennis world, the '00s have been a decade of exceptional firepower, marked by furious groundstrokes, a significant decline in volley deployment and increasing speed -- both by feet and by the ball. As recently as 1999, for example, the sight of a man hitting a serve more than 120 mph was a dazzling achievement. These days, just about every man and several women have cracked that mark.

So how to determine the decade's best matches? After all, in some cases brilliant tennis was played but the occasion was hardly significant. Impressive as the ballstriking is, very few people ever remember much that takes place in the European fall season. And in other cases, the overall quality of tennis is only part of what makes a match significant. With that in mind, here are the top matches of the past decade. By all means toss in your own opinions.

1. 2008 Wimbledon: As Good As It Gets

It takes a convergence of factors to make a match extraordinary. All came together at the 2008 Wimbledon men's singles final: Venue, stage of the event, rivalry and sustained excellence all added up to enthralling drama.

Roger Federer had been the king of Wimbledon since 2003 and was hoping to set an Open era record with his six straight title. Rafael Nadal had won four straight French Open titles, beating Federer in every one of those runs. Having lost the past two Wimbledon finals, including a painful five-set loss in '07, the Spaniard was eager to prove himself a man for all surfaces.

Brilliant all-court rallies and clutch shot-making from both players showcased all the movement and agility that make tennis at once raw combat and difficult craft. Rain delays added another factor, to the point where darkness enveloped the court -- the last time this would occur since Wimbledon's new roof was set to open in 2009.

In the end, only a few touches of extra aggression and tenacity from Nadal made the difference.

Rafael Nadal def. Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7

2. 2005 U.S. Open: American Gladiators

In his youth, James Blake had imagined he'd be more likely to be watching the U.S. Open than playing it. But life had taken another twist, and through various ups, downs, injuries and recoveries, Blake in 2005 had taken a step into the elite. Earlier in the tournament, he'd taken out No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal. Now, past 10 p.m. on a brilliant New York night, Blake was going toe-to-toe with a tennis icon in the first Grand Slam quarterfinal of his career.

Andre Agassi
On his way to the U.S. Open final, Andre Agassi fended off an inspired James Blake in an epic quarterfinal clash.

Andre Agassi at this point was 35 -- but owing to the wavering commitment of prior years, he was a young 35, fit, eager, showing off again and again the finest forehand-backhand combination in tennis history.

Blake had overcome a series of personal problems -- nearly breaking his neck, his father's death, a debilitating virus -- and emerged stronger mentally and physically. He shot out of the blocks, using his off-the-charts foot speed to blister forehand winners in all corners to win the first two sets.

Agassi rallied to level the match. In the fifth, Blake served for it at 5-4 but was unsuccessful. In the tiebreaker, he went up 3-1, at one point looking up in the heavens and saying, "I love you, Dad."

But it wasn't enough. Naturally, it would end in a decisive tiebreaker. At 6-all, Agassi hit a drop shot that set up a laser-like backhand down-the-line pass. On match point, Blake missed his first serve, at which point Agassi stepped to his left and rocketed a forehand down-the-line return winner. It was 1:15 a.m. Said Agassi, "No one lost. Tennis was the winner."

Agassi went on to reach the final -- his last major run at a Grand Slam.

Andre Agassi def. James Blake 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6

3. 2000 Wimbledon: Sampras Sets Slam Record

Since childhood, Pete Sampras had been told he had the goods to be a champion for the ages. It was fitting indeed that to become the all-time Slam titlist he'd have to get past an Australian. After all, Aussies such as Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall had been held up to the young Sampras as role models of championship play and exemplary sportsmanship. Another Aussie, Roy Emerson, had won a record 12 singles majors.

But the 2000 Wimbledon was more a limp to the title than the familiar Sampras trot. A shin injury had debilitated Sampras, forcing him to abandon off-day practices and spend hours icing himself.

In the final, he came up against an inspired Patrick Rafter, a rugged Aussie whose kick serve and forceful volley game could pose all sorts of problems for Sampras. After Rafter won the first set, he went up 4-1 in the second-set tiebreaker. Somehow Sampras escaped to level the match -- and then, as only Sampras could, he caught fire. As nightfall descended on Centre Court, with his parents on site at a Slam for the first time in nearly eight years, with flashbulbs clicking in all corners, Sampras reigned supreme.

Pete Sampras def. Patrick Rafter, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2

4. 2002 U.S. Open: Storybook Ending

Not since his '00 Wimbledon win had Pete Sampras even taken a title. At the '02 U.S. Open, he was seeded 17th, his descent most emphatically illustrated earlier that summer by a second-round loss at Wimbledon. And when rains forced Sampras to play his final five matches in seven days, it was hard to believe he'd have the goods to come through once again.

Across the net stood his most notable rival, Andre Agassi. But as Australian great John Newcombe said prior to the match, "This is a match between one man who thinks he can win and the other who knows he can win." The latter was Sampras, and as he had so many times, he rapidly took charge, snapping up the first two sets, 6-3, 6-4. But when Agassi rallied to take the third and press Sampras early in the fourth, it was uncertain whether Sampras' fitness would hold up should it go the distance.

Earlier that summer Sampras had reunited with his former coach, Paul Annacone. Annacone's advice was simple: Use your athleticism. In other words, get your butt moving forward. Summoning up his strength, Sampras fought off a break point at 3-4, broke Agassi at 4-4 and, in trademark style, served out the match, closing it out with a knifelike backhand volley to earn the most emotionally satisfying win of his career.

The tally versus Agassi told a simple story. Away from Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, the two split 28 matches. At tennis's two biggest venues, Sampras emerged the victor all six times they met.

Months later Sampras announced his retirement.

Pete Sampras def. Andre Agassi, 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4

5. 2004 Miami: Scent of a Rivalry

In March 2004, Roger Federer arrived in Key Biscayne just over a month into a run of more than four straight years at the top of the world.

But on March 28, in the second round of Key Biscayne, Federer came up against a 17-year-old Spaniard then ranked 34th in the world. Rafael Nadal played brilliantly that day, knocking off Federer 6-3, 6-3, in just over an hour. Though Nadal had been touted as a fine player, few dared imagine then that he'd emerge as the Swiss' greatest rival. But even at that early stage, Federer was aware of how Nadal could disrupt him. Said Federer following the loss: "He doesn't hit the ball flat and hard. It's more with a lot of spin, which makes the ball bounce, bounce high, and that's a struggle I had today. I tried to get out of it, but kind of couldn't."

The psychologist Sigmund Freud once said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And in tennis sometimes an upset is just an upset.

This was one case where it wasn't.

Rafael Nadal def. Roger Federer, 6-3, 6-3

Honorable Mention

• U.S. Open '01 quarterfinal: Pete Sampras def. Andre Agassi, 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6

Highest-sustained quality of their 34 matches

• French Open '04 final: Gaston Gaudio def. Guillermo Coria, 0-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 8-6

Gaudio draws inspiration from the wave to overcome skilled compatriot

• Australian '05 semifinal: Marat Safin def. Roger Federer, 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6, 9-7

Mercurial Russian fights off match point and goes on to win title

• Rome '06 final: Rafael Nadal def. Roger Federer 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6

Crackling drama, physical prowess over the course of five hours

• Wimbledon '09 final: Roger Federer def. Andy Roddick, 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14

Incredible effort from Roddick, right down to overtime fifth set

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.