By Randy Walker
In the context of the greatest ever tennis matches, where does Novak Djokovic’s 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10 win over Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round of the Australian Open rank?
Longtime tennis observer and historian, Steve Flink, author of the book THE GREATEST TENNIS MATCHES OF ALL TIME, has his opinion.
“It will be remembered as one of the ten finest matches at the Australian Open in the Open Era,” said Flink. “I can’t put this up there with an epic battle like (Rafael) Nadal-Djokovic in the Australian Open final a year ago. The best matches of all in my view are clashes between two champions who have established their greatness.”
Djokovic, the world No. 1 kept alive his hopes of becoming the first player to win three straight Australian Open men’s singles titles in the Open Era with the 5 hour and 2 minute victory, only the fourth time in the tournament’s history a match has extended passed five hours.
In last year’s Australian Open final, Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5 in 5 hours, 53 minutes, the longest final in the history of major championships and the No. 7 rated match of all time according to Flink in his book.
Many expected Djokovic, who rolled through his first three matches without losing a set, to routinely beat Wawrinka, seeded No. 15 and best known as Roger Federer’s gold medal-winning Olympic doubles partner in 2008. Wawrinka dazzled the Australian crowd, and had Djokovic shaking his head in frustration, with brilliant shot-making from the baseline, especially his noted flailing one-handed backhand.
“Wawrinka played the match of his life and still lost,” said Flink. “His ground game has never been better and he stayed toe to toe with Djokovic for more than five hours. The standard was incredibly high from his side of the net.”
Wawrinka pounced on Djokovic early, streaking to a 6-1, 5-2 lead, breaking the world No. 1’s serve five straight times. Wawrinka was two points from taking a two-sets-to-love lead at 5-3, 30-0, but was unable to close out Djokovic, who won five games in a row to tie the match at one set apiece. At that point in the match, many observers waited for Wawrinka to fold, unable to come to grips mentally with his lost opportunity. However, the Swiss Davis Cupper continued to fight hard, even after losing the third set, did not let Djokovic run away with the match and gutted out the fourth-set tie-breaker, winning it on his third set point 7-5.
Wawrinka then opened the fifth set by breaking Djokovic’s serve, but was unable to consolidate the hold, being broken right back the next game. Wawrinka had four break points at 4-4 in the final set, but lost two on unforced errors and one on a forehand return of serve that apparently just landed out. Wawrinka looked to confirm the call by looking to chair umpire Enric Molina who nodded in agreement with the call and Wawrinka chose not to challenge the call on the Hawk-Eye replay system. However, the ESPN2 TV replay from Hawk-Eye revealed the ball did land on the line and Wawrinka would have received another break point chance had he challenged, but not given the point since Djokovic had a play on the ball. Djokovic then held serve two points later and then broke through to victory on his third match point in the climatic 24th game.
“The 12-10 fifth set was stupendous,” said Flink. “Wawrinka’s shotmaking was extraordinary. Djokovic won this largely on willpower.”
Said Djokovic to Jim Courier in his on-court post-match interview, “It’s really hard to find the words to describe the feeling that we had tonight, especially in the fifth set. He deserved equally to be the winner of this match. I give him a lot of credit and respect.”
“He was the aggressive player on the court,” Djokovic contined. “I was just trying to hang in there and tried to fight and give the last drop of energy. He was playing well, mixing it up, using the right tactics and serving extremely well. I just believed all the time that I could come back into the match and I did. Then all the credit to him. He managed to win the fourth and he was a break up (in the fifth). It could have gone either way.”
With THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS book as a reference, the Djokovic-Wawrinka match was only eclipsed in time by three other matches in the history of the Australian Open, the 5:11 match between Boris Becker and Omar Camporese in 1991, the 5:14 match between Nadal and Fernando Verdasco in 2009 and the Djokovic-Nadal 5:53 final from 2012.
Flink likened the Djokovic-Wawrinka match to the Andy Roddick-Younes El Aynaoui Australian Open quarterfinal played ten years ago in 2003, Roddick winning 21-19 in the fifth set. Following that match with El Aynaoui, Roddick had little energy left, and had injured his right arm, and lost meekly in the semifinals to Rainer Schuettler and was forced to withdraw from Davis Cup duty the following week.
Next up for Djokovic is No. 5 seed Tomas Berdych, who will be the much fresher player having not lost a set in his four matches en route to the quarterfinals.
Flink’s THE GREATEST TENNIS MATCHES OF ALL TIME ($28.95, available here http://m1e.net/c?136411415-tfM0NfrCZCZ3k%408131538-VOplve.tM23zA) features profiles and rankings of the greatest matches of all time dating from the 1920s featuring Bill Tilden and Suzanne Lenglen up through the modern era of tennis featuring contemporary stars Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Flink breaks down, analyzes and puts into historical context the sport’s most memorable matches, providing readers with a courtside seat at these most celebrated and significant duels. Flink’s fascinating “greatest strokes of all time” section ranks and describes the players who best executed all the important shots in the game through the years.
THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS by Bud Collins ($35.95, available here: http://m1e.net/c?136411415-7WdsA/AlmdeFI%408131537-1M.rsdmBplZ8c) is the ultimate compilation of historical tennis information written by the world’s most famous tennis journalist and tennis historian. The book includes year-by-year recaps of every tennis season, biographical sketches of every major tennis personality, as well as stats, records, and championship rolls for all the major events. The author’s personal relationships with major tennis stars offer insights into the world of professional tennis found nowhere else.