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Top 10 greatest men's matches

Rafael Nadal wins Wimbledon in 2008
by Mark Hodgkinson
Friday 6 July 2012

Re-live the 10 greatest men's matches at Wimbledon...

Rafael Nadal defeats Roger Federer in the 2008 final. There is hyperbole in the aftermath of every Wimbledon final, but when John McEnroe immediately described this as the greatest match he had ever seen — at the All England Club or anywhere else in tennis — it was a perfectly reasonable judgment, and one that still stands now. Few disagreed with McEnroe. Such was the sustained brilliance from the pair, on the day that Federer was attempting to become the first man in the modern era to win a sixth successive title, and when Nadal was hoping to win the Golden Challenge Cup for the first time, that Tim Henman became increasingly nervous as he sat behind a microphone in his Centre Court commentary box. He wanted to do the match justice.

Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe's tiebreak. Some refer to this 34-match breaker – the conclusion to the fourth set of the five-set 1980 final – as The Tie-Break. Others call it The War of 18-16. The pleasure that Borg would take from winning the final set for his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title was magnified by having experienced such shock and disappointment as he walked to the chair after the tiebreak. According to Tim Adams’s elegant book, Being John McEnroe, Nelson Mandela was so enthused about the match that he talked a guard at Robben Island into allowing him to listen to coverage on the World Service, Andy Warhol woke early in his mother’s old house in Manhattan to watch it on television, and Sachin Tendulkar, a McEnroe fan who was seven at the time, stood in front of his set in Mumbai wearing white shorts, a white shirt and a red headband.

Pete Sampras is beaten in the second round by 'lucky loser' George Bastl. There was a letter on Sampras's changeover, addressed to, "My husband, seven-times Wimbledon champion, Pete". His wife, the Hollywood actress Bridgette Wilson, instructed him: "Remember this – you truly are the greatest player ever to pick up a racket." This was one of the most astonishing days in the history of the All England Club – and it is not a place that is short on history – as the winner of seven Wimbledon titles went through what amounted to a grass-court existential crisis. Hence why he fished around in his bag for that letter, and why he ended up losing in the second round of the 2002 Championships to a Swiss unknown ranked No.145 in the world.

John McEnroe produces his masterpiece. It was in the opening round of the 1981 Championships, against Tom Gullikson, that the New Yorker spat out, "You cannot be serious" at an umpire. It was not as if London's tennis crowds had not been warned. At a pre-Wimbledon tournament at Queen’s Club that summer, McEnroe had screamed out: “I’m so disgusting you shouldn’t watch – everybody leave.” Then came Wimbledon, and as McEnroe once observed of his angst and rebellion in south-west London: “To me, manners meant sleeping linesmen at Wimbledon, and bowing and curtsying to rich people with hereditary titles who didn’t pay any taxes.”

Goran Ivanisevic wins Wimbledon. What was the most peculiar, the conversations in his head, what he was watching on television, or his diet? Throughout the tournament, Good Goran was talking to Bad Goran and Emergency Goran. He prepared for matches by watching Teletubbies in the mornings, and going to the same restaurant every night, where he would order the same food (fish soup, lamb and chips, ice cream with chocolate sauce). Ivanisevic’s unusual approach had its reward as he won that extraordinary semi-final against Tim Henman and then, in front of a People’s Monday crowd, he beat Pat Rafter 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7. “Winning Wimbledon is the most beautiful moment in my career. By far,” he said. If he had lost, he doesn’t know how he would have reacted. “If I had lost that match, my fourth final, I would have had to move to the North Pole, or maybe I’d have killed myself by hanging myself off a bridge. So I don’t think about it much.”

Jimmy Connors’ comeback against Mikael Pernfors. An early edition of one newspaper printed that Connors had lost this fourth-round match at the 1987 Championships. Connors was trailing 1-6, 1-6, 1-4 when he hit the shot – a backhand down the line – which turned the match around. Connors would win 18 of the last 25 games for a five-set victory and he went on to reach the semi-finals that year. “My ego was hurt. I had to do something. So I decided to fight even harder,” he said. 

Pete Sampras comes close to perfection against Andre Agassi. The Californian won seven titles, with his first three in succession between 1993 and 1995, and then four in a row between 1997 and 2000. But he never played better than he did with his straight-sets defeat of Agassi in the 1999 final. It was the closest he, or anyone, would ever come to grass-court perfection. 

Stan Smith beats Ilie Nastase in the 1972 final. It was little wonder that the American, known as Gentleman Stan, felt moved to leap over the net after winning this five-setter against the Romanian. It was the first time that the final had been played on a Sunday – not because of demands from television executives, but because of rain. 

Pancho Gonzales beats Charlie Pasarell. The first-round, 112-game match in 1969 lasted for five hours and 12 minutes. Eventually, Gonzales reached the second round with a 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-1, 11-9 victory, and the match would have taken even longer if the 41-year-old grandfather had not lost his cool in the second set.

Roger Federer beats Pete Sampras in 2001. The only time these two players ever met on court at the All England Club was in the fourth round of the 2001 tournament. That summer, Sampras had been hoping to become the first player since Bjorn Borg to win five successive Wimbledon titles. But it was Federer who won the match, in four sets.

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