Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Six Unforgettable US Open Matches (Women)

I’m still feeling a bit tennis-y tonight. And this is a blog post I’ve probably wanted to write every year since I started watching tennis. I love the US Open. Don’t get me wrong. Wimbledon is something special for sure, but I think it’s more special for the players than the fans. The US Open is where you get some knock-down drag-out battles where both players just leave everything out on the court trying to win. And while it hasn’t been as true the last five years, the Open is the place where you get to see some truly memorable women’s tennis matches. Here are six I think are unforgettable. I’m sure if you’re a fan you want one added that I don’t have on here, but that’s the other thing that makes the US Open so great. Trying to choose just five or six great matches is virtually impossible.

6. 1988 Final Steffi Graf def. Gabriela Sabatini 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 -- Before Monica Seles, Steffi Graf’s biggest contemporary rival was Gabriela Sabatini. Of course, because of how dominant Graf was at this point in her career, rivalry was overstating it a little. Coming into this match Graf had beaten Sabatini 12 of the 14 times they played. Probably this match wouldn’t even make the list except that by winning it Steffi completed the first calendar year grand slam by a woman since Margaret Court did it in 1972. She went on to win the gold medal in the 1988 Olympics as well, giving her what was called the Golden Slam.

5. 2009 Semi-final Kim Clijsters def. Serena Williams 6-4, 7-5 -- This match is memorable to most people because it’s the famous outburst by Serena Williams that cost her a point penalty on match point. It’s a shame that’s how it will always be remembered though, because this was Clijsters first major tournament coming back out of retirement after having a baby. And it may be the best tennis match she’s ever played from beginning to end (well almost to the end anyway). In the quarter-finals she beat Venus Williams by the ridiculous score of 6-0, 0-6, 6-4. Up to this point in her career, Clijsters was most well-known for collapsing in the big moments. If you watch the highlights of this match, you won’t even see a hint of that. She went on to beat Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets the next night to become the first mom since Evonne Goolagong-Cawley to win a major tournament.

4. 2004 US Open Quarter-final Jennifer Capriati def. Serena Williams 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 -- Here’s another match that is mostly remembered for its controversy (rightly so) but also was spectacular tennis for most of the time. Starting in 2001, Serena beat up on Capriati eight straight times. But in the spring of 2004, Capriati finally got back on the board by beating Serena twice on clay. At Wimbledon, Serena embarrassed Capriati 6-1, 6-1 setting the stage for this classic match. In addition to the great tennis, there were some absolutely atrocious line calls, all of them going against Serena. It was almost exclusively due to this match that instant replay challenges were added to the game. But the tennis was still magnificent. It looked for a minute like Capriati might finally break through at the Open, but instead she was destined to play the same semi-final match three different times in her career (see match number one here).

3. 2000 Semi-final Venus Williams def. Martina Hingis 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 -- This was Venus’ fourth straight year in the US Open semi-final, but it was her sister Serena who was the defending US Open champ. Plus, if Venus had a nemesis, it was Martina Hingis. They played completely different games and up to this point in their careers, Hingis played hers better than Venus most of the times they played. But Venus had beaten Hingis on her way to her first Wimbledon title earlier in the summer and there was definitely a buzz around this match right from the start. The entire match was spectacular and it looked like Hingis was on her way to a victory. But up 5-4 in the third she had a fairly easy overhead that she just put back in play rather than putting it away and Venus basically never looked back from there. You can see the point at about the 9:10 mark of this clip.

2. 1984 Final Martina Navratilova def. Chris Evert-Lloyd 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 -- This may be a candidate for best women’s match of all time. Coming into this final, Navratilova had beaten Evert 11 consecutive times – eight of those in straight sets. So no one gave Evert (at the time married to John Lloyd) much of a chance in this match. But she came out on fire and took the first set. The quality of this match from beginning to end is remarkable. Check out the point at the 1:20 mark of this clip. The entire match was like that. I remember that – even though I was never a big Chris Evert fan – I almost cried at the end of this match. Really neither of them deserved to lose this match.

1. 1991 Semi-final Monica Seles def. Jennifer Capriati 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 -- I could write an entire book about this match I’m so obsessed with it. Seles was 18, Capriati 15. At this point, Seles already had two French Open titles and one Australian Open victory. Capriati just had the “next Chris Evert only better” label to live up to. But a couple weeks earlier they played in the final of the tournament here in San Diego. I was lucky enough to be at that final. I have to tell you that I have never seen two women before or since hit so many balls so hard so close to the lines. It was ri-frickin-diculous. I wanted Capriati to win this match almost more than she did. And it was an all-time classic. For me to rank it above a match I just said was a candidate for best-ever tells you how great I thought this match was. I think they played for nine-and-a-half hours (it just seemed like it). Deep in the third set, Capriati served for the match. Twice. I still get a lump in my throat when I think about it.

This was so much more than one match. Capriati lost this match and started on a downward spiral that would take her to rehab, therapy and out of the game for a few years. It took her ten years to recover from this match, and she never fully recovered. All three subsequent opportunities she had to get to a US Open final she squandered. Only one of those was because she was beaten by a better player (2001 against Venus Williams). The other two matches were hers to win, but just like here, she couldn’t close the deal. I truly believe if she had won this match, she’d have about eight grand slam titles instead of three.

As for Seles, this really was when she cemented her dominance in the game for the next few years. She was virtually unstoppable until she was stabbed in the spring of 1993. As awful as it sounds to say, if she had lost this match she probably would never have been stabbed. It may sound crazy, but if Capriati wins this match she probably doesn’t melt down the way she did and she, Graf and Seles would have been trading major titles for the next several years. Crazy German guy then probably has no reason to psychotically blame Seles for Graf not being the number one player in the world. Like I said, I could write a book on this match. But for now, just take a look at the clip. Oh, one final note. Capriati never did win a match against Monica Seles at the US Open.

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