Which are the greatest men's tennis matches of the past twenty years? What was it that made them great? We examine a series of tennis matches that have never been forgotten by those who saw them, to identify what it is that makes tennis so memorable at times. Although we count ATP Tour, Grand Slam and Davis Cup tennis matches, it is the individual circuit we focus on here, as most of the best matches in recent years have been played out there.
Nicolas Mahut vs. John Isner, Wimbledon 2010
"Maybe they'll keep playing until the very concept of victory collapses, and they'll both win and lose simultaneously and Earth will implode," writer and broadcaster Charlie Brooker tweeted during the fifth set of this legendary tennis match. Going into the match, it looked like another routine coming-together of average players who would play out a match on an outside court at Wimbledon, probably to a rapt crowd, but full of people who secretly wished they'd got entry to Roger Federer's match on Court Number One.
Mahut had won the pair's only previous meeting. Spectators could see that something special was going to happen when the Frenchman responded to Isner's 6-4 first-set win by taking the second set 6-3. Even after the third set went to Mahut, 7-6 on a tiebreak, it looked like the match was swinging his way, and fans would not have to worry about their Pimm's or strawberries and cream running out before proceedings were over.
Isner wasn't done yet, though - his tiebreak win in the fourth set took things into the evening. That cream was beginning to curdle. What followed was like tennis mixing with a Japanese torture game show, creating something no-one had expected. Each time somebody broke serve, those watching on TV and at the court thought that it might be all over in a game. Then the opponent would break back.
In Grand Slams, there is no tiebreak on the fifth set, and usually this rule isn't tested - but during the 11-hour match, many people wondered if it should be. After a whole second day's play, the match was poised at 59-58 to Isner, with Mahut serving to stay in the match. As when he had been leading 10-9 on Mahut's serve, the big American failed to take his match point, and the match continued.
After 67 minutes on the final day of play, Isner finally closed out the match against his equally-brave opponent, after a night of takeaway food and lost sleep, with the fifth-set score standing at 70-68. It wasn't technically the easiest match on the eye, but oh my, the stretched sinews and the refusal of either player to give up made this one of the classis tennis matches.
Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer, Wimbledon 2008
Roger Federer, by 2008, had reached mid-career quasi-royal status, his face on billboards advertising Rolex watches, his monogrammed sportswear reminding some British sports fans of Alan Partridge's similar uniform of a decade earlier. He was number-one seed heading into the final at Wimbledon, but the number-two seed, Rafael Nadal, had just taken his fourth French Open title, making some sportswriters claim that his power game was about to supersede Federer's gentler style.
Nadal, at peak fitness and performance, took the first two sets, looking like he would possibly take Feder apart in straight sets and put the legacy of his champion opponent, to whom he had lost in 2006 and 2007, to bed. Federer, though, found something else deep within, and came back with two great sets, both taken on tiebreaks, to level the match for a fifth set.
There were long rallies, there were many service games strained to deuce, and there was the treat of watching two tennis players at the peak of their game, with playing styles about as far apart as you could get, but who respected each other completely.
Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray, Australian Open 2015
Novak Djokovic was, it was once rumoured, asked if he would like to represent the Great Britain Davis Cup team - he would have qualified, if he and his family could be persuaded by the Lawn Tennis Association to live in the UK for two years. In spite of this failed, and deeply flawed, pursuit of the then 19 year-old, Djokovic's bond with Andy Murray was made of deeper stuff than questions of nationality.
The two players were born within a week of each other, took up tennis at roughly the same time, and were both sent at an early age to the feted Sanchez-Casal Academy in Spain, where they played together many times. It was there that they both learned their ostensibly similar baseline games, big forehands complimented by clubbed double-handed backhands.
These matching styles can often make a Djokovic-Murray tennis match seem dry and dull, at least in comparison to the classics we are used to between the likes of Federer and Nadal. However, this match was a great spectacle because both players wanted it for different reasons. Murray, who had had a purple patch of victories in the 2012 Olympics and US Open, and then Wimbledon 2013, was world number two at the time. Djokovic, out in front as the number one, wanted to win an open-era record fifth Australian Open.
The first two sets saw barely a cigarette paper separating the two contenders, Djokovic taking the first-set tiebreak, then Murray doing the same in the second. Rather than the styles of the players cancelling each other out, what we instead saw in these first two sets was two players involved in long, drawn-out rallies, taking part in an in-depth exploration of the angles at which a tennis ball could be hit.
The third and fourth sets were all Djokovic, Murray seeming to tire, his pinpoint shots of earlier becoming less accurate, his Serbian opponent taking the sets 6-3 6-0, but if you want to see an expert show of modern tennis brilliance, those first two sets are well worth watching.