Seven times the US Open thrilled us

Fox in the box – Nenad Krsticic

Flushing Meadows, the hallowed home of the US Open Tennis Championships, has witnessed some fantastic matches in the 38 years it has hosted the event. We take a look at seven of the best.

1980 Semi-final: Jimmy Connors vs John McEnroe

Connors vs McEnroe was one of the greatest tennis rivalries of our time, and this match was perhaps the greatest of the 34 they played against each other between the years of 1977 and 1991.

Featuring the always combustible McEnroe at the absolute peak of his powers (and petulance), and a rival in Connors who wasn’t one to shy away from a fight, any match between these two tennis greats always threatened to explode.

This one was no exception, and there was one particular moment that stands out. As Sports Illustrated wrote at the time:

In the final set, while McEnroe twice pulled ahead on breaks, he flailed his racket once too often and lost control of it. The racket hurtled crazily the length of the court, barely missing Connors’ newly bristled face. It was a small-potatoes Brian Oldfield heave, but it cost McEnroe $250 in fines.

That was far from the only drama in a match that saw several swings of momentum throughout. Earlier, McEnroe had one of his trademark outbursts at a chair umpire, responding to being called ‘Mr. McEnroe’ by referring to the official as ‘Mr. Incompetent’. Refusing to allow McEnroe to steal the spotlight, Connors placed himself on the wall like a patron watching the show.

As for the match itself, it was an absolute thriller. McEnroe led 6-4, 5-4 before Connors won 11 straight games to take a two-sets-to-one lead, only for McEnroe to come roaring back to win the fourth before a fiercely contested fifth set ended in a 6-4, 5-7, 0-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-3) win for McEnroe.

1980 Final: John McEnroe vs Bjorn Borg

It’s not too often that two of the greatest tennis matches in a Grand Slam’s history involve the same player in successive matches, but the 1980 US Open was a very special tournament.

If the McEnroe vs Connors rivalry was a case of two players similar in style and temperament, then the McEnroe vs Borg one was a study in contrast. There wasn’t a single aspect of the Swede’s cool, calm and unflappable demeanor that didn’t clash sharply with his fiery American opponent. It made for enthralling theater – and tennis.

While not quite as remarkable as McEnroe’s victory in the Wimbledon final earlier that year, it still featured a classic battle between two absolute greats.

After winning the two sets, Borg found himself on the receiving end of another superb McEnroe fightback, as the American closed out a 7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4 victory to cap a golden summer.

Quoting Sports Illustrated again:

However many more tennis matches Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe are fated to play against each other, surely their names will be linked forever by the memories from a single summer. The summer of 1980. The summer of the tennis bookends. The summer that Borg started by defeating McEnroe in a glorious final at Wimbledon on July 5 and that McEnroe ended by checkmating Borg right back in a glorious final at New York’s Flushing Meadow on Sunday.

2001 Quarterfinal: Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi

Speaking of great rivalries, this one was a doozy, easily one of the greatest the game has ever seen. Sampras and Agassi dressed differently, played differently, behaved differently and, we’re guessing here, probably held their knife and fork differently too.

By the time this match came along, the two Americans had already played each other 32 times in their careers, and owned 21 Grand Slam titles between them, but their 33rd meeting was as special as any of them.

Fiercely contested in front of a boisterous New York night crowd unsure of who to pick as their sentimental favourite, both players refused to give an inch as they approached the twilight of their glittering careers, offering up a match for the ages in the process.

Amazingly, in a match that carried on past midnight, there was a not a single break of serve throughout, with all four sets being decided by tie-breaks. Agassi saved three set points to take the first, but Sampras kept his cool to win the next three.

“Probably about as good as it gets, playing the very best in a night match at the US Open,” Sampras said after the match. “The atmosphere was phenomenal, and it was so close.”

1984 Finals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova

The women’s game has had its share of epic rivalries too, and none more so than Evert vs Navratilova, which can stand toe-to-toe with the best in the game. The pair played each other an incredible 80 times, and many consider this match to be the greatest of them all.

Backed by enthusiastic home support, Evert threatened to pull off a big upset against a dominant player in the prime of her career, but it wasn’t to be.

Between 1982 and 1984, Navratilova lost just six matches, winning eight Grand Slam titles, but none were harder to come by or more richly deserved than the 1984 US Open.

Coming into the match on the back of a 12-game losing streak to Navratilova consisting of mostly straight sets defeats, the crowd erupted when Evert took the first set 6-4.

The American would later describe it as “louder than anything I have ever experienced in my life.

“I remember walking off for the changeover thinking, ‘I am finally going to do it.’ And it seemed like everyone else thought so too.”

Evert had her chance to win it, earning a double-break point late in the second set, but she couldn’t quite convert, despite getting a look at two Navratilova second serves.

The Czech legend recovered to level the scores, before going on to wrap up the third set and clinch a 4–6, 6–4, 6–4 victory.

“It was the most devastated I’ve ever felt over a tennis match,” Evert confessed.

1995 Final: Steffi Graf vs Monica Seles

As captivating as the contests between these two players always were, this was a match about more than just tennis.

Seles was playing in just her second tournament since taking a two-and-a-half-year leave of absence from the game in the wake of the stabbing attack she suffered at the hands of a crazed fan in Hamburg.

That fan attacked Seles because he wanted Graf to remain the dominant force in women’s tennis, so the first meeting between the two players since the attack was always going to be of huge interest – not only to tennis fans, but the entire world.

Adding to the drama was the fact that Graf’s father had just received a prison sentence in Germany for failing to pay income tax on more than $1.5 million on his daughter’s earnings.

Graf also entered the match with an injured foot, and spent the night before at a New York hospital undergoing an MRI scan.

Seles appeared to win the first set in a tie-break, only for her ace down the line to be called out.

Graf would go on to win the set, but Seles hit back strongly to win the second set to love and level the scores.

It all came down to the third, where Graf was able to regain her composure, producing some of her best tennis to close out a 7-6, 0-6, 6-3 victory.

“This is the biggest win I have ever achieved,” Graf said at the time. “There is nothing that even comes close to this one.”

2011 Semi-final: Novak Djokovic vs Roger Federer

Closer to our own era, this match featured perhaps one of the greatest clutch shots in tennis history, as Novak Djokovic defeated Roger Federer 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 in an enthralling four-hour contest.

Federer appeared on course for victory after taking the first two sets, but Djokovic, it turned out, had a lot more left in the tank.

The Serb rallied superbly to win the next two sets and force a decider, but again Federer gained the upper hand, finding himself serving for the match at 5-3, with two match points at 40-15.

What followed was a shot John McEnroe called one of the “all-time greats” in the game, a crosscourt forehand return winner from Djokovic to save the first match point.

He would go on to save the second match point as well, before going on to win four straight games and stun Federer and the Flushing Meadows crowd.

Asked about that forehand return winner that changed everything, Djokovic said: “Yeah, I tend to do that on match points. It kinda works.”

1991 Semi-final: Martina Navratilova vs. Steffi Graf

No surprise to see a match between two of the greatest female tennis players of all time make this list.

Navratilova was already 34 years old at the time and reaching the end of her career, playing a red-hot 22-year-old Graf who had beaten her on the last four occasions, as well as the 1988 and 1989 Wimbledon finals and 1989 US Open final.

Navratilova had no business winning this one, but that’s precisely what she did, emerging from the match’s biggest point like a victorious gladiator to complete a 7-6 (7-2), 6-7 (6-8), 6-4 victory.

There were several incredibly nervous moments for Navratilova during the match, which was interrupted by a 24-hour rain delay. She saved four set points in the second set, only for Graf to go on to win it in a tie-break anyway.

The Czech rebounded in the third set to take a 4-1 lead, but then double-faulted twice to allow Graf back into the contest.

Graf earned two more break points with Navratilova serving for the match at 5-4, but her serve got out of trouble and allowed her to close out a famous victory.

“I just didn’t lie down and die the way I used to,” Navratilova said. “This time, I hung in there.”