December 15, 2010

Year in Review: The Best Men's Matches

Last week I brought you my picks for the best ladies' matches outside the Majors -- don't worry, I'll be back with those soon! -- and I have to admit it was just as hard to generate the same list for the men. Not that there was any lack of material to choose from -- quite the contrary. There was so much excitement on the men's Tour that I'm afraid I really had to limit myself.

So please forgive me if your picks didn't make my list -- there was a lot of competition. But here are the non-Slam matches that stood out most in my mind.

Sony Ericsson Open, Miami, Third Round
Rafael Nadal d. David Nalbandian: 6-7(8), 6-2, 6-2

It is of course a bit unfortunate, like in many matches this year, that these two powerhouses had to meet so early in a tournament. Nadal, ranked fourth at the time, was coming off a short injury hiatus while the wildcard Nalbandian was hoping to improve his #161 ranking as he returned to Tour post hip surgery. It was a battle of two elite athletes playing just slightly off their best game and turned out to be one of the best-fought matches of the event. Rafa was first to break his opponent, but the Argentine, who'd actually defeated Nadal in two of their three previous meetings, rebounded to even the score and force a first set tiebreak. He held several set points before taking the lead and looked poised to pull off the upset. But Rafa took control early in the second set and closed it out by breaking Nalbandian's serve for the third time in the match.

Having lost his momentum, it looked as though David might crumble at that point, but he stayed strong to start the deciding set. The two traded long, brilliant, hard-hitting rallies that showed just how well they could not only move but also think. Both covered the court like white on rice, chasing down every apparent winner and getting shots that had no business surviving back into play. But despite spectacular shot-making from either side of the net, Nadal didn't allow Nalbandian another chance in the third, winning every one of his first serves, and finished off his opponent fairly quickly for the win.

Rafa went on to the semis in Miami, losing to eventual champion Andy Roddick in three sets, but his year only got better from that point. Nalbandian enjoyed his best play of the year during the summer hardcourt season, winning a title in Washington and actually being one of my favorites at the U.S. Open. He didn't quite make it that far, but he did manage to end the year in the top thirty, in solid seeding territory for Melbourne, and I don't doubt we'll see him make a bigger dent in 2011.

Rome Masters, Second Round
Ernests Gulbis d. Roger Federer: 2-6, 6-1, 7-5

It had been an interesting year so far for Federer -- after winning the Australian Open quite definitively, he'd failed to make much headway in the early spring, losing to Marcos Baghdatis in the third round at Indian Wells and Tomas Berdych in Miami. Still, when we hit the clay courts, the surface on which he'd launched his historic run last year, I expected he'd bring nothing but the best.

In his first match of the season he faced Ernests Gulbis, a somewhat erratic player who, at twenty-two, had just won his maiden title a few months earlier at Delray Beach. Ranked #40 in the world at the time, the Latvian had once made a nice run in New York but had previously seen his best Grand Slam performance at the 2008 French Open, where he beat James Blake on his way to the quarters. Still with a mediocre 19-21 career record on clay, you wouldn't have given him much of a chance.

But Gulbis was not intimidated, even after losing the the first set so one-sidedly. He took advantage of the then-#1's weak serve and fired off four times as many aces as Federer. He broke the usually solid Swiss four times during the match and won more than forty percent of his return points. After just over two hours, Gulbis had secured the biggest win of his career.

He followed through with a run to the semis in Italy and a quarterfinal showing a few weeks later in Madrid. He was one of my favorites to cause an upset at Roland Garros, but a hamstring injury caused him to retire while trailing Julien Benneteau in the first round. Though he was in and out of contention for the summer and much of the fall, Gulbis ended the year with a career-high #24 ranking and scored himself a legion of new fans . If he's in good health next year, I'd look for him to make a statement early -- after all, he knows he has what it takes to hit with the big guys.

Farmers Classic, Los Angeles, Final
Sam Querrey d. Andy Murray: 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-3

Defending champion Sam Querrey should not have made the finals in Los Angeles this year -- he'd squeaked by a tough Rainer Schuettler in the quarters and saved match point against Janko Tipsarevic in the semis. Not surprisingly, all the commentators had dubbed him Houdini for getting out of so many jams, and I'm not sure many gave him a chance against Andy Murray in the finals. The Brit had won their previous four meetings, never ceding even a set to the world #20. Querrey also hadn't stacked up a very intimidating record against top-ten players, only having beaten Andy Roddick once this year. Admittedly, I was surprised when he got the first break of the match, less so when he gave it back a few games later. Only a few games later, Murray had secured a decisive break and claimed the quick lead.

At that point I figured it was all over -- after surviving three straight three-set matches, how could Querrey endure another? But he managed to stay strong early, maintaining serve and firing off the bombs that had helped him steadily climb the rankings. Serving at 4-5, he faced match point for the second time in the tournament, but a couple solid serves got him out of trouble, and he ran off to a quick lead in the tiebreak before finally taking his first set ever from the then-world #4.

The decider was just as hard fought, but you could begin to see frustration creeping into Murray's game. He continued to race after -- and get! -- balls he had no business reaching, but when he made errors he grimaced like a child and wailed his annoyance to the crowd. Querrey meanwhile stayed calm and collected, and though he was actually out-aced in the third set and won only five points on Murray's serve, they were all the right ones. He converted his only break opportunity and saved the one chance he gave the Brit, eventually earning the right to hoist the trophy for the second straight year after almost two and a half hours of play.

It might have been the highlight of Sam's year -- the then twenty-two year old only made it past the second round of an event once after that, losing a long five-setter to Stanislas Wawrinka in the U.S. Open's fourth round. But he did end the year at #18 in the world, and if he uses the off-season to get his game back in order, he could be a real threat in 2011. Murray followed up with two Masters 1000 titles, both won by defeating Roger Federer, and a semifinal run at the World Tour finals -- more on that later. He might still struggle deep in the Majors, but he seems to be getting his nerves under a bit of control.

Davis Cup, Chennai, World Group Play-offs
Thomaz Bellucci d. Rohan Bopanna: 6-7(2), 7-6(7), 7-5, 4-6, 10-8

Bellucci should have been the clear favorite in this match as the Brazilian was ranked twenty-seventh in the world compared to Bopanna with a singles ranking just inside the top five hundred. But the Indian was coming off a historic doubles run at the U.S. Open and had garnered a host of fans applauding his symbolic bridge with Pakistan's Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, and he brought that momentum with him to Chennai for Davis Cup.

The match was close from the start, and Bopanna had break points in the second to get the two-set lead. He was even ahead 5-2 in the fifth before the Brazilian pulled even to force the marathon. After more than an hour of play in the decider, Bellucci broke the Indian at love in the seventeenth game before serving out the first tie of the rubber.

The South Americans' elation wouldn't last long, however, as Bopanna and teammate Somdev Devvarman would rebound from their country's 0-2 deficit and come back -- both won their reverse singles matches later that weekend, sending India into the World Group next year.

More importantly, Rohan sealed off one the best years of his career -- though he ended 2010 a few notches off his best ever doubles ranking, he and partner Qureshi were recognized for their efforts to promote peace between India and Pakistan. They might have come just short of the win at this year's U.S. Open, but something tells me they might become something of a staple at the Slams next year.

World Team Finals, London, Semifinal
Rafael Nadal d. Andy Murray: 7-6(5), 3-6, 7-6(6)

It was a great way to close out 2010 -- the best men in the sport battling out for year-end glory and, appropriately, the four players who'd inhabited the top ranks of the sport most of the year had made the semis. Nadal was the on-paper favorite against Murray, having made it through his round robin group without losing a match, but the Brit had won four of their last five meetings on hard courts and had been near flawless in his two Masters titles on the surface since August.

Both opened strong, never letting the other to make much of a dent on his own serve. The hometown favorite won a staggering 91% of his first serves while the year-end #1 lost only seven points on his own game -- neither allowed a single look to the returner. Nadal got the lead in the breaker, but an amazing thirty-six stroke rally helped Murray draw even. A few points later, though, Nadal converted on set point and took the lead despite nine aces and twice as many winners from his opponent.

The second set only got more exciting. After finding himself in early trouble, Murray used the crowd support to save break points in the second game and eventually converted on his own fourth try in the seventh. Serving from behind at 3-5, Nadal saw a winner float past him as Murray capped off the set after almost another full hour of play.

The third set proved to be no let down either. Rafa built himself an early lead and saved two break points in the sixth game before earning his first match point at 3-5. Murray held, though, and somehow managed to break Nadal while he tried to serve it out. In the ultimate tiebreak, the Brit got off to a quick lead before Rafa drew even and earned his second match point. But it was the third time that was a charm and after an eighty-minute plus set Nadal had advanced to his first World Tour Final championship match.

Nadal, of course, did not win the trophy, kind of a let down after the stellar year he's had, but the fact that he advanced so solidly against the sport's best players on his worst surface bodes well for next year. And Murray, who reclaimed his ranking as #4 in the world thanks to the win, gave himself a reminder of just how much damage he can do against elite. It's got to give him at least the hope that he can go one better than his previous two Grand Slam finals.

So as you can tell, it was a pretty exciting year even at the smaller tournaments. Obviously I had to leave some of the candidates you guys tweeted me off the list, including the Madrid finals -- infamous whiff and all -- and the Nadal/Victor Hanescu third round in Rome.

But it only gets better when we enter the big leagues. Be sure to check back next week when we'll go to the Majors -- it harder to narrow down the field there, and I had so many contenders that came oh-so-close, I had to include Honorable Mentions!

Hopefully I'll be able to produce a more comprehensive list!

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