7 pivotal matches in tennis history
Special to FOXSports.com
Updated: July 16, 2008, 9:03 PM EST
Earlier this month, Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer in a Wimbledon final for the ages. It had everything — high quality of play, great drama in which Federer rallied from two sets down to finally lead and a battle to finish the match before impending darkness.
It had history riding on it. Federer was bidding to break the record he shared with Bjorn Borg of five straight Wimbledon titles, and Nadal was aiming to become the first man since Borg in 1980 to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year.
Tennis fanatics hit the lottery at Wimbledon.
Before the final began, many wrote of this match being a possible changing of the guard, in which the torch is passed from the present king (Federer, who has ruled tennis for the last several years) to his successor (Nadal, who became the first man in the history of the ATP rankings to finish as world No. 2 for three consecutive years).
Frankly, I'm not convinced this match can conclusively be called a changing of the guard, since a point or two in Federer's favor would have won him the match and Nadal has yet to surpass the U.S. Open quarterfinals.
Only time will tell.
Tennis is not a sport like boxing in which a contender can defeat a champion and in the course of one fight elevate himself from challenger to champion. For all we know, Federer could win the next 10 majors and not play Nadal in any of the those tournaments.
Since many are talking about pivotal matches that signaled a shift in tennis supremancy, let's review the history books to determine what matches might truly signal the passing of the torch. Let's define a match as one player who ruled tennis for at least one or more years losing to another player who would be the No. 1 for at least two consecutive years. It avoids the problem in recent years of certain players becoming No. 1 for about one second and then dropping from their lofty perch.
In reviewing tennis history prior to the advent of the computer rankings, it can be tricky to state a true No. 1 in certain years, since different lists often defined different top-ranked players. Perhaps the match may not immediately signify the changing of the guard, but it may be a preview of things to come in the future, in which the player defeating the champion may become world champion later.
Here are a few of the matches that signaled the changing of the guard in tennis:
1. Bill Tilden defeats Bill Johnston 6-1, 1-6, 7-5, 5-7, 6-3 in the 1920 United States Nationals final
Tilden had finished as the losing finalist to Bill Johnston the years before, with Johnston apparently picking on Tilden's weaker backhand. Tilden worked to correct this weakness during the winter of 1919-1920 in Providence, R.I. This was the turning point in their rivalry and Tilden defeated Johnston in the final in five sets. Tilden went on to dominate the tennis scene as no man ever had, arguably, perhaps even up to the present day.
2. Rene LaCoste defeats Bill Tilden 4-6, 6-4, 8-6, 8-6 in the 1926 Davis Cup
The first major defeat by Tilden in years and the first of many successes by the French Musketeers against a player many consider to be the finest ever. Tilden was injured during the match, which obviously hindered his play (and may have affected him just days later at the U.S. Nationals when he lost to Henri Cochet in five sets). In some ways, this was not just a passing of the torch from Tilden to LaCoste but from the entire U.S. Davis Cup team to the French Davis Cup team.
3. Rod Laver defeats Ken Rosewall 7-5, 4-6, 5-7, 8-6, 8-6 in the 1964 Wembley final
In a rivalry that may have spanned as many as 200 matches, this was perhaps their best match, and that's saying a lot. Both players were at or close to their peak. To quote from Joe McCauley's great book "The History of Professional Tennis": "The final was a connoisseur's masterpiece lasting 2 hours, 44 minutes. In a match of many winners and few unforced errors, Laver fought back brilliantly from the perilous position of 3-5 in the fifth set to win. ... It was one of the greatest matches it has been my privilege to watch, but I must say that I thought Laver was a goner when his opponent served for the match at 5-4. Suddenly Rocket raised his game and, from playing steady but safe tennis, he went all out on the attack to break back. Continuing to go boldly for winners, he broke again for victory when Rosewall's service failed him."
Laver was arguably No. 1 that year and was the best player in the world for years afterwards.
4. Bjorn Borg defeats Jimmy Connors 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 in the 1977 Wimbledon Final
Jimmy Connors had won the majority of their matches before they played this final and was favored to defeat Borg again. Borg led 4-0 in the final set before Connors played a streak of great tennis to actually lead slightly at 4-4, 15-0. Borg has confessed that even he thought he was going to lose at this point.
However, Connors unfortunately chose this moment to hit one of his rare double faults. This give Borg the feeling he could still win, and the Swede won the last two games and the match 6-4. It would be a very rare occasion after this that Connors would even give Borg a close match. Connors had won six of seven meetings, with Borg leading up to the 1977 final, but Borg would reverse that trend in winning 13 of their final 15 meetings, including nine in a row to wrap up this rivalry. Borg was ranked by some to be the top player of 1977 even though some gave their support to Connors and others to Guillermo Vilas, who beat Connors to win the 1977 U.S. Open at Forest Hills. The 1978 Wimbledon final could have been chosen here also.
5. Martina Navratilova defeats Chris Evert 6-1, 3-6, 6-2 in the 1982 Wimbledon final
It seemed like every major had Evert and Navratilova in the final in those days. They were just so far ahead of every other player. Evert was the defending Wimbledon champion and the top-ranked player in the world virtually every year except for 1979, when Navratilova was world champion. The left-handed serve-and-volleyer beat the right-handed baseliner to spark a streak of dominance that has not been matched in the Open era. In a stirring span of championship tennis from 1982-86, Navratilova won 70 of 84 tournaments that she entered. Tennis commentators considered it fantastic if Navratilova's opponents lasted more than one hour. The Evert-Navratilova rivalry is undoubtedly the gold standard in women's tennis history.
6. Steffi Graf defeats Martina Navratilova 5-7, 6-2, 6-1 in the 1988 Wimbledon final
Admittedly, Graf was already No. 1 in the rankings when this match was played, but many still considered Navratilova No. 1 since Martina won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open the previous year over Graf in the finals. Martina got off to a great start in the match, winning the first set and leading 2-0 in the second before Graf went into overdrive and won 12 of the next 13 games. I have never seen Graf hit her backhand return so well. She was so good with her backhand return that match that her husband, Andre Agassi, would be proud. Graf went on the win the Grand Slam that year and was undisputed No. 1 for a number of years until Monica Seles came to the forefront.
7. Ivan Lendl defeats John McEnroe 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the 1985 U.S. Open final
John McEnroe was the defending champion, the No. 1 player in both 1983 and 1984, and had defeated Lendl the previous year in straight sets with the loss of only eight games. McEnroe started out well, controlling play for the first few games before Lendl took control and won the set in a tiebreak. This was the first of three straight U.S. Open victories for Lendl and the fourth of his eight consecutive final appearances in the tournament. Lendl finished No. 1 and would do the same in 1986 and 1987 before Mats Wilander took over the No. 1 ranking from him in 1988.
I'm sure there are a number of matches I could have included here, as well as a number of matches I may have missed. It's a rare occasion in tennis history where you can point to the changing of the guard in tennis, and it's even rarer when you can say you felt it was so at the time.
These are seven matches I believe changed the power structure in tennis. Sound off with your thoughts below.