Having just witnessed tennis history where American John Isner and France’s Nicolas Mahut played a mind-boggling 138 games in the fifth set of their first round match at Wimbledon, I decided to look back and see how this instant classic stacked up against the greatest Wimbledon matches of all time. Narrowing down the list was tough. There has been no shortage of incredible matches at the All England Tennis Club, featuring some of the game’s most legendary players. Read on to see who made my list of the greatest Wimbledon tennis matches ever played.
5 – 2005 Women’s Final – Venus Williams Defeats Lindsay Davenport 4-6, 7-6, 9-7
Due to the fact that the men’s game features five set matches and the women’s draw features matches that last only three sets you’ll find the bulk of the entries on the list feature male tennis players. That being said, the women’s game has had no shortage of dramatic matches over the years, featuring such greats as Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and Steffi Graf. However, in my opinion the greatest female Wimbledon match of all time is of a more recent vintage. In 2005, two of the hardest hitters in the women’s game – Lindsay Davenport and Venus Williams – went toe to toe for nearly three hours. The number one ranked Davenport had Williams on the ropes, but Williams fought off match point and roared back to win the longest ladies’ final in Wimbledon history.
4 – 2010 First Round Match – John Isner Defeats Nicolas Mahut 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68
Didn’t I mention above that this was an instant classic? These two warriors just made tennis history, battling for more than eleven hours over the course of three days, before the number 23 ranked John Isner finally came out victorious in one of the most grueling matches ever seen in any sport.
The match produced numerous records, several of which will probably stand for all time. Both Isner and Mahut chalked up better than 100 aces during the match (Isner: 112, Mahut: 103), beating the record of 78 set by Croatia’s Evo Karlovic. Other notable records set include longest match (11 hours, 5 minutes), shattering the previous mark of 6 hours, 33 minutes, longest set (8 hours, 11 minutes) and most total games in a match (183). With the incredible effort put in by both gentlemen it truly is a shame that one of them had to lose.
With so much history made, one may ask why this doesn’t capture top spot on the list of the greatest Wimbledon tennis matches of all time. To be quite honest, the tennis itself wasn’t that entertaining or dramatic for the bulk of the match. Both gentlemen held their serves easily throughout the bulk of the match, with break points an extreme rarity. As incredible a spectacle as it was it can’t, in my opinion, quite compare to the matches that finished ahead of it.
3 – 2001 Men’s Final – Goran Ivanisevic Defeats Patrick Rafter 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7
Wimbledon has delivered no shortage of inspiring stories over the years, but the 2001 men’s final may just trump them all. A powerful server, Ivanisevic had been a force at Wimbledon during much of his career, and on three previous occasions he’d reached the final only to leave disappointed, including in 1992 when he was heavily favored to beat American Andre Agassi, only to eventually lose in five sets.
He entered the 2001 tourney as a wildcard entry, and in the twilight of his career, and still battling the effects of a nagging shoulder injury that had plagued him for two years, Ivanisevic wasn’t on anyone’s radar as a threat to win the tournament. However, though no wildcard entry had ever won the prestigious tourney, Ivanisevic set out to prove that he still had a little game left in him.
On his march to the final he defeated Carlos Moya, Andy Roddick and Marat Safin, all of whom have been ranked #1 in tennis at one point in their respective careers. In the semis he outlasted England’s favorite tennis son, Tim Henman in a grueling five set match to earn a date with Australian Patrick Rafter in the final.
On center court the pair delivered a match for the ages, with Ivanisevic pounding serve after serve, and the athletic Rafter making one incredibly improbable get after another. The two alternated set victories, setting up a fifth set for all the marbles. As we’ve just witnessed in the Isner/Mahut marathon fifth sets at Wimbledon aren’t decided by a tie-break. The two battled for sixteen games in the fifth before Ivanisevic managed to pull out a 9-7 win, becoming the lowest ranked player in history to capture a grand slam tennis title.
2 – 2008 Men’s Final – Rafael Nadal Defeats Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7
On paper it sounded like an unfair match-up. Roger Federer had won five consecutive Wimbledon titles and was the undisputed master of the grass. Nadal, on the other hand, was a born clay-courter, where the slower pace allowed the energetic Spaniard to track down almost every ball that was hit his way. Though Nadal had managed to gut his way to the Wimbledon final, few were giving him a chance to break Federer’s streak as the Swiss star quested for a sixth consecutive title.
Nadal isn’t the type of athlete to roll over and concede victory, however, and he gave Federer all he could handle and more. After two sets he had Federer seemingly at his mercy, having won each by a 6-4 margin. In sets three and four Federer proved why he is widely regarded the greatest male tennis player of all time, making one pinpoint shot after another and gutting out two tie-breaker wins to square the match at two sets apiece.
Just as in 2001 it took sixteen games to decide the fifth set. The two put on a show for the ages, but with darkness falling it was Federer who blinked first, and Nadal took advantage, ending Federer’s reign as the king of Wimbledon and earning himself his first silver plate.
Not only did the match go the distance (and then some) but the level of tennis on display was some of the greatest ever seen in any grand slam final, and fans were on the edge of their seat from the first point to the last.
1 – 1980 Men’s Final – Bjorn Borg Defeats John McEnroe 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6
As spectacular as the 2008 men’s final was, in my opinion, it couldn’t quite this legendary 1980 clash between two tennis greats from the number one spot on the list of the best Wimbledon matches of all time.
Long before Roger Federer claimed ownership to the grass at the All England Tennis Club, Bjorn Borg had his own stranglehold on the prestigious tourney. Coming into the 1980 final the smooth Swede had won an impressive four straight Wimbledon crowns, and against brash American John McEnroe, Borg was looking to add a fifth title to his heavily laden trophy case.
The two players couldn’t have been more different. Borg was known for having ice water in his veins, and was seemingly unflappable with a tennis racket in his hand. McEnroe, on the other hand, was as fiery as they come, and his emotions, whether positive or negative, were always on full display when he played the game.
Borg’s cool as a cucumber persona was put to the test often during the match. After dropping the first set 1-6 he didn’t panic, coming back to win the next two and putting McEnroe back on his heels. However, adversity would strike once more in the fourth set, where Borg squandered five match points in the tie-breaker, eventually losing the breaker 18-16. Many players would have unraveled at that point, but Borg’s collectiveness and his experience kept him even-keeled, and the Swedish master once again regrouped and in the fifth set he outlasted an exhausted McEnroe to capture the fifth set 8-6, earning himself a record fifth consecutive Wimbledon title in the process.
Sources: Wikipedia.com, Wimbledon.org