Tournaments can take on a personality of their own based on the draw and actual matches that unfold. 5 US Opens stand out for me. I vaguely remember Connors v. McEnroe in the 1984 US Open semifinal, but I don’t remember an impression of an entire tournament prior to the 1986 US Open (Mecir beating Becker took a toll on me).
5. US Open 1992 – The Sequel that Surpassed the Original
The 1991 US Open still reverberates in tennis due to Jimmy Connors’ improbable semifinal run. Outside of that story, the 1991 US Open featured Stefan Edberg administering straight set beatings to Michael Chang (rd of 16), Ivan Lendl (semifinal round), and Jim Courier (championship match). Edberg played awesome net attacking tennis to disarm and demoralize three players with great passing shots. Boris Becker, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi all lost early in 1991. It was the Connors show (and what a show it was), but does that make it a great tournament overall?
1992 had it all. Jimmy Connors won a 1st round match on his 40th birthday. He then proceeded to lose a 4 set match to Ivan Lendl and insult Lendl after the match for “bunting” the ball. Lendl won his first grand slam match over Boris Becker by taking a 5 set round of 16 tilt. Lendl then came from 2 sets down to lead Edberg by a break of serve in the 5th only to lose a 5th set tiebreak. Edberg went 5 sets with Richard Krajicek, Lendl, and Chang in succession to reach the US Open final. Jim Courier won a street fight quarterfinal match with Andre Agassi. Courier then lost in 4 sets in the semifinal to Pete Sampras. Sampras won the first set versus Edberg before Edberg rebounded to take the next 3 and the title.
1992 had great matches and storylines. Michael Chang’s 5 set wins over Mal Washington and Wayne Ferreira barely get mentioned. However, every round seemed to have matches of consequence that were played at a high level. Sampras’ credits his 1992 loss to Edberg for bringing an increased determination to future major events.
4. US Open 1988 – Mats Dethroned Ivan
This event had some nice subplots. Andre Agassi beat Jimmy Connors in the quarterfinal round leading to a changing of the guard at the top of US tennis as well as a contentious press conference. Agassi found out that his strength and fitness needed to improve when he lost in 4 sets to Ivan Lendl in the semifinal round.
Mats Wilander won the 1988 Australian and French Open titles. He entered the US Open looking for the #1 ranking as well as revenge for his 1987 loss to Lendl in the US Open final. Ivan Lendl entered 1988 with Tennis Magazine wondering if anyone could stop Lendl. The two men staged an epic battle for number one that tested both stamina and mental fortitude. Wilander approached the net often and dared Lendl to hit passing shots. Wilander led each of the 5 sets by a break at one point, but lost the 2nd and 4th sets from ahead. A tense final few games resulted in a new US Open champion and a new world number one.
3. US Open 2004 – Federer was Sublime
Roger Federer began to consolidate his grip on men’s tennis with an undefeated run to the 2003 Masters Cup. His 2004 Australian Open and Wimbledon titles plus Masters Series successes placed him firmly at number one. Still, Andy Roddick, the 2003 US Open champion, made the 2004 Wimbledon final competitive and expressed interest in a rematch in front of his fans. The prospect of a Federer-Roddick final hovered over the first week of the event.
Oddly, it never happened and this US Open is still memorable. Roger Federer won a two-day, rain and wind interrupted 5 set quarterfinal over Andre Agassi. Federer then tamed Tim Henman in straight sets in the semifinal round despite having a poor head-to-head record versus Henman at the time. Federer then crushed 2002 US Open champion Lleyton Hewitt 6-0, 7-6, 6-0 in the final. These 3 wins set Federer up as the undisputed ruler of men’s tennis and were an example of the virtuoso tennis that he, Nadal, and Djokovic were about to unleash on the sport.
2. US Open 1995 – The Battle for #1 Ended
Andre Agassi initiated a year-long battle for #1 with Pete Sampras when he took the 1994 US Open crown. The two met in numerous big matches at majors and Super 9 events. Agassi generally got the better of Sampras in 1995 prior to this showdown. In order to reach the showdown, other battles had to be settled. Andre Agassi won in 5 sets over an emerging Alex Corretja. Agassi also won a street fight with Boris Becker in the semifinal round. Jim Courier won in straight sets over 1995 Roland Garros champion Thomas Muster and in straight sets over Michael Chang to set up a semifinal with Pete Sampras. Pete fended off a resurgent Courier in 4 sets to set up the battle for the title and the year. Sampras dispatched Agassi in 4 sets to claim his second major of 1995 and send Agassi on walkabout.
1. US Open 2011 – Djokovic Rising
This event had it all. It had a battle for supremacy on tour a la 1988 and 1995. It had grudge matches like the 1992 US Open. It had virtuoso tennis like the 2004 US Open. Novak Djokovic dominated nearly all of 2011. His one major loss had come versus Roger Federer in Paris. Novak found himself behind by 2 sets in his US Open semifinal with Federer. Novak stormed back to take the 3rd and 4th sets, but he fell behind by a break of serve in the 5th set. Djokovic saved a match point with a huge and risky swinging return winner. That seemed to unnerve Federer who did not win another game the entire match.
Rafael Nadal had played excellent tennis in 2011, but was thwarted by Djokovic in the Wimbledon championship match as well as in 4 Masters 1000 finals. Could Rafa make the 6th time the charm? The two met in a titanic 4 set match. The 3 sets Novak won were not exactly close, but Rafa was certainly pushing Novak to play at an unreal level. Rafa found another gear in the 3rd set and battled back from behind multiple times to force a 4th set. This 3rd set was a preview of their 2012 Australian Open championship match. I view that 2012 Australian Open final as the greatest match ever played (to this point).