The Heist: First-ever Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal final and other greatest escapes in tennis

In this edition of 'The Heist', we look at some of the greatest escapes, greatest Houdini acts and greatest how-did-that-happen in recent memory from the tennis courts.

FP Sports May 23, 2020 19:29:52 IST
The Heist: First-ever Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal final and other greatest escapes in tennis

Editor's Note: For a number of years, sports have provided succour to the troubled societies, alleviating them, even if temporarily, of their pain and suffering. As a locked-down world struggles with the 'new normal', it's only natural that we seek inspiration in sports. Where else would one find impossible being redefined and proverbial phoenixes rising in real-time? Firstpost's latest series, The Heist, deals with precisely that sentiment. Over the next few days, we shall bring you stories of grit and giant-killing that have stood the test of time. Here's to hope.

There is plenty of talent needed to get oneself out of a cage in tennis —besides the skills, it needs physical and mental strength to keep going when pushed into a corner. To make things tougher, tennis and its individualistic nature asks a player to figure it out all on their own. With plenty of eyes glued to a match, a player has to stick it out and somehow, just somehow, keep fighting and hope the opponent starts to miss. In this edition of 'The Heist', we look at some of the greatest escapes, greatest Houdini acts and greatest how-did-that-happen in recent memory.

Novak Djokovic vs Roger Federer, 2011 US Open semi-final

Novak Djokovic is arguably the king of comebacks. Someone who never says die and keeps fighting until the last ball. He has given plenty of examples of it but frustratingly for Roger Federer (and his legion of fans), the most remarkable wins have been against the Swiss. In 2011, a year after saving two match points in the fifth set to reach the final at Flushing Meadows, he did it again, winning 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 in three hours and 51 minutes.

"It's awkward having to explain this loss," Federer had said at the time, "because I feel like I should be doing the other press conference."

Down two set points at 3-5 in the fifth set, Djokovic whipped a sublime forehand winner on Federer's serve as a packed stadium rooted for the Swiss to go over the line. Clearly upset by how things went, Federer added in the post-match interaction, "To lose against someone like that, it's very disappointing, because you feel like he was mentally out of it already. Just gets the lucky shot at the end, and off you go."

While Djokovic admitted the forehand winner was a gamble, Federer opted against giving him credit for courage shown. "Some players grow up and play like that – being down 5-2 in the third, and they all just start slapping shots. I never played that way. I believe hard work's going to pay off, because early on maybe I didn't always work at my hardest. For me, this is very hard to understand. How can you play a shot like that on match point? Maybe he's been doing it for 20 years, so for him it was very normal. You've got to ask him."

Robin Soderling vs Rafael Nadal, 2009 Roland Garros fourth round

If you're looking for a story of hope and positivity, look nowhere else for inspiration than 2009 Roland Garros when Robin Soderling stunned Rafael Nadal in the fourth round. A bit of context helps in understanding the magnitude of this achievement: Nadal, World No 1 at the time, had a record of 31-0 on the Parisian clay. He had won four straight titles in Paris and was a strong candidate to make it five. He wasn't even pushed to five sets during those four titles and no one had been able to find a way to get past Rafa. Adding to the storyline, Nadal had beaten Soderling 6-1, 6-0 in the tuneup event in Rome.

Following the shocker, Nadal gave credit to the Swede while also acknowledging that he didn't play his best. "Well, sure, he did well, he did very well. I think I didn’t play my best tennis,” he said. Inside Philippe Chatrier, the crowd chanted "Ro-bin! Ro-bin!" as Soderling caused one of the biggest upsets in memory.

Roberta Vinci vs Serena Williams, 2015 US Open semi-final

Two matches. Two wins. That's all Serena Williams needed to win all four slams in 2015. She had triumphed in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York was next. Roberta Vinci stood in the way in the semi-final and Flavia Pennetta, who had already beaten Simona Halep, in the final. All the big challengers were by the wayside and it was a clear path for Serena to enter an esteemed list.

But it wasn't to be. In one of the biggest surprises in history, Vinci, an unseeded Italian playing her first Grand Slam semi-final, defeated Williams, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. An extremely pro-Serena crowd couldn't help but cheer for Vinci when she won a spectacular rally at 3-3 in the fifth. The Italian cupped her hand to her ear and took in all the much-needed adulation that came her way. In the end, Vinci, who had never won a set against Williams in four matches, cried in her chair and apologised to the crowd. “For the American people, for Serena, for the Grand Slam and everything,” she said. “But today is my day. Sorry, guys.”

In the post-match interview, Serena said, "She’s going for it at a late stage. So that’s good for her to keep going for it and playing so well. Actually, I guess it’s inspiring. But, yeah, I think she played literally out of her mind.”

What a heist that by Roberta!

Richard Krajicek vs Pete Sampras, 1996 Wimbledon quarter-finals

A two-day affair witnessed 24-year-old Dutchman Richard Krajicek caused a shocker by usurping American Pete Sampras 7-5, 7-6, 6-4. A straight sets win over the defending champion. Nay, a champion who had won three straight Wimbledon titles. If one were to draw parallels, look at Soderling vs Nadal in this list.

On day one of this rain affected contest, Krajicek led 7-5, 7-6, 1-1 before play had to be stopped. When things began, Krajicek picked up from where he left even as Sampras hoped to join Bjorn Borg in recording four straight Wimbledon titles for the first time since 1980. The Dutchman, however, didn't provide much, by way of 29 aces, nor did Sampras take his chances with seven break points chances going begging.

"I don't like losing, especially here," said Sampras later. "My hats off to him. He played a better match than I did, but it's hard to swallow. Obviously, for the past three years, no one has beaten me, so I'd say he's given me my hardest test and I wasn't good enough."

Sampras would get his Wimbledon streak back by picking up four straight titles in the next four years.

Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal, 2005 Miami Masters Final

This forms a milestone match for multiple reasons. It was the first ATP Tour final between Federer and Nadal and their second-ever, a year on from meeting for the first time at the same venue. Federer, World No 1 then, was up against an 18-year-old Nadal who was outside the top-30 in the world.

Donning a white bandana, white knee-length shorts and sleeveless orange T-shirt, Nadal led 6-2, 7-6 and 4-1. Playing his first ATP Masters 1000 final against the top-ranked player in the world and Nadal had shown nerves. “When you’re playing the best player in the world and you reach that point, you feel like you’re mentally ready. But it’s hard psychologically,” said Rafa later.

On a 21-match unbeaten streak and suffering just one defeat in 48 matches, Federer had very good reason to be upset. So upset that he smashed a racket - something that is rarely seen now. And that, per Federer, woke him up. It needed four hours in total for Federer to get past this new kid on the block. The final scoreline read 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1 and it has been a remarkable journey between the two since then!

Roger Federer vs Andy Roddick, 2009 Wimbledon Final

Another Wimbledon contest, another one featuring Federer but this time it was American Andy Roddick across the net. In what was then the longest Wimbledon final, Federer beat Roddick 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14 to win his 15th grand slam and sixth title at SW19. And yet, it may well have been Roddick's first having already lost to Federer twice in the 2004 and 2005 finals. Brutal!

But the 2009 final was the closest Roddick came to lifting the trophy. He secured the only two breaks in the first four sets and had two break points chances for a 9-8 lead. Alas, it wasn't to be. The marathon fifth set remained on serve until the 30th game (!) before Federer got the break he was looking for.

In the second set tiebreak, Roddick had four set points opportunities at 6-2 but lost six straight points to see the match even. The fourth set point was possibly the easiest. Federer tried to go down the line but it was at good enough height for Roddick to put away the backhand volley but he missed.

If that agony wasn't enough, the fifth set had more in store. Having held his serve 37 times in a row, Roddick was broken at 14-15 in the fifth to concede the epic. He had saved six break points up until then but couldn't make it seven to prolong this final.

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