Battle within a battle: The greatest tiebreakers

Let’s harken back to some memorable do-or-die tiebreakers that made history and brought point-by-point agony and ecstasy, depending on whom you rooted for.

Published : Oct 20, 2018 18:09 IST

 Their opposite playing styles — 21-year-old John McEnroe’s spectacular serving and volleying versus 24-year-old Bjorn Borg’s consistent groundstrokes and deadly passing shots — made the 1980 Wimbledon final even more enticing.
Their opposite playing styles — 21-year-old John McEnroe’s spectacular serving and volleying versus 24-year-old Bjorn Borg’s consistent groundstrokes and deadly passing shots — made the 1980 Wimbledon final even more enticing.

Their opposite playing styles — 21-year-old John McEnroe’s spectacular serving and volleying versus 24-year-old Bjorn Borg’s consistent groundstrokes and deadly passing shots — made the 1980 Wimbledon final even more enticing.

In 1970, Jimmy Van Alen, a New England aristocrat with revolutionary ideas, created the game’s first major scoring innovation, the tiebreaker. This has made an epochal impact on tennis. No longer would worn-out fans have to sit through marathon sets and matches that exhausted players. Henceforth, tiebreakers would shorten matches and provide compact, thrilling climaxes.

The “sudden death” best five-of-nine-points tiebreaker made its Grand Slam debut at the 1970 US Open, and tennis was never the same again. While spectators, tournament schedule-makers, and television executives loved it, many players, at least initially, didn’t.

“I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack playing sudden death,” said the great Pancho Gonzalez at the US Open. “It’s terribly nerve-wracking.”

During the 1970s, the best seven-of-12-points tiebreaker was adopted, and players quickly accepted this much-fairer version.

Until Oct. 19, when the All England Club announced Wimbledon will introduce final-set tiebreakers at 12-12 in 2019, the US Open was the only major tournament to implement the tiebreaker for the deciding set. The other two Slams continue to revert to traditional scoring in the fifth set of men’s matches. The Australian Open is now reportedly considering introducing fifth-set tiebreakers to reduce marathon matches, while the French Open has no plans to abandon the traditional format.

At the 2010 Wimbledon, John Isner outlasted Nicolas Mahut in an insanely long 70-68 fifth set. This year Kevin Anderson overcame an exhausted, staggering Isner 26-24 in the fifth set at Wimbledon, prompting former champion John McEnroe to say, “Maybe, just maybe, this will be the match that gets the rule changed.”

“I think tennis is long enough,” doubles star Jamie Murray, a staunch advocate for fifth-set tiebreakers, told Reuters. “By 6-all in the fifth set, the players have played enough tennis, the fans have seen enough tennis, TV has seen enough of that match. A tiebreaker is enough, so it doesn’t get out of control and sort of mess up schedules, mess up players’ next rounds, mess up draws and things like that.”

While Murray’s reasons are perfectly valid, everyone should also welcome fifth-set tiebreakers simply because they’re so suspenseful for fans and character-revealing for players.

“A great set in which two players are neck and neck deserves a tiebreaker,” Tracy Austin, a two-time US Open champion and Tennis Channel analyst, told The New York Times in 2010. “It’s like saying: ‘Now we take the gloves off and see who is better at playing the big points. Now everything is heightened.’”

Let’s harken back to some memorable do-or-die tiebreakers that made history and brought point-by-point agony and ecstasy, depending on whom you rooted for.

The battle of 18-16 — Bjorn Borg defeats John McEnroe 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6 in the 1980 Wimbledon final.

Rivalries thrive when the protagonists contrast as dramatically as Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe did. The Swede’s pleasant but serious disposition made him a popular champion, especially throughout Europe. The argumentative, raging Irish-American provoked controversy everywhere he played. Their duels pitted the good guy against the bad guy … the imperturbable, patient introvert against the intense, almost hysterical extrovert … the bastion of Old World values and behavior staving off the Ugly American. The ferocity of the Borg-McEnroe confrontations was matched by passions aroused in the sporting masses for their favorite.

Their opposite playing styles—21-year-old McEnroe’s spectacular serving and volleying versus 24-year-old Borg’s consistent groundstrokes and deadly passing shots—made the 1980 Wimbledon final even more enticing.

With Borg, gunning for his fifth straight Big W title, ahead 5-4, 40-15 in the fourth set, McEnroe staved off two championship points. At 6-all, no first-hand witness or any of the hundreds of millions of worldwide television viewers would ever forget their monumental tiebreaker.

In her book, Love Match: My Life with Bjorn , Mariana Borg captures the nerve-twanging tension before the tiebreaker began: “As always at such moments, the crowd stirs with special feeling. It’s like the drum-beating that heralds the tumbril carrying the convicts sentenced to death. It’s like dawn in the Middle Ages, when all the balconies in the scaffold square are booked because no one wants to miss the moment of the beheading.”

Tennis is sometimes likened to boxing without the blood, and this tiebreaker resembled a rock-em-sock-em 11 round in a ballyhooed heavyweight title bout. There were winners off seeming winners, furious attacking, and scrambling for each precious point.

With McEnroe serving at 5-6, Borg reached his third match point. McEnroe, a magician at net, responded with a lunging forehand drop volley winner to stay alive at 6-all. At 6-7, McEnroe staved off another match point, this time with a backhand passing shot. Then at 8-7 the American had the first of his seven break points. The Swede escaped with a winning forehand serve return.

Match points continued to alternate with set points as the score mounted—and neither athlete would yield an inch. The 15,000 Centre Court spectators were enthralled with the excruciatingly close duel. Mariana Borg was so nervous she smoked and chewed gum at the same time. And she recalled, “I bite at my nails and I feel relieved when I see some blood.”

Borg pulled ahead 10-9 for his fifth match point. McEnroe belted a service winner off Borg’s outstretched backhand in the ad court. 10-all. A forehand passing shot gave Borg an 11-10 lead and his sixth match point. Lady Luck intervened. McEnroe’s tentative backhand approach clipped the net and plopped over for a net cord winner. The stoical Swede didn’t raise an eyebrow. But the normally reserved Wimbledon spectators exploded with cries of support for their man and thunderous applause. “They all realize, perhaps, that no director can stage such a performance,” wrote Mariana Borg.

But how much longer could McEnroe live dangerously? Serving at 11-12, McEnroe faced his seventh match point. Borg ran around McEnroe’s second serve to whack his potent topspin forehand. McEnroe’s riposte: a backhand crosscourt volley into the wide-open court.

For the rest of the set, it was Borg who had to make Houdini-like escapes. Even Borg’s amazingly low heart rate—reportedly in the high 30s—had to be skyrocketing. At 14-13 and set point for McEnroe, the American missed a forehand volley. At 15-14 and another set point for McEnroe, Borg belted a clutch service winner. At 16-15 and yet another set point, Mac attacked but erred on a makeable high backhand volley.

Nerves finally melted the famously nerveless “Swedish Iceberg.” He barely missed a forehand serve return. Finally, at 16-17, Borg buckled under the tremendous pressure and netted a volley, his old weakness. 18-16 for McEnroe!

The 34-point ordeal lasted 22 minutes, as long as some sets. The champ had five championship points, the challenger seven set points.

The fluctuating, electrifying, incredibly tense drama had already exhausted most fans. Many wondered if Borg could compose himself and come back after he lost the opening two points of the fifth and deciding set . “I am saying to myself,” he recalled, “Don’t get tight now, don’t give up.”

Serving powerfully and accurately, the lithe, broad-shouldered, 5’11” Swede won 19 straight points on his serve and 28 of the last 29. McEnroe kept pace, though with more trouble, trailing love-40 on service in the second and eighth games before holding. Finally at 6-7, 15-40, Mac could tempt fate no longer. On the eighth match point, Mac attacked off a second serve, volleyed into the corner and fell in a futile lunge for Borg’s backhand crosscourt passing shot. Borg fell to his knees and thrust his arms skyward—his annual Wimbledon victory gesture.


Although Borg ultimately lost the famous “Battle of 18-16,” he would win the war in five epic sets. McEnroe, who had walked onto Centre Court to a chorus of boos, walked off to reverberating cheers for his mature behavior as much as his marvelous play.

The greatest match ever playedRafael Nadal defeats Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 in the 2008 Wimbledon final.

“I don’t think there is anything in any area of life that gives you the same rush as winning in sport, whatever the sport and at whatever the level,” wrote Rafael Nadal in his 2011 autobiography, RAFA . “There is no feeling as intense or as joyous. And the more you crave winning, the greater the rush when you succeed.”

Yet it was the most devastating loss in Nadal’s career that would inspire his most momentous triumph. After losing the 2007 Wimbledon final to archrival Roger Federer, he sat on the shower floor and cried tears of despair and self-recrimination for 30 minutes. “I never want to feel this way again,” he confided.

Renowned for his mental strength, Nadal had squandered four break points early in the fifth set when he became distracted and veered from his game plan. His lifelong dream of winning Wimbledon dashed, No. 2-ranked Nadal was determined to learn from that defeat—and avenge it the following year.

The swashbuckling Spaniard with his then-trademark pirate’s pantaloons and sleeveless shirt pummeled wicked topspin forehands to race ahead 6-4, 6-4 in the 2008 Wimbledon final. No. 1 Federer, who desperately wanted to break the legendary Bjorn Borg’s modern record of five straight Wimbledon titles (1976−80), fought back and grabbed the third set tiebreaker 7-5 with four aces.

Federer had racked up an astounding 23-3 tiebreaker record since 2003 at Wimbledon and had won all 12 major finals away from the French Open. But before the final, Federer, sounding a bit vulnerable, said, “I hope I have that extra gear in case I need it.”

In the 2008 Wimbeldon final, between points and even during changeovers, chants of “Roger! Roger!” were immediately countered with chants of “Rafa! Rafa!”

Faced with another do-or-die tiebreaker in the fourth set, the Swiss maestro would need that extra gear more than ever. Terrific shots, already the rule rather than the exception, had revved up the Centre Court spectators. Between points and even during changeovers, chants of “Roger! Roger!” were immediately countered with chants of “Rafa! Rafa!”

Federer drew first blood in the tiebreaker. A forehand passing shot gave him the mini-break for a 1-0 lead. Nadal retaliated with four straight points, highlighted by a forehand winner and an ace.

Just three points from extinction, Federer grabbed five of the next six points to zoom ahead 6-5. Set point for Federer. Nadal saved it and drew even at 6-6 when Federer ended a long, grueling rally by spraying a forehand in the alley.

When a Federer forehand landed a mere 2” beyond the baseline, Nadal suddenly had his first match point at 7-6. Federer escaped when his big first serve ricocheted off Nadal’s racket. 7-all.

Nadal then smacked a brilliant down-the-line forehand passing shot to go ahead 8-7 and earn his second match point.

“I thought I deserved to be where I was and that I was on the brink of conquering Wimbledon,” recalled Nadal in his autobiography. “Dumb. Really dumb. It was one of the very few moments in my entire career in which I thought I’d won, before I’d won. The emotions got the better of me, and I forgot the golden rule of tennis—more than any other sport, that it’s not over till it’s over.”

The pressure was unbelievable now on both players, but even more so on Federer. Responding like the champion he is, Federer stroked a sublime backhand passing shot down the line. 8-all.

Pumped-up, Federer dictated the next point and finished off his foe with a forehand crosscourt winner. 9-8 Federer.

When Federer missed his first serve, the crowd reacted with an “Aaah!” of disappointment. They wanted this epic to go to a fifth set. They got it when Nadal’s serve return landed deep.

Federer had won the tiebreaker battle. But Nadal ultimately won the war with a 9-7 deciding set as thrilling and memorable as the fourth set tiebreaker. When Federer hit a routine forehand approach into the net on championship point, Nadal collapsed on his back with his arms outstretched and fists clenched.

“It wasn’t relief I felt. I was beyond that,” Nadal recalled about the consummation of his life’s work, sacrifice, and dream. “It was a rush of power and elation, an uncorking of emotion I had bottled up for the tensest four hours and forty-eight minutes of my life, an invasion of the purest joy.”

For 28 years, the riveting Wimbledon final between Borg and John McEnroe had been the consensus choice for the greatest match of all time. But after this record-longest extravaganza of almost superhuman tennis between Nadal and Federer, McEnroe raved, “This was a magnificent, unbelievable, truly memorable match. This has to be the greatest match we’ve ever seen, ever.”

The marathon tiebreaker Roger Federer defeats Marat Safin 6-3, 7-6 (18) in the 2004 Tennis Masters Cup semifinals.

At the dawn of the new millennium, Marat Safin looked like the next King of Tennis. The handsome, 20-year-old Russian demolished and dethroned superstar Pete Sampras in the 2000 US Open final.

“The way he is playing, he is the future of the game,” acknowledged the thoroughly impressed Sampras. “He can be No. 1 for many years if he wants to.”

Safin’s tour de force didn’t signal the start of a new reign, however. He abounded in charisma but lacked dedication. Known for smashing rackets in anger, sleeping until noon, and bragging about the gorgeous girls in his player’s box, Safin won just one more major, the 2005 Australian Open.

“I was probably going for too much because I knew it was Roger Federer on the other side. I was too excited waiting for a good opportunity and rushing too much,” Marat Safin said after losing to the Swiss in the semifinal of the Tennis Masters Cup in 2004.

The true heir to the Sampras throne first became apparent in 2001. A young Swiss named Roger Federer upset Sampras at the 2001 Wimbledon in a memorable five-setter. But before Federer could claim the throne, he had to control his own temper. The tragic 2002 death of Federer’s beloved coach, Peter Carter, in a car accident, traumatized Federer and transformed his attitude toward tennis.

“It was the first death Roger had to deal with, and it was a deep shock for him,” his mother, Lynette, said. “But it also made him stronger.” From then on, Federer decided to dedicate himself wholly to tennis to make the most of his preternatural talent.

Federer showcased his athleticism and versatility at the 2003 Wimbledon, serving and volleying for his first Grand Slam title. In 2004, he captured three of the four majors, the first such feat since Mats Wilander achieved it in 1988.

At the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup, the new King of Tennis put an exclamation mark on his spectacular year. Federer outclassed light-hitting Lleyton Hewitt 6-3, 6-2 in the final. But his semifinal against heavy-hitting Safin proved a much sterner test and made tiebreaker history.

Federer was the overwhelming favorite. He boasted a Tour-leading 10 titles, defeated 21 straight top-10 opponents, and led Safin 5-1 in their rivalry. “He’s just unbelievable,” said Safin. “He’s going to be one of the best of all time.” Even so, Safin didn’t count himself out, adding, “You have to be there and wait for the small chances.”

After Federer won the first set 6-3, Safin’s chances looked very small indeed. But the 6’4” Russian used his powerful backhand to break serve for 2-0 in the second set. Federer broke back late in the set to force a tiebreaker.

Federer got an early mini-break to lead 5-4. With two points coming on his formidable serve, Federer looked like a sure winner. But a strong backhand serve return by Safin made it 5-5. Federer won the next point for 6-5, his first match point, only to blow it with a wild forehand error.

Match points then alternated with set points. Both players were frustrated when they couldn’t close the deal. “I was probably going for too much because I knew it was Roger Federer on the other side,” Safin understandably said afterward. “I was too excited waiting for a good opportunity and rushing too much.”

Federer had another match point at 8-7, but Safin countered with an ace. Federer earned another match point at 10-9. This time Safin barely escaped with huge forehand that nipped the sideline. The appreciative Houston crowd roared.

At 15-14, Safin had another set point, his fifth. Federer ended an eight-stroke crosscourt exchange by pulling the trigger and firing a gutsy down-the-line backhand winner. Stunned, Safin glared at where the ball landed.


At 18-all, Safin double-faulted for the first time in the set. “I was nervous. I was under pressure,” Safin admitted later. 19-18. Safin had run out of the “small chances” he was hoping for. On Federer’s eighth match point, Safin’s forehand sailed long to end the epic tiebreaker.

This 20-18 marathon lasted 26 minutes and equaled the record for the most points ever played in a tiebreaker since it was introduced in 1970. The previous two 20-18 tiebreakers came in far less important first-round matches.

“I’m always happy to win in two [sets],” the quick-witted Federer quipped afterward.

“The tiebreaker was very special,” Federer said. “I’ve never played a tiebreaker like it. That was really fun, going back and forth, all big points, match points, set points, and the level of play was high too. We were pushing each other to the limits.”

The living legend againstthe rising star Rafael Nadal defeats Dominic Thiem 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5) in the 2018 US Open quarterfinals.

A wag once called the tiebreaker “a tension box.” That palpable tension is magnified at the US Open. Only at this Grand Slam tournament does a tiebreaker decide the final set and the match.

Which player would prevail in this climactic tiebreaker—a supreme test of tennis skill, will, and poise?

That was the question facing Rafael Nadal, the defending champion and 17-time major winner, and Dominic Thiem, a rising star looking for his first major title, at almost 2 a.m., after four hours and 40 minutes of slugfest tennis.

Nadal often talks about suffering on the tennis court. “I play through pain much of the time,” he says. At 32, his body has endured marathon matches galore—a record 17 lasting more than four hours. Chronic knee pain has plagued him for years, and it’s more pronounced on hard courts. But the Spaniard with the courage of a bullfighter and the style of a brawling boxer has defied skeptics who predicted his injury-prone career would be short. He’s dealt out more punishment than he’s absorbed as his exhausted opponents can attest.

In the US Open third round, Nadal trailed Karen Khachanov, a massive 6’6” Russian with a booming serve, by a set and a service break. He outlasted Khachanov in a brutal, 39-shot rally to win the last point of the pivotal third set tiebreaker and, after four hours, 23 minutes, emerged victorious 5-7, 7-5, 7-6, 7-6. Nadal then survived another bruising battle against Georgia’s hard-hitting Nikoloz Basilashvili, 6-3, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4.

Thiem, meanwhile, had come from behind to defeat Steve Johnson in five sets and Taylor Fritz in four sets before overpowering Wimbledon finalist Kevin Anderson. Much like Nadal, the soft-spoken, modest Austrian trains rigorously, competes ferociously, and lets his racket do the talking.

After winning their 2018 US Open quarterfinal duel Rafael Nadal climbed over the net to hug Dominic Thiem, a sporting gesture intended as much to celebrate their superb match as to console the loser.

“He’s a fantastic player,” praised Nadal before their eagerly awaited quarterfinal. “He’s a very powerful player. He deserves to be where he is. I need to play my best match of the tournament.”

Not only did they both play their best matches of the tournament. Their epic duel kept spectators spellbound with a smorgasbord of shotmaking that reminded aficionados of Nadal’s classic contests against archrivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. With a retro Nike sleeveless shirt exposing his bulging biceps and shorter shorts revealing his muscular quadriceps, Nadal could more easily execute his hard-court playing style: all-out power.

What about Thiem’s tactics? Former No. 1 John McEnroe advised, “Thiem should go for long rallies and test Rafa’s legs and try to beat Rafa at his own game.” It sounded good in theory. Thiem is seven years younger, Nadal’s last seven losses in majors had been in five sets, and Nadal’s two previous matches were grueling.

Fortunately, Thiem decided, like Nadal, to blast almost every ball. And, from as close to the baseline as he could, a sharp departure from his much deeper positioning in the past. The early returns were extraordinary. He walloped Nadal 6-0 in the opening set, allowing the world No. 1 just seven points. “Thiem is coming out of his shoes and hitting every ball at warp speed,” raved Darren Cahill, the ESPN analyst.

Nadal quickly restored order by grabbing the second set 6-4. With the match deadlocked at two sets each, and both players sustaining their hyper-aggressive games and high energy level, it seemed impossible to predict the ultimate victor. Thiem escaped two break points in the fifth game of the final set and three more in the critical 11 game. “That love-40 [game] broke my heart,” Nadal confided afterward.

But it didn’t break his spirit. Nothing ever has. Thiem never wavered either. “What you have to like about Thiem is that he’s embracing the battle,” noted ESPN analyst Pam Shriver. “In the past, nerves or his legs got to him.”

However much both enjoyed the battle and endured the physical suffering, the end was near now. It was tiebreaker time.

Nadal pounded a violent forehand that skidded on the baseline, forcing a Thiem error. Thiem won a 14-shot exchange with a crosscourt backhand, forcing a Nadal error to tie the score, 1-1. Nadal countered with a forehand volley winner to go ahead 2-1. After they split the next two points, Thiem finessed a spectacularly angled backhand passing shot to make it 3-3. The crowd roared in appreciation. The verdict was as much in doubt as ever. Neither player was temporizing.

After a Thiem forehand landed slightly long, Nadal again tied the score, at 4-all, with a thunderous overhead. When a powerful Nadal backhand sailed a mere inch long, Thiem led 5-4—just two points away from victory.

Predictably, once again Nadal surmounted the crisis with a strong serve that Thiem netted with his forehand. 5-all. Then the Mallorcan finished off a brilliant “whatever you can do, I can do better” point with a forehand winner. 6-5 for Nadal.

Championship point exemplified the entire cut-and-thrust, punch-counterpunch duel. With both players sprinting to return concussive shots in the corners, Nadal was eventually forced on the defensive. He hustled—just like the long-haired, 19-year-old kid who won his first major title 13 years ago—and managed to stroke a towering lob. When Thiem’s smash landed deep, the exultant Nadal spread his arms skyward.

Then Nadal climbed over the net to hug Thiem, a sporting gesture intended as much to celebrate their superb match as to console the loser.

“Tennis is cruel sometimes because this match didn’t deserve a loser,” Thiem said afterward. “I’m devastated.”

Thiem had pounded 74 winners, 19 more than Nadal, and wound up with 171 points, five more than Nadal. But Nadal won the seven most important points, in the decisive tiebreaker.

“The quality of play was unbelievable,” said Shriver. “That was the best fifth-set tiebreaker I’ve ever seen. I can’t think of a better major quarterfinal.”

As for the two heroes, former champion Chris Evert said, “Thiem is a future superstar. Nadal is the greatest competitor in any sport.”

Great rivals play bonanza of tiebreakersPete Sampras defeats Andre Agassi 6-7 (7), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5) in the 2001 US Open quarterfinals.

“You need to have the right ingredients for a rivalry,” Andre Agassi said in 1995. “So many things have to come together for those moments in time: Celtics-Lakers, Dodgers-Yankees, Borg-McEnroe. Me and Pete have the ingredients, and we’re starting to make it happen.”

This rivalry had all the right ingredients because Agassi and Pete Sampras contrasted in so many ways. Agassi, a rebel without a pause, survived an abusive father, a “Lord of the Flies” environment at the Bollettieri tennis academy, and his own self-destructive ways on the pro tour. Then there was a foray into drugs and a failed marriage. In his late 20s, Agassi finally turned his life and career around, finding his true love, Steffi Graf, and a passion for the sport he’d hated for years.

Sampras enjoyed a normal childhood and adolescence, and as a pro, the straight-arrow Californian generally avoided controversy. He revered the sport’s traditions and past champions, especially classy 1950s–’60s Australians like Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall. Shy but articulate, Sampras resented being called “boring,” but compared to the flamboyant Agassi, he trailed far behind in charisma. After victories, the consummate showman Agassi blew kisses and bowed to the crowd, an innovation that many players, like Venus Williams and Novak Djokovic, would copy and embellish.

Though both superstars landed huge Nike endorsement contracts, Agassi wore garish outfits, while Sampras preferred traditional attire. Their games also contrasted strikingly, which invariably made their confrontations intriguing and entertaining. Sampras served and volleyed brilliantly, rarely losing his serve. Agassi relished punishing opponents with aggressive, accurate groundstrokes and terrific serve returns.

Despite their lifestyle differences, they admired each other. “The intensity of playing against Pete is something above and beyond anything I feel against anybody else,” Agassi said. “This is something you’d die for.” For his part, Sampras said, “Nobody could push me to play my best tennis the way Andre could.”

“I think we both played at a very high level... Like I thought going into the match, ‘This could be a classic,’ and I think it was,” said Pete Sampras after defeating Andre Agassi in the 2001 US Open quarterfinals.

By the late summer of 2001, Agassi and Sampras had dueled 31 times (Sampras led 17-14) in the past 12 years. In their first Grand Slam final, 19-year-old Sampras, a 66-1 pre-tournament longshot, ambushed the favored Agassi at the 1990 US Open. The humbled loser called it “a good, old-fashioned street mugging out there.”

In 1995, Sampras pulled out a tough, four-set final at Flushing Meadows to clinch the No. 1 ranking. In his autobiography OPEN , the bitterly disappointed Agassi, who had previously won 26 straight matches, confided, “No matter how much you win, if you’re not the last one to win, you’re a loser. And in the end I always lose, because there is always Pete. As always, Pete.”

At the 2001 US Open, the old lions still roared. Agassi, 31, outclassed future star Roger Federer in straight sets, while Sampras, 30, disposed of two-time U.S. champion Patrick Rafter in four sets.

It seemed absurd that the showdown between the 13-major winner Sampras and 7-major titlist Agassi took place in the quarterfinals, but the 23,033 night spectators loved every minute of it. With a tiebreaker climaxing every set and no service breaks, it couldn’t be closer. And the most-watched match in TV history more than lived up to the hype as both tennis icons performed at their best.

Sampras, who was dressed in white and had lost their three previous encounters (at Melbourne, Indian Wells and Los Angeles), led 6-3, triple set point, in the first set tiebreaker. But Agassi, wearing total black, escaped at 6-5 with a blazing forehand passing shot that forced a volley error, and then grabbed four of the next five points to take the tiebreaker 9-7. The evenly divided Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd gave them a standing ovation. Pumped up as much as their favorite players, the fans wanted more scintillating shot-making. They would get plenty more.

Could Agassi, who’d captured four majors in the past three years, sustain the momentum? Or would Sampras, who hadn’t won a major in 14 months, find a higher gear?

The second-set tiebreaker showcased Sampras’s superior athleticism and big-match resilience. Sprinting laterally, Sampras smacked a crosscourt forehand winner to go ahead 6-2. Then he reflexed a backhand volley winner off a vicious Agassi passing shot to take the tiebreaker and even the match at one set all. The crowd gave them another standing ovation.

Sampras played nearly flawless tennis to seize the third-set tiebreaker 7-2. “Pistol Pete,” the greatest server of his generation, closed it out with consecutive aces.

Almost predictably, the two tenacious competitors forced yet another tiebreaker. Before it started, the thrilled crowd gave the ageless champions a prolonged standing ovation. After the final, the appreciative Sampras said, “It was like they were saying, ‘These are two great Americans, and we might not see this again for the next ten, twenty, or even fifty years.’ It felt great to hear that.”

Agassi asserted himself early in the tiebreaker. He surged ahead 3-1 when his strong serve return forced a half-volley error, and he outlasted Sampras in a 16-stroke backcourt exchange. But the stress of playing from behind, albeit narrowly, had taken a toll on Agassi. He missed a routine forehand targeting the open court. Then Sampras’s 24 and 25 aces, the latter at 128 mph, gave him a 4-3 lead. Sampras delivered a topspin backhand winner to make it 5-3. An Agassi volley—a longtime weakness—landed inches wide.

6-3—triple match point for Sampras.

Agassi stayed alive with a nifty forehand passing shot, forcing a volley error. 6-4 Sampras. Even the great ones choke on occasion and Sampras double faulted. 6-5 Sampras.

On his third match point, Sampras chipped a backhand serve return a bit short. Agassi moved forward quickly to attack it with an inside-out forehand. It went into the net.

Game, set, and match, Sampras!

Sampras smacked 80 winners in the 3.5-hour epic that ended at 12:14 a.m. Just as amazing, Agassi made only 19 unforced errors.

“How much closer can you get?” Agassi said. “When you lose one that close, it’s difficult to appreciate much about it except the standard I forced him to play. And that I feel good about.”

“I think we both played at a very high level,” Sampras said afterward. “Like I thought going into the match, ‘This could be a classic,’ and I think it was.”




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