The Five Finest Tie-Breaks In The History of Men’s Tennis

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In the week (and wake) of Marco Cecchinato’s titanic tie-break triumph against Novak Djokovic at the French Open, Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, considers where it ranks among the finest tie-breaks in the history of men’s tennis.

There are several key ingredients for a truly great tie-break. It must take place in a Grand Slam, so that it can be seen on one of the game’s greatest stages; it cannot come before the quarterfinal stage, so that the outcome has a direct impact on the outcome of the tournament; it cannot come before the fourth set, so that it attains either match-winning or match-saving significance; and above all it must show both players at (or at least very near) the top of their game.

Marco Cecchinato’s remarkable triumph against Novak Djokovic in the fourth set tie-break in the French Open quarterfinal this week had all those ingredients and so it merits inclusion among the five finest tie-breaks in the history of men’s tennis. But where exactly does it rank? And what are the four other finest tie-breaks that the men’s game has produced?

Here, then, are the five finest tie-breaks in the history of men’s tennis.

  1. MARCO CECCHINATO vs NOVAK DJOKOVIC (2018 French Open Quarterfinal, Fourth Set, Cecchinato wins 12-10)

Cecchinato’s match-winning performance against Novak Djokovic this week is probably the finest tie-break ever played on clay, as Aussie doubles great Peter McNamara suggested when he tweeted immediately afterwards that it had showcased all the finest qualities of clay court tennis. The only reason it does not rank even higher in this list is that it was punctuated by several extraordinary errors by Djokovic, culminating in a shanked set-point that would have taken the match into a fifth set. (Although Djokovic is finally beginning to approach his incredible best after such a dismal two years, he is clearly not back there yet.)

Nevertheless, the Italian displayed marvellous inventiveness, almost literally digging one or two low shots from Djokovic out of the clay, and even more importantly sheer tennis tenacity to win the day. In the process, he not only announced his arrival on the world stage but the even grander stage of tennis history.
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  1. ANDRE AGASSI vs PETE SAMPRAS (2000 Australian Open Semifinal, Fourth Set, Agassi wins 7-5)

Although not as long as some other entries on this list, this Agassi-Sampras Aussie Open tie-break was still a minor masterpiece. For much of their long rivalry, Sampras enjoyed the upper hand over Agassi, especially during Agassi’s “wilderness years” of the mid-90s. However, towards the end of the rivalry Pistol Pete finally began to weaken and Agassi enjoyed some of his greatest victories over his fellow American.

Perhaps the finest of them all came at Melbourne early in 2000, when Agassi somehow won a superb fourth-set shootout 7-5, which shattered Sampras to the extent that he virtually collapsed in the fifth set, losing it by a barely believable 6-1. Agassi went on to win the tournament, defeating defending champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the final, to win his second Australian Open, on his way to winning three Australian Opens in four years at the start of the 21st century.
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  1. MARAT SAFIN v. ROGER FEDERER (2005 Australian Open SemiFinal, Fourth Set, Safin wins 8-6)

Prior to his remarkable rebirth as a Grand Slam champion in the last 18 months, there had been some interesting historical revisionism going on regarding Roger Federer’s position among the all-time great male players. Most of that revisionism had focused on the early part of Federer’s Grand Slam-winning career, before the emergence of Rafael Nadal, on the basis that the competition he faced, from the likes of Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt, was supposedly not up to scratch. That is, of course, complete tosh. Not only were Roddick and Hewitt Grand Slam winners in their own right but the “third man”, as it were, that Federer faced early in his career was was Marat Safin.

Although Safin remained utterly mercurial throughout his career, he was still good enough to blast Pete Sampras off the court in the 2000 US Open Final, and he won his second Major in Melbourne in 2005. To do so, he first had to beat Federer in the semi-final, which went all the way to five sets. Safin eventually won the fifth set 9-7, but just to reach it he had to beat Federer in the superb fourth set tie-break, even surviving a match-point against him when, for once, one of Federer’s famous “tweeners” (between the legs shots) failed to come off.
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  1. JOHN McENROE vs BJORN BORG (1980 Wimbledon Final, Fourth Set, McEnroe wins 18-16)

Fittingly, the two finest men’s tie-breaks of all came not in Grand Slam semis or quarterfinals but in finals. The second greatest came in the fourth set of the classic 1980 Wimbledon final between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, the first of the two successive Wimbledon finals between “The Mac” and “The Iceman”. The fact that it went to a total of 34 points, making it by far the longest tie-break on this list, before McEnroe finally triumphed is only one indicator of its greatness.

The other indicators were less tangible but even more important, as both men showed themselves at their absolute best, even apparently going against type as Borg hit superb volleys and McEnroe crunched winners from the baseline. McEnroe would win the battle of the fourth set but Borg ultimately won the tennis war, finally triumphing 8-6 in the fifth set to claim his fifth successive (and, as it would turn out, last) Wimbledon crown.
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  1. ROGER FEDERER vs RAFAEL NADAL (2008 Wimbledon Final, Fourth Set, Federer wins 10-8)

I have to confess that it came as an enormous shock when I checked the score of the Federer-Nadal 2008 Wimbledon tie-break classic and discovered that it only lasted for a mere 18 points, the same number that John McEnroe alone won in the 1980 McEnroe-Borg epic. It seemed, not only from memory but at the time, to go on for so much longer. Perhaps that was because unlike the 1980 Final, which was played out in glorious sunshine, the 2008 Final ended almost in the dark, because it lasted for so long (more than five hours), and even by the time of the fourth set tie-break the gloom was gathering.

Nevertheless, just as so many of the best football matches are played out against the backdrop of floodlit stadia, the growing darkness in 2008 seemed to heighten the sense of drama and grandeur. Like McEnroe in 1980, Federer would win the fourth set tie-break, which would include a backhand winner by the Swiss to save a second match-point against him that ranks among his finest ever shots, but would ultimately lose the match. In the process, however, he and Nadal produced probably the greatest tennis match of all time, and the greatest tie-break, that would ultimately eclipse even the greatness of 1980.

A final thought…

It is ironic that the one Major not represented on this list is the US Open, because it is the one Major in which the fifth set of a final is decided by a tie-break. That is yet to happen, but whenever it does (perhaps in a Thiem-Zverev final in the early 2020s?), it may prove to be not only the single most important tie-break in tennis history, as it will decide not just a single set but the fifth and final set of a Major for the first time, but perhaps one to surpass even these five masterpieces.

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