By Danny Carrington
Last Updated: 8th October 2020
The French Open is reaching its climax and the final few matches could go down as real classics. Here, we whet the appetite by looking back at just a few of tennis’ greatest ever contests.
John McEnroe vs Ivan Lendl – French Open final, 1984
One of the greatest ever matches, but one which John McEnroe will wish he could erase from his memory.
McEnroe was in the form of his life in ’84 and many believed this would be the fiery American’s year to win big on clay. Heading into the final against Ivan Lendl, who was yet to win a major, McEnroe was yet to lose a match that year, while his opponent had a growing reputation of being a ‘bridesmaid’. Everything was set up for McEnroe, but Roland Garros had never been overly kind to him and it was about to dish out the deepest blow yet…
The American stormed into an early lead, breaking Lendl in the sixth game before taking the set 6-3. It was the perfect start, and the seemingly straight-forward demolition job didn’t stop there. McEnroe closed off the second set 6-2 and was two sets up in just over an hour.
Early into the third, McEnroe’s infamous temper began to stew, and he was clearly being wound up by a cameraman due to background noise. After a confrontation between McEnroe and the cameraman, the American had lost his concentration and Lendl broke back. It paved the way to the Czech taking the set 6-4 and the momentum shift was felt all around the court.
Lendl then came from 2-4 down in the fourth to win it 7-5, while also capturing the full support of the French crowd. McEnroe’s slowdown was there for all to see.
A topsy-turvy final set saw break points won and lost each way as the tension ebbed and flowed, but it was Lendl who held his nerve the better. After saving one match point, McEnroe could give no more, and he volleyed wide to hand the game to Lendl.
The American would sit in his chair, head in hands, for a long time as the presentation began. That runners-up medal would be the best he ever got from the French.
Venus Williams vs Lindsay Davenport – Wimbledon final, 2005
Before younger sister Serena burst onto the scene, Venus Williams was the main attraction on the women’s circuit.
But even in 2005, at the age of 25, it was considered that Venus was not playing at her peak, having been dumped out of the French Open by young, little-known Bulgarian Sesil Karatantcheva. She had slumped down the rankings and many had written her off as SW19 geared up for another fortnight of action.
Williams went about her business tidily in the opening rounds and reached a semi-final matchup with Maria Sharapova, the defending champion, having not lost a set. And she would not crack against the Russian either, brushing her aside 7-2, 6-1.
And so to American compatriot Lindsay Davenport in the final. You could not find a more physical match for Williams in the sport at the time and this was set to be a real Centre Court tussle.
Striking the ball purely and keeping Williams on the backfoot for most of the opening exchanges, Davenport took the first set and remained on top in the second. She was serving for the match at 6-4, 6-5, but the resilience and brilliance of Williams emerged and she turned the second set around to take it in a tie-break.
The third set was on a knife edge, with both competitors breaking each other, and then Venus almost throwing away another service game with a double fault. But every time she was down, Williams pulled a wonder shot out of the bag and got the crowd believing she could do it. Such was the back and forth nature of the game, that it took two hours and 46 minutes to separate the pair, with Williams eventually holding it all together and coming through 9-7 in the final set.
Many will remember her pogoing into the air a dozen times in delight after the game. It’s a miracle she had any energy left in those legs. Remarkable.
Chris Evert vs Martina Navratilova – French Open final, 1985
One of the greatest tennis rivalries of all time, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert met in the French Open final towards the end of their long-standing sporting battle. Navratilova had won 20 of their previous 23 face-offs, including the last four Grand Slam finals and ending her eight-year unbeaten run at Roland Garros the year before. The 30-year-old Evert appeared in decline.
For years, Evert’s baseline-hugging game had been stifled by Navratilova’s athleticism in attack but here in 1985 she had been moving forward more which gave her an early lead. She won the first set 6-3 and was leading 4-2, 15-40 in the second but still needed to close out Navratilova, which was where she failed at the US Open the year before. Navratilova rallied and reached set point at 5-4 and the next hour saw each woman take it in turns to build and lead and then lose it.
Evert established a 3-1 lead in the third, only to be levelled at 3-3. She served for the match again at 5-3 and was broken. Navratilova went up 0-40 on Evert’s serve at 5-5 and was finally in the lead. Instead of continuing her relentless style of attack, though, Navratilova tried the drop shot and failed. Evert then held from 0-40 to make it 6-5. The latter stages of the game got more exciting by the serve until Evert found herself back at her trusty baseline, with her opponent bearing down on the net, and catapulted a lethal backhand to end her losing streak.
Rafael Nadal vs Roger Federer – Wimbledon final, 2008
Roger Federer went into this match having spent 231 consecutive weeks as the world’s number one but Rafael Nadal was closing in. Four weeks earlier, the Spaniard destroyed him at Roland Garros, winning 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 to claim his fourth consecutive French Open title. However, this time the pair would be duelling on grass on Centre Court where Federer romped to a five-set victory over a 21-year-old Nadal the year before. That 2007 match will also go down as one of the most memorable in history.
This SW19 rematch though was to be even better. The pair’s rivalry saw Federer as the Wimbledon dominator, having won the previous five consecutive titles. This match was to give spectators nearly five hours of sublime tennis, making it the longest final in Wimbledon history at the time. The 14-stroke rally to decide the first set point was to indicate the type of tennis to come.
Nadal broke serve first, occurring in the third game. At 5-4 he served for the set before Federer carved out two break-back opportunities, which were suffocated by his opponent who claimed the title on his third set point. The match’s conclusion played out in post-9pm near-darkness, with Nadal emerging victorious in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (6-8), 9-7 thriller. One of the greatest matches of all.