Commentary

Federer's loss to Safin was his last defeat Down Under

On the eve of the year's first Grand Slam, Joel Drucker looks back on five of the best men's matches in the Open era at the Australian Open.

Originally Published: January 9, 2008
By Joel Drucker | Special to ESPN.com

The atmosphere in Australia is more relaxed than at any of the other Grand Slams. But don't confuse an easygoing atmosphere with subdued tennis. Here's a look at the five greatest Australian Open men's matches of the Open era (the first Australian Open was played in 1969).

1. 2005 Semifinals: Fed Express Derailed
Marat Safin def. Roger Federer, 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (9), 9-7

The British have a term for this kind of tennis: a cracker of a match. Lighting up the court from all corners, firing just about every shot imaginable, the two showed off the Aussie Open's distinctive early-year freshness. This was all about skill, power, touch and speed -- state-of-the-art ball striking from two juggernauts. Certainly the world knew what Federer could consistently deliver. But Safin's whole career has been a fight with himself. None of that happened on this night. On his 25th birthday, the Russian battled, blasted and fought off a match point to earn a scintillating victory. Asked afterward if this was a lucky victory, Safin said, "Let's put it this way: lucky guy with experience." He went on to win the tournament.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer and Marat Safin
AP Photo/Mark BakerIn the past three years, Marat Safin is the only player other than Rafael Nadal to beat Roger Federer in a Grand Slam match.

2. 1975 Final: White Hat vs. Black Hat
John Newcombe def. Jimmy Connors, 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7)

The 22-year-old Connors was at the height of his powers; he was the defending champ and coming off a 1974 season in which he won three Slams. Newcombe had been No. 1 in the early part of '74, but hadn't reached a single Slam final. While Connors at this point in his career was despised for his swagger and vulgarity, the 30-year-old Newcombe was tennis' leading man, the Aussie's charisma most vividly revealed by his trademark mustache.

With the match tied at one set apiece, Connors attempted to ingratiate himself with the crowd by throwing a point when he felt Newcombe was wronged by a call. Using this form of patronization as motivation, Newcombe later said, "That's something a goose would do. And the only thing to do with a goose is put it in the oven and cook it." Newcombe took charge of the third and went ahead two sets to one. The Australian's mix of serves and off-pace defense was a superb contrast to Connors' aggressive counterpunching.

The fourth set was a dazzler. Connors clawed back to earn a set point in the tiebreak at 7-6. A weary Newcombe ripped a winner off his notoriously weak backhand -- and then snapped up the next two points for the match. Said Connors, "It's no good being nice."

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3. 1988 Final: Best Yet
Mats Wilander def. Pat Cash, 6-3, 6-7 (3), 3-6, 6-1, 8-6

The best men's final of the past 40 years. Wilander had won the tournament twice back on the grass in the old venue, Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club, but this was the first year of the new facility. Cash, the reigning Wimbledon champion and Australian Open finalist the previous year, was hoping to become the first native son to take the title in 12 years. Cash was an exemplary serve-and-volley player also prone to taking slashing chances from the baseline. As for Wilander, this was the time when word had it that the best shot in tennis was Mats Wilander's brain. His adept counterpunching and versatility proved the difference.

4. 1995 Quarterfinals: A Wet Night In Melbourne
Pete Sampras def. Jim Courier, 6-7 (4), 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-4, 6-3

Two friends and lifelong rivals took the court. Sampras was the defending champ, while Courier had earned the title the previous two years. Pounding away at Sampras' backhand, Courier won the first two sets. Sampras took the third; Courier was leading in the fourth 4-3, 40-15, when the wheels came off just enough for Sampras to level the match.

[+] EnlargePete Sampras
Gary Prior/Getty ImagesAn emotional Pete Sampras battled back from two sets down to beat Jim Courier in '95.
As Boris Becker once remarked, the fifth set is not about tennis. Never was that more true than this evening. Early in the fifth, a spectator yelled out, "Come on Pete, do it for your coach!" Earlier that day, Sampras' coach, Tim Gullikson, had suddenly flown home, having shown the first signs of a stroke that would lead to a fatal diagnosis of brain cancer. The fan's words hit Sampras like a rock. Normally stoic beyond belief, Sampras broke down in tears -- and began playing even better. As ESPN's Mary Carillo noted on air, "He's acing his way through the tears."

Sampras won the match -- but also earned an even bigger triumph. "People began to see I was something more than a remote guy who hit big serves," Sampras said several years later. "They began to understand how much effort it took to play the way I did."

And they never forgot.

5. 2003 Quarterfinals: Marathon Men
Andy Roddick def. Younes El Aynaoui 4-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 21-19

Just when you thought the tiebreaker was a tennis staple, these two came along and played a five-hour match culminating in a remarkable fifth set that alone was more than two hours long. El Aynaoui was the perfect foil. At the age of 31, he was a late-stage, whirling dervish of a shot-maker, graced with elastic movement and a powerful forehand. Roddick was the 20-year-old contender, hankering to reach his first Slam semi. Drama was equaled by quality -- 209 total winners to only 86 unforced errors. Said Roddick afterward, "Strategy was out the door late on in the fifth set. It was just pure fighting. This was more about heart."

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.