- Joel Drucker
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On Wednesday, we took a look at the five best Australian Open men's matches. The women have had no shortage of drama either. Here are the five most notable matches of the Open era.
1. 2002 Finals: Never Say Die
Jennifer Capriati def. Martina Hingis, 4-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2
Capriati was the holder, the late-blooming former prodigy who'd at last delivered. Hingis was the whiz kid, a three-time champ from '97-'99 who'd lost in the last two finals and was hankering to win her first Slam singles titles in three years. The style contrast was rich, pitting Capriati's lethal baseline power versus Hingis' counterpunching guile.
Hingis raced off to a big lead, winning the first set and going up 4-0 in the second. Capriati was wild, unfocused, seemingly handing the match over. But on a day when the on-court temperature hit 107 degrees, Capriati's newfound devotion to fitness and resurgent willpower was telling. Said Capriati: "I told myself that even if I have to pass out on the court and be carried out, I just have to do what I can."
Though holding four match points, Hingis backed off the opportunism that had made her a champion, surrendering control of many a point to her opponent. Capriati won a scintillating second-set tiebreak, 9-7. Worn out by the heat, Hingis offered token resistance in the third.
Capriati became the first player since 1962 to win a Grand Slam final from championship point down. Afterwards, she dedicated her victory to a friend who was dying of cancer. Said Capriati, "I was struggling on the court today but it's no comparison to a lot of the friends who I have who are struggling right now." Neither player ever again reached a Grand Slam singles final.
2. 1981 Finals: Martina Steps It Up
Martina Navratilova def. Chris Evert, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5
From 1977 to '85, the Australian Open concluded the tennis year. As 1981 neared its end, Chris Evert was unquestionably the world's best. But she was also quite aware of the ambitions of Martina Navratilova, the netrushing left-hander who only for short periods had threatened Evert's reign at the top.
But beginning in the last half of 1981, with the assistance of basketball great Nancy Lieberman and tennis guru Renee Richards, Navratilova had at last begun to take the steps to fulfill every ounce of her considerable potential.
On an excessively windy day, competing on a chewed-up grasscourt, the two played for the 45th time. Evert then led the rivalry 29-15, but Navratilova's attacking game was perfect for this kind of day and surface. Still, Evert took the first set in a tiebreak. Navratilova leveled the match, then sprinted to a 5-1 third set lead.
As Evert said about that match in Steve Flink's book, "The Greatest Tennis Matches of the 20th Century": "You are so mad that you find yourself going for your shots more stubbornly." Evert clawed back to 5-5, but then Navratilova snapped up the next two games -- a victory that signaled for good Navratilova's ascent to the top echelon. Over the next eight years, Evert and Navratilova played 35 matches. Navratilova won 27.
3. 1993 Finals: Clash of the Titans
Monica Seles def. Steffi Graf, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2
The world's two best go toe-to-toe. Between them, these two had won the last five Australian Opens. Seles then was the world's best; her double-double-handed game utterly fearless as she created extraordinary angles and bazooka-like pace. Graf of course was no pushover, covering the court like a gazelle, rocketing her forehand. But it was Seles who commanded the court; Seles who recovered from a one-set deficit; Seles who wore Graf down. This was a rivalry for the ages.
Alas, it was not to be. Three months later, Seles was stabbed courtside during a match in Hamburg. She would take more than two years off. While Seles and Graf would stage a couple of engaging U.S. Open finals and Seles would win another Australian Open in '96, at heart their rivalry was still-born. But this '93 battle endures as one of their best.
4. 2003 Finals: Sisters in Arms
Serena Williams def. Venus Williams, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4
In what proved to be the high-water mark of their dominance, the two sisters met in the finals of a Grand Slam singles tournament for the fourth time in a row. It was so hot -- 111 degrees outside -- that the event's organizers decided to lower the roof.
In a rivalry often punctuated by spotty play and the invariable emotional jitters of two close siblings, this was one of their finest battles. With Serena the victor in each of their previous three matches, Venus came out with exceptional intensity, looking to attack boldly with her serve and force the action.
But again, the younger sister held the edge, Serena's power, movement and balance helping her squeak out the first set, 7-6. Venus rallied and won the second, but in the third, serving at 4-5, 15-15, made three simple errors to lose the match.
And with that, the headline was obvious: "The Serena Slam." Serena had become only the fifth female player to ever hold all four Grand Slam singles titles at the same time. Later that summer, she'd earn another win over Venus in the final of Wimbledon.
But just when it seemed women's tennis was ready for a lengthy family dynasty, the Williams empire tumbled. Having met in six Grand Slam finals between September 2001 and July 2003, Venus and Serena have yet to stage another.
5. 1996 Quarterfinals: The Battle of 1614
Chanda Rubin def. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, 6-4, 2-6, 16-14
Future Hall of Famer Arantxa Sanchez Vicario had reached the finals the last two years. American Chanda Rubin was a hard-hitting 19-year-old who'd just knocked off sixth-seeded Gabriela Sabatini.
No one would have forecast what was to come this evening. Even after Rubin's bold forehand paced her to a 6-4 first set win, the third-seeded Spaniard was far from finished. Rallying from deficits had been the key to Sanchez Vicario's entire career. And so when she won the second set handily, all seemed in order.
Moreover, tenacity and patience were the cornerstones of Sanchez Vicario's game. But on this evening, the Spaniard encountered someone with a bit more in both departments. The final set took more than two hours, Rubin at last winning it 16-14. In the semis, Rubin took a 5-2 lead versus Monica Seles, only to lose five straight games. But at least she could console herself by winning the doubles title -- partnered with none other than Sanchez Vicario.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.
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