- Joel Drucker
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Editor's note: The 2008 tennis season left us with indelible memories. ESPN.com recounts the top 10 highs and lows from Monday through Friday this week.
What makes for a great match? Setting, quality, drama -- and sometimes it's the X factor that takes it to dazzling heights. Here are the top 10 competitive moments of the 2008 tennis season.
1. Wimbledon men's singles final
These are the moments tennis lovers -- and players -- live for. The two best players in tennis since 2005, their stylistic contrast fully enchanting, the impassioned Spaniard and regal Swiss staged an epic. The quality remained high for nearly five hours. Roger Federer saved two championship points in the fourth-set tiebreaker. Rafael Nadal eventually served out the match as Centre Court neared darkness for the last time (Wimbledon's dome will be up and running in 2009), winning 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7. It was the epitome of everything that makes tennis such a superb showcase of singular and competitive-collaborative spirit.
2. Saturday night fever
It was the middle Saturday of the Australian Open at Rod Laver. Federer was up against Jarko Tipsarevic in the third round. The powerful Serb goes up two sets to one. Federer sweeps through the fourth 6-1. The fifth goes to overtime, with Federer taking it 10-8 -- more than four hours long. Federer served a career-high 39 aces. Then, due to yet another example of tennis managers failing to lead, another match goes on -- and the eagerly awaited match between Australia's Lleyton Hewitt and popular '06 finalist Marcos Baghdatis is delayed to just before midnight. The two go at it for nearly five hours, before Hewitt earns a 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-3 win. The victor comes into his press conference at 5:15 a.m. -- and of course is completely drained for his next match.
3. Venus and Serena compose a double album
So many of the matches between the sisters had been annoyingly flat, lacking everything from emotional engagement to quality ball-striking and point construction. But in the Wimbledon final and the U.S. Open quarterfinals, Venus and Serena Williams revealed newfound maturity, increased tactical awareness and, of course, trademark grit. At Wimbledon, Serena raced off to a 4-2 lead, but Venus earned a tight victory, 7-5, 6-4. Serena turned the tables in New York, overcoming a staggering 10 set points to win, 7-6, (6) 7-6 (7). Both matches gave hope that these two had even more great tennis ahead.
4. Local boy makes good
It was a quintessential Wimbledon moment. In the late afternoon, as the sun descended over the lip of Centre Court, native son Andy Murray was down two sets to love to Richard Gasquet. The Frenchman was sizzling, firing winners off all sides. It was time for Murray to dig in. Gasquet served for the match at 5-4 in the third, but Murray broke back. After just over three hours, a fifth set ensued. Murray charged forward and closed it out. A nation erupted. Had it only been a year since Tim Henman retired?
5. Serbian challenge match
We will likely never know too accurately how Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic feel about one another. But this much we do know: Each is good enough now to accept nothing but the highest level of success. So their French Open semifinal set the stage superbly: A loss would crush either. And so the two Serbs dug in and played an engaging, emotional match. But at the stage when the match was on the table, with Jankovic serving at 4-3 in the third, Ivanovic boldly grabbed it, snapping up three straight games -- and two days later took the title.
6. Madrid magic
Call it a perfect storm, or perhaps even an early cry for the changing of the guard. On one Saturday at the Tennis Masters Madrid, two superb semis took place. Frenchman Gilles Simon emphatically signaled his arrival into the elite by beating Nadal, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (6), while Murray took out Federer, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5. Both matches were punctuated by brilliant all-court movement, shot-making, power and drama. Murray would go on to win the title.
7. And I think to myself … what a wonderful stadium
In the fourth round of the U.S. Open, competing in Louis Armstrong Stadium, Kei Nishikori was on the verge of the fourth round and earning the biggest win of his young career. He was up two sets to love versus fourth-ranked David Ferrer. But Ferrer is one rough customer, dogged in the way you might expect from a man whose coach once locked him a room as a motivational technique. By the time Ferrer squared the match at two sets apiece, he and Nishikori had been playing for nearly three hours. The crowd loved every minute of it. This was the brand of tennis intimacy that has been largely lost amid massive Arthur Ashe Stadium. This raw-knuckled fifth set between the two ravenous baseliners took nearly an hour and was just squeaked out by Nishikori, 7-5 in the fifth. Final tally: 155 points each.
8. Dinara Safina takes out Serena
It's rarely easy to take down an impassioned Serena Williams, and though Dinara Safina had in the previous round beaten Justine Henin in Berlin, in the early stages of this match she looked out of her league, dropping the first set 2-6. But the Russian rallied strongly, routing Williams in the second 6-1, then emerging the victor in a gritty third set 7-6 (5). This match was a harbinger of things to come. Safina would go on to reach the finals of six of seven tournaments.
9. Lucky day for Ana
At Wimbledon, her first tournament as the world's No. 1-ranked player, Ana Ivanovic faced a major challenge from crafty veteran Nathalie Dechy. The French woman won the first set in a tiebreaker. Ivanovic countered by taking the second, also in a tiebreaker. Dechy held two match points; one was fought off by Ivanovic with a let-cord winner. The third set lasted nearly 90 minutes with Ivanovic at last winning this 3-hour, 24-minute marathon 10-8 in the third.
10. Tsonga storms the gates
Less significant for its drama, but remarkably revealing for the way Jo-Wilfried Tsonga took charge in a staggering display of all-court, attacking tennis at the Australian Open semifinals. Whether he was ripping his forehand, charging the net or commanding one rally after another, in just under two hours, Tsonga, on this night, made the great Nadal look like a boy playing a man in a one-sided 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 win.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.
So what's all this negative rhetoric and scuttlebutt that the Williams sisters' head-to-head encounters are fixed? If you believe that, clearly you were snoozing this past season.