The ten greatest Australian Open matches: Hewitt’s late-night epic, Courier’s ultimate sporting act, and the best final EVER
Late-night humdingers and epic finals have lit up the Australian Open through the generations.
From Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal slugging it out across six unforgettable hours for the 2012 title, to Monica Seles taking down the great Steffi Graf in 1993, to Lleyton Hewitt at last getting past Marcos Baghdatis at 4:34am in 2008, the ‘Happy Slam’ has been captivating fans and pushing players to the limit for nearly 40 years since the decision to move the tournament to Melbourne Park reinvigorated the Australian tennis circuit.
Here are 10 of the greatest matches in the Australian Open’s proud history.
Rod Laver vs Tony Roche, 1969 semi-final
The two Aussies slugged it out for more than four hours in 40-degree heat and, according to the winner, Laver, both players kept wet cabbage leaves in their caps to attempt to stay cool.
Laver, the only player to win all four Slams in a calendar year twice, prevailed 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3 – in the era before tie-breaks – and went on to win the final.
Monica Seles vs Steffi Graf, 1993 final
Graf and Seles clashed 15 times in all with the German holding a 10-5 overall lead. But Seles came into this tournament ranked No.1 in the world having piled up three straight French Opens, and back-to-back Australian and US Opens.
Prior to Seles’ emergence Graf was the undisputed No.1 – and won 22 Slams to Seles’ nine.
Eight of those, including this one, came before she was stabbed during a match aged just 19 – a moment that might well have robbed her of the accolade of the greatest women’s player of all time.
Pete Sampras vs. Jim Courier, 1995 quarter-final
This epic five-setter will be remembered forever for the incredible outpouring of emotion from Sampras during his gutsy victory over his fellow American.
A month prior to the match, Sampras’ coach Tim Gullikson was diagnosed with brain cancer. During the final stages, a fan told Sampras to “do it for your coach” and the champion began to weep.
Courier, in a wonderful moment of sportsmanship, asked Sampras, “Are you all right, Pete? We can do this tomorrow.” Sampras stayed in the game and found a way to win it.
Andre Agassi vs Pete Sampras, 2000 semi-final
This was the 29th match between the two Americans, and Sampras held an impressive 17-11 lead, including four of the previous five clashes. Agassi was the top seed, however, and claimed the first set.
Sampras took the second and third, and Agassi had to do all he could to stem the aggression of his rival.
But when Agassi claimed the fourth in a tie-breaker, the momentum had shifted, and he raced to the title, 6-1 in the fifth.
He’d go on to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to reach four consecutive Grand Slam finals (he had won the French and US Open in 1999, losing to Sampras at Wimbledon in the same year) and went on to beat Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the final.
Jennifer Capriati vs Marina Hingis, 2002 final
Eight years after her mug shot was plastered across the world’s media following her arrest for marijuana possession, Capriati capped her career in emotional fashion.
The American came back from a set and 4-0 down against Hingis to win the final 4-6, 7-6, 6-2. No other player has saved that many match points en route to winning a final as Capriati’s four, with the Swiss star twice serving for the match in the second set.
It signalled an end of sorts for both – this was Capriati’s final Grand Slam title of her three, while Hingis retired less than a year later having won five.
Andy Roddick vs Younes El Aynaoui, 2003 quarter-final
This was another late-night start that stretched into the early hours of the following morning, with a packed house staying engaged right to the implausible end.
The American won 4-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 21-19, after four hours and 59 minutes; the match was celebrated as much for the spirit between the two men as for the thrilling action.
At 19-all in the final set the players handed their racquets to ballkids, letting them have a hit while they took a short break.
“I was the one who bailed first and handed my racquet to the ballkid,” Roddick said. “I think that was a really cool moment, though. Whatever crazy number we were at, but we can still keep some humour about the game.”
The American was aware of the significance of their epic.
“I think my respect levels for him just grew and grew throughout the match. I’m pretty sure it’s vice versa,” Roddick said.
When El Aynaoui was asked what he would remember most, he said: “I think the great audience, the crowd. Everybody stayed until the end, you know, five hours.
“They were pushing us at the end. They were not with Andy or with me, they were just enjoying a good match.
“That’s terrific for us, when you play and you feel the crowd is supporting you.”
Serena Williams vs Venus Williams, 2003 final
Serena beat Venus 7-6, 3-6, 6-4, in the ‘Sister Slam’ final – taking her to four consecutive Grand Slam titles.
The final was decided, inappropriately, when her elder sister finished with four straight errors.
“I wish I could have been the winner. but of course, you have a great champion in Serena, and she has won all four Grand Slams, which is something I’d love to do one day,” Venus, then 22, said of her younger sibling.
“So, yeah, I’d kind of like to be just like her.”
Serena finished her career as one of the greatest sports stars in history, claiming 23 Grand Slam titles. Venus had a not too shabby seven – including five Wimbledon titles – but would never claim an Australian Open, also losing to Serena in the 2017 decider.
Lleyton Hewitt vs Marcos Baghdatis, 2008 third round
This match was planned as the climax to the night session, but the schedule ran out of control when Roger Federer was pushed to five sets by Janko Tipsarevic to push the day program well overtime.
Night spectators were not allowed to enter until 10pm, and by the time Venus Williams knocked over Sania Mirza, it was almost midnight.
Tournament organisers ignored their own rule that matches could not start after 11pm and ploughed on, with Hewitt and Baghdatis also producing a five-set epic. The 4:34am finish was the latest in a match anywhere.
“We didn’t really have a choice,” Hewitt said.
“We had an opinion, but we didn’t get a choice.”
Despite the hour, the stands were packed with 15,000 spectators who watched a gripping match from start to finish.
Hewitt won, but it took a toll – he was beaten by Novak Djokovic in the fourth round.
Rafael Nadal vs Roger Federer, 2009 final
The rivalry between these two giants is one of the greatest in sports. ‘Fedal’ played each other 40 times all up, with Nadal claiming the lion’s share 24–16 overall, including 14–10 in finals.
This was one of their best, lasting more than four hours before Nadal won 7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2 for a fifth successive victory over the Swiss star.
Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal, 2012 final
The Serb and the Spaniard have faced each other an incredible 59 times – with Djokovic holding the slenderest of leads 30-29.
This was the peak of their rivalry – a match declared the greatest of the century that lasted a record five hours, 53 minutes before Djokovic finally prevailed, having saved a match point.
“This is as good as I’ve seen,” said Jim Courier after commentating on the epic.
“They should put this match in a time capsule for the achievements of men.”
If you’ve got a spare half-day, it’s worth checking out the full match on YouTube.