Since their introduction to the game in 1970, tiebreaks have provided us with some of the most tense and memorable moments in our sport. In this Realife Tennis top 10 list, we have compiled what we think are the most memorable men’s singles tiebreaks thus far. Weight has been given to a variety of factors including the quality of the play, the importance of the match and the sheer drama of the moment. We hope you enjoy this list. Please comment below what memorable tiebreakers are your personal favorites!
It was not just the drama of being in his first grand slam semi-final and taking Nadal to a 4th set tiebreak that made this performance from Verdasco so outrageous; nor was it the fact that on one of the hottest days in Melbourne history, and against the most physically demanding opponent imaginable, he was still performing after four and a half hours on court. It was, plain and simply, an amazing series of points that left Rafa, the crowd and the commentators all but dumbfounded. After a forehand up the line blast to lead 6-0 Jim Courier can be heard saying “this is the greatest tiebreak I have ever seen from one player.”
This tiebreak makes the list both for the level of drama and pure length. Leading 10-9 in what had already been a dramatic tiebreak, Federer appeared to have won the breaker when a Safin forehand sailed several inches wide. However, this was before the introduction of Hawkeye and player challenges, so when the linesman got it wrong the contest continued. It was a good thing too, because the following 18 points would result in the incredible match point saves and the most prolonged set on the ATP World Tour this century. Federer eventually prevailed to take his record to 5-0 versus Safin. Pushing the champion so close in this breaker might be what gave Safin the confidence that he needed to reverse the result two months later at the Australian Open semi-final (which also featured an epic tiebreak and honorable mention that did not quite make our list)!
Federer entered this contest with a winning streak totaling an impressive 24 finals matches. In arguably the greatest Masters Cup final of the century so far, there were 3 tiebreaks. It was the 5th and deciding set breaker when the match was decided, and it was Nalbandian, with the slightly stronger legs and slightly stronger mind, who prevailed for the biggest win of his career.
With close to 50 matches and 14 tiebreaks between them, these two have the most quantifiably prolific rivalry of the 21st century; at least one of their tiebreaks had to make this list. The 2009 Madrid Masters semi-final hinged on not just one tiebreak, but two. For Djokovic, this match meant so much because he had never beaten Nadal on clay at that point in their history. For Rafa, there was extra motivation to win because this was the first year the event was held at the “Magic Box” on clay in his home country. With the crowd roaring as if it were a soccer match, Rafa managed to save 3 match points and emerge victorious. It was not all disappointment for Djokovic though; this match provided him with both the evidence and confidence that he could compete toe-to-toe with the “King of Clay”, and went a long way towards ensuring that their future rivalry on the red dirt is far from one-sided.
Murray had just beaten Djokovic a few weeks prior in the US Open final and was playing some of the best and most aggressive tennis of his career. Serving for the match at 6-4 5-4 40-30 he looked to have the match in control when Djokovic broke back to force a second set tiebreak. In the tiebreak, Djokovic painted the lines with several groundstrokes en route to saving four more match points and eventually prevailing in a 3rd set.
This match seemed like a passing of the baton for the clay court masters. Coria was a clay court wizard with incredible movement and feel for the game. Nadal, as everyone knows, was the physical bull who would dominate the surface like no other. It is easy to forget Coria’s clay court mastery; his career was short lived and he suffered two inexplicable defeats in the semis and finals of the 2003 and 2004 French Opens. As a result, Coria’s name does not feature significantly in history’s record books. Despite that, while watching Coria play from 2003-2005, you knew you were witnessing artistry; the crescendo of his greatness was brought out by Nadal. After 5 hours on court, the 5th set tiebreak had sublime rallies, shot-making, defense, line call disputes, and choking. The eventual win for Nadal propelled him towards his first French Open victory just three short weeks later. For Coria, the Rome final would be his last great match; his career sadly and suddenly fizzled out.
This was easily the greatest clay court match in the Federer-Nadal rivalry. With both men dominating with their forehands, this match went deep into the 5th set and the 5th hour. Nadal had to save two match points on serve just to push the contest to the deciding tiebreak. To start the breaker, Federer took a 5-3 lead with outstanding aggressive play. In the end though, like so many of their encounters, Nadal’s consistency would shine through to draw a couple of key errors; Nadal was able to clinch the 5th set tiebreak to achieve a championship in Rome for the second year in a row.
In what would be Agassi’s final run to a US Open final, he came up against a younger, more dynamic and more explosive version of his own shot-making prowess in James Blake. The first two sets were dominated by the younger American, but using all his experience, Agassi fought back to push the match to a deciding 5th set tiebreak. With the New York crowd going berserk, both players unleashed their full array of aggression. Agassi eventually prevailed with a trademark forehand return winner.
It was the match that everyone knew was the virtual final. Sampras pulled off vintage running forehands and 2nd serve aces, but it was still not enough to topple the indomitable spirit of Agassi on the one court where he was able to get the better of their epic grand slam rivalry. Shoelace returns and laser passing shots propelled Agassi into the 5th set where he held the momentum to win one of the all time greatest Australian Open matches.
It was their 3rd straight Wimbledon final; Federer was unable to find much inroad on the Nadal sliding serve and big forehand combination. Only through strong serving in the 3rd and 4th sets and a clutch third set tiebreak did Roger manage to push the contest to a 4th set tiebreak in the first place. He looked dead and buried at 2-5 and with Nadal’s two serves to come. As Rafa tried to close out the match, the slightest hint of nerves came into play; a double fault and a missed backhand gave Federer the slightest hope. From 4-5, the tennis and the drama took their rivalry, and indeed the sport of tennis, to new heights.