It didn’t take long for my innocent intention to write about the best tennis matches of 2012 to be revealed as dewy-eyed naivety. It was supposed to be simple, but rapidly came to feel reductive, if not intrinsically dishonest. The more I looked at it, the less I could see, and the less worthwhile the task became. All the same, if you are interested in seeing the list I did eventually arrive at, you can skip to the end. But if you’re more interested in why the Australian Open final isn’t on it, please read on.
To say that one’s choice of the match of the year is fundamentally subjective is to say barely anything at all. Presumably no one believes such opinions are earthed in hard science, especially since attempts at a scientific method usually yield results that are either laughable or useless, if not both. To add that a subjective choice still relies upon commonly accepted criteria is to say only a little more. After all, ‘subjective’ doesn’t mean ‘arbitrary’. There are particular characteristics that most good matches share – context, quality, and drama – and all must be present for any match to be adjudged ‘great’. It’s hardly a coincidence that each season sees broad consensus on what the ‘match of the year’ actually was. On the other hand, to insist that this season featured no truly great matches is to say a lot.
I realise I am courting controversy here. There were certainly great moments, and there were some very long matches, but only a die-hard Wagnerian would insist that these constitute the primary ingredients for immortality. And I realise such an assertion risks dampening the post-seasonal mood, which is one of ecstatic retrospection. Even as the season progressed certain orthodoxies emerged as to which matches were or were not great. Regardless of one’s innermost proclivities it grew hard to deviate from this orthodoxy without appearing wilful, not to say perverse.
The Australian Open final is an excellent example of this. The view was aired even as the match was grinding to its eventual end that we were all witnessing the greatest tennis match ever played. Within the hour – and for those of us sharing a time zone with the players this hour was very late – that view was revised to the greatest Major final ever played. Certainly it was the longest, and probably the most disabling for its participants. Bobbing fitfully amongst the inevitable flood of military metaphors was the term ‘epic’.
However, in the days following the match simple calculations revealed that the match wasn’t merely epic, it was considerably more epic than it needed to be, and that had the players confined themselves to the allotted time between points the match would have concluded almost an hour earlier. Beyond that, the tenor of the match was cautious rather than audacious. It was an encounter in which two of the supreme athletes in our sport trusted their legs more than their shot-making. Indeed, it mostly felt uncannily like the first three sets of their US Open final the year before, until Djokovic’s injury had caused him to go after his shots, which in turn inspired the happy discovery that a point could end with a winner even before it reached thirty-five strokes. Sadly by Melbourne this lesson had been forgotten.
Nevertheless, the view persists that this is the match of the year, which leads me to wonder just how of the people who’ve ranked it so highly have bothered to watch it a second time. I have gone back and watched it, and I can attest that it is indeed very long, but that until about halfway through the fifth hour, barely anything notable happens, kind of like Einstein On The Beach, only more martial and twice the length. In that sense it was an epic. It was downright Wagnerian, although by sitting through it twice I’ve done better than Rossini managed with Lohengrin.† If my match of the year list was to be entirely of my own choosing, I don’t think this final would make it into the top ten.
I suspect that most who write about tennis maintain two discrete lists. The first is an official match of the year list, which is heavily lacquered and decorated with all the trimmings of objectivity. Notwithstanding the odd quirky pick to establish the writer’s credentials as free spirit, these official lists are largely interchangeable with each other. This is the list that I’d set out to compile but eventually gave up on. I would have felt obliged to rank the Australian Open final somewhere near the top. The second, less visible list outlines one’s favourite matches played each year. In both cases it is never possible to expunge all trace of favouritism, but it is still worth the effort to try. I like to think you can get close, which makes it hard for me to include, say, James Blake thrashing Marcel Granollers at the US Open, even though I’d love to.
For myself, I generally favour attacking tennis, although I am more than partial to desperate and virtuosic defence when the situation calls for it. This in turns means that, all else being equal, I will appreciate a match of contrasting styles more than one whose texture remains constant throughout. The structural advantage of attacking tennis is that the attacking player forces his opponent to defend, and thus generates a stylistic contrast. I would therefore rank Nadal’s excellent Australian Open quarterfinal victory over Tomas Berdych higher than his loss to Novak Djokovic in the final. The final arguably has it covered for atmosphere, but the quarterfinal featured far more interesting and enterprising tennis from both men. Nadal’s defence in the semifinal against Roger Federer was also unworldly, especially on his forehand, which was lethally unapproachable. Consequently, I’d also rank that match over the final.
Context also counts for a lot. The unabashed Andy Murray cheer squad that Sky Sports persists in calling a commentary team were even quicker to anoint the US Open final as the greatest match ever played. I think they first delivered this judgement about four games in. Given the moment, their enthusiasm was hard to begrudge even as it was easy to mock, especially when it was replaced by a consuming dread as Djokovic recovered the two set deficit. Without question it was a dramatic match, and for historical value it’s hard to top. But the weather was truly horrible, and at best we can say that the standard was exceptional given the prevailing conditions. It’s definitely high on my list of best matches played in a cyclone. But Murray and Djokovic proved the following month in Shanghai just how fine their tennis can be when it isn’t tempest tossed. They’d already proved it back in Melbourne, in what probably was the match of the year, but then disproved it in Dubai and Miami. It’s a confusing rivalry, as these things go.
Anyway, here is a list of my favourite matches from 2012, in a very approximate order. There are at least a dozen other matches I could add, including, of course, the Australian Open final. The more I think about it, the more matches I think merit inclusion, and the more I’d like to reshuffle those that are already there. There were plenty that were good in 2012, even if none were truly great.
Berdych puts his tennis where is mouth is, barely, but a gallant Almagro somehow never loses faith.
Excellent tennis given the appalling conditions, and a resonant and momentous result.
Nadal barely saves the second set, then lifts to trample Berdych.
10. Kohlschreiber d. Paire, US Open, 6/7 6/3 3/6 6/2 7/6
High drama, absurd shot-making, and a pair of headcases.
Seppi saves six match points, breaks Wawrinka’s heart, and sends the home fans into a prolonged swoon.
Heartbreak for Tsonga, failing to take any of his many match points. Djokovic’s courage when on the brink is unparalleled.
Outstanding offence and defence from both, as the indefatigable Ferrer recovers from a break in the fifth.
All-out assault on the slick blue clay. Federer narrowly prevails over a rampant Berdych.
A combined winner to unforced error count of 106-45, as the lowly Rosol continues blasting, and somehow doesn’t miss.
Two sets of immense quality, with Djokovic saving match points, then running over the tiring Murray.
Outstanding all-court play and drama from two veterans who are proven masters at both.
2. Federer d. Del Potro, Olympic Games Semifinals, 3/6 7/6 19/17
Del Potro’s finest effort on grass, defying predictions of a Federer cakewalk. Utterly absorbing from start to finish.
Probably the best match of the year. Murray’s desperate fight in the fifth almost rectifies his tactical tank in the fourth.
† ‘One cannot judge Lohengrin after a first hearing, and I certainly don’t intend to hear it a second time.’ – Gioachino Rossini, displaying a Churchillian gift for pithy insult.