2020 was certainly a crazy year for men’s professional tennis. From the introduction of the ATP Cup in what were simpler times to the major coronavirus pandemic hiatus in the tennis calendar, this year will be remembered for many years in the future.
And what shouldn’t be forgotten from this year are the amazing matches that took place at the Major tournaments. And while Wimbledon was unfortunately cancelled, there were still incredible matches and storylines from the other three Grand Slams. From finals to matches between relatively unknown players, there have been some absolute epics at the Australian Open, US Open, and French Open.
I try to narrow down the five best Major matches from 2020 in men’s professional tennis.
5. Dominic Thiem def. Alexander Zverev – US Open final
A major final in fifth place? Yes. This is on the list purely from a drama perspective, not because of the level of play. Thiem won his maiden Major title 2-6 4-6 6-4 6-3 7-6(6) in a match that had enough tension to last the season.
After Zverev got ahead two sets and a break, he mentally started to wither, playing more and more defensive, allowing Thiem to control the baseline and gain control of the nerves that were heavily affecting him at the start of the match. Even so, Zverev had a chance to serve out the match in the fifth set before faltering. Thiem had his own chance at *6-5, but physically looked close to collapse. However, his guts in the final set were what got him just over the line against the conservative German.
From a statistical standpoint, this match left something to be desired. Both players had as many aces as double faults, with Zverev hitting 15 aces and 15 double faults, while Thiem had eight of each. Second serves were shaky from each player, with Thiem winning 48% of his second serve points and Zverev winning 41% of his. Thiem won 61% of his service points, with Zverev winning 60% of his service points.
Total points won accurate sums up this match: Thiem won 51% to 49% for Zverev. In every sense, Alexander Zverev came up just short in this one.
4. Diego Schwartzman def. Dominic Thiem – French Open quarterfinals
Shortly after lifting his first Major trophy in New York, Thiem was back on the dirt in Paris trying for his second major in a row. However, the Austrian was running on fumes at this point in the tournament and this match with Schwartzman was his last-stand effort in this season’s Grand Slams. However, Schwartzman prevailed 7-6(1) 5-7 6-7(6) 7-6(5) 6-2 in five hours and ten minutes to make his first ever grand slam semifinal.
Schwartzman came back from a break down in the first set to win easily in the tiebreak and was two points away from winning the second set before Thiem’s absolute rocket groundstrokes from the baseline helped him to overpower a nervous Schwartzman to tie the match at one set all.
In the third set, Schwartzman’s nerves got the better of him again, failing to serve out the set nor take advantage of a set point on Thiem’s serve and ultimately losing the set 7-6(6). In the fourth set, Schwartzman recovered from a break deficit and after failing to convert three sets points on his own serve ultimately won the set in a tiebreak.
The fifth set featured an in-the-zone Schwartzman firing hard-hitting groundstrokes and taking over control of the baseline over a fatiguing Thiem.
What’s incredible is Schwartzman went over five hours while hitting only a single ace, showing the constant work he had to put in from the baseline. He won 62% of his first serve points and 52% of his second serve points, while breaking Thiem ten times. Thiem will wish he played better on his second serve, only winning 42% of second serve points and 54% of service points.
3. Lorenzo Giustino def. Corentin Moutet – French Open first round
It might be weird to see a first round match on the list, but this clash was very-well deserving. Giustino ultimately prevailed 0-6 7-6(7) 7-6(3) 2-6 18-16 in over six hours to reach the second round. It was a match that Moutet surely kicked himself for not winning.
It initially looked like it would be a blowout as Moutet didn’t drop a game in the first set. In fact, Giustino didn’t even have game point/break point in the first set. Moutet’s variety and tricky game completely confounded by the Italian. Yet, he never gave up and won a tight second set after going 5-3* down in the tiebreak.
After Giustino failed to serve out the third set, the tiebreak was considerably easier. Giustino won that tiebreak a lot more easily. Moutet then raced to an easy fourth set victory and after a wild fifth set, found himself serving for it at *7-6. However, after going up 30-0, Giustino’s depth and consistency eventually overwhelmed the Frenchman and he was broken.
Moutet had to save a match point in his next service game, but was able to do so, revving up the partisan crowd in the process. Moutet got two more chances to serve out the match *14-13 and *15-14, but was unable to do so on both occasions, not even getting a match point.
Finally, after saving two break points on his own serve to get to 17-16*, Giustino was able to crack the Moutet code and broke the Frenchman to 30 and secure his first ever Grand Slam main draw victory in the most epic fashion.
The qualifier Giustino only won 47% of the total points compared to 53% for Moutet and won lower numbers of first and serve returns, along with first and second serve points. Yet, it was an indication that, in tennis, it’s not about the quantity of points you win, but rather, the timing of when you win those points.
Yes, this was a first round match, but it was certainly worthy of this list.
2. Novak Djokovic def. Dominic Thiem – Australian Open final
A match that is often overshadowed by the disastrous pandemic that came after it, it’s important to highlight Djokovic’s 6-4 4-6 6-2 6-3 6-4 victory over Thiem to win the Australian Open title. Thiem, at this point, was desperately searching for his first major and, after beating Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals and Alexander Zverev in the semifinals, seemed like he was finally ready to do so. Yet, the old guard–in other words Novak Djokovic–had other plans.
Djokovic took a tightly-contested first set 6-4 before losing the second 6-4 and seemingly fading away in a 6-2 third set win for Thiem. Thiem was up two-sets-to-one and with Djokovic looking as if he was fatigued, the first Major title for the Austrian was on his fingertips.
Yet, this match was yet another example why Novak Djokovic is one of the most mentally-strong, clutch players in the history of the game. After saving a break point early in the fourth set, Djokovic broke Thiem late to take the fourth set 6-3.
Then, in the fifth, Thiem was broken in his 1-1 service game and then couldn’t break Djokovic in the following service game despite two break points. Djokovic was able to hang onto that break, winning the set and the match 6-4 in the fifth. It was a monumental effort for the Serb, who seemed mentally disengaged earlier on during the match.
Despite Thiem hitting 13 aces to 9 for Djokovic, Djokovic won 67% of his service points compared to 61% for Thiem. And Djokovic did slightly better on return too, winning 39% of return versus 33% for the Austrian.
While Thiem hits a bigger ball than Djokovic, it was Djokovic’s rally tolerance which won out in the end.
1. Pablo Carreno Busta def. Denis Shapovalov – US Open quarterfinals
I chose this match as the best Grand Slam match of the season because it had the perfect combination of the storyline, high stakes, high quality, and epic drama. This was Shapovalov’s first ever Major quarterfinal and he was taking on the ever-consistent Carreno Busta, who had taken down Shapovalov in the Canadian’s first ever Round of 16 appearance in a Major at the 2017 US Open.
The rematch in the quarters of the same Major seemed like fate for Shapovalov: right the wrongs of their 2017 matchup and show that he isn’t still the same inexperienced player that he was in 2017. This match was supposed to show that Shapovalov wasn’t a rising star anymore, he was just a star.
Yet, things don’t always work according to a narrative. Carreno Busta beat Shapovalov 3-6 7-6(5) 7-6(4) 0-6 6-3.
After going down a break early in the first set, Shapovalov showed the type of tennis that had gotten him to that point: powerful, heavy, deep groundstrokes that left the Spaniard wondering how he was going to be able to control the baseline against the relentless Shapovalov attack.
In the second set, Carreno Busta showcased his counterpunching style and showed remarkable rally tolerance, allowing Shapovalov to self-destruct a bit and winning the set 7-5 in the tiebreak. Carreno Busta was the better player throughout the set and could have won more easily. He generated ten break points combined in four different service games versus three break points combined in two of Carreno Busta’s service games for the Canadian.
It was a similar story in the third set. Carreno Busta had six break points combined in three Shapovalov services versus one break point for Shapovalov. But, yet, Carreno Busta still had to grind out the set in a tiebreak.
The fourth set seemed pivotal in the match. Shapovalov easily won the set 6-0 and Carreno Busta only had one game point all set. Carreno Busta was also seemingly injured, looking like he was unable to mount the defenses necessary to blunt Shapovalov’s rocket groundstrokes.
However, it was clear during the fifth set that Carreno Busta was playing possum during the fourth, conserving his energy for the fifth. He came out and immediately held to 15, setting the tone for the set. After exchanging holds, the Spaniard finally got the critical break, breaking Shapovalov to 30 to go up *4-2. Carreno Busta would hold onto that break, winning 6-3 in the fifth after over four hours.
Shapovalov said to reporters after the match, “…I didn’t expect him to come to life like that, especially after the medical. I mean, he looked dead in the fourth. It’s a little bit shocking.”
Shapovalov had been played by the crafty veteran, who knew that 6-0 counts the same as 7-6, and after getting down early, used the fourth to gear up for the fifth while Shapovalov continued using up his energy.
Shapovalov hit 26 aces and 11 double faults versus only 5 and 1 double for Carreno Busta. But, besides that, the stats were very similar for the players. Both won 64% of their service points and 36% of their return points. The match was about as even as you could hope for in a Grand Slam quarterfinals.
Carreno Busta told the press following his victory, “It’s incredible to be back in the semifinals again.”
What’s also incredible is the quality and drama of this match.
Honorable Mentions (in chronological order)
Roger Federer def. John Millman 4-6 7-6(2) 6-4 4-6 7-6(8) – Australian Open third round
Roger Federer def. Tennys Sandgren 6-3 2-6 2-6 7-6(8) 6-3 – Australian Open quarterfinals
Juan Ignacio Londero def. Federico Delbonis 6-4 7-6(1) 2-6 1-6 14-12 – French Open first round
Main Photo from Getty.