Against all odds, fans enjoyed live tennis in 2020. Though the year is one to forget, it is worth remembering how lucky we were to witness the scintillating tennis that took place. In tribute, we revisit the top five most entertaining matches of 2020 on the ATP Tour (Grand Slams are governed by the ITF) over the course of two articles. Featuring a dogged encounter on the clay and two titanic battles at the ATP Cup, this first article recalls the fifth to third most entertaining matches.
#5. Rome Masters Semifinal: Diego Schwartzman defeats Denis Shapovalov 6-4 5-7 7-6 (4)
Originally scheduled for May this year, the Rome Masters took place in September due to the pandemic. The ball travelled slower and defense was easier to play due to cooler conditions than previous years.
These conditions suit Diego Schwartzman to a tee. The diminutive Argentine relies on his exceptional return game and movement rather than his serve to defeat his opponents. Denis Shapovalov would have been well aware of this going into their semi-final clash. He would have to hit big off both wings and vary play by approaching the net at the right times.
Unsurprisingly, this was the perfect recipe for a clay court roller-coaster: the momentum could not stop shifting. For example, Schwartzman won 10 of 11 consecutive points to go 5-5 30-0 up in the second set before Shapovalov took his forehand up an extra gear to break and serve out the set. Of the 34 service games played between the two, only three games did not feature a break point. Double faults from the Shapovalov serve crept in at inopportune moments, keeping the tension at boiling point. There were few moments in the match without some form of drama.
Against one of the best movers in the game, Shapovalov still managed to find 49 clean winners. It was not the shot quality alone that defined this match however – it was the twists and turns along the way.
The match fittingly concluded with Schwartzman winning 113 points to Shapovalov’s 112. This hammers home just how fine the margins are between winning and losing.
#4. ATP Cup Quarterfinal: Dan Evans defeats Alex de Minaur 7-6 (4) 4-6 7-6 (2)
The inaugural ATP Cup was fraught with controversy before it had even begun. Many players were upset about the tournament’s unfair entry requirements – lower-ranked players would potentially be able to add points to their ranking, purely due to being one of the highest ranked players in their country. Also, Djokovic and Nadal believed the tournament should be merged with the Davis Cup as it cut into the length of the off-season.
Any lingering doubts were quickly forgotten once the tournament kicked off. With every player fresh and well-rested, spectators were quickly engrossed by the high quality of play at the ATP Cup.
If most matches were high quality, then the quarterfinal match-up between Great Britain’s Dan Evans and Australia’s Alex De Minaur was nothing short of outstanding. An epic at three hours and 23 minutes long, this match included more than 100 winners between the two players – four of these winners came off De Minaur’s racket on the first four match points against him, including a clutch backhand pass cross-court at 5-6 15-40 down in the third set. The final set breaker had a fair chunk of these winners too: including but not limited to a forehand lob, a backhand winner down the line, a backhand pass and a half-volley drop-shot. Both players treated fans to some sumptuous net play throughout the match too, making 142 trips to the net combined.
Like the match in Rome, only one point separated the two players. De Minaur may hold a grudge after this one though – he lost overall but won 126 points to Evans’ 125.
#3. ATP Cup Semifinal: Novak Djokovic defeats Daniil Medvedev 6-1 5-7 6-4
Testament to the quality at the ATP Cup, another match from the tournament earns its spot on this list. The semifinal clash between Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev was always going to be an enthralling encounter. Both players are most comfortable in long rallies and neither has any distinct weakness from the baseline. Medvedev had proved he could beat Djokovic at his own game also, having won their last two meetings.
Djokovic was clearly hungry for revenge, racing to a 6-1 lead. He played immaculately on return, barely giving Medvedev a chance to settle in a service game, winning 31 points to Medvedev’s 15.
It was only after Medvedev went down an early break in the second set that the match sparked to life. Unphased, the Russian dug his heels in and broke back after a sublime 15-minute game. The level of play never dropped throughout the rest of the second set, with Medvedev only just inching out Djokovic to even at a set apiece.
The match earned its status as a classic in the third set. Medvedev could not stop producing line-licking shots with one stunning backhand clipping the line to save match point. His masterful court-coverage was not enough to topple arguably the best player ever on a hardcourt, however. Djokovic was able to win astonishing rallies at break point up at 2-2 and break point down at 5-4. Sometimes the ability to produce a few moments of magic on the most important points is all that can separate two players of this calibre.
As Medvedev netted a forehand on the run, Djokovic collapsed on the court as if he had won the tournament. Mark Petchey in commentary aptly summed up the duel: “the whole match was a highlight”.
Main Photo from Getty.