Every year the U.S. Open gets all the best players together in the world for one big tournament and, inevitably, great matches happen. Some are shocking upsets, some are epic comebacks, and some are the two great players at the height of their skills with neither willing to give ground. Here are the five greatest men’s matches, since the advent of the Open Era in 1968:
5. Jimmy Connors over Aaron Krickstein in the 1991 Fourth Round, 3–6, 7–6 (8), 1–6, 6–3, 7–6 (4)
One of the more amazing U.S. Open runs ever was an over-the-hill Jimmy Connors, who turned 39 on the day of this match, in 1991 making it all the way to the semis, where he ran into the buzzsaw that was Jim Courier. But before that match came this epic five-set comeback against the 24-year old Krickstein, who reached the U.S. Open semis just two years earlier and was at one time a top-ten player. Connors brought out every trick in the book while having the entire crowd on his side the whole match, even famously saying into the camera, “This is what they came for. This is what they want.” Krickstein actually won more games in the match (27–24) but Connor won both the second and fifth set tie-breaks and the match went to him—much to the crowd’s delight.
4. Novak Djokovic over Roger Federer in the 2011 Semis, 6–7 (7), 4–6, 6–3, 6–2, 7–5
In 2011, Djokovic finally wedged his way into the Federer/Nadal hold on the majors winning three of the four Grand Slams. But the highlight of his season was his go-for-broke laser return while facing double-match point in the fifth set of this classic, that quickly changed the momentum of this match and tournament. Djokovic, who was down 5–3 in the fifth at the time, won the next point (single match point), then that game, and each of the next three games to close out a match in which he lost the first two sets. The five-set thriller was very similar to the one these two played the previous year, again in the U.S. Open semis, where Federer also had double-match point at 5–4 in the fifth set, yet saw Djokovic save both of them on his way to victory. Djokovic would ride the 2011 win though to a US Open finals title, beating Nadal.
3. Pete Sampras over Andre Agassi in the 2001 Quarters, 6–7 (9), 7–6 (2), 7–6 (2), 7–6 (5)
These two American legends (and rivals) met in the U.S. Open finals three times (1990, 1995, and 2002), with Sampras winning all three, but this was perhaps the greatest match played between the two stars. The match, featured as a primetime evening match in Flushing, had the same classic contrast the duo had sported for years: Sampras with his great service game against Agassi’s splendid return game. They were both at their best on this day though so much so that two players, both in their 30s, received a standing ovation at the beginning of the fourth set. What made this match so great is that neither player won a break point—all four sets went to a tiebreak, but Agassi was only able to snare the first. Finally in the fourth tiebreaker, Agassi fought off a pair of match points at 6–3 but missed a forehand on the final point, giving Sampras the hard-earned win.
2. Mats Wilander over Ivan Lendl in the 1988 Finals, 6–4, 4–6, 6–3, 5–7, 6–4
The longest finals match ever in U.S. Open history featured the three-time defending champion Lendl against Wilander, who prevailed here but then somehow fell off the map soon after—at age 25. The 28-year-old Lendl though was in the middle of one of his eight straight appearances in the U.S. Open finals and had beaten Wilander in the finals the previous year in a match few thought the two could top—but they did this time. This 4-hour, 55-minute marathon featured numerous 30-shot rallies, a number of multi-deuce games, and a second-set warning given to Wilander for taking too long to serve that briefly fazed him, giving Lendl some momentum. Eventually Wilander regrouped and the match was his.
1. John McEnroe over Bjorn Borg 1980 in the Finals, 7–6 (4), 6–1, 6–7 (5), 5–7, 6–4
Though these two had just combined to play what was then regarded as the greatest match of all-time—a five-set Wimbledon classic a couple months earlier—they had enough left in the tank for one more thrill-ride. McEnroe was coming in off his own five-set marathon win: a semifinal victory over Jimmy Connors, while Borg (also coming off a five-set win) was looking for his first US Open title—one he would never get. Twice Borg served for the first set in this one, and twice he was denied as, early on, McEnroe looked like he might get a straight sets win. But Borg had enough to force the match form an 0–2 deficit all the way to a fifth set (he hadn’t lost a five-setter in six years), yet not enough to win it. For McEnroe, the win was his second Grand Slam title, having won in ’79 in Flushing as well.