In the third part of this series looking at the greatest Wimbledon finals of the Open Era, we break into the top ten and look at some more iconic finals.
#10- 1975: Arthur Ashe vs Jimmy Connors 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4
The 1975 final between Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors is one of the greatest examples of tactical prowess ever seen in tennis. Not only did the final hold great cultural significance, but it was also a showcase of extraordinary pre-match preparation and thinking by Ashe and his team.
Coming into the 1975 final Arthur Ashe was by no means a rank outsider, the number six seed was a double major champion, having won the US Open in 1968 and the Australian Open in 1970, and had made the semi-finals of Wimbledon on two separate occasions. However, it was believed that Ashe was long past his prime and his chances weren’t helped by the fact that his opponent for the final was just entering his.
Jimmy Connors, twenty-two at the time, was the reigning Wimbledon champion and world number one. Connors and Ashe had met three times prior to the final, with Connors winning them all with ease. It was considered a mismatch.
Despite Connors’ seemingly invulnerable status, Ashe and his coach realised that Connors struggled when his opponent didn’t give him any pace to play with. A plan was devised whereby Ashe would keep the ball low by hitting shots with minimal power and a large amount of back spin, forcing Connors to hit up on the ball (another weakness that had been identified) and drawing him into the net, where Ashe would then lob him.
Ashe, normally renowned for his heavy hitting, played against his instincts and enacted his game plan to perfection, keeping the ball low and drawing Connors into playing shots he wasn’t comfortable with. The defending champion didn’t seem to have a reply as Ashe breezed through the first two sets 6-1, 6-1.
Connors seemed to have gotten himself back into the match, when he took the third set 7-5 and led the fourth 3-1. But after Ashe broke the Connors serve to bring the match back to 3-2, he regained control. At 4-4 Ashe, yet again utilising the soft slice return, got the crucial break of serve to lead 5-4.
Ashe held his nerve as he served out the match, becoming the first black man to win the Wimbledon singles title. The tactical astuteness shown by Ashe during the match made it a spectacle in its own right, as he dismantled Connor’s game to stake his place in history.
#9-1976: Chris Evert vs Evonne Goolagong 6-3, 4-6, 8-6
In 1976, two of Wimbledon’s most popular champions stepped onto Centre Court, both in search of their second Wimbledon titles. Evonne Goolagong (1971 champion) and Chris Evert (1974 champion) were the top two seeds that year, and both had cruised through the earlier rounds, only dropping one set combined the whole tournament. It promised to be a classic, and thoroughly delivered.
Both players traded breaks early on in the first set, but it was Evert who seized the initiative after her second break gave her a 4-2 lead. The rest of the set went with serve as Evert took it 6-3.
The second set remained on serve until the sixth game, when a fantastic cross court forehand gave Goolagong the break and the lead, 4-2. However, Evert would initiate the theme that would define this match, as she returned in the very next game with a break of the Goolagong serve, and after holding had levelled the set at 4-4. Despite the spirited Evert come back, Goolagong once again took control with her third break, giving her the set 6-4, levelling the match.
This theme of the players dealing in games of two would continue into the deciding set as Goolagong raced to a 2-0 lead, only to see Evert come roaring back to level it at 2-2. The pendulum continued to swing as Evert broke Goolagong again to win her third game in a row, just for Goolagong to return the favour in the next game, levelling the set again at 3-3. In one of the most back and forth finals in history, Evert found herself serving for the match at 5-4. But, as you can probably guess at this point, Goolagong broke the Evert serve to stay in the Championship.
Goolagong’s resistance could only last so long as Evert found herself serving for the match for a second time. This time, after an expertly placed backhand lob, Evert was able to capitalise on her break of serve to claim her second Wimbledon title. Goolagong would have to wait four years for revenge, but when she met Evert again in the 1980 final, the result would be worth the wait.
#8- 1981: John McEnroe vs Bjorn Borg 4-6, 7-6(7-1), 7-6(7-4), 6-4
From 1976 to 1980, one man’s name dominated Wimbledon. Bjorn Borg. Borg had won five consecutive Wimbledon men’s singles titles and was on a 41-match winning streak at the Championships. In 1980 McEnroe had come devastatingly close to besting the ‘Ice Man’, but fell in five sets, Borg was beginning to be seen as close to unbeatable.
McEnroe’s 1981 Wimbledon had been controversial to say the least. Several on court outbreaks (including his infamous “You cannot be serious!”) had made him a sort of pantomime villain to the Wimbledon crowd. Despite coming through all his matches relatively unscathed, many believed that he may not be mentally tough enough to beat someone like Borg.
In the final itself, it was Borg who started the better of the two players, breaking in the fifth game to lead 3-2. The Champion took the opening set 6-4, the first time McEnroe had been behind in the tournament, it looked like Borg’s dominance was here to stay. But McEnroe had other ideas.
One of McEnroe’s biggest weapons was his serve, his left-handed stance seemed to allow him to create amazing angles, opening up the court for his signature follow up volley. McEnroe won 79% of points on his first serve throughout the match, and no more was the power of his serve demonstrated than in the second set tie break. McEnroe won all four points on his serve, as he convincingly won the breaker 7-1, levelling the match.
McEnroe fought the majority of set three on the back foot as Borg raced to a 4-1 lead. But despite his earlier tournament antics, the American remained poised and broke the Borg serve to level the set. However, McEnroe continued to fight on the back foot as he saved four set points at 4-5. The set went to another tie break and after some sublime passing shots McEnroe again triumphed, this time 7-4.
Borg struggled throughout the fourth set, saving multiple break points as he crawled his way to 4-4. After holding his serve to go within a game of the title, McEnroe went after Borg’s serve, bringing up his first match point at 30-40. Despite saving that match point, Borg would face another one straight away as McEnroe dunked in a smash. After a signature forehand volley down the line McEnroe had conquered tennis’ ultimate peak and beaten Borg at Wimbledon.
Little did anyone know, this would be Borg’s final appearance at Wimbledon as he retired from tennis shortly after the 1981 US Open, a match he also lost to McEnroe.
#7- 1991: Steffi Graf vs Gabrielle Sabatini 6-4, 3-6, 8-6
The second appearance on the list for Steffi Graf details her 1991 epic with Gabrielle Sabatini. Coming into the final Graf was already a two-time Wimbledon champion and Sabatini, despite being US Open champion, was making her first appearance in a Wimbledon final.
Graf, while the clear favourite, hadn’t won a grand slam in over a year and looked to rectify that straight away as she broke Sabatini’s serve in the fifth game of the match to lead 3-2. The rest of the set went on serve and Graf claimed it 6-4.
With only one break of serve in the first set, it looked like this may be another Wimbledon final where serving dominated, but as the next two sets would demonstrate this would be far from the truth. Graf and Sabatini exchanged two breaks each at the start of the second set, and after Sabatini held serve, Graf was again broken for the third time, as Sabatini lead the set 4-2. Graf would gather her first and only hold of the set as she made it 5-3, but it was too late, and Sabatini served out the set 6-3.
The two players yet again exchanged breaks of serve at the start of the deciding set as the score read 2-2. At 4-4 Sabatini got what appeared to be a crucial break of serve to lead 5-4, serving for the Championship. But as was appearing to be the pattern of the match, Graf returned with a break of her own to level at 5-5. It was appearing that a hold of serve was the valuable commodity rather than a break, as Sabatini yet again broke to serve for the match at 6-5. However, the Argentine was unable to capitalise on the break of serve for the second time as Graf broke once more.
Graf would gain the sought after hold of serve to lead 7-6, going within one game of the match. After a crushing forehand Graf broke the Sabatini serve for the third time in a row to claim her third Wimbledon title and tenth grand slam.
The last two sets contained an incredible twelve breaks of serve, from twenty-three games, almost unheard of in a Wimbledon final.
#6-2001: Goran Ivanisevic vs Pat Rafter 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7
One of Wimbledon’s most popular champions was crowned in 2001 when Goran Ivanisevic played Pat Rafter. Ivanisevic was making his fourth appearance in a Wimbledon final, having lost all of his previous three. Rafter was making his second consecutive final, after losing in 2000 to Pete Sampras.
Since his last Wimbledon final in 1998, Ivanisevic had failed to make it past the fourth round at any grand slam. His ranking had fallen off a cliff and stood at 125 in the world, meaning that he had to gain a wild card to enter the tournament.
The first four sets all followed the same pattern, with the first break proving pivotal. Both men were renowned for their brilliant serving and exceptional net play and the quality was evident, as there was only one break of serve in each of the first three sets.
Ivanisevic took sets one and three 6-3, while Rafter took the second set 6-3. The fourth set would be marginally more one sided as Rafter broke Ivanisevic twice to win four straight games and take it 6-2.
One of the best sets of tennis ever seen in a Wimbledon Final awaited the crowd when the two players took to Centre Court for the deciding set. There was nothing to separate the two players for the first fourteen games, with both demonstrating their incredible talents at the net and with the serve. However, it would be Rafter to blink first, Ivanisevic breaking in the fifteenth game of the set to take an 8-7 lead.
On the verge of his first Wimbledon and grand slam title, Ivanisevic looked a bag of nerves as he stepped up to the baseline to serve for the match. Despite the nerves he managed to bring up Championship point at 40-30. However, it was never going to be that straightforward for Ivanisevic as he fired his second serve long to double fault. After bringing up a second match point straight away, he again did the unthinkable and sunk his second serve into the net. After an expertly placed Rafter lob saved a third match point, it was starting to look like he may never get over the line. But Ivanisevic rallied through and brought up another match point, this time Rafter failed to return the serve and Ivanisevic sunk to his knees in relief. In his fourth Wimbledon final, on his fourth match point, he had finally been crowned Wimbledon Champion.