They only played once but tennis magic was created

Tennis rivalries are talked and discussed by fans and media to the point of beating a dead horse. What’s never talked about though are the one-match wonders where two notable players strangely played just once in their careers, but their one single match turned out to be an epic encounter.

The first that comes to mind is the one historical ATP match contested by Pete Sampras vs Roger Federer at Wimbledon round of 16 in 2002, won by the 19 year old Swiss 76 57 64 67 75. The 29 year old American retired about a year later. But just look at that scoreline, each set was a marathon inside a marathon.

Another classic one-match wonder, was the night Benoit Paire and Ivo Karlovic tangled on grandstand at Citi Open in Washington DC in 2014 (round of 32). The Croatian managed to win the intense battle 76 67 (13-11) 76. I was at this match and it was highlighted by a near fist fight after as the two departed the court. Both Karlovic and Paire were virtually nose to nose arguing on the path back to the locker room, outside the stadium. Karlovic took exception to the trash talking Paire was doing to his box throughout the match, which included some insulting comments about Karlovic in French. Paire’s mistake was he did not realize that Karlovic understands French and heard everything Paire said about him. Karlovic confronted Paire about his disrespectful word choices and all hell almost broke loose. Curiously, these two talented veterans (age 41 and 30) have never played a second match.

Another interesting one time classic duel was the time Lleyton Hewitt battled Ivan Ljubicic in Cincinnati QF in 2001. Hewitt was 20 at the time, at the height of his powers, and the Croat was 22. Hewitt outlasted Looby 76 67 64. Ljubicic told me for my book “Facing Hewitt” it was the only time they ever played, despite being of similar age, and also he added that in all their future draws at the same tournaments they never even came close to playing a sequel.

Nobody remembers this little known classic five setter at US Open old grandstand, second round in 2009. But those who saw it will never forget it because Taylor Dent and Ivan Navarro of Spain dueled evenly to the fifth set tiebreaker 64 57 67 75 76 (11-9). Dent prevailed in a throwback match where both were serve and volleying on every point at the end. It was such a thrilling, captivating, emotional affair, Dent, a usually stoic competitor, ran laps around the court after winning, high fiving fans before finally climbing the umpire chair and grabbing the microphone to tell the fans present, “I love you…”

Johan Kriek played Guillermo Vilas in 1986 at Roland Garros QF. It was their lone clash and it was a classic. Vilas had a 63 6-5 lead in the second set tiebreak but missed an easy overhead into the top of the net to make it 6-6 in the breaker. Kriek came back and won the war 36 76 76 76 and said in my “Facing Guillermo Vilas” book about the wild wacky match: “I can honestly say that winning that match on a hot French Open center court with screaming Parisians was by far the most difficult mentally and physically for me. So much so that I could not get up out of bed the next day. I consider it the best win of my career. I won only three games against Lendl in the semi. It took me six weeks to recover physically from this match.”

I was going to add the Davis Cup epic between Marcelo Rios and Leander Paes in India in 1997, won by the Chilean in four sets in sweltering heat but it was not the only time they played. Rios beat Paes two earlier times both in New Haven.

Can anyone think of any other one match wonders?

(Sampras art by LeRoy Neiman. Federer art by John Murawski.)


  • Todd · May 22, 2020 at 1:54 am

    Rios vs Massu, 2000 US Open on an outer court….I was there…great atmosphere…Chile vs Chile…7-6 in the 4th Rios took it…only time they ever met….very fun to watch and soak up the crowd…plenty of Chileans.

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 22, 2020 at 8:12 am

    Todd, atmosphere at Rios matches was always a special experience, as the photographer Alese Pechter said in my Rios book, from her experiences covering Rios in Miami, “Rios brought the stadium to life.” Rios did not engage the fans or interact during the match, if he did they might have doubled down on their animation and support for Rios and all hell could have broken loose. But Rios did show appreciation for his crowd support after matches. Though not like Kuerten drawing a heart on clay or Djokovic’s opening his heart gesture. Rios matches were always exciting on many levels and the crowd’s involvement added to it.

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 22, 2020 at 1:12 pm

    Somehow I didn’t see any of this Rios vs Massu match live, maybe some on TV. Rios was a fading force by 2000. Rios as a major contender ended I always felt when he lost in 1999 at Roland Garros in the QF in four sets to Hrbaty. That loss killed him, killed his belief. Before that there was always some belief and hope that he could turn it on and win a Grand Slam but that loss changed Rios and the perception other players had of him. He could still show flashes of the Rios genius and brilliance like this Massu match and a handful of others.

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 23, 2020 at 5:11 pm

    Ken Rosewall story…from Marty judge…This is a true story about a hit that I had long ago with Ken Rosewall — not that I have ever fibbed about anything on Facebook, of course ;-).

    It was an October Friday morning in the year 1995 or so and it was at the annual Legends camp at Newk’s tennis ranch in Texas. It was about 11:30 am, and it was at the end of the competition when the various Legends who had stayed on had been broken out onto separate courts where they were each having a hit with the campers, like me. I was on one of the Har Tru courts with about 5 other guys, and we were taking instruction from none other than Muscles himself on the proper technique for the backhand volley. You could hardly ask for a better teacher.

    We expected to have about a half hour with Rosewall and then we would stop, everyone would have lunch, the event would be over, and people would catch their flights to go home. But it didn’t work out that way for me.

    At first, Rosewall had us stand 3 to each side across from each other near the net. He then fed us balls on a rapid fire basis and we were supposed to hit only backhand volleys back and forth to each other until we missed. No forehand volleys were allowed, and Rosewall made sure he varied the pace, height and other placement of his feeds to give us lots of different backhand volley “looks.” He told us it was a drill that Harry Hopman had used, and we believed it. It was rather intense.

    As it got closer to noon and lunch, some of the campers had to leave to get ready to travel. So, one by one players dropped out. The group of 6 then became a group of 4, and then 3, etc. I was actually not traveling that day so I stayed on the court. Meanwhile, Rosewall was really getting into the drill. He paid no attention to the clock.

    Eventually it got down to just myself and another camper on the court with Muscles. He suggested that we hit backhand volleys back and forth among we 3, while we alternated on who stood alone on one side of the net and which side had two players. But it was basically the same drill, only even harder to do because there were less people to cover the court on each side, and about one third the time you had to be hitting volleys alone. It also seemed as if the pace, direction and difficulty of Rosewall’s backhand volley kept increasing as we drilled. I became certain that Rosewall was testing us to see how well we could continue to hit backhand volleys as he kept making his own volleys more intense. He also looked like he was enjoying it. Meanwhile, all of the other Legends and players on the various other courts were quitting in droves to go get lunch or showers. But the 3 of us were still drilling volleys on Rosewall’s court.

    Finally, it got to be about 12:20 pm and the other camper announced that he was tired and hungry and said he was going to quit and get lunch too. I fully expected Rosewall to say something like, “Ok mates, let’s pack up,” but he did not. He just stood there with his racquet in his hand and a bunch of balls in his other hand and he said he would feed me and we would continue hitting backhand volleys just between us. I was already pretty tired and hungry myself, but I thought to myself, “You fool. This is the great Ken Rosewall, and he wants to hit backhand volleys with YOU!! Don’t be insulting. Keep going!!”

    So, I did. For about 35 more minutes. With the great Ken Rosewall and myself being the only two players on any court in the entire camp, just hitting nothing but backhand volleys back and forth to each other, with me trying to keep up. And I kept thinking I needed to pinch myself over the combined absurdity and ecstasy of the moment. I envisioned myself a number of decades earlier being part of the Aussie Davis Cup team and hanging out with these guys while Harry Hopman beat an impossible work ethic and discipline into all of them so they could succeed on the tennis court. And there I was, the lucky imposter.

    But at about 12:55 pm even I could not take it any longer. Although it was obvious that Rosewall was enjoying himself and wanted to keep going, I was exhausted and my stomach was screaming at me to eat something. So, finally, and very reluctantly, I said, “Ken, if you don’t mind, can we stop now? I am reaching my limit and I need to get lunch.”

    Rosewall actually looked surprised and a bit sad when I said that. Like he had somehow been transported back in time to the Hopman days and my comment somehow had broken his practice rhythm. I think he said something like, “Well, ok, if that’s what you want to do….” with a wistful tone to his voice. He clearly did not want to stop, but he was too polite to actually say that so he agreed.

    So, I put my racquet down and grabbed one of the ball hoppers to go pick up the balls. Meanwhile, Rosewall did the same, all the while still giving me verbal instructions on little nuances that he had seen with my volley technique and his making comments to help me improve it.

    Finally, when we were all done picking up the balls, I slung my tennis bag over my shoulder to get ready to walk toward the lunch room. But Rosewall was still standing there with a truly perplexed look on his face. I could not figure out what the problem was until he finally said to me, “Aren’t you forgetting something?” I responded, “I don’t think so, Ken.” He responded, “Yes, you are. We need to sweep the courts.”

    THAT was the biggest revelation to me of all. Here, this true Legend of the game, with one of the greatest backhand volleys in the history of the sport, had not only wanted to continue to hit backhand volleys with ME, but he was so humble and down to earth about it that it never occurred to him to walk off a clay court and not sweep it.

    I thought about pointing out that there were dozens of ranch pros and others who could and would take care of that chore while we have lunch. But then I thought to myself, “You are never going to get this opportunity to be with this Legend again, you fool. So take advantage of all of the time you can spend with Muscles, because you will always remember this, and there will never be a group of Legends like this again, Marty.” And so here I am writing down this memory almost 25 years later because I was right.

    And so we swept the court together, Ken Rosewall and me, and then we walked up to get lunch, also together. As I recall, Muscles liked baloney sandwiches. And he continued to talk about backhand volleys all through lunch.

  • Krzysztof · May 25, 2020 at 12:29 pm

    In 2001, Blake and Rios played a quarterfinal match in Tokyo and it was their only meeting. Blake won it 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 and he was really pumped up. Did anyone watch it?

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 25, 2020 at 6:32 pm

    Krzysztof; No, did not see that Rios vs Blake match in 2001. Scoreline shows it was a good battle. They also played in Boston before that. How do I know? In my book Marcelo Rios The Man We Barely Knew, a fan told me a Rios anecdote about the Boston match. A guy in the crowd cheered Blake and then after the next point which Rios won, he glared at the guy in the crowd. ) Rios won that match in two tough sets.



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