Continuing our series on the most compelling storylines at Grand Slams in 2020, ATPTour.com looks at the five most dramatic comebacks at the majors this season, beginning today with Part 1. Next week we’ll look at the best matches, comebacks and upsets at ATP Tour tournaments.
Andre Agassi once said that the great thing about tennis is “you can’t run out the clock… as long as we were still playing, I had a chance”. The pandemic changed how the tennis season unfolded, but Agassi’s adage was as true as ever in a year full of epic comebacks, particularly at the majors, where players have five sets worth of canvasses to paint.
The Grand Slam season started with 29 five-set matches at the Australian Open and ended with a French twist—a wonderfully unpredictable Roland Garros that was full of comebacks, upsets and Cinderella stories.
5. Fabio Fognini d. Reilly Opelka, Australian Open, R1, 21 January, 2020
Fabio Fognini matches are often a lot like Federico Fellini films—full of drama, dark comedy, flashes of brilliance, suspense, plenty of dialogue and the occasional hand gestures. Fognini spent much of the first two sets of his first-round match against Reilly Opelka at the Australian Open talking to himself and anyone who would listen, as though he was rehearsing for an audition in a film. The American had beaten him the year before in the first round of the US Open and as he raced to a two-sets to-love lead, pelting 140 mph aces here, there and everywhere, a repeat looked on the cards.
It seemed very much like the Italian was about to say arrivederci Melbourne.
But after the second set, Fognini got exactly the plot twist he needed: biblical rain that held play over until the following day. After a good night of sleep and, presumably, a nice helping of pasta, the Italian was a new man the next day. He finally managed to break Opelka’s seemingly impenetrable serve in the third and fourth sets, and he cracked a forehand return winner on match point in the fifth-set Match Tie-Break to clinch a three hour, 38 minute thriller, 3-6, 6-7(3), 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(10/5).
“I was lucky that the rain came on the right time,” said Fognini after the match. “Yesterday he was playing better than me. I only lost one break, and I was two sets down. These guys (the big servers) they’re always tough to play, but we have to.”
4. Andy Murray d. Yoshihito Nishioka, US Open, R1, 1 September, 2020
Andy Murray is a legend in the sport. But coming into the 2020 US Open, his FedEx ATP Ranking was a modest 115 as he continued his comeback from career-saving hip surgery. Sir Andy hadn’t played a major in more than a year and hadn’t notched a win at a major since beating James Duckworth, then ranked No. 448, at the US Open in 2018.
Murray’s expectations entering the event were modest and once he was down two sets and a break in the third set in his first-round match against Yoshihito Nishioka, even he must have been thinking it was curtains for his summer in New York. After all, the Scot hadn’t won a five-set match since beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Wimbledon in 2016. But Murray did what he always does: he didn’t give up.
Murray chipped away, running down every ball, waiting for the Japanese man to cool off, and simply persevering. When he finally prevailed 4-6, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-4, in four hours, 39 minutes, he was too exhausted to celebrate.
“They have an ice bath in the locker room and they said it was for emergencies,” Murray said. “For me this is an emergency right now. I’ll ask and see if they’ll allow me to use the ice bath. If not I’ll try to get back to the hotel as quickly as I can.”
Murray did indeed get permission to dip himself in the ice bath, but the recuperative benefits were not enough to take him further in the tournament. He suffered a straight-sets loss to Felix Auger-Aliassime in the second round.
3. Andrey Rublev d. Sam Querrey, Roland Garros, R1, 29 September, 2020
Andrey Rublev showed up late to the party at Roland Garros this year after winning the Hamburg European Open. And he was also late to the party in each of his first three sets against the hard-serving American veteran Sam Querrey. The 23-year-old Russian came into the event with a head of steam, but had just one day to recover from his title run at the ATP 500 tournament before facing Samurai Sam in the first round in Paris.
He fell behind 3-0 in the first set, rallied, but still lost in a tie-break. The second set was like déjà vu: he trailed 4-0, rallied, but still lost in a tie-break. The third try was a charm for Rublev, who was losing 2-5 in the third set before he reeled off five straight games to capture the set, as Querrey’s dominating serve-forehand combo that produced 80 winners in the match began to falter. After taking the fourth set, Rublev capped a remarkable 6-7(5), 6-7(4), 7-5, 6-4, 6-3 victory by chasing down a drop shot and flicking a forehand winner to clinch the win in three hours and 17 minutes.
After the match, he was asked how he had done it.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I was completely sure that it’s over. I was just so lucky…
I was feeling completely tight. I choke another level. Since the first point of the match till the last point of the match I was completely freeze…Not many times I was tight like this. Anyway, I’m happy that I have this one more present that I’m here, and I’m alive.”
He was indeed alive—he went on to reach the quarter-finals, where he lost a Hamburg final rematch to Stefanos Tsitsipas.