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By Rohit Sharma
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In our last two editions of the 'BEST of the DECADE' we talked about 10 of the finest women's players that graced the tennis world with their guile, charm and charisma. So, now we turn our attention to men who dominated the 2000-09 decade with their phenomenal achievements and swashbuckling performances to make the cut at the 'top 10 best male tennis players of the decade' list.
10 - Novak Djokovic
We kick off our top 10 list with a player who is undoubtly, one of the finest players of his generation, Novak Djokovic. The mighty Serbian first came into limelight when he beat some of the biggest names in tennis including six time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal, to win the 2007 ATP Masters series event in Miami. Djokovic then made impressive progress at the Grand slam level with a French Open quarterfinal already under his belt. The following months turned out to be truly remarkable for the Serb, who made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon and shocked the top three players in the world (No.3 Roddick, No.2 Nadal and No.1 Federer) to win his second masters shield of the year in Toronto, Canada. More success followed when Djokovic reached the maiden slam final of his career at the U.S. Open where he held several set points before succumbing to defeat at the hands of Roger Federer in straight sets. The year 2008 brought the well-deserved Grand Slam glory for the Serbian star who beat none other than Roger Federer en route to winning his first major at the Australian Open. With the elusive triumph, Djokovic became the first ever Grand Slam champion from Serbia. Another Masters Series title at Indian Wells confirmed that the Serb's astonishing success in Melbourne was not a flash in the pan. After an injury-hampered start to the clay court season, Djokovic showed his all-court finesse by winning his fourth Masters series title in Rome, coupled with a semifinal finish at Roland Garros. After a dismal performance at the green grass of Wimbledon, Djokovic achieved a milestone in his career by winning the Bronze medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Djokovic's 2008 U.S. Open appearance was dogged by controversies when his verbal vollies directed towards home-favourite Andy Roddick led him to face severe booing during his semifinal match against Roger Federer. Djokovic then put the bad memories behind to end the year on a fantastic note by winning the Tennis Masters Cup, held in Shanghai. The 2009 season began amidst several unexpected exits by the Serbian, the most significant of which was his loss to little known Latvian Ernests Gulbis. Djokovic then found his form at the Dubai Championships where he beat Spaniard David Ferrer for the title. What followed was one of the finest examples of Serbian's clay court mastery. Djokovic made it to the finals of two Masters Series events in Monte Carlo, and lost to Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal. His 4-hour plus thriller in Madrid against a fiery Nadal is considered one of the best matches of 2009. Following a shocking semifinal loss to German Tommy Haas at Wimbledon, Djokovic then made an impressive recovery during the U.S. Hardcourt season, reaching a final in Cincinnati. With Murray being considered one of the biggest contendors at Flushing Meadows, Djokovic again delivered astonishing performances to reach the semifinal, but lost to 15 time major champion Roger Federer. Despite patches of success throughout the first half, title glory came for the Serb post his final appearance in Shanghai Masters, when he beat Roger Federer in his hometown in Basel to lift the Davidoff Swiss Indoors tournament. With such an impressive form, Djokovic beat players like Robin Soderling, Rafael Nadal and Gael Monfils to win his first Masters Series title of the year in Paris. This was Djokovic's 16th career title and 5th Masters series crown. Djokovic was named the Most Improved Player at the 2007 ATP awards, and is a fan favourite for not just his tennis skills but also his on-court impersonations of fellow players.
9- Juan Carlos Ferrero
The No.9 spot in our list goes to one of Spain's most successful tennis players, Juan Carlos Ferrero, also popular by the nickname- 'Mosquito' for his speed and court coverage. Ferrero made an impressive start to his professional career when he reached the semifinal of the 2000 French Open, where he lost to eventual champion Gustavo Kuerten in five gruelling sets. Ferrero also made it to the finals of two other ATP events in Dubai and Barcelona, however, title glory eluded him for the entire year, which eventually came a year later at the same stages when he beat the likes of Safin and Mantilla to clinch titles and break into the top 10 in singles rankings for the very first time in his career. With a win in the final of Rome Masters over clay court specialist Gustavo Kuerten, Ferrero clinched his first ever Masters series crown. The rest of the season brought several first time successes when the Spaniard made it to the semifinals of the season ending ATP Championships and reached two more finals. After an injury-affected first quarter, Ferrero found his form on his favourite red-clay when he beat compatriot Carlos Moya to win his second Masters series title in Monte Carlo. The 2001 French Open marked another all-Spanish final with Ferrero on the receiving end to veteran Albert Costa. After his maiden slam final appearance, he struggled during the grasscourt season, but bounced back to win his second title of the year in Hong Kong. The final finish at the year-ending ATP World Tour Championships boosted the Spaniard's confidence about his belief of performing well surfaces other than clay. The year 2003 turned out to be most successful year for Ferrero who started the year on a bright note with a QF finish at the Aussie Open, and at Roland Garros, lifted the first (and only) Grand slam of his career by winning the French Open. He also successfully defended his Monte Carlo title which took his Masters series triumph tally to 3. Consistent performance during the Grand slam season, highlighted by the U.S. Open final fetched Ferrero the World No.1 ranking which he held for several weeks before handing it back to Andy Roddick, who finished the year as No.1, ahead of Roger Federer (No.2) and Ferrero(No.3). For his phenomenal achievements, Ferrero was honoured by the National Sportsman of the Year" award from King Juan Carlos. The year 2004 marked the onset of a four-year title drought for the Spaniard, who suffered several final losses in Cincinnati, Acapulco and Costa de Sauipe, but despite inconsistent performance, finished three of those seasons in top 30. Last year came as a huge sigh of relief for Spanish star, who captured his first title in five years at the 2009 Grand Prix Hassan II in Casablanca, Morocco. Although, the rest of the season did not bring any remarkable success for the Spaniard, he ended the year as a part of the triumphant Davis Cup team. Davis Cup, infact has been a witness to some of Ferrero's most memorable performances that include his wins over Lleyton Hewitt and Patrick Rafter in 2000 final.
8- Pete Sampras
No tennis list can ever be complete without a mention of one of sport's brightest tennis stars, Pete Sampras. Sampras became one of the most successful players in game's rich history during the nineties, but he set new records at the turn of millennium, when he won his record-tying seventh Wimbledon title at the 2000 championships. With the win, Sampras broke Roy Emerson's record of 12 Grand slam titles and fetched a place in the history books. What followed was completely unexpected though, as Sampras failed to win a title for the next two years, a 33 tournament title-drought that was highlighted by two slam finals at Flushing Meadows and a few Masters series disppointments. Sampras was written off by most tennis pundits, one of which termed him as 'done and washed-up'. Despite his brilliant run at the 2001 U.S. Open final, which included a marathon four tie-break sets win over arch rival Andre Agassi, Sampras was unable to find the key to title glory. His second round loss at the hands of George Bastl at Wimbledon was his earlist exit from the draw since 1991. However, the king roared back at the 2002 U.S. Open when he beat some of the biggest names in the arena to reach the final for the third consecutive year. In the finals, was Sampras' long-time friend and rival Andre Agassi, who was on a resurgence trail after an injury-struck season. Sampras pulled a win in four gruelling sets to win his 14th Grand slam title (now second to Swiss Roger Federer) and silenced his critics and opponents. Sampras did not play any tennis event for the next 12 months and just before the 2003 U.S. Open, decided to withdraw from his title defense. The USTA then organized a special farewell for the game's biggest superstar which ended with a teary-eyed Sampras bidding adieu to the professional tennis. Sampras is considered by many as the best tennis player of all times, and holds several records, including a whopping seven Wimbledon singles and six consecutive yearend finishes. Though for his remarkable acheivements, Sampras was awarded the the ATP Player of the Year honour between 1993-98, his major accompolishment in 2000 fetched him the GQ Magazine's Individual Athlete Award for Man of the Year honour.
7- Gustavo Kuerten
Affectionately known as 'Guga' by fans and fellow players across the world, Brazilian sporting Icon Gustavo Kuerten is one of the most successful South Americans ever to have graced the sport with his on-court mastery and finesse. Although, Kuerten broke into the international tennis scene in 1997, when he became one of the lowest ranked players to win the French Open, his astonishing game found its pinnacle at the turn of millennium when he re-captured the title on red clay at the 2000 event. Infact the year turned out to be the most successful season in the Brazilian's career when he captured Masters series title in Hamburg and finished the year as No.1, becoming the first South American since Guillermo Vilas to achieve the feat. En route to his season-ending ATP Masters Cup triumph, he beat both Sampras and Agassi to win the title and also ended the American dominance in the yearend rankings that started almost ten years ago. As expected, Guga achieved greater heights in 2001 when he ended the year with six titles, the most notable of which was his third French Open triumph, followed by title success in Cincinnati, Monte Carlo, Stuttgart, Buenos Aires and Acapulco. However, the successful 2001 season turned out to be the last year of dominance for the Brazilian who could only manage four tier-II titles in the next four years. Despite a challenging 2004 season, Kuerten handed Federer his first ever Grand Slam defeat when he beat the Swiss in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. Since then, Federer has atleast made the semifinals of every Grand Slam event. The next three years turned out to be pretty difficult for the Brazilian star, who lost one match after the other, due to injuries and inconsistent performances. In May 2008, Kuerten played his last professional match against Frenchman Paul-henri Mathieu at his favourite Roland Garros, and following his straight sets loss, got felicitated in a special ceremony, hosted by the tournament organizers. For his impressive results and astonishing feats, Kuerten was named the ATP Player of the Year in 2000. He also received the Fans' Favourite honour at the same Award ceremony. Kuerten is a part of the group of elite men to have won the French Open atleast three times, others bieng Bjorn Borg (6), Rafael Nadal (4), Mats Wilander (3) and Ivan Lendl (3).
Marat Safin -
Controversy's favourite kid Marat Safin narrowly edges Gustavo Kuerten for the sixth spot in our list of the best tennis players of the decade. Famous for his on-court tantrums and fiery temperament, Marat Safin made a breakthrough start to his career in 2000 when he won back-to-back titles in Mallorca and Barcelona and continued his success with his first Masters series crown in Toronto, Canada. With a win, the tall Russian became one of the favourites for the year's last slam in New York, and exceeded all expectations by beating Pete Sampras to win the his maiden slam in the form of U.S. Open. Safin completed the final win in straight sets, thereby handing the American his worst slam final loss. Post his U.S. Open success, Safin captured three more titles in Paris (Masters series), Tashkent and St. Petersburg, taking his title tally to a tour-leading 7 victories. In 2001, Safin's form suffered a major blow as the Russian failed to defend his title at Flushing meadows and performed below expectations at other slams. Although he successfully defended his home title in St. Petersburg along with one more in Tashkent. The following year saw him struggle with injuries and bad temperament, which made him succumb to defeat in several matches. His final loss at the year's first Grand Slam made Thomas Johansson, in turn, one of the most unlikely major champions in the sporting history. Towards the end of the season, Safin captured his third Masters series title in Paris. The year 2004 brought some relief for the Russian, who reached the second Australian Open final after beating some of the biggest stars in the game, but fell victim to Federer's all-court game at crucial stages of the match. Despite his poor showing in the other Grand Slams, Safin managed to add two more Masters series titles to his collection by emerging triumphant in Madrid and Paris for the third time. In 2005, Safin re-established himself as a power to be reckoned with, in the Grand Slam circuit when he beat the likes of Federer and Hewitt to win the second major of his career at the Australian Open. Interestingly, his second Grand Slam title turned out to be the last title triumph of his career as despite reaching three more ATP finals, Safin failed to win another tournament. His best major performance came in 2008 at Wimbledon, when he became the first Russian male tennis player to make it to the last four of the prestigious event. Apart from his impressive Grand slam resume, Safin also boasts of some memorable Davis Cup victories, most notable of which were his triumphs in 2002 and 2006 that led Russia to clinch the title. In 2009, playing in his last professional match against rising star Juan Martin Del Potro, Safin bid adieu to the tennis world for good and left a mark on the sport as a champion, whose biggest rival was his own fragile temperament. For his breakthorugh 2000 season, Safin was named Newcomer of the Year at the prestigiuos Laureas World Sports Awards.
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