Even giants must fall.
We live in a world of tennis favourites. Since 2005, the Big Four — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray — have won 40 out of 45 Grand Slams. Not long before that, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors ruled the courts. This is and was mirrored on the women’s circuit by Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, and Serena Williams, each of them dominating their respective fields. Some may say that it makes the sport predictable, but if you ask me, it’s what makes it great. The upsets, no matter how few and far between, can electrify the globe.
In an era of Big Four + Serena (Big 5?) domination, let’s count down the nine biggest upsets in tennis history.
9. Juan Martin Del Potro def. Roger Federer, US Open Final 2009
World No. 1 Roger Federer was eyeing his sixth consecutive US Open title to tie Bill Tilden’s 1925 record, but the 20-year-old Argentinian had other plans. Roger was on a 41-match winning streak at Flushing Meadows, and had not lost there since Del Potro was 14 years old (!). Needless to say, Roger did not appreciate the eye in the sky that day…
8. Marion Bartoli def. Justine Henin, Wimbledon SF 2007
The 22-year-old French world No. 18 recovered from a set and a break down to stun world No. 1 Henin, who won the first set in only 22 minutes. Bartoli’s previous four visits to Wimbledon had only produced four TOTAL victories.
The Elo rating system is a method for calculating the relative skill levels of players in competitor-versus-competitor games such as chess and tennis. The ELO difference between these two players was 462, a HUMONGOUS gap. Bartoli shrugged it off and got some inspiration from the crowd…
“I didn’t start well. It was so stressful being on Centre Court for the first time. But then I saw Pierce Brosnan in the crowd and he’s one of my favourite actors so I just tried to play a little better.”
7. Goran Ivanisevic def. Patrick Rafter, Wimbledon Final 2001
It seemed like Goran Ivanisevic’s career was done. The left-handed Croat had lost the Wimbledon final three times before 2001. When he finally captured the crown, he was rank 125 and a tournament WILD CARD. In his miracle run, he defeated Carlos Moya, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, Tim Henman, and Patrick Rafter – just take a second, how is that even possible? He became the lowest-ranked player and only wild card to ever win Wimbledon. Just goes to show you, anything is possible with a big serve – ahem, Milos Raonic.
6. Mats Wilander def. Guillermo Vilas, French Open Final 1982
The unseeded Swede shocked the tennis world when he won the French Open at 17 YEARS OLD, the youngest to ever to win a Slam (at that time). He took down the second, third, fourth, and fifth seeds in Vitas Gerulaitis, Jose Luis Clerc, Guillermo Vilas, and Ivan Lendl – talk about the road less travelled. He went on to win two more Roland Garros titles, and to think, he did it while wearing reeeally short shorts.
5. Michael Chang def. Ivan Lendl, French Open 4R 1989
The world No. 15 carved his name into tennis history when he won the 1989 French Open at 17 years, 3 months old. Talk about young. He beat world No. 1 Lendl in the fourth round and world No. 3 Stefan Edberg in an epic five-set final. He is STILL the youngest winner of a Grand Slam, and I don’t see him giving up that record any time soon.
Fun fact: he busted out an underhand serve against Lendl – check it in the video below.
4. Lori McNeil def. Steffi Graf, Wimbledon 1R 1994
Steffi Graf holds the most Grand Slam titles in the Open Era (22), winning Wimbledon in 1988, 89, 91, 92, 93, 95, and 96. McNeil became the first woman to oust Graf in the first round of Wimbledon. Before this shocking defeat, Graf had never done worse than the fourth round. This match did not have the highest of stakes, but that’s what makes it all the more shocking – Graf losing so early at Wimbledon was never even a consideration.
3. Richard Krajicek def. Pete Sampras, Wimbledon QF 1996
Pete Sampras only lost once at Wimbledon from 1993 to 2001, and it came at the hands of Richard Krajicek. The world No. 6 defeated Sampras in straight sets and eventually went on to become the first Dutchman to win Wimbledon. Sampras also lost to No. 145 George Bastl in the 2002 Wimbledon 2R, but Sampras was entering the later stages of his career. To see Sampras go down in the QF of Wimbledon in his prime AND in straight sets, Krajicek takes the cake over Bastl.
2. Roberta Vinci def. Serena Williams, US Open SF 2015
Serena Williams was having the perfect year, until world No. 43 Roberta Vinci did the unthinkable. Williams was the reigning champion at all four majors, having won her second Serena Slam, and poised to win her first Calendar Slam. Everyone knew Serena was going to win, but she just… didn’t. Prices for the final were $1000 and over, but after the loss, ticket prices dropped to below $100.
This match represented the largest ELO difference in upset history. No female tennis player has ever recorded a bigger upset. It was the biggest shock tennis fans had received in, needless to say, a while.
1. Robin Soderling def. Rafael Nadal, French Open 4R 2009
The Swedish world No. 23 had been steadily rising toward the top 20 for several years before this match, but NO ONE expected this outcome. Zero people. Rafael Nadal was unbeaten at Roland Garros – he had won the title four times and was primed for a fifth. Rafa had won 31 matches in a row on the clay courts in Paris, and Soderling became his first conqueror. Soderling solely held this accomplishment until last year, when Novak Djokovic dismantled Rafa in the QFs 7-5, 6-3, 6-1. Talk about shocking.