Tennis-Pulse’s look back at the greatest matches in Australian Open history rolls on. In case you missed them, read back on our previous matches:
And now, at #8…
Ever so often, a talented shot maker puts it all together for a couple weeks and goes on a run that leaves us all wanting more. In 2002 and 2003, Younes El Aynaoui had established himself as a solid top 20 player, but for a few weeks in Australia, something clicked and he played tennis at a level which he never quite approached again in his two decade span on the ATP tour. The flamboyant Moroccan had plenty of game with a strong serve, good forehand, and decent touch, but his style and technique were very unorthodox, and consistency usually eluded him, likely in large part due to his upbringing. Coming from a small country with no tennis infrastructure to speak of whatsoever along with working class parents who didn’t have the means to support or fund a pro career, El Aynaoui received no rigorous tennis training until age 18, when he enrolled in the Bollettieri Academy. Given that, it’s no surprise that it took him until 30 to produce his best tennis, and reaching as high as 14 in the world with his background speaks to his raw ability. El Aynaoui will always be one of the forgotten “what if” stories in history, but his 2003 Australian Open run will certainly be remembered for a long time.
In that tournament, El Aynaoui, seeded 18th, hit the headlines and spiced up what was a thoroughly mediocre tournament after a stunning upset over world #1 and hometown favorite Lleyton Hewitt. However, this would all pale in comparison to his next match, one of the all time classics of the game’s history. Every classic, however, needs two to tango, so enter Andy Roddick. The brash American, just twenty years old, had the background and training that El Aynaoui had lacked growing up, and he added a confident swagger along with maybe the biggest serve/forehand combination in tennis history (in raw MPH, really only Joachim Johansson could compete). Roddick was quickly making his mark on the ATP tour and was already in the top 10 with multiple grand slam quarterfinals to his name, including a memorable and tumultuous battle with eventual champion Hewitt at the 01 US Open at barely 19. However, the signature moment of his burgeoning career, at least until he won the US Open later in 2003, would be the epic he produced with El Aynaoui. The two men waged war for over five hours, and the match they produced was the longest in Australian Open history until another extravaganza broke it 9 years later. The match also had the longest fifth set in tournament history, and it still holds that distinction. At the end, Roddick emerged bruised, battered, and bloody, a 4-6 7-6(5) 4-6 6-4 21-19 victor. Let’s take a look back at this gargantuan battle.
Flair was certainly not lacking between these two men, their hairstyles were enough to convey that, and El Aynaoui drove this point home in the first game, taking a 122 mph Roddick delivery and hitting a laser of a return right back on the baseline. Andre Agassi would have been very proud of that one.
This was key, as the game went several deuces and El Aynaoui was eventually able to take advantage of a sloppy Roddick and break in the opening game. Four strong serves helped him consolidate for 2-0. Roddick would eventual get his bearings in the next game, but El Aynaoui produced another clinical hold with a strong serve/forehand game along with a beautifully executed foray to net. The Morrocan’s forehand continued to shine, and he cracked two winners off that wing to get to 0-30 on the Roddick serve in the next game. A Federer-esque backhand flick got him to triple break point in another reminder of El Ayanoui’s raw, but unnurtured, talent. Not many can pull this shot off.
However, Roddick’s serve and his grit were the reasons he was such a good player already, and he showed both to save all three break points and navigate a tricky hold. El Aynaoui’s serve and forehand continued to pay the bills, and he held for 4-2. Roddick replied with some huge serving and an emphatic slam dunk overhead. As I said, flair was in no shortage between these two. El Aynaoui replied with some more quality serving to hold for 5-3. His service motion was very funky and that combined with his lanky 6’4” frame was giving Roddick some serious problems reading his serve. On his own serve, Roddick continued to pump the heat and he quickly held for 5-4, putting the pressure on his opponent to serve out the set. El Aynaoui quickly responded with three consecutive aces. At 40-0, Roddick showed some good hands in the forecourt and some missed shots from El Aynaoui gave him some hope, but those hopes were quickly dashed when El Aynaoui slid a serve just beyond Roddick’s reach and Roddick missed a forehand to wrap up the first set. There is no doubt that Roddick gifted El Ayanoui the break in the opening game, which was the difference in this set, but still El Aynaoui was the better played throughout and both players produced some entertaining shotmaking and athletic points throughout. A combined 25 winners to 13 unforced errors says it all, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.
In stark contrast to the first, Roddick opened the second with a forehand winner and three mammoth serves to hold at love. A strong attacking play and a forehand error would get Roddick to 0-30 in the next game, and an El Aynaoui forehand error got him a break point at 30-40. The Moroccan saved it beautifully with stellar net play off the serve, although Roddick sure did try his hardest to run down every ball. A couple Roddick misses gave El Aynaoui the hold, and the next game opened with another entertaining point. El Aynaoui tracked down a Roddick smash, but the American was game and tracked down the reply to hit a forehand winner. From there, it was business as usual and a serve and volley play of his own gave Roddick the hold for 2-1. The next game opened with another great volley from El Aynaoui, and he quickly held for 2-2. Roddick followed with a quick hold of his own to inch ahead, 3-2. From here, both men continued their high level of tennis. Unforced errors were scarce, and there was plenty of shot making. Roddick’s forehand, in particular, was really starting to click as he reeled off a tremendous running forehand at 4-4 and then a couple forehand winners to hold for 5-4. With El Aynaoui serving to stay in the set, a Roddick pass clipped the tape, catching his opponent off guard. Then, Roddick followed a strong forehand into the net and put away a high backhand volley to go ahead 0-30. El Aynaoui replied with an ace, and Roddick missed a second serve return to level the game. However, the Moroccan let a ball go, which was in, and Roddick had set point. This was quickly erased after a body serve handcuffed the American. Roddick kept pushing, however, and a forehand pass gave him another set point. This too was wiped away with a strong serve/forehand play resulting in an easy putaway volley for El Aynaoui. El Aynaoui followed with two more strong serve/forehand plays to level the second set at 5. The next point was probably the most entertaining of the match so far, due to this ridiculous get by El Ayanoui.
This marvelous defensive play followed by an approach shot drew a backhand error from Roddick. However, Roddick refused to blink, and after slamming a serve and following with some tidy net play, he held for 6-5. El Aynaoui quickly replied with a hold to 15, and a highly entertaining set was headed to a tiebreak. The tiebreak got off to a spectacular start, with the men trading five straight clean winners on serve, and didn’t stop there. With El Aynaoui serving at 2-3, he produced two strong first serves go ahead 4-3. Roddick replied with a strong serve and volley play to level at 4, and he then thundered an ace down the middle for 5-4. El Aynaoui replied with a strong serve of his own, but Roddick finally made a decisive move, sending a backhand up the line for the pivotal mini break.
Roddick followed with a well constructed point ending with a deft backhand volley, and the second set was his.
Roddick needed to play basically a perfect set of tennis and crack seven winners in the tiebreak to outdo his inspired foe and level the match. The tiebreak was a truly fitting close to a simply spectacular set of tennis from both men. It featured just one mini-break, produced by a gutsy backhand winner, and zero total unforced errors. For the set, El Ayanoui served at 82% with 18 winners to 5 errors, but lost to a man who served his bombs at a 67% clip and produced a jaw dropping 26 winners to 3 errors. Did I mention that he hit seven winners to win a first to seven tiebreak? While these two may not be legends of the game, they produced a set of tennis as well played as any, but there was still plenty to come.
It would have been easy for El Aynaoui to be disheartened after losing a set in which he did very little wrong, but he kept his composure and kept playing steady tennis at the start of the third. Roddick, meanwhile, let his serve do all the talking as missile after missile flew off his Babolat Pure Drive. At 2-2, Roddick had half a look on his opponent’s serve after he connected on a brilliant running forehand pass. However, at 30-30, El Aynaoui responded with an angled forehand pass of his own and then cranked a forehand winner to hold for 3-2. Roddick responded with some big serves, and despite two more excellent El Aynaoui forehand passes, Roddick clawed back to deuce. He then connected on a forehand pass down the line to generate the first break point of the third set. However, Roddick missed a fairly tough second serve return, netted a backhand slice, and a quality body serve got El Aynaoui out of jail, as he held for 4-3. The Moroccan gained some traction on the Roddick serve in the next game, getting to 30-30, but the American responded with two more fastballs to hold for 4 all. El Aynaoui, sensing a chance, quickly held to love to put the pressure back on Roddick. At 4-5 a missed Roddick volley and a fortunate net chord once got El Aynaoui to 15-30. However, Roddick responded with an ace and a tremendous backhand volley. At 40-30, a long rally ensued, and it finally ended when El Aynaoui pummeled a forehand into Roddick’s backhand corner. Roddick was rattled and sent a backhand long, bringing up set point for El Aynaoui. On set point, a Roddick swinging volley appeared to catch the line but was called out. The chair umpire refused to overrule and Roddick was incensed at this potentially match changing call. The set had perhaps been robbed of a worthy ending, but nevertheless, El Aynaoui had manufactured a key break to lead two sets to one. The third set was a slight dip in quality from the first two, but was still a clean set of tennis overall, and compared to the second just about anything would have been a letdown.
In the very first game of the fourth, El Aynaoui ran into some major trouble, with back to back double faults giving Roddick a break point. Roddick netted a backhand, but El Aynaoui sent a slice wide to bring up another break point. A double fault gave Roddick the break, and El Aynaoui had played a truly dreadful game to hand Roddick momentum, akin to Roddick’s opening service game of the match. El Aynaoui slammed his racket in disgust, having failed to take advantage of his third set capture. Roddick’s serve quickly consolidated the break, and while El Ayanoui regained his bearings in the next game, aided by winning a highly entertaining point with some fantastic touch around the net, the damage had already been done.
El Aynaoui showed that the first game was indeed a temporary blip, as he played some fantastic tennis in the next few games, but Roddick’s clean groundstrokes and huge serve kept the Moroccan at bay to preserve the break lead. Still, we got to see shots like this:
Roddick played another flawless game, backed by a huge forehand winner, to hold for 5-3, and the set seemed to be slipping away for El Ayanoui. Still, the quality of tennis was very high, accentuated by a Becker-esque diving volley from Roddick at 5-3.
Roddick would see a set point in that game, but El Aynaoui fought it off with some big forehands and an overhead winner. He quickly held to force the American to serve out the set. However, Roddick was more than ready as he drilled a forehand winner, cranked an ace, and hit another huge forehand to bring up triple set point. There, El Aynaoui netted a forehand and we were heading to a fifth set, surely the only fitting conclusion for a match of this brilliance. The fourth set was a mirror image of the first, with the loser playing a very sloppy game at the start of the set. However, in both cases, the loser played fabulous tennis in the rest of the set and yet got no chances to atone for their mistakes, which tells you about the level of their opponent. Nevertheless, we had seen 4 sets of clean, athletic, and all around entertaining tennis. Judging by the standard these men had played at, a close fifth set was to be expected, but nothing could have prepared anyone for what was about to transpire.
Fifth Set (Buckle Up!):
The fifth set began with El Aynaoui taking a page out of Roddick’s book and holding to 15 off the back of a forehand winner and an ace. A sharply angled pass got him to 0-15 in the next game, but once again Roddick’s serve slammed the door on any potential chances. The next few games were simply fabulous, with winners flowing from the rackets of both players, such as this running forehand and scorched return winner on back to back points.
Neither man gave an inch on his serve, and holds were traded as a result to 5-4. Then, with Roddick serving, two great passing shots brought El Ayanoui to deuce. Another dipped pass prompted a wayward volley from Roddick, and El Aynaoui finally had a match point. With his back against the wall, Roddick brought his best, nailing a tough forehand winner and reacting as such.
A shot of the highest order match point down, but Andy Roddick was just getting cooking. He followed with an terrific stretch backhand volley and a great backhand down the line to force an error from El Aynaoui and secure a huge hold for 5-5 with phenomenal clutch shotmaking. The quality of tennis at this point was sky high, and that continued as Roddick nailed an extremely difficult backhand pass to start the next game. However, El Aynaoui responded with a volley winner and an ace, and then one upped his opponent with this belief-defying forehand pass
A forehand winner brought Roddick to 40-30, but a quality body serve sealed the game, and a 6-5 lead on serve for El Aynaoui. El Aynaoui started the next game with a backhand down the line pass of his own, albeit much easier than the one Roddick pulled off, but it was Roddick’s turn to respond, and some massive serving, including two aces, levelled the fifth at 6. The next game continued this dramatic passage of play. A double fault gave Roddick 15-30, but El Aynaoui pulled off a magical volley off a Roddick pass which clipped the tape. A thumped overhead got the Morroccan game point, but he then missed a tougher overhead and then wildly missed a forehand to give Roddick break point. However, El Aynaoui had another magical backhand volley up his sleeve, and then followed with a big first serve and yet another backhand volley winner to hold for 7-6. For four straight games, both men were forced to produce their very best tennis to stay in this match, and they were doing just that. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Roddick restored some order in the next game with his trusty serve and forehand, although El Aynaoui still managed to win a crazy rally at net. At 7-7, Roddick had another look as El Aynaoui missed two forehands to fall behind 0-30. However, two forehand winners, a great serve, and another good forehand secured him 4 straight points and an 8-7 lead. Roddick started the next game with two aces and didn’t look back, nailing a backhand pass and then hitting a forehand winner to hold for eight all. After the men exchanged relatively straight forward holds to 9-9, Roddick had another 0-30 opening off some misses from his opponent, but again El Aynaoui righted the ship and put away a forehand volley to hold for 10-9. Roddick continued to serve marvelously, and at 10-10 he had another look on the El Aynaoui serve, and a running forehand pass got him two break points. A missed backhand pass cost him one, but El Aynaoui gifted him the second one with a double fault, and Roddick would serve for the match. Roddick winning this match 12-10 in the fifth would have made this an epic match no questions asked, although El Aynaoui’s double fault would have left a slightly sour taste. However, this match is more than just an epic, and El Ayanoui’s fight in the 22nd game of the fifth is the reason why. A pass right at Roddick’s feet, followed by a volley winner got the Moroccan to 30-40. Tremendous defense to track down a Roddick forehand down the line followed by a deep slice drew a wayward forehand from Roddick, and somehow, some way, El Aynaoui had broken the Roddick serve for the first time for the first time in nearly two hours after Roddick had been ahead 30-15. El Aynaoui quickly held to 15 to consolidate, and Roddick replied in turn for 12-12. Roddick once against threatened in the twenty-fifth game of the fifth, as some El Aynaoui forehand errors gave him a break point. A solid forehand saved it, but a butchered forehand volley gave Roddick another point. This was saved as well after Roddick missed a tough running forehand pass. El Aynaoui responded with a big first serve and a forehand winner to survive that game and hold for 13-12. Despite cracking a forehand winner to get to 30-30 in the next game, El Aynaoui was quickly denied as some big serving helped Roddick hold for 13 all. El Aynaoui opened the next game with some ridiculous volleying, as a forehand drop volley and then a full stretch forehand volley winner got him off to a 30-0 lead. He quickly slammed down two aces to wrap up an extremely impressive hold of serve. The Moroccan continued his brilliant play as a flying inside in forehand winner got him to 15-15 in the next game. Roger Federer makes this shot look routine, but not many others can hit it.
Roddick however replied with a big serve and eventually wrapped up the game with a big inside in forehand winner of his own. El Aynaoui ripped two swinging volley winners in the next game, but Roddick clawed back to 30-30 with a backhand pass. However, El Aynaoui replied with two big first serves and the fifth set rolled on, 15-14. Here we were, heading into the 30th game of the set, and the quality was still sky high, a tribute to the fortitude and stamina of these two competitors. Roddick did nothing to dispel that notion in the 30th game as a forehand winner, another big forehand, backhand down the line, and an ace made it 15-15 in a flash. El Aynaoui, with some big forehands of his own, quickly held for 16-15. El Aynaoui tried to hit two more huge forehands in the next game but narrowly missed, and Roddick’s serve did the rest. The next game was a tumultuous one as some loose errors allowed Roddick two deuces, but the Moroccan quickly found his bearings and finished off the game with an ace. At 16-17, a missed forehand let El Aynaoui get to 40-30, but he then pulled a forehand wide and the set was level at 17. At 17-17, 30-0, Roddick clubbed a forehand down the line that was called out, much to the American’s dismay. In equal parts frustration and anger, he responded with this return.
However, El Aynaoui was unfazed and he cracked a big serve down the tee to hold for 18-17. Roddick continued to hold with the utmost ease, and a running forehand winner cross court levelled this titanic set at a staggering eighteen games a piece. El Aynaoui quickly held for 19-18 and then finally put some pressure on the Roddick serve with some strong passing shots to get to deuce. Roddick slammed down an ace and let out a roar to get a game point, but the game was far from over as a huge El Aynaoui forehand pass brought it back to deuce. On the third deuce, Roddick connected on a risky forehand winner down the line, a potentially match saving play.
Roddick followed with a swinging volley winner to the exact same spot to survive the game and hold for 19 all. Tremendous clutch play from the American to respond to the first truly serious threat against his serve in over an hour. What followed was probably one of the most enduring scenes from any match. Before El Aynaoui stepped to the line at 19-19, Roddick handed his racket to a ball boy and El Aynaoui did the same. The two ball kids competed in a short rally as the two players soaked up a well deserved rest in their places.
They would need it, as in the next game El Aynaoui got off to a quick 30-15 lead, but some big hitting capped off by a backhand winner from Roddick leveled the game at 30 all. Time and time again, El Aynaoui had responded to threats on his serve with aplomb, but Roddick was over ten years younger and had the fresher legs. That gap showed, as El Aynaoui’s legs finally failed him as he seemed to have no spring in missing a fairly easy backhand slice and forehand to hand Roddick the break of serve. There would be no more dramatics, as El Aynaoui had nothing left in the tank. He missed another forehand, failed to run down another makeable forehand, and Roddick thundered an ace down the tee to bring up triple match point. The match very nearly had a fitting ending as Roddick dove full stretch for a forehand volley to cap off an entertaining point, but he missed it just wide. That was no matter for the American, as El Aynaoui missed a forehand volley the next point, and Roddick fell to knees, the winner of this gargantuan struggle.
This match was one of the most entertaining you will ever see at any venue. In addition to the sheer quality of play, the atmosphere was just so special as it is rare to see a big match with such a friendly and light-hearted attitude between the two opponents. Their reactions of genuine shock and appreciation in equal parts to spectacular shots hit by the other in the GIF’s above illustrate that. Stylistically, this match perfectly embodies the 2003-2004 period in tennis, where all court tennis was still in vogue, as while poly strings had largely killed full time serve and volley, courts were still quick enough to reward plenty of net play. To that end, this match had some truly brilliant shotmaking from all over the court and in the biggest of moments, and the GIF’s show as well. Ultimately, Roddick was the better player in the fifth set as he constantly pressured his opponent’s serve, and this got to El Aynaoui as he simply had nothing left in the tank at the very end. Roddick wasn’t far behind in the meter department, as he also ran out of gas two sets into his semifinal against Rainer Schuttler, clearly drained by the effort necessary to win this one. It would have been very interesting to see if Roddick could have challenged the veteran Agassi in the final, and surely he would have put up more resistance than Schuttler, but just like the next year, that clash was not to be. For El Aynaoui, this match gives us a tantalizing glimpse as to the player he could have been had a few aspects of his tennis development gone differently. For Roddick, it simply confirms that he was the type of player we would come to know him as from a very young age. For him to show this type of courage and fight at the tender age of twenty is something rather special.
One may wonder why a match of this quality would be ranked at number 8. One reason is that the Australian Open features a treasure trove of entertaining and significant matches, particularly in the latter stages of tournaments. On pure tennis alone, this match would have a great case for the top 3 as it really was that good, but it did lack the gladiatorial build up and circumstances of some of the other matches on this list, and our writers considered all these factors in coming up with the final ranking. However, this match does not need a ranking or a backstory to do it justice. You can read about it or watch it, but this match’s bottom line is clear: it is simply one of the most entertaining affairs to ever grace a tennis court.