January 14, 2002: Koubek comes back from match point down in five-set thriller
- 14 Jan 2021
What happened exactly on that day and why it is memorable in tennis history
On this day, January 14, 2002, in the Australian Open first round, Stefan Koubek defeated Frenchman Cyril Saulnier despite having been down 6-0, 6-1, 4-1 and 15-40. The Austrian, after saving a match point, finally prevailed 0-6, 1-6, 7-6, 6-4, 8-6, and he would then make his way into the quarter-finals, obtaining the best Grand Slam performance of his entire career.
The guys involved
Stefan Koubek, a left-hander with a double-handed backhand, was born in Austria in 1977. He broke into the top 100 at the end of 1998, claiming his first title in 1999, in Atlanta (defeating Sébastien Grosjean in the final, 6-2, 6-1). That year, he also reached the fourth round at Roland-Garros (defeated by Alex Corretja, 6-2, 6-3, 7-5), and he finished the season as world No 46. In 2000, he won a second title, in Delray Beach (beating Alex Calatrava, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4) and reached his career-high ranking as world No 20 on March, 13. In 2001, he almost left the top 100, but in October, reaching the semi-finals in Vienna, defeating on his way world No 12 Roger Federer (7-6, 7-5), he climbed back to world No 65.
Frenchman Cyril Saulnier, born in 1975, turned pro in 1996. So far, his best ranking had been world No 111, in February 2001. He won his only match in a Grand Slam tournament in 2000, at the US Open, defeating Attila Savolt (6-3, 7-5, 6-3) before losing to Magnus Norman (6-3, 6-4, 6-3). At the start of the 2002 Australian Open, he was world No 153.
Unlike the other Grand Slam tournaments, The Australian Open (first known as the Australasian Championships and, later, the Australian Championships) had moved several locations throughout the years. In fact, the event switched cities every year before it settled in Melbourne in 1972, and no less than five Australian cities had hosted the event at least three times: Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. The event was held on grass at the Kooyong Stadium, in an affluent suburb of Melbourne. Its timing had changed several times as well, between early December and January, going from being the first Grand Slam of the year to being the last. Until 1982, many of the best players skipped the Australian Open, mainly because of the remoteness, and the low prize money, but then, with the triumph of Mats Wilander, the dynamic changed. The tournament’s board made big efforts to become as prestigious as the other Grand Slams, which ended up with the event moving to a new location in 1988, in Flinders Park (later known as Melbourne Park), switching from grass to hard courts, and displaying the first-ever centre court equipped with a retractable roof. Prizes increased as well, and it wasn’t long before the tournament became many players’ favourite Grand Slam.
Stefan Koubek was the heavy favourite in his Australian Open first round against Frenchman Cyril Saulnier, world No 153. Although he didn’t have a great 2001 season, he had seemed to be back in shape at the end of the year, reaching the semi-finals in Vienna and the quarter-finals in St Petersburg. Meanwhile, his opponent, who had never gone past the second round of a Grand Slam event, had to go through the qualifications, where he defeated Robert Kendrick to break into the main draw (6-4, 6-4).
However, when the match started, there was only one player on court, and it was not Koubek. In fact, the Austrian was so transparent that soon, he trailed 6-0, 6-1, 4-1, and 15-40. In such a desperate situation, it seemed very unlikely that he could come back, but somehow, he saved these two break points and clawed his way back into the third set.
“In my mind, I was already on the plane back,” Koubek would recall in 2019 for Der Standard. Saving two match points, the lefty took the set and finally prevailed, 0-6, 1-6, 7-6, 6-4, 8-6, achieving one of the most amazing comebacks in tennis history. “You need a bit of luck, I still have some rallies in my mind today.”
In the following round, Koubek would come back from two sets down a second time to defeat James Blake (4-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2). The Austrian would obtain his best Grand Slam result, only defeated in the quarter-finals by Jiri Novak (6-2, 6-3, 6-2). Known for having being disqualified three times in his career, he would retire in 2011.
Cyril Saulnier would climb as high as world No 48 in 2005, after reaching his only ATP final in San Jose (defeated by Andy Roddick, 6-0, 6-4).