January 22, 2003: Roddick outlasts El Aynaoui in Australian Open marathon

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On this day in tennis history, Andy Roddick won what was the longest fifth set in Grand Slam history at the time, 21-19, against Younes El Aynaoui at the Australian Open.

What happened

On this day, January 22, 2003, in the Australian Open quarter-finals, Andy Roddick and Younes El Aynaoui played one of the greatest matches in the tournament’s history. The young Roddick prevailed in five sets (4-6, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4, 21-19), after winning what was at the time the longest fifth set in a Grand Slam tournament in terms of time (two hours and 23 minutes), and in games (40). 

The players

Andy Roddick, from the USA, was born in 1982. He had his breakthrough year in 2001, at the age of 19, when he claimed his first three titles on the tour, reached a Grand Slam quarter-final for the first time at the US Open (lost to Lleyton Hewitt, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4) and finished the season as world No 14. His biggest weapon was undoubtedly his massive serve: that year, he set a record at Roland-Garros, during his five-set win against Michael Chang, serving 37 aces.

He also had a powerful forehand and displayed great athleticism and fighting spirit on court. In 2002, Roddick confirmed his new status, clinching two more titles (the most remarkable one in Memphis, defeating James Blake in the final, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5), and finishing runner-up in Toronto (defeated by Guillermo Canas, 6-4, 7-5). He finished the year as world No 10.

Younes El Aynaoui, born in 1971, was part of a Moroccan golden generation, along with Hicham Arazi and Karim Alami. El Aynaoui broke into the top 100 for the first time in 1996, a year where he reached three ATP finals, in Doha, Jakarta and Amsterdam, but a serious ankle injury plagued the rest of his season as well as the following one. In 1999, he claimed his first title in Amsterdam (defeating Mariano Zabaleta in the final, 6-0, 6-3), and in 2000, he reached the quarter-finals at the Australian Open (defeated by Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 6-0, 6-3, 7-6).

He took his career to the next level in 2002, claiming three titles (the biggest one in Doha, where he beat Felix Mantilla in the final, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2) and finishing runner-up twice. Reaching the quarter-finals at the US Open (defeated by Lleyton Hewitt, 6-1, 7-6, 4-6, 6-2), he climbed to world No 18, his highest ranking at the time. 

The place

Unlike the other Grand Slam tournaments, the Australian Open (first known as the Australasian Championships and, later, the Australian Championships) had moved 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 a posh eastern 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 the last. Until 1982, many of the best players skipped the Australian Open, mainly because of the remoteness and 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 center court equipped with a retractable roof. Prize money increased as well, and it wasn’t long before the tournament became the favourite Grand Slam for many players.

The facts

At the 2003 Australian Open, having Younes El Aynaoui facing the rising star Andy Roddick in the quarter-finals was a disappointment for the local crowd, who expected a clash between Roddick and the local favourite and world No 1, Lleyton Hewitt. However, El Aynaoui defeated Hewitt in the fourth round, 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4, to reach the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam tournament for the third time of his career.

The original disappointment was soon replaced by enthusiasm, as both players delivered a great performance and needed a memorable fifth set to decide the winner. This deciding set lasted two hours and 23 minutes, almost as long as the four previous sets! Although El Aynaoui obtained  a match point at 5-4, it was Roddick who finally prevailed, 21-19, sealing the longest set in Open Era history in time and games at the time.  

“Strategy was out the door late on in the fifth set,” Roddick said, according to the BBC. “I think it was just pure fighting. This was more about heart.”

“Even if I have lost, I am happy. I came very close to winning this match,” El Ayanoui commented, according to L’Équipe. “I faced a tough opponent who hit a great shot on the only match point I could get. I think people realised that I could play at a good level. What’s that going to change? For one thing, maybe I won’t be mistaken for James Blake anymore.”

At the end of this legendary match, the players embraced over the net. They took a deep bow and left the court together, knowing that they had made history.

“Memories of my match with Younes are amazing,” Roddick would say in 2017, quoted by Fox Sports Australia. ”You know, it was such an intense match. It was centre court, at night on the big stage. ‘I remember walking around Melbourne no problem at all before that match and then all of a sudden the next day going to get coffee and people knowing you, which was crazy for me, especially in a foreign place outside of the States.”

What next 

Andy Roddick, who had already survived a five-set combat against Mikhail Youzhny in the previous round, would be defeated by Rainer Schuettler in the semi-finals (7-5, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3).

The year would remain “A-Rod’s” peak year, during which he would claim his first and only Grand Slam title in September, defeating Juan Carlos Ferrero in the final of the US Open (6-3, 7-6, 6-3). He would then become world No 1 in November. Roddick would remain No 1 for 13 weeks before Roger Federer climbed on top of the ATP rankings for a record 237 consecutive weeks.

Roddick would reach four Grand Slam finals in the following years, and he would be defeated each time by Federer, three times at Wimbledon (2004, 2005, 2009), and once at the US Open (2006). Roddick would retire at the 2012 US Open, playing his final match against another US Open champion, Juan Martin del Potro.

Younes El Aynaoui would reach his highest ranking a few weeks after the Australian Open as world No 14. At the US Open, he would reach the quarter-finals for the last time in a major event (eliminated by David Nalbandian, 7-6, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5). His career was then derailed by a foot injury. He played through 2008, then sporadically, and contested his last match as a 45-year-old at an ITF event in 2017. 

Their legendary Australian Open clash would remain the only encounter between the two men. The records set by their fifth set would all be broken in 2010, at Wimbledon, when John Isner would defeat Nicolas Mahut, 70-68 in an eight-hour fifth set.

 

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