October 5, 2006: The day Becker and Novak clocked up record-breaking finish
On this day in tennis history, two players headed on to court in Tokyo – and stayed out there until the early hours of the morning.
On this day, October 5, 2006, in the 16th round of the Tokyo Open, Benjamin Becker beat Jiri Novak (6-3, 3-6, 7-6) in the latest recorded finish in ATP history at the time (3:24 AM). Becker, who was playing his first year on the tour, gained even more fame – he had already been in the spotlight a few weeks before when he defeated Andre Agassi in his last match on the tour.
Benjamin Becker was born in 1981. The German attended college for four years at Baylor University, in Texas. Leader of the local team, the Baylor Bears, he won the NCAA singles title in 2004, a title claimed before by great players such as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. After his graduation, he turned pro in the second half of 2005, finishing the season as world No 477. In 2006, after he obtained great results on the Challenger tour, he played his first ATP match in Halle (defeated by Tomas Berdych, 6-4, 6-3) and made his way out of the qualifications to make his Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon (beaten in the second round by Fernando Verdasco, 6-4, 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 9-7). Arriving at the US Open as world No 112, he became famous to the general public after he beat Agassi in the third round ((7-5, 6-7, 6-4, 7-5), before losing to Andy Roddick in the fourth round, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.
Jiri Novak, from Czech Republic, was born in 1975. He turned pro in 1993, and two years later, he broke into the top 100. He claimed the first of seven titles in 1996, in Auckland, where he defeated Brett Steven in the final (6-4, 6-4). In the 1990s, he remained a solid top 60 player, clinching a second title in 1998 in Mexico (beating Xavier Malisse, 6-3, 6-3), and reaching the fourth round at the 1999 US Open (lost to Slava Dosedel, 6-3, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5). In 2001, he broke into the top 20 after claiming two titles in one year, and 2002 was his peak year: he reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open (defeated by Thomas Johansson, 7-6, 0-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4), before finishing runner-up in Vienna (lost to Roger Federer, 6-4, 6-1, 3-6, 6-4), and reaching a final he couldn’t play because of a hamstring injury at the Madrid Masters 1000. These results propelled him to fourth in the world.
He managed to stay in the top 10 until the end of 2003, but by the end of 2004, he was back to the 20th ATP rank. In 2006, he missed the first five months of the season, and as a consequence, despite reaching the fourth round at the US Open (defeated by Rafael Nadal, 6-1, 6-3, 7-6), he was only ranked No 130 in October.
The Japan Open was established in 1972. Originally played on hard courts, it was played on clay for several years in the early 1980s, before coming back to its first surface. Since 1987, it was held at the Ariake Coliseum, which could host 10,000 spectators. Amongst former champions were tennis legends like Ivan Lendl (1980), Stefan Edberg (1987, 1989, 1990, 1991), Jim Courier (1992, 1995) and Pete Sampras (1993, 1994, 1996).
Before world No 72 Benjamin Becker faced the former world No 4 Jiri Novak in the 16h round of the Tokyo Open, it didn’t seem like there could be any reason for this match to be remembered in tennis history.
After the tournament suffered several rain interruptions throughout the day, Becker and Novak were the last to play on October 5, 2006 – and it transpired to be a real thriller. After winning the opener, 6-3, the German lost the second set on the same score, and then he found himself facing a match point on his serve at 5-6 in the decider. Becker managed to survive and eventually prevailed, 7-4 in the tie-break. When the players shook hands, it was 3:24 AM in Tokyo – the latest finish in ATP history.
The previous record in singles was held by Mats Wilander and Mikael Pernfors, who had finished their 1993 US Open second round at 2:26, with the Swede winning 7-6, 3-6, 1-6, 7-6, 6-4. In doubles, at the 1990 Philadelphia Open, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier had played until 3:21 to lose 6-4, 6-2 to Paul Chamberlin and Tim Wilkinson.
Benjamin Becker would go on to the semi-finals in Tokyo, defeated by world No 1 Roger Federer, 6-3, 6-4.
That record would only last a few months, topped twice in a short period of time. At the 2007 Australian Open in the first round, Andreas Seppi would beat Bobby Reynolds at 3:34 (6-1, 6-7, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3), and in 2008, still in Melbourne, Lleyton Hewitt would seal his third-round win against Marcos Baghdatis at 4:24 (4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-7, 6-3).