We’ve already been pretty extensive in breaking down the top 10 games of the decade in the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball, college basketball, and college football. But we haven’t yet addressed all those other wonderful sports out there that don’t quite provide us with enough memories for a whole top 10.
Our Top 5 “Other” Games considered events from sports such as golf, tennis, soccer, hockey, the Olympics, college baseball, volleyball, the WNBA, lacrosse, and even the Little League World Series. To trim it down to five, however, we had to cut a few memorable events, most notably Usain Bolt’s victory in the 100m dash at the Olympics (or his 9.58 a year later), Syracuse’s last-second comeback against Cornell in the 2009 Men’s Lacrosse Championship, Texas’ 25-inning 3-2 win over Boston College in last year’s College World Series, the Flyers’ five-overtime win over the Penguins in 2000, the Hurricanes’ buzzer-beater against the Devils in last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, and two marathon tennis matches involving Andy Roddick–the first in his quarterfinal victory in the 2003 Australian Open over Younes El Aynaoui (4-6, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4, 21-19), and the second in his 2009 Wimbledon final loss to Roger Federer (5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14).
5. 2006 World Cup Final
(N.B. I don’t like soccer. Don’t expect any new insight here.)
The contest between France and Italy was already a classic, tied at one (a high-scoring affair!) into overtime, when what just might be the most infamous sporting moment of the Aughts (globally…certainly not domestically) occurred: Zinedine Zidane’s much-ballyhooed headbutt of Marco Materazzi. Zidane was ejected from the game—giving us one of the decade’s great images—but France survived the final 10 or so minutes despite playing a man down.
In penalty kicks, however, David Trezeguet missed for France and the Azzurri netted all five, giving Italy its first World Cup title since 1982.
4. 2008 U.S. Open
“How does one guy come up with so much of that? It’s just amazing,” NBC broadcaster Dan Hicks—as underrated as they come—said on Saturday night of 2008’s U.S. Open, right after Woods one-hopped a birdie chip out of thick rough on 17 and just before he eagled 18—his second eagle in seven holes—to take the lead. The final round on Sunday, with Lee Westwood and Rocco Mediate sticking right with Woods, lacked the sense of inevitability that had pervaded so many of his major triumphs in the Aughts, largely because Tiger was limping around on what was later revealed to be a torn ACL.
Even without knowing the true extent of the injury, the back-and-forth between Woods, Westwood, and Mediate on Sunday was thrilling, with each player representing a different realm of the golf landscape: Woods was the greatest ever, Westwood a rejuvenated veteran seeking his first major title, Mediate a journeyman unexpectedly adept at handling the stage. With Mediate in the clubhouse with the lead, Woods and Westwood headed to the 72nd hole needing a birdie. Westwood’s long putt just missed, setting the stage for Tiger.
“Expect anything different?” Hicks shouted in as good a golf call as you’ll ever hear.* In a decade full of remarkable Tiger Woods moments, this one may be the best.**
*The pickings are slim.
**I don’t think it is, but it’s definitely top three. We’ll discuss the other two later.
I had long criticized the 18-hole playoff format of the U.S. Open, precisely because of situations like this. Mediate’s chances—slim enough in a sudden death or four-hole playoff—were practically microscopic in an 18-hole playoff: How could he possibly stick with him for a fifth day? And for much of Monday, that was the story: Woods was pulling away through 10, his lead three en route to another major title.
But just when you thought there was no more drama left, Mediate quickly made up the deficit, following Woods’ back-to-back bogeys on 11 and 12 with birdies of his own on 13, 14, and 15 to take a one-shot lead. Woods again birdied the 18th—this time less dramatically—to send the Open to a 91st hole, where Mediate finally cracked with a poor tee shot and eventual bogey.
3. 2008 Summer Olympics: 100m Butterfly Final
Two precursors here: 1. I hadn’t really bought into this Michael Phelps deal. It was swimming after all (which George Carlin affectionately tells us isn’t a sport, but rather a way to keep from drowning), and I’ve never liked the fact that an athlete can win as many as eight gold medals in the same sport at a single Olympics (it’s not like you get multiple medals for being good at basketball). 2. It seemed a shame that the defining moment of Phelps’ record-breaking performance was going to be of him celebrating the remarkable last lap of a relay teammate.
The 100m butterfly kinda changed that. Phelps’ defying comeback (it defied, roughly in order, physics, logic, and Milorad Cavic) dumbfounded everyone watching: How was it possible to make up that much ground in such a small amount of space? How did Cavic not win? He was at the wall, and Phelps was a full body-length from it! What just happened???
It was the aquatic equivalent of Duke’s Miracle Minute, whittled down to a hundredth of a second.
2. 2000 PGA Championship
(Many apologies for the music on that video. I don’t know what “junkprunk” was thinking.)
If I wanted to betray all my claims to objectivity here, this would be No. 1. Most people like Woods’ 91-hole showdown with Rocco Mediate more, but in terms of excitement, historical magnitude, and absolutely jaw-dropping golf, nothing compares to the 2000 PGA Championship.
Woods’ reputation has taken a little hit recently, and I just mean on the golf course. As good as Tiger Woods is now, it’s almost impossible to overstate how much better he was in the summer of 2000. Entering the PGA Championship, Woods had won three of the last four majors. He had won the U.S. Open in June by 15 shots, which is the biggest blowout victory in any sport this decade.* A month later, Woods won the British Open by eight. His scores in both tournaments were records, meaning he held the scoring record in every major tournament except the PGA. Tiger Woods was so good in 2000 that the Tiger Woods of any other year this decade wouldn’t have a chance against him. 2000’s Tiger Woods would have beaten Mediate by 10, won two more majors on that torn ACL, and avoided that fire hydrant.**
*Winning a golf tournament by 15 shots is like winning a basketball game by 100 or a soccer game by 50.
**I couldn’t resist!
Bob May, on the other hand? To compare May even to Mediate is unfair: I had heard of Mediate; Mediate had won tournaments. Even fairly close followers of golf had no idea who Bob May was, and that was even after he fired back-to-back 66s to earn a spot in the final pairing with Woods on Sunday, one shot behind.
So to say that Tiger Woods was probably going to win the 2000 PGA Championship on that Sunday morning is akin to saying Michael Jordan could probably take me off the dribble.
An early two-shot swing on the second hole, however, gave May the lead, and the former junior star—indeed, I learned during the course of that day that Woods looked up to May as a youngster—never backed down. The final round quickly boiled down to a two-man duel where each was shooting darts at the pin.
May briefly held a two-shot lead but was caught by Woods by the eighth hole. They each birdied 10, May birdied 11 for the lead, and they each birdied 12. They matched birdies again at 14, May now at -17 and Woods at -16. The second major swing of the day happened on 15, when Woods buried a 12-footer for par and May pulled a 4-footer for birdie. What could have been a three-stroke lead remained at one. Woods tied it at 17 with another birdie—his sixth in 11 holes.
May had had the honors all day on the tee, so it was only fitting that on the 72nd green, he had to knock in a jelly-legger of a 15-footer for birdie—a downhill, double-breaker—to put the pressure back on Woods, who was six feet from the hole for his own birdie. May’s putt wobbled down toward the hole, entering through the side door to prolong the drama again. And then Woods answered, as he had done all day. Woods and May had each shot 31 on the back nine in breaking the scoring record in this major championship.
On the first of three playoff holes, Woods gave us what in my mind is his signature moment (on the golf course): a 20-footer for birdie that he followed to the hole, pointing emphatically as it fell into the cup, almost confirming our beliefs that he did in fact possess the ability to control of the ball well after he had hit it.*
On the final playoff hole, with Woods nestled tight to the cup for par, May’s long birdie putt—up and over a ridge from the wrong level of the green—looked perfect up until its final turn left.
It was the greatest golf tournament I will ever see.
1. 2008 Wimbledon Final
I will readily admit that I like golf more than tennis; this is because I have played golf since I was a kid and have played tennis a grand total of four times. But what makes tennis such a tantalizing sport is the simple mathematics of one-on-one. It is the most individual sport.
And while tournaments pitting the best against an unknown underdog can be astounding, it is still hard to equal a match between the two best at the top of their games in the sport’s most awesome venue. By the summer of 2008, the rivalry between Roger and Rafa had fully blossomed: Nadal was proving tougher and tougher outside of his domain at Roland Garros, testing Federer with a five-setter in the ’07 Wimbledon Final. It was clear that the two embodied different tennis sensibilities, with Federer’s timeless game foiled by Nadal’s new-age spin techniques and snap forearms. It was clearer still that nobody else in the game even approached these two at their best. If Federer or Nadal were on their game, it was going to be a quick straight-setter. Except when it happened on the same court.
That’s why it is difficult to conceive of a better tennis match than the one played by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on July 6, 2008 at the All England Club. It is not only one of the tightest matches ever, but maybe the highest-quality match the sport has ever seen. It gave us the kind of rallies the men’s game hasn’t seen in decades, each player hitting would-be winner after would-be winner, only to have to chase another exquisitely placed return.
Nadal raced to a hard-fought two-set lead, proving beyond all doubt that he could play with Federer on grass. Federer came back in the third and fourth sets, overcoming a 2-5 deficit in the fourth and winning consecutive thrilling tiebreakers that recalled the epic match between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe in 1980—long considered the sport’s zenith.
There are few things more exciting in sports than fifth-set tennis, and that’s before you throw in a second rain delay, diminishing light, and a level of play that somehow through it all seemed to exceed the already astronomical standard set in the previous four sets. Nadal finally broke Federer at 7-7 and closed the deal, not without a little drama, on a Federer unforced error into the net—a mistake so common to the sport but not hitherto to this match.
It was the greatest tennis match I will ever see. It was the greatest anyone ever will.