Alex Corretja of Spain had a superior record against the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic but he was unlucky to have never won a Grand Slam title.
Spain has produced plenty of Tennis legends in the modern era. Sergi Bruguera’s exploits in the French Open in 1993 and 1994 made him a star in Spain. There was Alberto Berasategui who excelled on clay courts and reached the final of the French Open. In the past, there were great players like Manuel Orantes and Manuel Santana who had tried to put Spain on the world map. As the 21st century arrived, the brilliance of Rafael Nadal ensured that Spain had a great legacy in the sport.
Sandwiched between the achievements of the two eras, there was one Spanish player who did not get his due in the sport. But, his achievements are legendary. A trivia question! Which player has a positive head-to-head ratio against both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer? Clue: He also has a good record against Boris Becker. You would have to scratch your head to find the answer.
The answer to the above quiz is Alex Corretja. He had a run which was confounding. The Spaniard reached the final of the French Open twice in 1998 and 2001. But, on other surfaces, he simply struggled. His best result outside of clay was the quarterfinal of the US Open in 1996. But, Corretja has certain records that make him an underrated, yet one of the best players in the business.
As a junior, Corretja was one of the most promising players on the circuit. Having graduated into the big, bad world of professional Tennis, Corretja had limited success. His first major breakthrough was the US Open in 1996 where he reached the quarterfinal. His opponent in that match was World No.1, Pete Sampras.
In a brilliant exhibition of Tennis, Corretja pushed Sampras to the absolute limit. The Spaniard pushed the number-one ranked player into the fifth set and was at match point. Corretja was just moments away from glory when Sampras, suffering from exhaustion, threw up on the court. Corretja lost focus and he served a double fault to lose the match. The four hours and nine-minute duel were one of the best at that time in the US Open.
But, if there was one year that truly summed up Corretja’s brilliance, it was 1998. He reached the final of the French Open where he lost to Carlos Moya in a tough match. But, during the year-ending ATP Championships, Corretja achieved glory. In the group stages, he defeated Andre Agassi. In the semi-final, he saved three match points against Sampras. Corretja avenged his US Open defeat by beating Sampras. But, in the final, Corretja looked to be down and out against Carlos Moya. But, in a spectacular display, he rallied and won the match in grand style to win the ATP Championship. Corretja thus became the first player in the history of Tennis to win the ATP Championship without winning a Grand Slam.
But, if 1998 was a watershed year for Corretja, then his record against two future greats of the game would make anyone envious. Corretja squared off against Nadal two times and won on both occasions. The fact that Corretja achieved this on clay and hard courts make him a great player.
In the first match against Nadal at Barcelona in 2003, Corretja bounced back from a set down to win. After losing the first set 3-6, Corretja won the next two games 6-2, 6-1. In the same year, at Madrid, Corretja once again defeated Nadal in three tough sets. After winning the first set 6-2, Corretja lost the second set 3-6 but won the last set 6-4 to complete yet another win over Nadal.
His record against Federer is awesome, with the Spaniard having a 3-2 record against the Swiss Maestro. In the early days of Federer, he would struggle against established players. In their first meeting in Roland Garros, Corretja defeated Federer in three straight sets in the fourth round. Corretja once again beat Federer on clay, this time in Gstaad in Switzerland. But, the match was closer, with Corretja winning 6-4,4-6,6-4.
Federer broke the losing streak by winning in Rotterdam in straight sets. Corretja continued his domination of Federer on clay as he dumped Federer out at Roland Garros in 2001 in the quarterfinals in straight sets. Federer won their final encounter in Madrid in straight sets. In this case, Federer dominated on hard courts while Corretja was superb on clay.
In 2000, Corretja played a vital hand in Spain getting greater glory. During the Davis Cup tournament, Spain finally broke their jinx. They had a great run as they reached the final where they would square off against Australia. After losing the first game, Juan Carlos Ferrero benefited from Pat Rafter’s injury as he retired from the match. Corretja won the doubles and when Ferrero won against Hewitt, Spain won the title for the first time.
There would be more glory two years later in the Davis Cup for Corretja. He defeated Sampras on grass in the quarterfinals. But, Spain lost the tie to the USA 1-3 but Corretja’s win was the high point. After a string of poor performances, Corretja retired in 2005 and he went on to coach Andy Murray from 2008 to 2011. Under Corretja’s coaching, Murray reached the final of the Australian Open in 2010 and 2011.
It is a shame that Corretja is not mentioned in the same breadth of Spanish greats as Nadal or Bruguera. The fact that he did not win any Grand Slams goes against him. But, when it came to one-on-one play, there was none better than Corretja.