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Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker contested the epic five-set 1988 season finale, which finished close to midnight.

Greatest Final Ever?: Lendl v Becker, 1988

ATPWorldTour.com relives one of the greatest matches in the history of the year-end championships

Ivan Lendl had held the upperhand, but his rivalry with a young Boris Becker was beginning to turn by 5 December 1988, the occasion of the year-end Nabisco Masters final, at the iconic Madison Square Garden in New York City. The route to the final wasn’t easy for either player, but their 12th meeting (Lendl led 7-4) was to hit new heights. It remains one of the greatest matches in the 47-year history of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.

“I hadn’t played much for a few months, since the US Open, due to shoulder surgery, and played at the Masters against my doctor’s advice,” Lendl told ATPWorldTour.com, 28 years on. “But, having played a few exhibitions, and knowing how well I played in New York, close to home, I wanted to test myself. My finals streak was on the line.”

The Czech learned to love playing indoors at one point amassing a 68-match winning streak in controlled conditions. He also liked playing at The Garden, a 35-minute car ride from his home in Connecticut. At his dominant best between his comeback final win at 1984 Roland Garros and throughout the 1988 season, Lendl was beginning to be challenged by a younger generation, led by the charismatic Becker. The German was on the brink of his greatest season, 1989, when he won the Wimbledon and US Open crowns. “I was No. 1 at the time, having won the US Open, but Ivan Lendl was the best player in the world,” Mats Wilander told ATPWorldTour.com.

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In a gruelling match, which lasted four hours and 42 minutes and finished just before midnight, 21-year-old Becker outlasted Lendl, finalist for a ninth year in a row, 5-7, 7-6(5), 3-6, 6-2, 7-6(5). Peter Alfano wrote in The New York Times, “It was the impetus he needed to challenge for the No. 1 ranking.” Becker won 164 points to Lendl’s 162, 28 games to 27 games.

Lendl squandered two break-point opportunities in the second set and eventually lost a tie-break. "That's where I believed I could have run away with the match,” Lendl told ATPWorldTour.com. Becker broke Lendl three times in the fourth set, then rallied after being broken in the 11th game of the decider. The New York Times wrote, “The essence of each player was captured during an especially dramatic point in the final set when Becker dived headlong to spear a passing shot, hitting an apparent forehand volley winner. But Lendl reached it on the run, whipping a forehand winner down the line.”

Serving with new balls and a new racquet – as Lendl did with new balls, the 29-year-old Czech got to 30/30, then Becker attacked a second serve and forced an uncharacteristic error. Becker then proceeded to strike a forehand winner down the line to force a tie-break. “At the end, I was just playing and running, playing and running,” Becker told ATPWorldTour.com. “I didn’t even know the score.”

Serving at 6/5 in the tie-break, Becker and Lendl played a 37-stroke rally, resulting in a net cord winner off a Becker backhand. “When the ball hit the net, I couldn’t see where the ball had landed. I was waiting for the umpire and the crowd’s reaction. I received it in an instant, the feeling of prestige and pride was vivid,” remembers Becker. “Beating Ivan in the final gave me even more satisfaction, he was incredibly dominant and an inspiration. I was playing some of the very best tennis of my life. Physically, it was one of the hardest matches of my life.”

Said Lendl, who performed strongly as the tournament week had worn on, “Losing on a net cord at 6/5 in the tie-break wasn’t fun. I remember saying to myself, ‘Please, don’t do that!’ But it did. It just happened and I remembered it for a long time. It was kind of bittersweet, as I wasn’t sure if I was going to play. I had to be ready from match one, you can’t ease your way into the tournament. You have to be sharp. So to get to the final was great.”

A 17-year-old Pete Sampras, a future five-time champion at the season finale, watched courtside in awe. “I was in town training with Lendl at his home, so I was sitting by Lendl's group,” the six-time year-end No. 1 told ATPWorldTour.com. “I still remember the net cord on match point.”

With the seventh title of 1988 to Becker’s name and $285,000 richer, a fan, among the 17,792 crammed inside The Garden, jumped onto the court and draped a West German flag over his shoulder. Each player patted one another on the back. “It was a great match,” said Lendl. “There was nothing more I could have done to win it.” Becker went on to become No. 1 on 28 January 1991.