By Michael Burgess
Sometimes in sport an unanticipated match up can deliver the best contest.
That was what played out on Friday in the ASB Classic semi final between Roberto Bautista Agut and Robin Haase, who delivered an absolute classic.
While all the focus was on Juan Martin del Potro and David Ferrer in the later match on Friday, the curtain raiser was unquestionably the best game of the tournament.
Perhaps only the John Isner-Hyeon Chung second round encounter got close in terms of drama and quality, but this match was almost indescribable in its tension.
It stretched on for almost three hours, before Bautista Agut eventually prevailed 6-7 (7) 7-6(3) 7-5(5), converting his third match point with a inch perfect lob under pressure.
"I knew he was going to fight until the end," said Bautista Agut. "I had one serve to win the match. He played an unbelievable volley and I only had the chance to play a lob. When it bounced on the line it was unbelievable."
The usually metronomic Bautista was overcome with emotion at that point, gesturing wildly to his coach's box then dropping to his knees, as the entire crowd rose to their feet.
"In some moments I was better than him from the baseline but he was making the match equal with the serve," said Bautista Agut. "At the end it was very close and everybody knew we gave everything on the court."
"It was a very difficult match. I passed some very bad moments on the court and at [the end] I screamed because I was very stressed."
The result continued Bautista Agut's remarkable streak in Auckland, where he hasn't lost a match since 2015.
The Spaniard was the deserved winner – with his surgical style of tennis – and forced 12 break point opportunities on the Haase serve.
But the Dutchman saved the majority of them and pushed the world No 21 to the limit, with both players earning a standing ovation.
Surprisingly, given their long stints on tour, the pair had only met once before, with Haase prevailing in Casablanca in 2013.
Haase, in his first Auckland semi final, had a nervous start. The Dutchman was broken in his first service game, and seemed to struggle in the hot conditions.
Bautista Agut sprinted to a 3-0 lead, before Haase began to find his range. Haase hadn't appeared in an ATP final since 2016, and his last title at this level was claimed in 2012.
He lifted his game midway through the first set, and the pair produced some of the best rallies of the tournament.
The tie break was an epic. Haase carved out a 6-3 lead, then proceeded to squander three set points, including a double fault. But just as Bautista Agut was gaining some momentum, Haase converted his third set point.
The Spaniard had to respond, and he did. Bautista Agut lifted his level, putting Haase under almost constant pressure on his serve, with six break opportunities.
But the 30 year-old saved all but one of them, and a tiebreak was inevitable. Bautista Agut was ice cool in the breaker, taking it 7-3 as a tired Haase tried some low percentage drop shots.
When Bautista Agut accelerated to a 4-1 in the third set the match looked over.
But Haase produced one of the shots of the tournament – a wickedly angled forehand at full stretch that defied all the law of physics – to fire himself up. He broke back soon afterwards, ahead of a third successive tiebreak.
It was a fitting finale. Bautista Agut forged a 6-3 lead, then Haase saved two match points, one with a searing backhand winner that cut the line.
But Bautista Agut converted his third match point, to cue wild celebrations.