Decade Debate: 10 Biggest Upsets

The term upset is simply defined as “an unexpected defeat,” but in sports it can mean so much more. For the favorite, it’s about the pressure that comes with heightened expectations. For the underdog, it’s about using those expectations as motivation. As part of our ongoing Decade Debate series, here is a list of the ten biggest upsets of the last ten years. Remember, the magnitude of the stage is just as important as the perceived disparity between the two parties involved, so extra points are given to upsets that occurred in the postseason or in a title game.

10. Federer beats Sampras at the 2001 Wimbledon

By 2001, the sports world had begun to question Pete Sampras’ ability as a dominant tennis player. The man was just 29 years old and the owner of 13 Grand Slam titles, but critics predicted an oncoming collapse. Since winning the Australian Open in 1997, Pistol Pete’s Grand Slam championships curiously only came at Wimbledon. In fact, Sampras had captured all but one Wimbledon championship since his first appearance in 1993. Naturally, if he was a sure bet anywhere, it was at the All England Club. While most will remember this time period as the declining stage of Sampras’ career, it also marked the beginning of Roger Federer’s success as a professional. After winning the Wimbledon juniors in 1998, Federer was often viewed as the likely heir to Sampras’ throne. Still, nobody expected the 19 year-old and the Grand Slam record holder to clash at Wimbledon in 2001. Furthermore, if they did happen to meet, Federer wasn’t supposed to win. Making his Centre Court debut, Federer defeated Sampras 7-6 (7), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5, thereby snapping Sampras’ 31-match winning streak at Wimbledon. Sure, it was only a fourth round match, but it symbolized so much more. This is one of the greatest upsets of the decade not simply because Sampras was favored, but because of everything that followed. Sampras would retire in two years and Federer would eventually live up to those wild expectations. And forget about Sampras getting any revenge – the two would never again face each other on the professional level. – Christopher Glotfelty

9. Edmonton upsets Detroit in 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Detroit was a heavy favorite in the quarterfinals, as the top-seeded Red Wings were coming off a terrific 124-point regular season in which they captured the President’s Trophy. Meanwhile, the Oilers squeaked into the playoffs as an #8-seed after a 95-point regular season. The Red Wings won Game 1 in Detroit, but dropped Game 2. The two teams also split the next two games in Edmonton. The Oilers then closed out the series winning Game 5 in Detroit and Game 6 at home, both by one-goal margins. The series featured two double-overtime games (Game 1 & Game 6) and all six games were decided by two goals or less. – John Paulsen

8. Puerto Rico stuns Team USA at the 2004 Olympics

What an embarrassment. Even with some of the NBA’s best players — Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James — the 2004 squad lost by an astounding 19 points to Puerto Rico in the first game of the Olympic tournament in Athens. It was only the third Olympic defeat ever for the U.S. team and the first since professional players were included. And it’s not like Puerto Rico snuck up on the Americans — the two teams had faced each other five times in the previous 13 months and the U.S. won all five contests. The most glaring problem with that team was outside shooting. The Americans shot a dreadful 3 of 24 from three-point range in the game, while Puerto Rico hit 8 of 16 from distance. Team USA also turned the ball over 22 times, which is evidence that the team had very poor chemistry. For the Americans, the entire tournament was a wake-up call; international basketball wasn’t catching up, it had already caught up. Team USA scrapped the old formula and went with a new program that required long-term commitments from all of its players. They also hired Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, one of the most well-liked and player-friendly coaches in the country. The result? Gold in 2008.

7. Yang upsets Tiger at 2009 PGA Championship

This one is a no-brainer. In 2006, Y.E. Yang first held off Woods to win China’s HSBC Champions Tournament. The victory pushed Yang up the rankings and allowed him to play in larger events. In August of this year, the 37-year-old Yang entered the PGA Championship ranked 110th in the world. In pursuit of Tiger Woods, Yang played a remarkable final round, eventually beating the World No. 1 by three strokes to sneak away with the title. For much of the final back nine at the 2009 PGA Championship, Woods and Yang matched each other shot for shot. But it was at 14th hole where the tide shifted in Yang’s favor. Just short of the green, Yang’s 75-foot pitch glided into the hole for an eagle. Tiger would never regain his composure, earning bogeys on the 17th and 18th holes. Putting the icing on the cake, Yang played the 18th hole beautifully for par. On that day, Yang became the first Korean to claim one of golf’s four major championships. As for Tiger, the loss stung harder than others. It ended Woods’ run of winning every major when entering the final round with the lead. Also, 2009 marks the first year Woods has failed to win a major since 2004. All because of that pesky Yang! – Christopher Glotfelty

6. Warriors shock the Mavericks in 2007 NBA Playoffs

Since the NBA moved to a seven-game series in the first round, no #8 seed had ever beaten a #1 seed, but the Golden State Warriors didn’t care. They dismantled the Dallas Mavericks, clinching the series with a 111-86 Game 6 victory. Stephen Jackson played out of his mind – 33 points, 7-8 from 3PT, 13-straight in Golden State’s 18-0 third quarter run – while the soon-to-be MVP Dirk Nowitzki had one of his worst games of the season (2-13, eight points). The Warriors’ frantic, up-tempo style gave the Mavs fits, and the smaller Jackson did a nice job of harassing Nowitzki in the high post. But it was the raucous Oracle Arena crowd that put the Warriors over the top. – John Paulsen

5. #11 George Mason stuns #1 UConn to go to the 2006 Final Four

When the Patriots were given a bid to the 2006 NCAA Tournament, many pundits (including the always irritating Billy Packer) criticized the selection. The #11-seed went on to beat perennial powers Michigan State (#6-seed) and North Carolina (#3-seed) before upending a highly ranked Wichita State squad. But three upsets weren’t enough for the Patriots. In the Elite Eight, with a trip to the Final Four on the line, George Mason faced #1-seed Connecticut, one of the year-long favorites to win the title. Playing in front of a lively, partisan crowd just 20 miles from campus, the Patriots fell behind by 12 points in the first half and nine in the second, but never got rattled. They hit six straight threes in the second half and hit 5 of 6 shots in overtime to eek out a two-point win over the mighty Huskies. That UConn team had four future NBA players in the starting lineup, but it was the Patriots who advanced to the Final Four. It was just the second time in history that a double-digit seed made it that far. Stories like these are what make March Madness so much fun. – John Paulsen

4. Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI

Back before the Patriots became the only team to go 16-0 in the regular season, they were actually underdogs. In 2001, the Rams still had the “Greatest Show on Turf” led by Kurt Warner and the “Mad Scientist” Mike Martz. They were a 14-point favorite over a Patriots team that had made a miracle run to the postseason with a backup quarterback named Tom Brady. But surely Brady and the Patriots’ luck had run out. They weren’t going to beat St. Louis, not with Warner and his bevy of weapons. But after getting shutout in the first quarter, Ty Law intercepted a Warner pass and took it 47 yards to give the Pats a 7-3 lead. Then Brady found David Patten on an 8-yard touchdown pass to give New England a surprising 14-3 lead. The Pats took a 17-3 lead into the fourth quarter, but then Warner rushed for a 2-yard score early in the final period and then found Ricky Proehl on 26-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 17-17. With no timeouts left for their final drive, Brady completed three passes to running back J.R. Redmond, which moved the ball to their own 41-yard line with 33 seconds left. Brady then found Troy Brown on a 23-yard pass and Jermaine Wiggins on a 6-yard pass to the Rams’ 30-yard line. Wiggins’ reception set up kicker Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard field goal as time expired, marking the first time in Super Bowl history that the game was won on the final play. – Anthony Stalter

3. Diamondbacks upset the Yankees in 2001 World Series

The Arizona Diamondbacks reached the World Series in remarkable fashion in just their fourth season of existence. Too bad for them as they would have to take on the three-time defending champion Yankees, who were trying to become the first club to win four straight titles since the ’49-’53 Yankees won five consecutive titles. But surprisingly, Arizona extended the series with a 15-2 win in Game 6 and need just one more win to pull off an improbable upset. In Game 7, the D-Backs found themselves down 2-1 heading into the ninth when Yankees’ manager Joe Torre turned to the usually automatic Mariano Rivera. There was no way Arizona would scratch together a run on Rivera, one of the greatest closers in baseball history, right? Mark Grace led off the ninth with a single, then Rivera committed a throwing error on a bunt attempt by Damian Miller. The error put runners on first and second with no outs. Rivera then retired Jay Bell on a bunt by getting a force out at third, but third baseman Scott Brosius held the ball instead of throwing to first to complete the double play. The next batter, Tony Womack, drove a double down the right field line to tie the game 2-2. Rivera beaned Craig Counsell to load the bases and then on a 0-1 pitch, Luis Gonzalez lofted a single over shortstop Derek Jeter’s head to score the game-winning run. The Yankees’ streak was over. – Anthony Stalter

2. Giants shock the Patriots at Super Bowl XLII

Super Bowl XLII featured a tale of two teams, literally. The Giants finished the regular campaign 10-6 but on a roll than included a near-upset of unbeaten New England in Week 17. The Patriots went on to beat Jacksonville and San Diego to reach the Super Bowl at 18-0, and were primed for the perfect season. The Giants upset Tampa, Dallas, and Green Bay (all on the road) to make this a somewhat improbable match up. As two-touchdown underdogs, the Giants kept hearing about how they had no chance against this Patriots’ team, which not only had an explosive offense, but one of the league’s top defenses led by mastermind head coach and former Giant’s defensive coordinator Bill Belichick. But something funny happened. Call it divine intervention, a team on a serious roll, pure destiny, or a game plan that was spot on — whatever it was, the Giants made it one of the all-time great upsets, not just in the Super Bowl, but in all of sport. The G-men did what nobody had done before that season — held the Pats to just two touchdowns, harassed Tom Brady into making mistakes, and did just enough offensively to stay in the game. The key play, however, was on the game-winning drive in the final minute. Giants’ QB Eli Manning somehow avoided a game-ending sack and threw a bomb down the middle of the field that WR David Tyree caught pinned to his helmet with Rodney Harrison draped all over him. When NFL Films legend Steve Sabol immediately calls it the greatest play in Super Bowl history, who are we to argue? – Mike Farley

1. Appalachian State stuns Michigan, 2007

Upsets happen every year in college football, but until 2007 they had never happened between a Division I FCS (formerly Division I-AA) program and a Division I FBS school. That was the year that FCS powerhouse Appalachian State went into Ann Arbor and shocked then-ranked No. 4 Michigan on its home turf. It was supposed to be a tune up game for the Wolverines – a live practice for Jake Long, Chad Henne and Mike Hart, all of whom decided to return for their senior seasons in order to lead Michigan to a Big Ten title and possibly even a national championship. Instead, quarterback Armarnti Edwards put little known Appalachian State on the map by totaling 289 yards of offense and three touchdowns in the Mountaineers’ 34-32 victory. Perhaps the best part about this upset was its thrilling finish, as App State blocked Michigan’s game-winning field goal attempt and Corey Lynch rank the kick back to the Wolverine 5-yard line as time ran out. The fact that no FCS team has ever beaten a ranked program in the Top 25, Appalachian State’s win over Michigan is arguably the biggest upset in sports history. And given that the feat came at the Big House in front of 100,000-plus Michigan fans against the winnigest program in college football history only adds to the accomplishment. – Anthony Stalter

Photo #1 from fOTOGLIF

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