Top Tennis Rivalries
Rivalries define sports. Some top tennis rivalries always puts that extra ounce of emotion and competitiveness in a game which makes it unforgettable and timeless.You earnestly wait for that game in the entire season which sends the temperatures soaring in every part of the world. Football cannot be the same without Real-Barcelona/United-Liverpool/Brazil-Argentina, cricket without The Ashes/India-Pakistan and baseball without Red Sox-Yankees. And tennis has its fair share of great rivalries as well.
With the US Open starting this Monday, here’s a look at some of the greatest and top tennis rivalries, spanned across generations, which has enthralled viewers and tennis-lovers time and again.
Yes, there are two rivalries on this spot, both of which deserve equal mention.
Henin and Clijsters faced off 25 times in a twelve-year period. They crossed paths 8 times in Grand Slam tournaments with Henin prevailing 5-3, and winning all the final match ups. Their final competitive meeting was at Wimbledon in 2010, where Clijsters won in three sets settling the rivalry 13-12 in her favour. Henin has already retired, after sustaining an elbow injury in 2011, and Clijsters is set to retire after this year’s US Open. They played a final exhibition match in Antwerp in December, 2010, which Kim won in a tie-breaker. At the height of their dominance, the Belgians were a force to reckon with.
The Williams sisters from the States are two of the greatest tennis players of the Open era. They first played professionally in 1998 and have faced each other 22 more times since then, with Serena prevailing over her elder sibling 13-10. Serena also leads the Grand Slam head-to-head record 7-5, with 4 of those coming in four consecutive Grand Slam finals in 2002-03. They have won an equal number of career tennis titles (43, to be precise) and the fact that they have won 13 Grand Slam doubles titles playing together makes their rivalry even more interesting. It will not be wrong to say that we haven’t seen the end of it yet.
9. Boris Becker v/s Stefan Edberg
The German and the Swedish faced off 35 times in a span of twelve years, with Becker coming out on top 25 times. But that piece of statistics doesn’t actually justify the kind of intense rivalry which these two enjoyed. The fierce on-court battle saw Edberg prevailing over Becker 3 times out of their 4 meetings in Grand Slams. The most memorable aspect of their rivalry came in 1988-1990, when they clashed at three successive Wimbledon finals. Becker could emerge victorious only in ’89, his title sandwiched between Edberg’s triumphs (though Becker won all his three meetings against his nemesis in the Davis Cup). After the 2009 Wimbledon final, Roger Federer said that the Edberg-Becker rivalry in the Wimbledon finals inspired him to choose tennis over football.
8.Steffi Graf v/s Monica Seles
This 90′s rivalry got as intense as it could have. They shared all the Grand Slams between them from 1991-1993. They met 6 times in Grand Slam finals and shared the spoils, with 3 apiece. The head-to-head record stands at 10-5 in Graf’s favour, which could have been different had it not been for a horrendous stabbing incident. At the peak of her form in 1993, Seles was literally stabbed in the back by a deranged German man, who claimed to be a fan of Graf, at a match in Hamburg. Seles took two years to recuperate fully, but was only a pale shadow of herself when she made her comeback to competitive tennis. The stabbing destroyed Monica’s career and ended what could have been one of the most extraordinary rivalries in tennis.
7.Martina Navratilova v/s Steffi Graf
These two stalwarts met 18 times in competitive tennis, beating each other an equal number of times. But Graf has a better record, 4-2, in Grand Slam finals. The 1991 semi-final match between them was one of the most memorable matches witnessed in tennis. Navratilova did win that match after overcoming two tie-breakers in spite of being 34 at that time. They appeared in three consecutive Wimbledon finals from ’87-’89, with Navratilova winning the first one, and Graf pocketing the other two. Both players were terrific athletes, and they matched each other shot for shot.
6. John McEnroe v/s Jimmy Connors
“With Connors, while our style of play was different, our personalities were similar. It was like two bulls in a ring going right at each other and trying to do anything to took to win a match. It wasn’t like that when I played Bjorn when it was totally yin and yang…this was two alpha-males just going totally crazy” is how McEnroe describes his rivalry with Connors. The scoreline was never enough to describe the game. There was always something to watch out for when these two players competed against each other.
As far as the stats are concerned, they met 34 times, with McEnroe winning 20 of those. They met in two Wimbledon finals, winning one apiece. The US Open semifinals in ’80 and ’84 were some of the most memorable matches where they played each other. Whenever they were on the court, it looked more like a battlefield with both going out with all guns blazing.
5. Bjorn Borg v/s John Mcenroe
Statistically speaking, this pair did not play too many matches and their rivalry lasted over a span of barely four years. But , as they say, quality matters more than quantity. This cross-continental rivalry produced some brilliant and breathtaking display of tennis. The 1980 Wimbledon final is still fresh in the memory of those who witnessed it. “Bjorn was my greatest rival. That Wimbledon tiebreak final in 1980 – it’s the one everyone remembers, still, to this day. After the tiebreak (in the fourth set) I thought I had him. It was unbelievable to see a guy who had already won it four times, who I thought was going to give in and he did not”, said McEnroe.
These two had completely contrasting playing styles and on-court mannerisms. While Borg was known for his cool temperament, with a complete lack of on-court emotions, McEnroe was more of a brash and a hot-head, whose uncontrollable energy on the court used to put him in a tough spot with the umpires, and won him fans too. No wonder they were called “Fire and Ice”.
The Swede and the American faced off 14 times with both winning 7 each. McEnroe had the better of Borg in Grand Slams where he defeated him 3 times out of 4. The highlight was the ’80 Wimbledon final. McEnroe won the gruelling fourth set tie-breaker 18-16, but lost the match in the next set. A year later, he came back and defeated Borg this time to end the Swede’s consecutive streak of five Wimbledon titles. Borg retired shortly thereafter. McEnroe would later say that he did not enjoy tennis as much, after Borg’s retirement.
4.Pete Sampras v/s Andre Agassi
This American rivalry spanned across 13 years from ’89-’02. It started off with Agassi being the “star” player and Sampras as the underdog. But, it was Sampras who ultimately ruled over men’s tennis in the ’90s. The transformation occurred after the eventful 1995 US Open final, where Agassi lost to Sampras. Agassi did admit that the loss had shattered him psychologically, and it took him five years to recover, when he turned out to be the better man on the court in the 2000 Australian Open semi-final. Later, in the 2001 US Open quarter final, they played out a match which did not see any of the players’ serve broken. Sampras won with a 6-7(7),7-6(2),7-6(2),7-6(5) scoreline.
Their head-to-head record stands at 20-14 in Sampras’ favour. They met five times in Grand Slam finals, with Agassi managing to win only one. Fans flocked to the arenas to see these two behemoths in action. They had completely contrasting styles of play, and they always produced high-intensity tennis. The main weapon of Sampras was his serve, which Agassi countered with his incredible returns. He was not called the game’s best returner of serve for nothing.
Both players had several milestones to boast of. While Agassi was the only man in his time to complete a Career Golden Slam (Rafael Nadal is the second one), Sampras held the record for the most Grand Slam titles, 14, and for the highest number of weeks (286) spent as the world’s top-ranked player (Roger Federer has surpassed both of these records now). Sampras retired in 2002 after winning the US Open. Agassi followed suit in 2006, after completing 20 years in the circuit.
3. Chris Evert v/s Martina Navratilova
This is considered to be arguably the greatest rivalry in women’s professional tennis. They played each other for a span of 15 years between ’73 and ’88, with Navratilova winning 43 matches to Evert’s 37. Navratilova also had the edge in Grand Slam finals, beating Evert 10 times out of their 14 meetings. Both finished with 18 Grand Slams each.
Evert was known for her consistency, placing the ball wherever she wanted. Navratilova, well, holds the record for the highest number of Grand Slams (combining singles and doubles titles),which stands at 59. Evert hardly used to show any emotions on the court, whereas Navratilova often screamed and cursed at herself.
Despite their rivalry and competitiveness, the two of them were, and have remained, very good friends. In a documentary, Evert has said that Navratilova at her best, was better than Evert at her best. It shows the the respect and the friendship between the two greats. They have truly defined friendship between rivals.
2.Rod Laver v/s Ken Rosewall
This is usually known as the first great rivalry in tennis. They traveled together in those days, with Laver playing in the amateur circuit and Rosewall in the professional. They met for the first time in 1963, when Rosewall was already 28 years old. Nobody ever kept count of the number of times that these two faced each other. “We don’t know how many times we played,” says Laver, the Rockhampton Rocket. “Nobody was counting.”
But somebody did count,and that was Australian tennis historian Robert Geist. The report read that they played a staggering 141 times, with Laver leading 75-66. The stats may differ here and there, but the fact remains that they displayed an outstanding level of tennis. Like Evert and Navratilova, they developed a healthy friendship off the court, based on mutual respect for each other’s competitiveness.
1.Roger Federer v/s Rafael Nadal
The bullfighter versus the bull. This present day rivalry made it to the numero uno position because of the sheer dominance that these two have had over the world of tennis in the past eight years, winning 27 Grand Slams between them out of a possible 35. They are the only pair of players to have finished as the top-two ranked players for six consecutive years from 2005-2010. They have met in 19 tournament finals, such is their current dominance over tennis. Their 2008 Wimbledon final, the longest in Wimbledon history at 4 hours and 48 minutes which Nadal won ultimately, is considered by many tennis analysts to be the greatest tennis match ever played.
Nadal has been rightly called the “King of Clay” many times thanks to his seven triumphs at Roland Garros, while Federer has been more successful at the mecca of tennis, Wimbledon, winning his seventh crown last month. The two played an exhibition match in 2007, called the “Battle of Surfaces”, which was on a half-grass, half-clay court.
They have met 28 times till date with Nadal leading 8-2 in Grand Slam matches and 18-10 overall. Famous tennis sportswriter Peter Bodo said that the statistics are skewed in favour of the Majorcan, as half of their meetings have come on Nadal’s preferred surface – clay, and that Nadal has failed to meet Federer more frequently in tournament finals on other surfaces. Whether this is just an aberration for Federer, or simply the dominance of Nadal over the Swiss is a debate for another day. What we do know, is that tennis is blessed to have two of its greatest players competing at the same time.