The 25 Best Tennis Rivalries in the Open Era

Alan Rubenstein@@uarubyAnalyst IIISeptember 24, 2012

The 25 Best Tennis Rivalries in the Open Era

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    This has often been referred to as the Golden Age of tennis. On the men's side, we have seldom seen as many great players as we do now. Never has there been a triumvirate like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. We have never seen three players dominate the sport for as long as those three have combined.

    On the women's side, the Williams sisters' rivalry is the most compelling rivalry. They have been the face of women's tennis, particularly American women's tennis, for the past decade and a half. 

    Federer, Venus and Serena are near the end of their careers, but Rafa and Nole should wow us with their rivalry for at least the next five years if Nadal can stay healthy.  

25) Steffi Graf-Gabriella Sabatini

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    This was the biggest rivalry on the women’s tour during the late 1980s. Graf won 29 of their 40 meetings and was 11-1 against Sabatini in Grand Slams. Five of Sabatini’s losses to Graf in a Slam went three sets while five of the losses occurred in the semifinals.

    Graf’s 1988 Golden Slam included a semifinal win over Sabatini at the French Open and wins in the final of the Olympics and US Open. The Argentine finally broke through with a straight set win in the 1990 US Open.

    Their most famous match came in the 1991 WImbledon final. Sabatini was two points away from the match, but eventually fell 8-6 in the third. 

24) Jim Courier-Pete Sampras

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    This was a one-sided rivalry between two of the greatest American players ever. Sampras held a 16-4 career record against Courier. He was 6-2 in Grand Slams and won their only meeting in a Grand Slam final. Sampras earned a four-set victory in the Wimbledon Final in 1993. 

    Courier’s four wins did come on some big stages. He knocked defending champion Sampras out of the US Open in the quarterfinals in 1991, the semifinals at the ATP World Tour Championship in 1992 and the French Open in 1994. 

    Their most memorable meeting came in the quarterfinals at the 1996 French Open. Sampras came back from two sets down to defeat two-time champion Courier to advance to his only semifinal on the red clay. 

23) Roger Federer-Andy Roddick

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    The Federer-Roddick Rivalry is an intense one, and the importance of their meetings is more than a true competitive rivalry. With the recent announcement of Roddick’s retirement, the rivalry ended with Federer winning 21 of 24 matches

    Roddick can still retire with slight bragging rights. He won their last meeting in three sets in the second round of the Miami Masters. 

    They met eight times in a Grand Slam, including five Grand Slam finals. Federer won all eight times. Their 2009 Wimbledon final is considered one of the greatest in tennis history.

    Roddick squandered four set points in the second-set tiebreaker up 6-2. He would have taken a two-set lead after winning the first set. Federer rebounded by winning the second and third sets to go up 2-1. It took a 16-14 fifth set for Federer to prevail. The was the last of many epic matches between the two. 

22) Kim Clijsters-Justine Henin

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    Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters were from different areas of Belgium and had much different demeanors. Henin was an intense competitor and great shot-maker, Clijsters was the bubbly, athletic girl next door.

    They transformed Belgian tennis. Their first Grand Slam meeting was a dramatic three-set victory for Clijsters in the 2012 French Open semifinals. She went on to lose another dramatic three-set match to Jennifer Capriati, 12-10 in the third.

    Clijsters held a 13-12 edge in career meetings, but Henin won more of the important matches. She held a 5-3 edge in Grand Slams, including 3-0 in Grand Slam finals. Their final meeting was a three-set victory for Clijsters in the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2010. 

21) Tracy Austin-Martina Navratilova

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    Although they only met four times in a Grand Slam, Austin and Navratilova were two of the more dominant players on the WTA Tour until Austin had to retire in 1982 because of injuries. 

    They met 33 times overall, with Navratilova winning 20. Twenty of their 33 meetings were in the finals of a tournament. Austin won their only Grand Slam finals meeting, winning the US Open in three sets in 1981. 

20) Steffi Graf-Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario

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    Two of the winningest players of the 1990s. Graf led the decade with 14 Grand Slam titles while Sanchez-Vicario’s three titles ranked fourth.

    They met 36 times with Graf winning 28. Their 36 meetings are the fifth most in the Open Era. Graf also won nine of their 13 Grand Slam meetings. The last 16 times they met came in the finals of a tournament. They met 25 times overall in finals, with Graf winning 19 of those. Six of those finals were in Grand Slams with Graf winning all six. 

    Sanchez-Vicario’s eight wins against Graf are exceeded only by Gabriela Sabatini and Martina Navratilova. Their most memorable match was Sanchez-Vicario’s three-set upset in the 1989 French Open Final.

19) Andre Agassi-Jim Courier

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    The 1990s were the golden era of American men’s tennis. Agassi, Sampras, Courier, Michael Chang and Todd Martin were all consistent contenders for Grand Slam titles. Courier was the first of that era to win multiple Grand Slam titles. He won four out of eight Grand Slams between the 1990 French Open and 1993 Australian Open, winning both twice. 

    After losing four of the first five meetings, Courier went on a six-match winning streak before losing the final match in 1996. Courier held a 4-2 record against Agassi in Grand Slam meetings. Courier won their only meeting in a Grand Slam final at the 1991 French Open. 

    They played two epic matches. Courier rallied from two sets down to win the ‘91 French Open and Agassi came back from two sets down to eliminate Courier in the Quarterfinals in Australia in 1996. 

18) Justine Henin-Serena Williams

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    This duo made up one of the more contentious rivalries on the WTA tour during the 2000s. Their first meeting was a straight-set victory for Serena at the 2001 US Open in the fourth round.

    They would meet seven times in 10 years in Grand Slams. Henin won four of those. Their last meeting was the only time they would face off in the finals of a Slam. Serena won in three sets to finish with an 8-6 advantage in their head-to-head meetings. All but their first meeting in Grand Slams came in the quarterfinals or later. 

17) Lindsay Davenport-Serena Williams

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    They only met 14 times, but their matches were almost always late in tournaments. Twelve of their 14 meetings occurred in the quarterfinals or later. The two exceptions were in the second round at Indian Wells in 1999 and the first round of the tour championships in 2004. 

    Their matches coined the phrase “Big Babe Tennis” by Mary Carillo. Williams held a 10-4 advantage, including a 4-1 record in Grand Slams. She won their only Grand Slam final meeting in three sets at the 2005 Australian Open. That was their last meeting.

16) Steffi Graf-Monica Seles

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    Graf and Seles were on a collision course to become possibly the greatest rivalry in the history of tennis. They met 15 times, with Graf holding a 10-5 advantage. She won six of their ten Grand Slam matches, but they split six Grand Slam finals. 

    They dominated women’s tennis in the early 1990s. When Seles defeated Graf in the finals at the French Open in 1990, it ended Graf’s run of eight of nine Grand Slam titles. In 1989, Graf ousted Seles from the French Open and Wimbledon. 

    In 1991 and 1992, Seles won titles at the Australian, French and U.S. Open. Only Graf’s titles at Wimbledon prevented Seles from winning back-to-back Grand Slams. 

    If not for being stabbed by a crazed self-professed fan of Graf’s, then the rivalry would have taken off and provided many more memorable matches. 

15) Venus Williams-Lindsay Davenport

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    They met 27 times with Davenport holding a 14-13 advantage and Williams having a 4-3 edge in Grand Slams. Twelve of their meetings were in the finals of a tournament, with Venus holding a 7-5 edge.

    Only one of their meetings occurred earlier than the quarterfinals of a tournament. Venus won all three of their meetings in a Grand Slam final. 

    Their most memorable match came in the 2005 Wimbledon final. The 2:45 match was the longest final in women’s history. Davenport won the first set 6-4 and then served for the second at 6-5. Venus broke her at love and then won the tiebreaker to force a third set. 

    Davenport went up a break at 4-2 in the third, but Venus broke back to eventually even the set. Davenport was unable to convert a match point at 5-4 in the third, and Williams went on the raise the Venus of Rosewater trophy, winning 9-7 in the third set. 

14) Jimmy Connors-Ivan Lendl

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    Their 36 meetings are second only to Lendl’s 37 meetings with John McEnroe among men.

    They met seven times in a Grand Slam and twice in a Grand Slam final. Lendl held a 22-13 advantage (walkovers are not included) and 4-3 slam advantage. Connors won both of their Grand Slam finals meetings. Connors won their first eight overall meetings and Lendl, the last 17. 

13) Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe

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    Borg-McEnroe was the epitome of a rivalry. They came from different backgrounds and had entirely different demeanors on the court. McEnroe was the fiery competitor and Borg the cool and composed professional. 

    All of their meetings occurred between 1978-81. They split their 14 career meetings. Four of their meetings came in the Wimbledon and US Open finals in 1980 and 1981. After McEnroe won three of the first five meetings, Borg captured five of the next six. 

    Their most memorable match came in 1980 final at Wimbledon. Borg won in five sets. McEnroe saved seven match points in the fourth set. Five of those came in tiebreakers. McEnroe eventually prevailed in the tiebreaker 18-16, before falling 8-6 in the fifth. 

    He came back to capture his second of three straight US Open titles by defeating Borg in the finals. He ended Borg’s five-year reign at SW19 by capturing his first Wimbledon title the next year. Borg retired after losing to McEnroe yet again in the final at the US Open in the September 1981. 

    Borg’s 11 Grand Slams are the third-most in the Open Era, and were the most until Pete Sampras surpassed him at Wimbledon in 1999. He won five consecutive Wimbledon titles between 1976-80. Many still regard him as the greatest player ever. 

    McEnroe won seven Grand Slam titles and his run to the semifinals of the 1977 French Open as amateur qualifier remains a record. Their rivalry inspired an HBO Documentary titled Fire and Ice.

12) Boris Becker-Stefan Edberg

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    Becker and Edberg’s 35 meetings are the third most among men during the Open Era. Becker won 25 of those meetings, but lost three of their four Grand Slam Matches, including two of their three in finals. 

    Their most memorable meetings occurred in the Finals at Wimbledon from 1988-90. In 1990, Edberg took a two sets to none lead before Becker rallied to force a fifth set. Edberg would prevail 6-4 in the fifth. 

11) Jimmy Connors-John McEnroe

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    This rivalry was composed of tennis’ two biggest stars on what was then called the Grand Prix Tour. They were two of the most simultaneously loved and hated players during the late 1970s and early 1980s. They each brought intensity to the court every time they played. Sometimes they would go too far often berating the officials. 

    Connors would dominate the rivalry early before McEnroe had a ten-match winning streak from 1982-1984. The last of those ten victories occurred on what has been dubbed Super Saturday in tennis annals. In three matches featuring six tennis legends, all of them went the distance. McEnroe and Connors took the the court in the final match of the day. Johnny Mac won 6-3 in the fifth set semifinal en route to his final Grand Slam title. 

    Mc Enroe held a 20-14 overall advantage, an 8-7 edge in finals and a 6-3 advantage in Grand Slams. They split their Grand Slam final matchups. 

10) Ivan Lendl-John McEnroe

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    The most played men’s rivalry during the Open Era. They met 37 times overall, 10 times in a Grand Slam and in three Grand Slam finals. Lendl held 21-15, 7-3 and 2-1 advantages.

    Their most memorable match occurred in the 1984 French Open final. Lendl rallied from two sets down to deny McEnroe a title at Roland Garros. McEnroe would avenge that loss three months later in the US Open final. 

9) Ivan Lendl-Mats Wilander

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    Wilander and Lendl’s first meeting occurred at the 1982 French Open. Wilander had one of the most incredible runs in Grand Slam history. He ousted the second-seeded Lendl in the fourth round. Wilander rallied to win the last two sets. He then defeated the fifth seed Vitas Gerulaitis, fourth seed Jose Luis Clerc and the third seed Guillermo Vilas to capture the title in his first appearance at Roland Garros. 

    Their second meeting would take place later that year at the US Open. Lendl knocked out Wilander in the fourth round in straight sets. 

    Lendl held a 15-7 overall advantage and 5-4 edge in Grand Slams. Wilander held the upper hand in Grand Slam finals, winning three of the five times they met. 

    Their most memorable matches came in the 1987 and 1988 US Open finals. Lendl defeated Wilander in four sets in a match that took 4:47 in ‘87, and Wilander prevailed in five sets in 4:54 in ‘88. The ‘88 final set the record for the longest Grand Slam final ever. That was matched this year by Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in the US Open final. 

    They were the most successful players of the 1980s. They each won seven Grand Slam titles. From Wilander’s first Grand Slam title at the ‘82 French to Lendl’s last in Australia in 1990, they combined to win 15 out of 31 Slams.

8) Novak Djokovic-Roger Federer

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    Similar to the amazing rivalry between Nadal and Djokovic, Federer and Nadal combined to win 29 out of 30 Grand Slam titles from the 2005 French Open through 2012 Wimbledon. 

    Although the Federer-Nadal rivalry has been more memorable, Djokovic and Federer‘s 11 Grand Slam meetings are the most ever. Only one of those meetings occurred in a final. Federer holds a 16-12 advantage. 

    Djokovic has won six of their last nine meetings. Among those was a comeback from two sets down in the semifinals at the US Open in 2011. 

7) Chris Evert-Evonne Goolagong-Cauley

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    This is one of the most underrated rivalries in tennis history. They played 38 times overall and ten times in a Grand Slam, five of which were in finals. Twenty-four of their 38 career meetings were in the finals of a tournament. Evert won three of their five meetings in a Grand Slam final. 

6) Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal

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    Together with Roger Federer, they have formed a near unbeatable dynasty. Never have three players or teams dominated a sport like these three have for the past nine years.

    Together, Djokovic and Nadal combined to win nine straight Grand Slam titles from the 2010 French Open through the 2011 US Open. From 2003 Wimbledon through 2012 Wimbledon, Djokovic, Nadal and Federer combined to win 33 out of 37 Grand Slam titles. 

    Djokovic and Nadal have met 33 times overall, 15 times in finals, nine times in a Grand Slam and five times in a Grand Slam final. Nadal leads their all-time matches 19-14. He also holds a 8-7 advantage in finals and 6-3 edge in overall Grand Slam matches. Djokovic has the advantage 3-2 in Grand Slam finals. 

    When Federer’s game slumped a bit for a few years, Djokovic stepped up as Nadal’s main rival and eventually surpassed both of them. From 2011 at Wimbledon through the 2012 French Open, they met in four consecutive Grand Slam finals. Djokovic won three of those including their epic 2012 Australian Open final.

    The 2012 Australian Open final took a Grand Slam final record five hours and 53 minutes. Nadal claimed the opening set before Djokovic rallied to take the next two for a two sets to one advantage.

    After taking a 5-2 lead in the third-set tiebreaker, Djoker was only two points away from the title. Nadal rallied, winning the next five points to force a fifth set. Djokovic would claim the title by winning the fifth set 7-5. At just 25 for Djokovic and 26 for Nadal, this should be tennis’s premier rivalry for years to come if Nadal can get, and stay, healthy. 

5) Steffi Graf-Martina Navratilova

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    This rivalry is composed of arguably the two greatest players in the history of women’s tennis. They were the dominant players on the WTA Tour in the 1980s and 1990s. In the late 1980s, they were equally dominant. 

    They only met 18 times, but nine of their meetings occurred at a Grand Slam. Graf won four of their six meetings in Grand Slam finals, but Navratilova won their other three Grand Slam meetings for a 5-4 advantage. 

    They combined to win all but three Wimbledon titles between 1978 and 1996. In 1987, they played each other in the finals of the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open consecutively. Graf prevailed in Paris and Martina won at Wimbledon and in New York.

    Graf’s 13 consecutive finals appearances from the 1987 French to the 1990 French broke Navratilova’s 11 consecutive Grand Slam final appearances. Her 22 Grand Slam titles are the most in the Open Era, while Martina’s 18 are tied for the second most with Chris Evert. 

    Navratilova’s 15 titles were the most in the 1980s and Graf’s 14 led the 1990s. 

4) Serena and Venus Williams

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    This is perhaps the most unique rivalry on the list. When they first began playing each other competitively on the WTA tour, some questioned the genuine intensity of the matches.

    Their first meeting was fittingly in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open. Venus won in straight sets.

    Serena would get her first win against her big sister two years later in the Grand Slam Cup in Germany. 

    Serena has won the last four meetings, including their last Grand Slam meeting in the 2009 WImbledon Final. 

    Twelve of their 23 meeting have occurred in Grand Slams. Their 12 Slam meetings rank fourth all-time. They are the only siblings to have won Grand Slams. 

3) Andre Agassi-Pete Sampras

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    This is the biggest rivalry in the history of American’s men tennis. Agassi and Sampras are the two greatest American male tennis players ever. 

    Their rivalry began in junior tennis and came at a time when American tennis was suffering through its greatest drought up until now. 

    Their first meeting came in the second round in Rome in 1989. Agassi dominated winning 6-2, 6-1. Their first Grand Slam meeting occurred a year later in the US Open final. Sampras upset a heavily favored Agassi in straight sets.

    It was the first of nine Grand Slam meetings and five Grand Slam finals meetings. Sampras held a 6-3 and 4-1 advantage in Grand Slams and Grand Slam finals. Sampras had a 20-14 record against Agassi. 

    Their most memorable match came in the quarterfinals of the 2001 US Open. Sampras won 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6. Neither player broke a serve in a match that finished at 12:14 am ET after 3.5 hours. Sampras' final match at the US Open occurred a year later. The 17th seeded Sampras defeated Agassi in four sets, and retired at the conclusion of the open. 

2) Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer

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    This is the most dominant rivalry in the history of sports. No two players or teams have dominated their sports like Rafa and the FedEx express. From the 2005 French Open through the 2007 US Open, they combined to win 11 consecutive Grand Slam titles.

    Take that out a little further and they combined to win 25 out of 30 Grand Slam titles. Between 2003 Wimbledon and 2012 US Open, they combined to win 28 out of the 37 Grand Slam titles. 

    No one has dominated Federer is his career like Nadal. The dominance began on clay and extended to all surfaces as Nadal became the preeminent player in the sport until injuries began to curtail him throughout his career. He holds an 18-10 advantage over tennis’ Grand Slam King. 

    Federer and Nadal are the pair of players to finish the season as the top two players on the ATP Tour for six consecutive seasons. They finished atop the rankings from 2005-2010. They were also the top two ranked players for 211 consecutive weeks from July 2005- August 2009, another record. 

    Nadal has a 13-6 edge in finals and 8-2 Grand Slam advantage. Federer’s two Slam victories occurred in the 2006 and 2007 Wimbledon Finals. Rafa would enact revenge the next year. He won in a five-set epic match that took nearly five hours of on-court time and over seven hours from start to finish, including two rain delays. 

    Their dominance of the sport captivated fans globally and brought non-tennis fans to the sport. 

1) Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova

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    This is the most dominant rivalry in the history of women’s tennis. They elevated the interest in women’s tennis, and women’s sports in general, to new heights. From the 1982 Australian Open until 1985 Wimbledon, Martina and Chrissy combined to win 15 straight Grand Slam titles. 

    They combined to win 24 of the 39 (the Australian Open switched from December to January of 1987) Grand Slam titles in the 1980s, and Evert added nine titles in the 1970s. Evert and Navratilova met 80 times overall and 22 times in a Grand Slam.

    The 80 overall meetings are nearly twice that of the second most meetings, and is in fact twice the amount of the second most Grand Slam meetings. 

    Navratilova held a 43-37 advantage over Evert, including a 10-3 edge in Grand Slam Finals. Their 15-year rivalry is the longest women’s rivalry and second longest overall. It’s a record unlikely to be broken. 

    Their 18 Grand Slam titles each rank them fourth in women’s history.