Rivalries: All sports have them. They help to raise the game, and define eras historically. They give us someone to cheer for and occasionally someone to hate. What would the Yankees be without the Red Sox, or Ali without Frasier?
Tennis is famous for its rivalries, but some of tennis’s best rivalries were great in ways that took them beyond the rectangular white lined court. Here are eight of the greatest rivalries, famous not only for their competitiveness but for their effect on the sport as a whole.
Number 8: Serena vs. Venus Williams.
The greatest sibling double punch in the history of tennis. They have played 23 times with Serena winning 13 to Venus’ 10. Of those 12 have been in Slams, seven going to Serena, and five to Venus. Of those, eight were finals, Serena winning six to Venus’ two.
Throughout their careers, there has been controversy. Pulled from amateur competition when they were around 10 years old, they burst onto the scene in their late teens, untried yet with great expectation. They quickly established themselves as threats and lived up to the hype like few before.
They were thin-skinned and claimed racial remarks had been made about them in their early years - easy to believe in a predominantly white sport.
As both Venus and Serena were absolute top level players, they would meet often in big matches, and there has been talk of family deals and agreements as to who wins what. This is hard to believe as it is almost impossible for a top level athlete to psychologically throw a match. Those warrior instincts do not allow compromises of that sort.
The Williams sisters have threatened to shove a ball down a judge’s throat, blatantly robbed of points, have been at times brash and arrogant, shown style and grace, been angry and frustrating and thoroughly entertaining - isn’t that the point? No two people came on the scene as quickly and made such a statement as Venus and Serena.
In a period of tennis marked by some rather boring, homogeneous play, Serena and Venus stand out, their controversial attitudes and explosive games make every match exciting. They own the Majors and take no prisoners - they are what ladies tennis needs.
Number 7: Monica Seles vs. Steffi Graf
Steffi is arguably the greatest tennis player in history. With her big serve, running forehand, and slice backhand, Graf was the giant of her era, taking down other rivals for that title like Navratilova and an aging Chris Evert. But in Monica Seles she found the Agassi to her Sampras. Like an Agassi in a dress, Monica stepped inside the baseline and pelted the ball with such power and accuracy it took your breath away.
They contested for all the Majors yet only played 14 times, Steffi winning nine to Monica’s five. More telling is that nine were Slams with Graf winning five to Seles’ four. 19 year old Steffi, already number one, was being hailed as one of the greats and seemed to own the future. Then she ran into a skinny 15 year old named Monica Seles with a two-handed everything and a scream that could peel paint. Both superb athletes with great mental games, they fought with a wonderful tenacity, and like many hotly contested rivalries, theirs was not an amicable relationship. As Monica was gaining ground on Steffi, something unheard of happened, a crazed fan of Graf’s ran on to the court and buried a knife in Monica’s back. It cut not only her body but two years out of Monica’s prime. Then adding to the animosity, Steffi made no attempt to reach out the Seles during this period. When Seles came back, Graf was there waiting and the battle resumed. They met in a couple of finals but Monica never quite reached her old form, though she did win another Slam. With 14 hotly contested matches this was the rivalry that should have been and we can only imagine what those missing two years would have brought. The stabbing brought a whole new dimension to the game, and athlete’s safety. The greatest crime, of course, are the years that Monica lost, but Graf lost as well. In Seles, Graf found her greatest rival, and every athlete is defined by their competition. That Monica was unable to compete throughout her prime robbed not only Graf and Seles but the sport and the fans of what could have been
Number 6: Ken Rosewall vs. Rod Laver
They played 141 times. Rod Laver eventually ended up on top in terms of sheer number of wins at 75-66. Known as “The Rocket” and for his Popeye-like left forearm Laver won the overall Grand Slam twice and pretty much had a winning record against everyone. He is often thought of as the greatest. Ken Rosewall, nicknamed “Muscles,” was actually 5’7” and rather frail. He was known for his superlative backhand and a mediocre serve, yet beat everyone that was anyone. He and Rod battled for number one and Slam titles over 14 years. Ken holds the record for the oldest person to play in a Major final at 43.
More important to the sport is the work they did in introducing tennis to the world and forcing the Majors to go professional. This was the era of cowboy tennis and the traveling circus. The traveling conditions were harsh and the pay low. Laver, Rosewall and others would move from one town to the next playing daily for a couple hundred dollars. Yet these were the best players and after many years Wimbledon, the French, US, and Australian Opens, conceded that if they wanted the best players in their tournaments they’d have to pony up some cash. Thus began the Open era, and today all these spoiled young millionaire tennis players that whine about their feet hurting should thank their lucky bank accounts that guys like Laver and Rosewall decided to take their show on the road and force the Majors to give all players a cut of the box office.
Number 5: Billy Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs.
This is a rivalry of an entirely different sort. Billy Jean King is the mother of ladies professional tennis. She performed this duty with dignity, style, and considering the circumstances, a set of brass balls. She challenged the status quo, and against some big odds and no little controversy, started the Virginia Slim Circuit.
By contrast, Bobby Riggs was not exactly the quintessential champion. He was a number one in the world and held that spot for three years, but it was his personality, intellect, and propensity for the ridiculous that separated him from his peers. Bobby was one of the early stars of professional tennis prior to the Open Era, with a game that was tricky deep and strategic. An inveterate gambler he bet $500 dollars on himself to win men’s singles, doubles, and mixed doubles in the same year at Wimbledon. He won - making what amounts to $1.5 million in today’s dollars by doing so.
Yet in the midst of all his hi jinks, what he did for the sport, and what puts him firmly in the history books, was to challenge the top women players to a match of the sexes. Riggs wanted to play Billy Jean King and made a huge show of being a chauvinist, and thus parlayed this gimmicky match into a world event. At first Billy Jean turned down the match, so Bobby challenged Margret Court who accepted. Margret Court was considered by many to be the greatest women player of the era and indeed still holds the record for Slam wins (24), but in her match with Riggs, Court failed miserably, losing 6-2, 6-1- much to Bobby’s consternation- he wanted a good match.
Being Bobby he immediately challenged Billie Jean King with a Mohamed Ali affectation, "I want Billie Jean King. . . . I want the women's lib leader!" This time Billy Jean King accepted and the event was called the "Battle of the Sexes." In the end, King beat Riggs in three straight sets. It is said that Riggs was glad she did. They played in the Houston Astrodome to a sell out crowd of over 30,000 and another 50 million people watching on TV. It is still considered one the greatest sporting events ever.
What it did for tennis and particularly for ladies tennis is what makes this rivalry important. This was the early years of professional women's tennis, a time when Billy Jean and the other players were struggling for acceptance and credibility. In the eyes of the general public and sponsors, this match raised acceptance and awareness of women's tennis to an eventual level equal to men. Not only has the women’s game become as popular as men, it has reached a financial parity as well. Tennis is the only sport that has achieved this kind of equality, and it has much to do with Billy Jean King - they don’t name arenas after anyone - and an old chauvinist pig named Bobby
Number 4: McEnroe vs. Connors
This was the rise of the Americans. Connors and McEnroe played 34 times, Mac winning 20 and Connors 14, though they only met twice in Slam finals - Wimbledon - each winning one. Both guys had huge personalities and were prickly with little love lost between them. It was not unusual for them to have shouting matches while playing and caustic comments afterward. This was also an era of rapid growth for the sport, as TV coverage was progressing and tennis as a professional sport was gaining popularity. You could not have scripted two better opponents for TV than McEnroe and Connors. They argued with each other the linesmen, fans, judges, commentators, and even the ball boys, all while playing some of the most brilliant tennis in history. Johnny Mac once said that he was the only player that could go into a Slam final (French Open) with the whole crowd behind him and leave with everyone hating him.
Beyond wildly entertaining matches, they took tennis from a somewhat staid upper class type sport into if not the gutter, then definitely the street with their arguing, pissy attitudes and aggressive play.
On their cantankerous shoulders tennis rose to new heights of popularity. They changed the way tennis was thought of, and brought new audiences and players to the game.
Number 3: Agassi vs. Sampras.
This was the height of the Americans era. It was also a time of change in the sport. New technology was redefining how the game could be played. In Agassi and Sampras tennis had two of the greatest players to ever put on a pair of tennis shoes, showing how the game would be played in the future. They would play 34 matches, 20 to Sampras and 14 to Agassi, in their careers. No two players matched up so well in such contrasting ways. Pete with his near perfect serve, and Andre with his ability to see the ball in slow motion countered each other as an electron counters proton.
But this was also the greatest period to technological advancement in tennis. New materials and designs led to radical changes in the very essence of tennis. Strategies had to be rethought, and swing motions reconfigured, even the game itself was being reconsidered with new court materials and different colored balls.
Pete and Andre were the forebears of this change. Because of their rivalry tennis popularity was growing exponentially, particularly in the United States, and with the advent of larger headed rackets, colored balls, and better shoes the game was becoming more accessible to the recreational player. Sampras and Agassi were the rock stars of tennis and it was almost impossible to watch them play and not want to go out for a hit. Public courts filled with giant rackets, punky hairdos, and bright cloths. The legacy of their rivalry is that they made tennis cool- and moved tennis into the class of super sport.
Number 2: Martina Navratilova vs. Chris Evert.
This is the king - or queen, as the case may be - of tennis rivalries. No rivalry touches theirs for sheer numbers. Martina and Chris played an astounding 80 times - 60 finals - in their storied rivalry, with Navratilova winning 43 to Evert's 37. They both won 18 Grand Slams, met in 22 majors, 14 of those meetings finals with Martina winning 10 to Chrissie’s 4.
On pure numbers alone they top any list of great rivalries, yet they came to represent so much more than just a bunch of great matches.
Chris was the first athlete to really reap the rewards of Billy Jean King’s effort for ladies professional tennis, and in many ways helped to justify King’s hard work and assuage fears about women in professional sports. In a sense she gave audiences and critics a reason to accept women in professional sports by showing that you could win and still be graceful and feminine- an issue back then. It's important to keep in mind that the concept of professional female athletes of any kind was a bit novel at this time.
In Navratilova, Chrissy found her antithesis, and in the beginning the audience painted her as the villain. Martina was from a communist country, this being the height of the cold war, she was serious, masculine, insecure and phenomenally talented. Her aggressive serve and volley game countered Chrissy’s baseline brilliance.
At every step Martina faced controversy both for her sexuality and her forceful, masculine style of play, she also paid a price when she came out as a lesbian. She lost her sponsors and even a space on the Wheaties cereal box.
In Chrissy and Martina, professional tennis was able to build on the foundation that Billy Jean King had laid, legitimizing the concept and proving false the fears of the establishment and sponsors. Not only did they cement the legitimacy of professional women's tennis but also addressed the controversial issue of sexual orientation in sports. Through their long careers they developed a friendship and respect for each other, and with their incredible rivalry they laid to rest the foolish fears of the public, tennis establishment and sponsors.
Number 1: Federer vs. Nadal.
Their rivalry is already legendary. They have played 22 times, with more to come. Nadal leads the battle 14- 8 and all but a very few of their matches have been finals. Federer with his graceful style and infinite collection of shots took classic tennis and showed what perfection looked like. Nadal showed us what quantum physic looks like when applied to tennis. It is impossible to watch them play and not, on occasion, feel a little embarrassed for the rest of the players.
They are the archetypical modern athlete, rich, professional, phenomenally fit and astronomically gifted. Yet they are more, they have taken the game to such heights that they have left the field straining to catch up. Never have two players separated themselves so decisively from the competition.
In this modern era, it's not only talent that must be brought to the table but athleticism and dedication. In five set matches, none have shown the ability to stand before these two titans. The hype of the new season and the Australian Open is about fitness and physical training. It will be interesting to see if this new intense fitness will allow the field to close the gap with Nadal and Federer. For the future, have tennis athletes hit the barrier of human ability? Can they actually hit the ball any harder, run faster, and survive the grueling schedule on this incredible level? These are the questions that we will see addressed in the coming year, and what a year it will be.