Wimbledon lies at the heart of tennis, and it is a heart, surely, most lively. The most fascinating clashes have occurred here, and not without reason—history has more often than not been on the line.
In both the history of men’s and women’s history we have witnessed, both over the years and in recent years, the greatest clashes of will and power, and willpower altogether.
These are the top 20 matches in All-England Club history.
It is a distant memory now, and accessible only in the deeper recesses of tennis historical archives, but Pancho Gonzalez’s unlikely victory over Charlies Pasarell in 1969 must come down as one of the greatest wins of the former’s career. Gonzalez, a player whom Bud Collins had once said he would choose to play for his life, was down two sets to love, had to come back a second day after poor light interrupted the match, and then stage an epic comeback, saving strings of match points (seven in all), in the fifth. He was 41, and Pasarell was 26. Age, however, meant nothing that day—willpower and survival instincts meant it all.
There have been few truly great finals in the history of women’s Wimbledon, but the 1970 final, at least, featured two of the greatest players ever to play this sport, Margaret Court and Billy Jean King. It was a riveting and terribly exhausting match, likely two of the more gruelling and long-winded sets ever played. It was Court who won the first set, and it was Court who finally managed to win the match, leading two sets to love, in an age without the tiebreak, 14-12, 11-9.
Bjorn Borg faced off against a good friend in Vitas Gerulaitis in the 1977 semifinals and produced that sort of match between two players who know each other’s games inside out. Borg was tested to the limit and saved a match point in the fifth only off a Gerulaitis missed slice down the line. The champion survived the test in the end, nonetheless, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 8-6.
In the final in 1977, Borg, having survived Gerulaitis in the semifinals, faced another stern test in Jimmy Connors. The American played one of his finest finals to come within an inch of victory. Borg dominated the second and third sets and had the chance for an untouchable 5-0 lead in the fifth. Connors held and fought back to 4-4, however, at which point an untimely double fault turned the tide of the match in favour of the champion, and Borg triumphed at Wimbledon once again, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4.
There are tennis titans in every generation, but only few occasions when they get to meet in a match that means so much. Bjorn Borg’s epic encounter with John McEnroe in the 1980 final was everything everyone had been waiting for—a legitimate grass-court specialist up against the four-time defending champion. It had everything—drama, shotmaking, a fine match-up in contrasting styles and those rare and unique moments when history collides with the present. Borg was the stronger mentally in the end, triumphing over his American challenger, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6.
Jimmy Connors only ever won Wimbledon twice in his career, but won his second ever title in one of his most impressive comebacks. He was down two sets to one against the defending champion, John McEnroe, but fought back to level the match in winning the fourth set tiebreak. It was Connors at his warrior best in a match which featured the best things of the two left-handers. He finally managed to win, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4.
Jimmy Connors was tennis’ greatest warrior, and Wimbledon offered him his greatest chance ever to showcase his undying will to win when he came up against Mikael Pernfors, 10 years his junior at 24. Down two sets to love, and 1-4, Connors looked all but out of it, then the comeback began. He won the third set, scrambled back from a break in the fourth and ultimately clinched a most unlikely victory, 1-6, 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2.
If ever there were a changing of the guard moment in women’s tennis in the 1980s, it would have been the 1988 Wimbledon final. Martina Navratilova, 31, faced off against the youthful 19-year-olf Steffi Graf, the new queen of women’s tennis. Many believed Navratilova would stay the course at Wimbledon, however, where she was the eight time champion, but Graf was just too strong, thumping forehands all over the place. In the end, it was too easy for the German, who won 5-7, 6-2, 6-1.
In one of Steffi Graf’s most difficult of grand slam finals, she found herself down 1-4, and a double break, in the third set against Jana Novotna. Things looked grim, but Graf remained calm and benefited from the self-implosion of Novotna, who remarkably failed to win a game from that point. It was Graf at her resilient, champion best, 7-6, 1-6, 6-4.
This was probably the closest Sampras ever came to defeat at a Wimbledon final. For the first time, he was pushed to five sets, and by no mean server too, in Goran Ivanisevic. The Croat played tough, and very nearly could have been up two sets to love. But Sampras held his serve, nerve and broke twice decisively in the fifth, raising his game where he needed to. A fifth title for the American came, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2.
Few moments such as this come in tennis, when the champion of one era faces off against the champion of the next. Such was the day when Pete Sampras, the seven time Wimbledon champion, faced off against Roger Federer in the fourth round in 2001. Both played as they could, serving as they could and dazzling as they could. It was going to be Federer’s day, however, having been up two sets to one, and he stunned the champion, making way for himself, winning 7-6, 5-7, 6-4, 6-7, 7-5.
In one of the all-time greatest semifinals at Wimbledon Andre Agassi was downed by Patrick Rafter in a match which highlighted that ancient battle between baseliner and net-rusher. Wimbledon was the perfect place for the contrast, and both players played their hearts out. It was Rafter, however, who eventually triumphed, 2-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2, 8-6.
Goran Ivanisevic had lost three finals at Wimbledon when he entered his fourth in 2001, and luckily for him, he didn’t face a Sampras or Agassi. Instead, it was the talented Australian Patrick Rafter, and Ivanisevic took hold of his opportunity. It was a hard fought, long-desired maiden title that came in glorious fashion. Ivanisevic won in five sets, breaking just decisively to serve it out in the fifth, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7.
What is the greatest women’s Wimbledon final? Surely, it must be a three-set tussle, a tight one at that, and contain that dramatic moment when championship point comes and goes. Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport played a match just like that in the 2005 final, when Williams won 4-6, 7-6, 9-7, having saved a match point in the second set. It was a heartbreaker for Davenport, but Williams just had too much gut in the end. It was never going to be easy to beat the Williams sisters twice in a row in a Wimbledon final, and Venus put it straight (her sister Serena had lost to Sharapova in the final the year before).
This was the first great final of the decade 2000-2010, with two rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, facing off for the second straight year for the Wimbledon trophy. It was a hard-fought and tight encounter, but the king of grass just had that little extra magic and desire in him to get over the finish line. Victory for the Swiss for a fifth straight time came, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-2.
Richard Gasquet and Andy Murray faced off at Wimbledon in the fourth round in 2008 at the height of increasing Murray mania, as the Scot sought to lift the fortunes of British tennis. He couldn’t have done it in more dramatic fashion, coming back from two sets to love down for the first time in his career, with Gasquet serving for the match in the third. Murray stormed back to break the Frenchman’s heart, 5-7, 3-6, 7-6, 6-2, 6-4.
It was a true epic ending in suitably dramatic fashion, with the light fading over Centre Court, and victory decisively necessary. It proved just the picture-perfect ending Rafael Nadal, as he ended Roger Federer’s run at the All-England Club to bag his first title, in a match filled with glorious things. Is it the greatest final ever played, or even match? Possibly, after awe-striking winners in that fourth set tiebreak. This is one never to be forgotten—6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7.
If ever there were a grander Serena Williams moment, it came in this match, a semifinal classic with Elena Dementieva, a feisty Russian who was solid and sturdy enough to disturb the balance of Serena. But the American is renown for making last-minute comebacks at the brink of defeat. She saved match point and stayed true to herself, while Dementieva didn’t, edging the latter, 6-7, 7-5, 8-6.
Federer must have thought he was in luck when he faced Andy Roddick for the Wimbledon title again, whom he had defeated in two finals. But it turned out to be one of the most nerve-wracking matches of his life, as he broke Roddick only once, and decisively, in the final set for victory. Roddick was impeccable on serve, but the Swiss just that little bit better than him. He had never had to play a tighter final, 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14.
The longest match ever? It used to be somewhere at the French Open, but Wimbledon claimed it decisively last year after this epic that simply refused to end. John Isner and Nicolas Mahut waged an intriguing battle of serves and endurance lasting over several days, over some of which serve was held but never ever threatened for hours. In all, it was victory for Isner in the most dramatic fashion, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-7, 70-68.