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US Open Tennis 2011: 10 Greatest Tennis Rivalries in the Modern Era

JA AllenSenior Writer IAugust 31, 2011

US Open Tennis 2011: 10 Greatest Tennis Rivalries in the Modern Era

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    What makes a great rivalry? In athletic competition, it pits two great opponents against one another time after time in epic contests. The resulting battles must be meaningful––for the brass ring symbolized as a championship or the top spot in his or her respective sport.

    The combatants should be different in attitude, in style of play and in temperament so there is a clear delineation between the two––creating fans as diametrically opposed as the players.

    In tennis, the great rivalries have moved the sport forward, creating world-wide interest as people tuned in to watch to see which player would be victorious this time.

    Time after time, fans waited and watched with bated breath as the final moments of their pivotal matches wound down.

    Here are the top 10 rivalries in the modern era of tennis that helped shaped the game as it we know it today.

    Some of these rivals continue to play on the world stage––even this week during the 2011 US Open...

Rivals Just Outside the Top 10

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    (12) Steffi Graf vs. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario

    Steffi Graf led Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario 28-8 in their head-to-head. Known as the “Barcelona bumblebee,” Sanchez-Vicario often made life miserable for Graf because she never quit on a point. While the German won most of their battles, periodically, the bumblebee stung Graf––especially in their 1989 French Open final. This rivalry always provided very entertaining matches.

    Pivotal Match: 1989 French Open Final, Sanchez-Vicario 7-6, 3-6, 7-5

    (13) Serena Williams vs. Martina Hingis

    After Steffi Graf retired and before the Williams sisters began to dominate, Martina Hingis reigned over women’s tennis for a short time. During that time, Hingis won five grand slam championships and held tight to the No. 1 ranking for 209 weeks. There was no love lost between Hingis and the woman who would replace her at the top of the women’s game, Serena Williams.  The two met 13 times with Williams coming out on top seven times. This rivalry had claws.

    Pivotal Match: 1999 U.S. Open Final, Williams 6-3 ,7-6

    Top Rivalries in the Making:

    (1) Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic

    Head to Head: 14–9, Federer

    Pivotal Match: 2011 French Open Semifinal, Federer 7-6, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6

     

    (2) Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic

    Head to Head: 16-12, Nadal

    Pivotal Match: 2011 Wimbledon Final, Djokovic 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3

10. Venus Williams vs. Serena Williams (tie)

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    The Williams sisters have dominated women’s tennis since Venus first took the court in 1997. At first, it was about “when” they would break through to win majors. Now, the conversation centers on when the sisters will be finished winning the biggest tournaments of the tennis year.

    The sisters have competed against one another since 1998 when the two met in the second round of the Australian Open with Venus winning that match 7-6, 6-1.  The Williams sisters have battled each other 23 times, with Serena leading their head to head 13-10. The two have faced each other in eight grand slam finals with Serena leading 6-2 on the biggest stages of tennis.

    Venus defeated her sister to win the US Open in 2001 and Wimbledon in 2008.  Serena defeated Venus to win the French Open in 2002, Wimbledon in 2002, the US Open in 2002, the Australian Open in 2003, Wimbledon in 2003 and Wimbledon in 2009. They hold a record by competing against each other in four consecutive grand slam finals

    They have each been ranked No. 1 in women’s tennis with Serena holding the edge with 118 weeks at the top while Venus has managed only 11 weeks to date.

    Yet, it is hard to call them rivals because they are sisters and because they compete as a team in doubles. Together, they have won 20 doubles championships including 12 grand slam titles and two Olympic gold medals.

    Their matches against one another are difficult for fans and for the players. As two of the greatest female athletes playing tennis in the modern era, they inevitably must face each other on the tennis court. Most feel that Venus has the softer heart which may explain her losses to her sister. But others feel Serena as the more dominant player wins most often because she has the superior game.

    Pivotal Match: 2008 US Open Quarterfinals, Serena 7-6, 7-6.

10. Boris Becker vs. Ivan Lendl (tie)

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    Ivan Lendl wanted one thing as his career peaked. He wanted to win the Wimbledon title, trying everything he could think of to find a way to win––much as many Americans wished to win the French Open.

    But for Lendl, the desire to capture the Wimbledon crown never happened. One of his greatest obstacles came at the hands of Boris Becker, the German phenom who won two Wimbledon titles before he turned 20 years of age.

    Throughout their careers, the two men met 21 times with Lendl holding a slight edge,11-10. They met in three slam finals with Becker winning all three, including the Wimbledon final of1986, the US Open of 1989 and the Australian Open of 1991.

    Watching Ivan Lendl trying to play serve and volley tennis was like watching Billy Ray Cyrus try to do the samba on Dancing With the Stars. Ivan Lendl's game just could not translate onto the grass. His movements were designed for consistency not for the impromptu innovations needed for the bad bounces on the green grass.

    During those years, Lendl had to watch the charismatic German do easily what Lendl could not––win on the grass. What Becker had was a big, booming serve that Lendl could not overcome as he faced Becker during the the finals of 1986 and again in the semifinals in 1988 and 1989.

    The losses at Wimbledon seemed to counter everything else the Czech accomplished on tennis courts in other parts of the world. It became his grand obsession and perhaps inhibited his natural growth in other areas of his game.  Consider that Lendl skipped playing the French Open twice, in 1990 and 1991, to prepare for Wimbledon.  In the end, Lendl never triumphed on the green lawns of the All England Club.

    Pivotal Match: 1989 Wimbledon Semifinal, Becker 7-5, 6-7, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3

9. Ivan Lendl vs. John McEnroe

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    The only serious rival John McEnroe seemed to like or respect on court was Bjorn Borg. Certainly, Ivan Lendl was not one of McEnroe’s favorites. The reason is fairly obvious. As the dour and mechanical Lendl grew stronger and more dominant, fiery McEnroe’s hold on the tennis top spot weakened.

    McEnroe and Lendl began their rivalry on court in 1980 when the two faced each other on carpet during the Milan semifinals with McEnroe winning 6-3, 1-6, 6-2. The two continued to battle through their last meeting in 1992 when Lendl won at the ATP Masters Tournament in Canada.  In all, they played 36 matches with Lendl leading their head to head 21-15.

    They met 10 times at grand slams. But that resulted in only three grand slam finals with Lendl winning twice––once at the French Open in 1984 followed by the US Open in 1985. McEnroe won the US Open final over Lendl in 1984.

    In 1984, John McEnroe constructed the most dominating year in the history of men’s tennis compiling an 82-3 record. It is this record Novak Djokovic is trying to equal in 2011. On his way at long last to a French Open championship, McEnroe had one more man standing in his way to this elusive title.

    Ahead two sets to none, McEnroe allowed himself to be distracted long enough to lose the third set. He never regained his edge and Lendl won the last two sets as well, taking the match which was Lendl’s first ever slam victory.

    McEnroe has never gotten over that loss. He admits as much today.

    The American would never win the French Open title. In fact, after 1985, McEnroe never made it back to a slam final. Lendl went on to dominate men’s tennis in the late 1980s.

    Pivotal Match: 1984 French Open Final, Lendl, 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5

8. Steffi Graf vs. Martina Navratilova

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    Two of the giants of the modern era in women’s tennis met on the tennis stage as Steffi Graf was starting her career and Martina Navratilova was ending hers––at least in women’s singles. The two met during the years 1985-1994 for 18 matches, splitting their head to head at nine wins each.

    During their rivalry, they met in six grand slam finals with Graf winning four and Navratilova winning two. Graf won one US Open title, one French Open championship and two Wimbledon titles while Navratilova won once at Wimbledon and once at the US Open. During their overall matches at grand slams, however, Navratilova led 5-4.

    Age is never the death sentence many feel it will be in tennis. Navratilova was a prime example of what the body is capable of accomplishing if it is kept in shape. The last time Graf and Navratilova met in a grand slam occurred when Navratilova was 34 years of age. Many regard their 1991 US Open match as one of the best in the history of women’s tennis.

    Graf hoped to capture win No. 500 as well as make her fifth consecutive US Open final. Her wish was not granted. Instead, Graf was summarily dismissed from the tournament, losing her No. 1 ranking in the process. All of this delivered by a 34-year-old Navratilova who played an almost flawless match, utilizing her very special brand of serve and volley tennis.

    Graf’s play throughout her career appeared effortless. Her sliced backhand and her powerful ground strokes took Graf to the top of women’s tennis. This rivalry reminded the world of the foundation of the women’s game and the days when serve and volley tennis reigned.

    Pivotal Match: US Open Semifinal 1991 Navratilova 7-6, 6-7, 6-4

7. Stefan Edberg vs. Boris Becker

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    Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker did battle from 1984 through 1996, playing each other 35 times. Even though Becker managed to win most often, leading in their head-to-head 25-10, Edberg won most often in the big moments––the grand slams.

    The Swede beat Becker two out of the three times they met at the Wimbledon finals from 1988-1990. 

    While hot-headed Americans like McEnroe and Connors carried on, ranting and raving on court, the Europeans conveyed their frustration and anger by staring silently and giving a look of disdain. Becker was the king at that.

    Becker was large, physically imposing as he thundered on court, diving at the ball while Edberg remained graceful, fluid and elegant. Their contrast on court was immediately apparent even though they both played serve and volley tennis. Becker had a strong all-court game with a superb running forehand, flat and powerful backhand and an athletic overhead smash.

    Edberg had equally effective grass court game with a game enhanced by by a huge kick serve to set up his touch volleys at the net. Edberg kept his volleys low, often inches above the ground. The Swede could also score by returning half volleys at acute angles. Even though his forehand failed at times, the Edberg backhand was a superlative weapon. 

    The start of their rivalry began as the two contested for the trophy at the 1988 Wimbledon final where Becker was expected to win. His failure to do so began their competition which, for the most part, played its way out for three years in a row at Wimbledon.

    Pivotal Match: Wimbledon 1988 Final Edberg 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2

6. Jimmy Connors vs. John McEnroe

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    This rivalry was not pretty. The two Americans did not like each other and they did nothing to hide it from the public.

    The extent of their rivalry lasted from 1977 to 1991.

    In all, they played each other 34 times with McEnroe leading in their head to head 20-14.

    Surprisingly, the two contested only two grand slam finals, both at Wimbledon, with Jimmy winning in 1982 and John winning in 1984.

    Jimbo used the attitude and the hostility to motivate himself to win, while McEnroe railed against the injustices he felt at every bad call that came his way.

    Their matches often degenerated into a platform where the two “hams” tried to upstage each other on the court, shouting at umpires, beseeching the crowds, pouting, gesturing and either angering or thrilling the crowds who packed stadiums to watch them.

    Pivotal Matches: US Open 1980 Semifinals McEnroe 6-4, 5-7, 0-6, 6-3, 7-6 and Wimbledon final 1982 Connors  3-6, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4

5. Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi

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    When the two Americans took to the courts initially as teenagers, Agassi was the star––the player who was expected to be the best out of a pool of talented American players.

    But it was Sampras who broke free and ruled American tennis for many years.  His chief rival, especially later on in their careers, was Andre Agassi.

    The two played each other from 1989 until 2002 when Sampras retired from men’s professional tennis. They met each other in 34 matches with Sampras leading in their head to head 20-14. In grand slam finals, Sampras won four out of five times with Agassi winning the 1995 Australian Open for his only slam triumph.

    What the pair did for tennis was produce some really incredible matches with memorable shot-making and improbable gets. With their contrast in style and their internal intensity, Agassi and Sampras never disappointed the public who came to watch high caliber tennis.

    The real turning point in the their rivalry came after the US Open final in 1995 when Pete Sampras prevailed. That loss shattered Agassi’s belief as he tried to improve tinkering with his serve and his overall game. It took Agassi almost five years to get back level with Sampras again.

    Agassi became one of the game’s best ever returners which was his counter to the Sampras serve.  Then too, Agassi could run around the ball to smash inside-out forehand winners past the big Sampras when Agassi was truly on. 

    Pivotal Match: 2001 U.S. Open Quarterfinal, Sampras 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6

4. Monica Seles vs. Steffi Graf

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    The rivalry between Steffi Graf and Monica Seles ended prematurely.  In 1993, Seles was shockingly stabbed in the back by Gunter Parche, an obsessed Graf fan, at a match in Hamburg, ending what should have been one of most intense rivalries in tennis.

    In all, Steffi and Monica played each other 15 times with Graf leading their head to head 10-5. The two top tennis rivals met in six grand slam finals with each winning three. Graf won twice at the US Open and once at Wimbledon while Seles won two French Open titles and once at the Australian Open in their head to head.

    After being stabbed in 1993, Seles managed one more major title at the Australian Open in 1996. But for the most part, the Czech was never the same after that trauma at Hamburg. It would have been tempting for the Czech to lay blame and be bitter; but Seles never complained about her fate.

    The two played each other from 1989-1999, when Graf retired from professional tennis. Seles was a left-hander who played aggressive tennis while Graf’s big ground strokes and her big serve dictated women’s tennis for some time.

    Graf came out ahead in their rivalry overall but when the big game was required at the end of slams, it was dead even.  Seles attacked her opponent with a vigor none before had equalled with the hallmark of her aggression symbolized by how far inside the baseline she stood to return serve.

    The plucky Seles had by spring of 1993 managed to win eight of the previous nine grand slams.  In the process, she took over the No. 1 spot in women’s tennis from Steffi Graf. She was described as a human dynamo, playing two-handed from both wings. Her depth and precision on her ground strokes made all her opponents nervous as did her loud grunts on court which caused more than few raised eyebrows. 

    Noise like that seemed unladylike. It was a harbinger of the future for women’s tennis.

    But then came the stabbing. Even though the injury to Seles was not severe physically, emotionally it took her out of the game for almost two years. She did not return to women’s tennis until 1995 where she once again found herself in a final against Graf at the US Open.

    Pivotal Match: 1995 U.S. Open Final, Graf 7-6, 0-6, 6-3

3. Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe

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    Today we remember Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe primarily because of their 1980 Wimbledon final which must be regarded as one of the best grand slam finals of all time. The sheer drama escalated as these two men dueled it out on Center Court sporting contrasting styles of play as well as dynamically opposite on-court behavior.

    McEnroe was billed as the “brat,” while Borg was the “iceman,” whose coolness under fire had grown to legendary status. On that day in 1980, Borg was going for his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title and the only man left standing in his way was the “brat” from America whose tasseled hair and raging temper set the established Brits on back on their haunches.

    Actually, their rivalry lasted only a little over three years; but like their matches, their battles burned bright while they held center stage. Their first contest took place in 1978 at Stockholm with McEnroe winning that one on hard courts 6-3, 6-4.

    Their last match took place during the US Open finals of 1981 with McEnroe again winning after losing the opening set to Borg. The Swede lost his second consecutive US Open final to McEnroe. At that point, Borg essentially packed up his gear and left the stadium and men’s professional tennis .

    They played 14 matches, splitting at seven each. Borg and McEnroe appeared in four grand slam finals with McEnroe winning three and Borg one, in 1980 at Wimbledon.

    Also while Borg and McEnroe played, the world watched. This rivalry, like the one between Evert and Navratilova, brought tennis into living rooms around the world. While people complained about McEnroe’s often outrageous behavior, they watched nonetheless.  The popularity of tennis in the 1980s built the foundation for the popularity of tennis today.

    Pivotal Match: 1980 Wimbledon Final, Borg 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6

2. Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal

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    The greatest of rivalries inevitably elevate the sport. That is certainly true of this rivalry. As Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal competed against each other, they also elevated the level of play and especially the quality of each other’s games. Now, in order to beat one or both of these tennis phenoms, the rest of the field had to reach the bar set by the men’s top two tennis players.

    Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been playing tennis matches against each other since 2004 when Nadal upset the new world No. 1 in the third round of the Miami Masters. Federer was 22 at the time and Nadal was 17. The match was a harbinger of things to come.

    To date, they have met 25 times with Nadal winning 17 of those matches. The majority of the wins of the current world No. 2, however, have come on clay where Nadal had the superior game.  He leads Federer 12-2 on the red dirt. They are equal on hard courts at 4-4 and Federer holds a slight edge on grass at 2-1.

    In fact, the two have met most often on clay because the two were consistently the two best clay court players of their era. While it took Nadal some time to translate his clay court prowess onto grass and later onto the hard courts, Federer has always owned an all-around game.

    Today, their rivalry continues to evolve as the players mature. Like all other great sports rivalries, the two players are widely dissimilar on and off court. While Federer is cool, smooth and his game aesthetically pleasing, Nadal’s game is emotional, employing brute force, while he exhausts players and spectators with his power.

    You imagine that Federer is skirting the surface, barely breathing or breaking a sweat. His on court demeanor remains totally unruffled. His game seems perfectly choreographed. Nadal’s game is like releasing a force of nature loose on the court as you live through a raging storm.

    Nadal and Federer have combined for 26 of the last 32 Grand Slams. Nadal leads in their head to head in grand slam finals 6-2. They met in four French Open finals with Nadal winning each time, although Federer had his best outing against Nadal most recently in 2011. They met in three Wimbledon finals, with Federer winning two out of the three. The last time was in 2008.  They met once on hard courts at the Australian Open in 2009 when Nadal won.  It was the only time the two have met in a hard court final.

    Together, they reigned over men’s tennis from 2005 until Novak Djokovic passed them both in 2011, first Federer at Indian Wells and then Nadal at Wimbledon. It is hard to say how much longer the Federer-Nadal rivalry will continue. Hopefully for many, many more years to come.

    Pivotal Match: 2008 Wimbledon Final, Nadal 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7

1. Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova

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    The two tennis legends battled each other from 1973 until 1988 in 80 matches with Martina Navratilova leading Chris Evert in their head to head 43-37.

    They met each other in 14 grand slam finals, with Martina winning 10. They met in five Wimbledon championship matches with Navratilova winning all five. Chris Evert’s best surface was clay and she won three out of four finals on the grounds of Roland Garros. Martina won two out of three finals at the Australian Open and she defeated Evert twice at the US Open.

    As half of one of the greatest sports rivalries of all time, Chris Evert is probably the “half” less appreciated today. Her battles with Martina Navratilova grew to legendary status as they met so often in the finals of majors. The fact that Navratilova’s career extended years beyond Evert’s is perhaps part of the reason Navratilova is better known today.

    Evert was a powerful baseline player with unflappable consistency and concentration while Navratilova had the ultimate serve and volley game. They battled during an era when these two playing styles clashed on tennis courts around the world.

 But there was something else different between these two champions—their on court demeanor and individual personalities were as opposite as night and day––like fire and ice.

    The rivalry between Evert and Navratilova became the central spoke of the women’s game in the 1980s as the rivals bore the brunt of building the women’s game. While they each had their fans and their detractors, overall, their rivalry was a positive in building a fan base for women’s tennis.  Both players won 18 Grand Slam singles titles and remain close friends to this day.

    Consider this: Borg and McEnroe played each other 14 times in their great rivalry.  Evert and Navratilova played each other 80 times from 1973-1988, over a course of 15 years.  In terms of importance, longevity and quality, this is the best rivalry in the history of tennis.

    Pivotal Match: 1984 U.S. Open Final, Navratilova 4-6, 6-4, 6-4

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