Ranking the 10 Best Rivalries in Tennis History

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistJuly 17, 2013

Ranking the 10 Best Rivalries in Tennis History

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    The rivalry involving Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer may be waning, but does it still deserve to be ranked among the 10 best rivalries in tennis history?

    Perhaps it's been surpassed by the current competition between Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who met in four consecutive Grand Slam finals, ending with the the 2012 Australian Open. What about the budding rivalry between Djokovic and Andy Murray, the top two ranked players at the moment and the finalists in the 2013 Wimbledon?

    Several factors can create a great rivalry. Sometimes it's longevity. Other times it's contrasting styles or personalities. In many cases, it's the epic nature of their matches. Occasionally, an unusual component makes the rivalry distinctive or intriguing. Often all those factors are involved.

    In all cases, the rivals were among the best players of their eras.

    In creating a list of the 10 best rivalries, we decided no player should be mentioned more than once. As a result, we had to choose between the Nadal-Federer rivalry and the Nadal-Djokovic matchup, then determine whether either is worthy of inclusion.

10. Margaret Court vs. Billie Jean King

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    The rivalry between Billie Jean King and Margaret Court barely beat out the 1930s competition involving Don Budge and Gottfried von Cramm for the final spot on our list.

    King and Court faced each other 32 times, with Court winning 22. They no doubt would have met more often had Court not retired from tennis for two years before returning in 1968 at the age of 25.

    King and Court met in the finals of five Grand Slam events, two before Court's brief retirement and three after. King won only one of those five matches, a 6-1, 6-2 victory in the 1968 Australian Open soon after Court's return to competition.

    Their two most memorable matches took place at Wimbledon.

    The first was when unseeded 18-year-old Billie Jean Moffitt, playing her second Wimbledon singles match ever, stunned top-seeded Margaret Smith 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 in both players' opening match of the 1962 tournament.

    The other occurred after their last names had changed. It was Court's 14-12, 11-9 victory over King in the 1970 final. Court played with an ankle problem that required an injection of pain killers, and King had a knee ailment that would need surgery a few weeks later, according to excerpts from the book Great Sporting Rivals by Joseph Romanos. King saved six match points before losing the match, which was the longest women's final in Wimbledon history in terms of games played.

    King and Court also are linked in the "Battle of the Sexes" matches they played against Bobby Riggs in 1973. King did not like that Court had agreed to face Riggs in May 1973, but after Court was beaten by Riggs, King agreed to play him four months later. King defeated Riggs decisively, as noted in a Sports Illustrated account of the match.

    Their conflicting views on gay marriage put them at odds philosophically in 2013, according to a USA Today report, although it did not shake their mutual respect.

9. Helen Wills vs. Helen Jacobs

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    Helen Wills' competition with Helen Jacobs did not produce the acclaim that Wills' rivalry with Suzanne Lenglen did. But the latter "rivalry" consisted of a single match, and although a 1962 Sports Illustrated article called that Wills-Lenglen meeting the most anticipated match in history, one encounter does not constitute a rivalry.

    Wills dominated Jacobs, never losing a completed match against Jacobs in a Grand Slam event. However, their competition still holds a solid spot on our list of great rivalries for several other reasons.

    Their similar backgrounds served as the linchpin for their historic bond. Both grew up in Berkeley, Calif. Both went to the University of California at Berkeley. Both had the same coach, Pop Fuller, according to a Los Angeles Times obituary on Jacobs. Jacobs' family even moved into a house in Berkeley that had been vacated by Wills' family when Jacobs was a teenager.

    They met in the finals of seven Grand Slam events. Jacobs' only victory in those seven matches came when Wills retired from the 1933 U.S. Championships title match because of a back injury, with Jacobs leading 3-0 in the third set. When Jacobs put her arm around Wills to console her injured foe when they shook hands, Wills snapped, "Take your hands off me," according to an excerpt from Paul Edelson's book A to Z of American Women in Sports.

    Jacobs, who was three years younger than Wills, nearly upset Wills in the 1935 Wimbledon finals. It was Wills' first Grand Slam tournament since her controversial default in the U.S. Championships two years earlier.

    Jacobs, then 26 years old, held a match point in the third set, and when Wills sent up a weak lob, Jacobs needed only to hit an easy winner to take her first Wimbledon title.

    But, according to Bud Collins in that Los Angeles Times article, a gust of wind blew the ball as Jacobs was about to hit her match-ending smash. Jacobs ended up on her knees on the follow-through as she tried to track the wayward ball. She ended up tapping it harmlessly into the net. Wills went on to win the match.

8. Andre Agassi vs. Pete Sampras

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    As is often the case in rivalries, contrasting styles and personalities enhanced the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi competition.

    Sampras was the understated, conservative-looking star with the big serve and the dominant serve-and-volley game. Agassi was the flamboyant, sometimes rebellious baseliner with an outstanding return of serve and long blond hair (at least in his early days).

    Their differences prevented them from bonding (as noted in an ESPN.com article) but did not prevent an intriguing rivalry. 

    They traded the No. 1 ranking back and forth for several years. Sampras had been No. 1 for 82 consecutive weeks when Agassi replaced him in April 1995. Agassi then held the top spot for 30 straight weeks before Sampras got it back in November 1995. Agassi took the No. 1 ranking away from Sampras again in January 1996.

    They played each other 34 times, with Sampras winning 20 of them. They met 16 times in tournament finals, and Sampras won four of their five matchups in Grand Slam finals.

    But their two most memorable matches did not come in Grand Slam finals. One was Agassi's five-set victory in the 2000 Australian Open semifinals, and the other was Sampras' 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 triumph in the 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinals when neither player broke serve the entire match.

7. Bill Johnston vs. Bill Tilden

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    Bill Tilden and Bill Johnston were the dominant American players of the 1920s.

    They faced each other in the finals of the U.S. Championships six times in a span of seven years, with Johnston winning the first one in 1919 but Tilden winning the the next five.

    Their most memorable match took place in the finals of the 1925 U.S. Championship, which was the last time they met in a Grand Slam finals. Tilden won 4-6, 11-9, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, as recounted in a Sports Illustrated article. It was the fifth and final time Tilden beat Johnston in a U.S. Championships finals, with three of them going five sets.

    Nicknames add to a rivalry's legacy, and this one had the perfect monikers. "Big Bill" Tlden was 6'1", making him six inches taller than "Little Bill," who was also dwarfed by Tilden in terms of lasting fame.

    Tilden and Johnston were the chief components of the United States team that won the Davis Cup seven straight years from 1920 through 1926. But Johnston was better known for his rivalry with Tilden.

    Perhaps most telling is the fact that Johnston's Associated Press obituary carried a headline in the Milwaukee Sentinel that read, "Johnston, Tilden rival, dies."

6. Steffi Graf vs. Monica Seles

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    Steffi Graf's rivalry with Monica Seles is heightened by the lingering speculation of what it could have been had it not been for a scary incident in 1993. 

    They were the two dominant women's players in the early 1990s. Graf had been No. 1 from 1987 to 1990, and Seles was No. 1 in 1991 and 1992. They were at their peaks in 1992 and 1993, meeting in the finals in three of four consecutive Grand Slam tournaments: the 1992 French Open, 1992 Wimbledon and 1993 Australian Open. Seles won the 1992 U.S. Open in the fourth major in that span when Graf was upset in the quarterfinals.

    Three months after her three-set victory over Graf in the 1993 Australian Open, the 19-year-old, No. 1-ranked Seles was stabbed in the back during a match in Germany by a man who obsessively wanted Graf to regain the top spot. A Sports Illustrated article recounted the incident and the effect it had.

    Seles did not play a match for two-and-a-half years and won just one more Grand Slam title in her career, the 1996 Australian Open. 

    Seles met Graf in the finals of the 1995 and 1996 U.S. Opens, with Graf winning both, but the budding rivalry and Seles' career did not reach the promise shown in 1992 and early 1993.

    They played just 15 times, with Graf winning 10. Graf held a 6-4 lead in the rivalry before the stabbing, and three of their four meetings before that incident had gone three sets.

    Seles' 6-2, 3-6, 10-8 victory over Graf in the 1992 French Open was rated one of the 10 greatest matches in history by Paul Fein in his book Tennis Confidential: Today's Greatest Players, Matches and Controversies.

    Tragically, it was the intense rivalry with Graf that led one deranged man to disrupt that rivalry. 

5. Rod Laver vs. Ken Rosewall

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    Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall played each other 143 times on the amateur and pro tours, with Laver winning 80.

    Certainly playing on the pro circuit in the pre-Open Era days contributed to their high number of meetings. They met 45 times in 1963 alone.

    But it's also noteworthy that because Rosewall turned pro in 1957, their first meeting did not take place until 1963, Laver's first year as a pro, when Rosewall was 28 and Laver was 24.

    Laver and Rosewall met in tournament finals 56 times. However, because they participated in the pro tour for years before pros could play in Grand Slam events, they met in the finals of only two Grand Slam tournaments. Appropriately, though, one was the 1968 French Open, the very first open Grand Slam event.  Rosewall won that one at age 34. Laver beat Rosewall in the 1969 French Open finals on the way to completing his second Grand Slam.

    The two Aussies last met in a tour event in 1976 when Rosewall was 41 and Laver 37. However, their most significant match was played in 1972 in Dallas.

    Laver wrote in his memoir of that 1972 WCT finals, according to World Tennis, “I think if one match can be said to have made tennis in the United States, this was it.”

    Rosewall won 6-4, 0-6, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6 in a match that captivated the television audience.

    "A record tennis audience of 23 million watched spellbound, riveted by the sights of two terrific athletes displaying their superb skills in a thrilling fashion," wrote Paul Fein in an excerpt from his book Tennis Confidential: Today's Greatest Players, Matches and Controversies.

    Rosewall and Laver met just five more times after that.

4. Serena Williams vs. Venus Williams

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    A rivalry involving sisters might be better appreciated in retrospect. Certainly, Serena and Venus Williams already are acknowledged tennis stars, and their matches against each other receive additional publicity because of the family tie.

    However, 30 years from now, tennis historians may focus more attention on the phenomenon of two sisters a little more than a year apart in age being so dominant.

    Venus was ranked No. 1 in February 2002, falling out of the top spot for the last time when she was replaced by sister Serena in July 2002.

    They have played each other 24 times, with Serena winning 14. Eight of their matches have come in the finals of Grand Slam events, with Serena winning six of those. They have met four times in the Wimbledon finals, with Serena winning three.

    One particular run makes their rivalry distinctive.  Starting with the 2002 French Open, they played each other in the finals of four straight Grand Slam events. It's the only time in history that four consecutive Grand Slam tournaments featured the same two female finalists.

    Time magazine included the Williams sisters among its top 10 tennis rivalries, adding this note, "They are two of the greatest tennis players of all-time from the same family playing in the same era. And with all of their fiery competitiveness on the court, they’re still incredibly close off of it."

3. Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal

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    Choosing between the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry and the one involving Nadal and Novak Djokovic probably is a fool's game.

    Djokovic's riveting five-set victory over Nadal in the 2012 Australian Open finals and Nadal's equally gripping five-set win over Djokovic in the 2013 French Open semifinals suggest that matchup, which has room to grow, may be rated among the very best rivalries some day. However, both must now contend with Andy Murray, while Federer remains a factor in the so-called Big Four.

    There was a time when Federer and Nadal were the undisputed dominant players on the men's tour, focusing the attention on those two and their rivalry.

    In the 26 Grand Slam events from the 2004 Wimbledon to the 2010 U.S. Open, Nadal or Federer won 23 of them.

    Federer became the No. 1 ranked player in 2004 and held it for 237 weeks until Nadal wrestled it away from him. Nadal then was No. 1 for 46 weeks until Federer regained it, and Nadal took the top spot back from Federer 48 weeks later.

    Federer and Nadal have played each other 30 times, with Nadal winning 20 of those as well as eight of their 10 meetings in Grand Slam events.

    The wins and losses matter less than the fact that they are two of the best players in history while featuring contrasting styles. Nadal relies on the consistency of his ground strokes and the toughness of his spirit, helping him claim eight French Open championships among his 12 major titles. Meanwhile, Federer entertains with a fluid all-court game that has brought him 17 Grand Slam titles, including seven at Wimbledon.

    In 2012, the Tennis Channel rated Federer as the greatest male player in history, with Nadal fourth.

    The significance of the rivalry was cemented in two epic battles on the biggest stage in tennis. Federer's 7-6 (9-7), 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 2-6, 6-2 victory in 2007 was considered one of the greatest Wimbledon finals until the two met again in the 2008 finals. 

    Events coalesced July 6, 2008, which created, in many minds, the greatest match ever played anywhere.

    Nadal and Federer responded with four hours and 48 minutes of classic tennis, the longest final in Wimbledon history. Adding to the splendor of Nadal's 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (6-8), 9-7 victory was that it ended at 9:16 p.m., in a shroud of darkness.

    "Last year's emotional tussle immediately took its place among the best Wimbledon finals, but this five-set classic—played on a rainy, gusty day—was better yet," the New York Times reported.

    "This is the greatest match I've ever seen," John McEnroe said, according to The Telegraph.

2. John McEnroe vs. Bjorn Borg

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    John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg played each other only 14 times spanning just four years, with each player winning seven matches. McEnroe played Ivan Lendl more often, and McEnroe's matches against Jimmy Connors featured far more bitterness.

    However, the Borg-McEnroe rivalry captured the public's imagination the way the others did not. 

    Their matchup was compelling for several reasons.

    First, it featured the two best players of the era. From July 1979 to August 1981, Borg and McEnroe traded the No. 1 ranking seven times.

    Second, their personalities and playing styles were polar opposites, creating an intriguing dynamic.

    Borg was the stoic, handsome Swede with the long blond hair. A story by the Telegraph called Borg the first rock star of tennis. He won five straight Wimbledon titles from the baseline, using extreme topspin on his forehand and an accurate two-handed backhand.

    McEnroe was the petulant Superbrat who could blow up at any moment, according to an ESPN.com story. He was the consummate serve-and-volley player. McEnroe took balls on the rise and hit them flat in an effort to get to the net as soon as possible to utilize his excellent volleying skills.

    Third, they played several epic matches, most notably the 1980 Wimbledon finals, which some consider the greatest match ever played. The 34-point fourth-set tie-breaker may have been the most riveting 22 minutes of tennis ever played.

    Long-time New York Times tennis writer Neil Amdur was enthralled by Rafael Nadal's 2008 victory over Roger Federer.

    "But," he wrote in the New York Times in 2011, "after watching chunks of the 3:53 McEnroe-Borg final at an HBO screening, I am tempted again to reaffirm its place as the sport's single most compelling piece of court magic.

    "The drama of the 18-16 fourth set tie breaker in McEnroe-Borg was like a riveting, unscripted theatrical experience."

    Finally, the Borg-McEnroe matchup carries the allure of leaving us wondering what might have been. 

    When Borg lost to McEnroe in the 1981 U.S. Open finals, the Swede essentially quit tennis. He never played another Grand Slam event, and there was never a good explanation why. Borg was 25.

    McEnroe was 22 at the time, and three of his four Grand Slam titles to that point had come against Borg in the finals. McEnroe would win three more major titles, but none after age 25.

    Borg's departure affected McEnroe.  Time magazine wrote, "McEnroe would later say that he never quite recovered psychologically, nor enjoyed tennis as much, after his old foe walked away."

    "I don't think people understand it was a James Dean type of rivalry—it came and went," Mary Carillo said in that ESPN.com article. "And McEnroe never had another rival that made him aspire."

1. Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova

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    Choosing the rivalries that should rank second through 10th was difficult. Selecting the No. 1 rivalry was not.

    In a 16-year span from 1973 through 1988, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played each other 80 times, with Navratilova holding a slim 43-37 lead. That's nearly twice as many meetings as the second-most-played rivalry in women's tennis (Navratilova vs. Pam Shriver, 43 matches).

    It wasn't just the number of meetings that made the rivalry distinctive, though.

    Evert was the stoic "Ice Maiden," whose errorless, accurate ground strokes made her virtually unbeatable until Navratilova came along.  Evert's personality and consistent backcourt game were countered perfectly by the emotional, powerful Navratilova, whose aggressive serve-and-volley game dominated women's tennis for a decade.

    It was all bracketed by a close friendship they developed during their playing days that continues today.

    Their rivalry was the subject of an ESPN documentary Unmatched (as noted in this New York Times article) and a Johnette Howard book The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship (as noted in a San Francisco Chronicle story).

    Evert and Navratilova accounted for 36 Grand Slams singles titles, 18 apiece, and they are ranked as the second and fourth greatest women's players in history by the Tennis Channel.

    Thirty of their matches went three sets. Sixty were in tournament finals, and 14 of those were in Grand Slam finals, with Navratilova holding a 10-4 lead in title matches of majors.

    Their first Grand Slam meeting came in the 1975 French Open finals, when Evert won in three sets on her favorite surface: clay. Their final Grand Slam matchup came in the 1988 Wimbledon semifinals, when Navratilova won in three sets on her favorite surface, grass.

    Evert won 21 of their first 25 meetings, but Navratilova took 30 of the last 39, including a streak 13 straight wins in the early 1980s.

    Their best match may have been the 1985 French Open finals. After losing the first set, Navratilova rallied from 2-4, 0-40 down in the second to force a third set. At 5-5 in the third set, Evert rallied from 0-40 down on her serve to take a 6-5 lead, then broke serve to finish off a 6-3, 6-7, 7-5 victory. By winning, Evert reclaimed the No.  1 ranking at age 30.

    As described in an excerpt from Howard's book, "The match they played was dazzling, not for its perfection necessarily but more for the stomach-gnawing tension and the stirring determination they displayed."


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