Ranking the Greatest Rivalries in French Open History

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistJune 4, 2014

Ranking the Greatest Rivalries in French Open History

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    PETER COSGROVE/Associated Press

    Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic might be headed for a meeting in the French Open finals that could elevate their intriguing rivalry to a new level. They have played each other five times at Roland Garros, including the past two years in a row.

    But is it the greatest rivalry in French Open history? Would it become the best rivalry if they play another scintillating match this year?

    Let's take a look.

    Some of the best Open-era rivalries never made an appearance at the French Open.

    John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg had some of the most memorable duels in history, but they never faced each other at the French Open. In fact, they never played each other on a clay court. Borg, McEnroe and Jimmy Connors accounted for just one French Open meeting among them, that being McEnroe's straight-sets victory over Connors in the 1984 semifinals.

    Billie Jean King and Margaret Court accounted for 35 Grand Slam singles titles and faced each other 32 times, but they never met at Roland Garros. Venus and Serena Williams faced off in eight Grand Slam finals but played each other only once at the French Open, that being in the 2002 finals.

    Other rivalries flourished at the French Open, with the number of meetings and the significance and intensity of those encounters determining their place on our list.

    We start with one rivalry that predated the Open era but deserves mention nonetheless. Then we count down the 10 greatest French Open rivalries.

Special Mention: Rene LaCoste vs. Henri Cochet vs. Jean Borotra

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    Rene LaCoste
    Rene LaCosteAssociated Press

    Rene LaCoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra competed well before the French Championships were an Open tournament, but their rivalry is a major reason the French Open became the major event it is today.

    Those three Frenchmen, along with Jacques Brugnon, were known as the Four Musketeers, and they helped France claim the Davis Cup six straight years between 1927 and 1932, when the Davis Cup was a much more prestigious event than it is now.

    LaCoste, Cochet or Borotra captured the French Championships nine consecutive years between 1924 and 1932, and two of the three faced off in four of those finals. They ushered in the French Championships as an international event in 1925, and Cochet and LaCoste were the finalists in 1928, the first year the event was played at Roland Garros Stadium, which was constructed that year to host France's first Davis Cup defense.

10. John McEnroe vs. Ivan Lendl

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    Steve Powell/Getty Images

    French Open matches: three

    Although Ivan Lendl won all three of his French Open encounters with John McEnroe, their 1984 match made their rivalry at Roland Garros worth noting.

    McEnroe held a 21-15 overall advantage in matches against Lendl, but Lendl was the better clay-court player.

    That was evident in their first meeting in the French Open, when the No. 5-seeded Lendl beat No. 3 seed McEnroe 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 in the quarterfinals. By the time Lendl ousted McEnroe 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 6-4 in their final French Open meeting in the fourth round in 1988, McEnroe was past his prime.

    However, their 1984 encounter was one of the most memorable matches in French Open history.

    McEnroe had finally learned how to win on clay in 1984 and was playing the best tennis of his career. He finished the year with an 84-3 match record, and he was riding a 42-match winning streak when he faced Lendl in the 1984 French Open finals. McEnroe had won all four previous 1984 meetings against Lendl, the last two being straight-set victories on clay. Plus, Lendl had never won a Grand Slam title.

    McEnroe was well on his way to his first French Open title after cruising through the first two sets. Lendl seemed to have no answer for McEnroe's serve-and-volley game, even on the slow surface.

    Then, at 1-1 in the third set, McEnroe's famed emotions got the better of him. Angered by a television cameraman's headset that was making noise, McEnroe grabbed the instrument and yelled "Shut Up" into the attached microphone before tossing the headset aside.

    Not only did the outburst seem to break McEnroe's momentum, it put the crowd squarely on Lendl's side. Spectators started hooting McEnroe, according to a CNNSI.com story, and Lendl seemed energized by the incident. McEnroe blew a triple break point two games later, and the two played on even terms thereafter.

    Lendl eventually won 3–6, 2–6, 6–4, 7–5, 7–5 in a match that took four hours and eight minutes.

9. Kim Clijsters vs. Justine Henin

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    MICHEL SPINGLER/Associated Press

    French Open matches: three

    Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin are by far the two best Belgian-born tennis players in history, and they carried on a rivalry that reportedly included a personal rift.

    Just one year in age separates them, and they first met in a tournament when Henin was nine and Clijsters eight.

    Both were surprise semifinalists when Henin and Clijsters met in the 2001 French Open, which was also their first meeting in a Grand Slam event. Clijsters won that match 2-6, 7-5, 6-3.

    Their only meeting in a French Open finals came in 2003, and Henin and Clijsters would finish that year ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Henin won that match 6-0, 6-4 for her first Grand Slam singles title and the first major title for a Belgian player.

    Not long after that match came reports that the two did not care for each other. An October 2003 article by The Guardian reported "talk of rifts and intense personal rivalry" between Henin and Clijsters. The article later noted that the presumed animosity resulted from remarks made by Clijster's father, Lei, that led to suggestions of doping by Henin.

    Clijsters ended up with 13-12 advantage in career matches against Henin, and they were tied 10-10 after Henin beat Clijsters 6-3, 6-2 in their last French Open meeting in the 2006 semifinals. That was Clijster's last appearance in the French Open until 2011, and she never won the event.

    A 2012 Tennis Channel article suggested that their past animosity had been left behind: "The two Belgians went from being from junior playmates, to bitter rivals, to establishing a cold peace, and by 2006, to being occasional lunch partners. According to Clijsters, they now text each other on occasion."

8. Rod Laver vs. Ken Rosewall

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    Marqueton/Associated Press

    French Open matches: two

    Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver played each other 144 times during their careers. But largely because they were professionals when pros were not eligible for Grand Slam events, the two Aussies faced each other only twice in one of the four major tournaments.

    Both of those meetings were at the French Open, both were in the finals, and both were historically significant.

    Rosewall's 6-3, 6-1, 2-6, 6-2 victory over Laver in the 1968 French Open finals occurred in the first Open Grand Slam event in history.

    The next year, a 31-year-old Laver beat a 34-year-old Rosewall 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 in the French Open finals to take the second leg of what would be his second career Grand Slam of tennis. Laver had won all four majors in 1962 as an amateur and would match the feat in 1969, making him the only player to complete two single-year Grand Slams.

7. Bjorn Borg vs. Adriano Panatta

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    Adriano Panatta, after beating Bjorn Borg in 1976
    Adriano Panatta, after beating Bjorn Borg in 1976MICHEL LIPCHITZ/Associated Press

    French Open matches: three

    Only devoted tennis fans would recall that Adriano Panatta and Bjorn Borg had a French Open rivalry worth noting. But the fact is, Panatta was the only player who gave Borg trouble during his reign at Roland Garros.

    Borg played the French Open eight times and won it six times. As remarkable as that run is, more remarkable is that his only two losses at the event came against the same Italian player: Panatta.

    Borg was just 16 years old and unseeded when he played the French Open for the first time in 1973. He got to the fourth round and gave the No. 8-seeded Panatta a tough time before Panatta won 7-6, 2-6, 7-5, 7-6.

    Borg won their second encounter at Roland Garros two years later, when he beat Panatta 6-4, 1-6, 7-5, 6-4 in the semifinals and went on to capture his second French Open title.

    However, Panatta pulled off a shocker in 1976, when he stunned the top-seeded Borg 6-3, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 in the quarterfinals. Panatta went on to win the title that year. After skipping the French Open in 1977, Borg won the French title the next four years.

    Borg had a 49-2 career record at the French Open, but he was 1-2 against Panatta.

6. Ivan Lendl vs. Mats Wilander

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    L. Cironneau/Associated Press

    French Open matches: four

    Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl virtually owned Roland Garros from 1982 through 1988, with one or the other winning six of the French Open titles in that seven-year stretch. 

    They faced each other four times at Roland Garros in a six-year span from 1982 to 1987, with each player winning twice and all four matches being significant.

    Their first meeting in any tournament occurred in the fourth round of the 1982 French Open, and it was probably the most intriguing of their 22 career encounters.

    Lendl was seeded No. 2 that year after losing to Bjorn Borg in the 1981 finals, and he was a heavy favorite against the 17-year-old, unseeded Wilander. But the young Swede overcame a two-sets-to-one deficit to upset Lendl in a classic five-setter 4-6, 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. Wilander went on to win the 1982 French Open, becoming the youngest male to win a Grand Slam event in the Open era. (Boris Becker and Michael Chang later became younger winners of major events.)

    That match set the stage for their three subsequent matches at Roland Garros.

    Two years later, Lendl ran through Wilander in straight sets in the semifinals, a prelude to Lendl's memorable five-set victory over John McEnroe in the 1984 French Open finals.

    Lendl and Wilander met in the French Open finals in both 1985 and 1987, with Wilander capturing the second of his three French titles with a four-set victory in 1985, and Lendl winning his third and final French Open championship with a four-set triumph in 1987.

    Wilander captured his third French Open crown in 1988 after the top-seeded Lendl had been upset by unseeded Jonas Svensson in the round of 16.

    A few years ago, Yahoo.com ranked Lendl and Wilander as the third- and fourth-best male clay-court players in history, behind only Borg and Rafael Nadal. 

5. Steffi Graf vs. Monica Seles

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    LAURENT REBOURS/Associated Press

    French Open matches: four

    Monica Seles and Steffi Graf met four times at Roland Garros in an 11-year period, with each winning twice and three of the matches going three sets. They probably would have met a few more times if Seles' career had not been altered by the 1993 stabbing that took her off the French Open courts for three years.

    Their first French Open encounter took place in the 1989 semifinals, when both were teenagers. The 19-year-old Graf beat 15-year-old Seles 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in that one. The next year Seles would beat Graf 7-6, 6-4 in the finals, handing Graf just her second loss in the last 10 Grand Slam events.

    Their final French Open meeting came in the 1999 semifinals, when Graf captured a 6-7, 6-3, 6-4 victory on her way to her last major title in her final French Open appearance.

    However, their most memorable match occurred in the 1992 French Open finals, when Seles pulled out a 6-2, 3-6, 10-8 victory.

    Heading into that 1992 match, the 18-year-old Seles was ranked No. 1 in the world and had already won five of the nine Grand Slam titles she would eventually capture. Graf was 22 and ranked No. 2, having won 10 of the 22 major titles she would ultimately claim.

    Graf fought off five match points against her in a taut, 90-minute third set. She saved four of those match points while serving at 3-5 and rallied to take leads of 6-5 and 7-6. But Seles ultimately prevailed.

    "I think it was the most emotional match I've played ever, not just in a Grand Slam, but in any tournament," Seles said, according to Time magazine.

    The match became more memorable because it was Seles' last match at the French Open until 1996. She was stabbed by a Graf fan during a match on April 30, 1993, three weeks before the start of the 1993 French Open. She missed the next three French Opens and was never quite the dominant player she had been in 1992.

4. Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal

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    Julian Finney/Getty Images

    French Open matches: five

    Last year's riveting 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7, 9-7 semifinal victory by Rafael Nadal over Novak Djokovic suggests this rivalry eventually could become the best in French Open history. For now, though, it lags just a bit behind a few others for three reasons: Nadal has won all five of their French Open meetings; only one of those five matches was a finals; and their best match came at another Grand Slam event, when Djokovic won a five-set thriller in the 2012 Australian Open final.

    Their first three meetings at the French Open were relatively mundane affairs, with Nadal winning in straight sets. Their very first career meeting in any tournament came in the quarterfinals of the 2006 French Open, and Nadal won the first two sets 6-4, 6-4 before Djokovic was forced to retire. Nadal beat Djokovic the next year and again in 2008, both times in the semifinals.

    They did not meet at Roland Garros the next three years, but things got interesting in 2012, when they met in the French Open finals. They were the top two ranked players in the world at the time, and were meeting in the finals of a fourth straight Grand Slam event. The top-seeded Djokovic took a set from No. 2 seed Nadal this time before losing 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, ending Djokovic's run of three straight major titles.

    Last year's epic semifinal match indicates their French Open rivalry is getting better. John McEnroe said that match might have been the best match ever played on a clay court, and tennis historian Steve Flink told World Tennis, “It was definitely among the finest semifinals ever played."

    The resiliency of both players highlighted their 2013 encounter at Roland Garros.

    Nadal served for the match at 6-5 of the fourth set and led 30-15 in that 12th game before Djokovic fought back to force a tiebreaker, which he won.

    It was Nadal's turn to rally in the final set, coming back from a 4-2 deficit and eventually taking the deciding set when he broke Djokovic's serve at love in the 16th game.

    Perhaps they will elevate their rivalry with another classic match in this year's final.

3. Steffi Graf vs. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario

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    Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

    French Open matches: five

    Arantxa Sanchez Vicario won just four major singles titles compared with Steffi Graf's 22, but Sanchez Vicario was a major obstacle for Graf at the French Open.

    The two met five times in an eight-year period at the French Open, with two of the encounters being in the semifinals and the other three in the finals. Sanchez Vicario won their first two French Open meetings, including one of the worst losses Graf has every suffered. Graf won the final three matchups, but all three were three-setters.

    Graf won 10 of the first 11 career matches against Sanchez Vicario, but the lone exception was their first meeting in a Grand Slam match. Sanchez Vicario won that one 7-6, 3-6, 7-5 in the 1989 French Open finals for her first major title.

    That Sanchez Vicario victory was a surprise, but not as shocking as what occurred two years later. Sanchez Vicario handed Graf the worst loss of her career to that point in the 1991 French Open semifinals 6-0, 6-2.

    Graf won their final three French Open meetings, but none was easy, as Sanchez Vicario seemed to have a knack for giving Graf problems on clay.

    Graf got shut out in the first set of their 1992 semifinal matchup, giving Graf just two games past three sets against Sanchez Vicario at the French Open. Graf rallied for an 0-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory in that match, then outlasted Sanchez Vicario 7-5, 4-6, 6-0 in the 1995 French Open finals.

    Their final meeting at Roland Garros occurred in the 1996 finals and was their most memorable match. Graf took the first set and led 4-1 in the second-set tiebreaker. Sanchez Vicario then won seven straight points to even the match. Sanchez Vicario then served for the match in both the 10th and 14th games of the third set but could not get it done. Graf ultimately won 6-3, 6-7, 10-8.

    "It was very emotional, all the tension and all the nerves," said Sanchez Vicario, according to the New York Times. "As a matter of fact, we both played our best, but at the end, she pulled away."

2. Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal

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    MICHEL EULER/Associated Press

    French Open matches: five

    Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal may rank as the greatest male rivalry in the Open era, and their five matches at the French Open helped shape it.

    Much like the Djokovic-Nadal matchup, the Nadal-Federer French Open rivalry suffers from two shortcomings: Nadal has dominated Federer at Roland Garros, and their most intriguing matches came at Wimbledon, not the French Open.

    Their five-set matches in the 2007 and 2008 Wimbledon finals were classics, with the latter being considered one of the greatest matches in history.

    Three of their five French Open meetings came before either of those matches, but those Wimbledon matches contributed to the status of their French Open rivalry.

    For some reason, the Nadal-Federer rivalry at the French Open seemed to capture the public's fancy more than the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry, though Nadal is unbeaten in both. Perhaps it was because Nadal and Federer were clearly the two dominant forces in men's tennis when their rivalry began, before Djokovic and Andy Murray stepped up to create the Big Four. Perhaps it was because Nadal and Federer met four years in a row at the French Open, including three straight finals. Perhaps it was because Nadal announced his emergence on the world stage when, on his 19th birthday, he beat the No. 1-ranked Federer in four sets in the 2005 semifinals on his way to his first French Open title.

    That 2005 match was their first meeting in a Grand Slam event and their first meeting on clay. It also set the course for their subsequent French Open encounters.

    Nadal and Federer met in the French Open finals each of the next three years, with Nadal's four-set victory in 2006 ending Federer's run of three straight Grand Slam titles. Nadal won again in four sets in the 2007 finals, then posted the only lopsided victory in the series in 2008 when he squashed Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the finals.

    Federer won his first and only French Open title in 2009 when Nadal was upset by Robin Soderling in the fourth round, but Nadal and Federer would meet again in the 2011 finals. By then Nadal's clay-court superiority over Federer was well established, but Federer demonstrated in the 2011 final that he could still compete with Nadal on the slow surface. The first three sets were taut affairs reminiscent of their Wimbledon encounters, and after Federer won the third set to get back into the match, he held a 0-40 lead on Nadal's serve in the first game of the fourth set. However, Nadal's persistence on clay proved too much Federer again, as Nadal won 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1.

1. Martina Navratilova vs. Chris Evert

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    Sal Veder/Associated Press

    French Open matches: five

    The five French Open matches between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova over a 13-year period helped define their rivalry, which was unsurpassed in the Open era.

    Not only did their contrasting styles and demeanors create an intriguing matchup for viewers, but the friendship they developed that continues today gives their rivalry an enduring quality. Add the fact that Navratilova and Evert rank as the second and fourth greatest female players in history, respectively, according to a Tennis Channel panel of experts, and their rivalry is unmatched.

    It is a testament to the longevity of their rivalry and dominance that their first Grand Slam meeting came in the 1975 French Open finals, when Evert was 20 and Navratilova 18, and their final French Open matchup came in the 1987 semifinals, when Evert was 32 and Navratilova 30.

    Evert won three of their five French Open matches, all but one of which came in the finals. Three of the matches went three sets, and Evert won all three of those. Two of them were one-sided affairs, and Navratilova won both of those.

    After Evert won the 1975 encounter, 2-6, 6-2, 6-1, they did not meet again at Roland Garros for nine years. That's largely because Navratilova did not play the French Open the next five years, and Evert did not play the event the next three years. You can only guess how many more times they might have played in the French Open had they participated in those prime years.

    They met again in 1984, the first of four consecutive years of playing each other at Roland Garros. Navratilova won the 1984 finals 6-3, 6-1, and that seemed to cement the notion that Evert could no longer compete with Navratilova, even on Evert's favorite surface.

    However, Evert experienced a resurgence and beat Navratilova in the French Open finals in 1985 and 1986, both in three sets, before Navratilova won their final French Open encounter in the 1987 semifinals, 6-2, 6-2.

    The 1985 finals is the one that sticks in many minds, which is why Bleacher Report recently ranked it No. 4 on its list of most memorable French Open matches in history.

    That match was the 65th and best of the 80 matches Evert and Navratilova would play against each other. As described in an excerpt from Johnette Howard's book The Rivals: Chris Evert Vs. Martina Navratilova: Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship, "The match they played was dazzling, not for its perfection necessarily but more for the stomach-gnawing tension and the stirring determination they displayed."

    Navratilova rallied from down 2-4, 0-40 in the second set to force a third.

    In the deciding set, Evert let a 5-3 lead slip away. Navratilova tied it 5-5 and, with momentum on her side, had an 0-40 lead on Evert's serve in the 11th game. Evert came back to hold serve, then broke Navratilova's serve in the 12th game to finish off a 6-3, 6-7, 7-5 victory.

    Evert was 3-1 against Navratilova in French Open finals, but only 1-9 against Navratilova in the finals of other Grand Slam events.