Ranking the Best Budding Rivalries in Tennis Today

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistOctober 28, 2016

Ranking the Best Budding Rivalries in Tennis Today

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    Borna Coric and Alexander Zverev (far left) head up a group of next generation players on the ATP World Tour.
    Borna Coric and Alexander Zverev (far left) head up a group of next generation players on the ATP World Tour.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray and Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova are among the biggest rivalries in tennis today. But those players are aging, and the game could use some new, compelling matchups.

    So what are some potentially epic rivalries, and what makes some better than others? 

    The greatest rivalries include talented, top-ranked players who complete in high-stakes matches. The players have organic conflicts or intertwined histories. Fans circle their matches immediately when they pop up in a draw.

    The best rivalries aren't always competitive. Williams has a 19-2 record against Sharapova, but the dynamic of their first meeting—when 17-year-old Sharapova upset Williams at Wimbledon in 2004—and their place in popular culture has made this one of the most anticipated matches in women's tennis over the past decade.

    Similarly, Nadal is 23-11 against Federer. However, their status as two of the greatest of all time makes this one of the better rivalries in tennis history.

    With the No. 1 ranking on the line, Murray and Djokovic have the hottest rivalry going right now. But there are some budding rivalries that one day could be just as hot. 

    Criteria for this ranking include projected career paths, level of drama in the matchup and potential for many meetings in the future. 

    You won't find Williams vs. Angelique Kerber on this list. They played in two of the best matches this year in finals at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. However, Williams is clearly in the final stages of her career, so although the rivalry is compelling, it's late blooming instead of budding with potential. 

    The matchups on this list include players who have produced results that left fans hungry for a rematch. The players must also have the potential to win a Grand Slam. Examples of organic conflict and intertwined histories include rivals as juniors, compatriots and opposing playing styles. 

    The future is uncertain, but the following are the best budding rivalries in tennis today. 

7. Taylor Fritz vs. Frances Tiafoe

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    Taylor Fritz, left, and Frances Tiafoe after their match at the 2016 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells (CA).
    Taylor Fritz, left, and Frances Tiafoe after their match at the 2016 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells (CA).Julian Finney/Getty Images

    Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe are among the most promising men's players in American tennis.  These two friends have the potential to be the next great American rivalry. 

    They are still teenagers, so it's too early to say if they'll develop into Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi or John McEnroe vs. Jimmy Connors. But so far, their contests offer hope. 

    Fritz's straight-sets win over Tiafoe at Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in August was his first against his friend. Dating back to their junior years, Tiafoe is 6-1 against Fritz. 

    After the match in Winston-Salem, Fritz told the ATP that they were both pleased with their progress at this stage: “Frances and I were actually talking about that before the match, that it’s crazy where we are right now. Neither of us thought we’d be where we are right now, a year later."

6. Simona Halep vs. Dominika Cibulkova

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    Simona Halep, left, and Dominika Cibulkova shake hands after a match at the 2016 WTA Finals in Singapore.
    Simona Halep, left, and Dominika Cibulkova shake hands after a match at the 2016 WTA Finals in Singapore.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    In a matchup of two compact powerhouses, Simona Halep vs. Dominika Cibulkova could become one of the best rivalries on the women's tour.

    Cibulkova, ranked No. 8, leads the series 4-2, including a win at the WTA Finals. She's 3-0 against Halep on hard courts. 

    Both have been around for years, but Cibulkova, 27, is enjoying her best year on the tour. In the last 12 months, she made her first appearance at the WTA Finals and has reached the semifinals. 

    Halep, 25, reached the finals of the French Open in 2014 and has long been considered one of the best players on the women's tour yet to win a Grand Slam. 

    The two are the antithesis of the WTA's prototypical taller, bigger women. Halep and Cibulkova are athletic, feisty fighters who are fun to watch. 

5. Lucas Pouille vs. David Goffin

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    Lucas Pouille hits a backhand during a match in Vienna , Austria.
    Lucas Pouille hits a backhand during a match in Vienna , Austria.GEORG HOCHMUTH/Getty Images

    France's Lucas Pouille and Belgium's David Goffin are two of Europe's most promising young players. 

    Pouille, 22, brings more power to his game than Goffin. The son of a tennis coach, Goffin, 25, has such technically sound strokes and is crafty on the court. The Frenchman leads the series 3-0, but two of the matches have gone the distance. 

    In their last match, in Metz, France, Pouille defeated Goffin 7-6, 6-1. 

    Both have the talent to one day win a Grand Slam. What makes this matchup fun is watching the contrasting styles and personalities. 

4. Naomi Osaka and Madison Keys

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    Naomi Osaka, left, and Madison Keys shake hands after a match at the 2016 U.S. Open
    Naomi Osaka, left, and Madison Keys shake hands after a match at the 2016 U.S. OpenAssociated Press/Associated Press

    Although Naomi Osaka left the court in tears, she put on a show in her 2016 match against Madison Keys at the U.S. Open in early September. 

    In their first and only meeting, Osaka squandered a 5-1 lead in the third set to lose the match 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (3). It was one of the most thrilling matches of the tournament and an instant classic. 

    Only 18 at the time, Osaka rebounded from the loss and reached the finals at the Toray Pan Pacific Open later that month. 

    She's ranked only No. 41 and Keys, 21, is in the Top 10. However, Keys has had about a four-year head start on the pro tour. 

    After the match, Keys chalked up her victory to more experience, per Agence France-Presse (via news.com.au): “At the end of the match, it kind of came down to experience, being in that situation before, having lost some tough matches. It happens. It just makes you stronger."  

3. Kei Nishikori vs. Milos Raonic

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    Kei Nishikori, left, and Milos Raonic pose before a 2015 Davis Cup match.
    Kei Nishikori, left, and Milos Raonic pose before a 2015 Davis Cup match.Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

    Although Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic seem like old veterans compared to many of the players on this list, they are only 26 and 25, respectively. 

    Each has reached a Grand Slam final, and both have become regulars in the Top 10. They will both return to the ATP World Tour Finals this year. 

    In this clash of styles, it's the speedy Nishikori against the bomb-serving Raonic. Nishikori leads the head-to-head 5-2. 

    Their last match was in 2015 when Canada defeated Japan in Davis Cup action. Nishikori won a tight five-setter 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4. It was their second five-set contest. Nishikori won that one, too, in the fourth round of the 2014 U.S. Open.

    What adds drama to this matchup is both men are achieving historical firsts for their countries. 

2. Garbine Muguruza vs. Karolina Pliskova

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    Garbine Muguruza, left, shakes hands with Karolina Pliskova after their match at the 2016 WTA Tour Finals in Singapore.
    Garbine Muguruza, left, shakes hands with Karolina Pliskova after their match at the 2016 WTA Tour Finals in Singapore.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Garbine Muguruza and Karolina Pliskova are both big hitters who defeated Serena Williams late in Grand Slam matches this year.

    Muguruza won the 2016 French Open, and Pliskova reached the finals of the U.S. Open. 

    Pliskova, 24, has the momentum, having passed Muguruza, 23, in the rankings. They are ranked No. 5 and No. 6, respectively. Muguruza is listed as 6'0", 161 pounds and Pliskova as 6'1", 159 pounds. Their matches are the epitome of power. 

    Pliskova defeated Muguruza in their contest at this year's WTA finals and leads the series 4-1. Expect to see these two big hitters staring down each other for many years to come. 

1. Alexander Zverev vs. Dominic Thiem

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    Alexander Zverev, with his back to the camera, gets a hug from Dominic Thiem during the 2016 French Open.
    Alexander Zverev, with his back to the camera, gets a hug from Dominic Thiem during the 2016 French Open.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Members of the ATP's generation next, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem are on the fast track to superstardom. They already have wins over top-ranked players and are both in the Top 20. 

    Of all the possible future rivalries, this one has the potential to become a must-see showdown. 

    Thiem defeated Zverev 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 in an entertaining match at the 2016 French Open. 

    Reem Abulleil of Sport360 wrote: "Billed as a sneak peek into the future of tennis, the Dominic Thiem-Alexander Zverev third round on Saturday was everything it promised to be: powerful, exciting and very, very tight." 

    Thiem leads the series 3-1. However, like with Keys and Osaka, Thiem is four years older. As Zverev matures, expect more balance in this one-sided rivalry.