Saturday, June 14, 2014

25 Greatest Tennis Rivalries of the Open Era

More so than any other professional sport outside of perhaps boxing, tennis thrives on rivalries. As an individual sport, tennis can produce some of the most intense rivalries in all of sports, which is what draws in fans. Since computer rankings began, there have been 25 different players that have reached the pinnacle of the sport. These 25 players have spanned across 46 years of tennis now, meaning many of those 25 players reached their primes at the same time, creating rivalries of epic proportions. Many rivalries are between two of the all-time greats, who peaked at the same time. However, many great rivalries have been created by a world No. 1 preventing a challenger from ever claiming the top ranking. Since tennis is so driven by rivalries, I put together a list of the 25 best rivalries in the last 46 years, since there have been 25 different world No. 1s.

25. John Newcombe vs. Ken Rosewall - These two Aussies met 15 times in the last 46 years, but many of their best meetings came before 1968, which is why they aren't higher on the list.

24. Roger Federer vs. David Nalbandian - This is the only rivalry on the list that never met in a grand slam. However, Nalbandian's eight wins against the greatest player of all time is the fifth most of any of his rivals.

23. Stefan Edberg vs. Michael Chang - These two contested one grand slam final, but their best match came a round earlier, producing one of the best matches of 1992 in the US Open semifinals.

22. Roger Federer vs. Juan Martin del Potro - Del Potro pulled off one of the biggest surprises at a grand slam final in the last decade with his five-set win over Federer at the 2009 US Open final.

21. Bjorn Borg vs. Guillermo Vilas - Both of these players are two of the best clay courters in tennis history. Of their 22 meetings, 13 were on clay, including the 1975 and 1978 Roland Garros finals.

20. Pete Sampras vs. Goran Ivanisevic - These are two of the greatest servers in tennis history. Ivanisevic never reached the top ranking, largely because of his 12 losses to Sampras.

19. Pete Sampras vs. Jim Courier - They met at least three times on every surface except grass, where their only meeting was at the 1993 Wimbledon final, which Sampras won 7-6(3), 7-6(6), 3-6, 6-3.

18. Rod Laver vs. Ken Rosewall - This is another rivalry amongst Australians that would be higher on the list if their best matches hadn't come before 1968. They did play two grand slam finals in the Open Era.

17. Roger Federer vs. Lleyton Hewitt - These two had great careers, an exciting rivalry, and amazing matches, but even if they only played one point against each other, they would still make the list. The point they played at Indian Wells remains one of the greatest single points of all time.

16. Andy Murray vs. Roger Federer - The Brit is one of only two players on this list with a favorable record against Federer. After losing his third grand slam final to Federer, Murray won the Olympic Gold Medal in front of his home crowd with a straight-set victory over his rival.

15. Roger Federer vs. Andy Roddick - There are many players who can claim that they would have had amazing careers if not for Federer, but none more so than Roddick. The former world No. 1 had his top ranking stolen by the Swiss, who never gave it back and went on to beat him in four grand slam finals.

14. Stefan Edberg vs. Ivan Lendl - This rivalry played a big part in putting the Australian Open on the same tier as the rest of the grand slams with three five-set epics down under. However, their most famous match may be the last one they ever played, which Edberg won in a fifth set tiebreaker at the 1992 US Open quarterfinals.

13. Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray - This rivalry took a back seat in the tennis world while Federer and Nadal dominated, but it finally took center stage in 2011. In the last three and a half years, four grand slam finals have been between these two, including Murray's win at the 2013 Wimbledon Championships that ended the British drought.

12. Ivan Lendl vs. Jimmy Connors - These two met 35 times, which is tied for the third most of any rivalry in the Open Era. Connors may have won the first 17 sets these two played and consecutive US Open titles in 1982 and 1983 over Lendl, but the Czech still finished with 13 wins in the rivalry that spanned three decades.

11. John McEnroe vs. Bjorn Borg - Their 14 meetings is the least of any rivalry on this list, but that didn't stop them from playing some of the most memorable matches in tennis history. Their most memorable was the 1980 Wimbledon final, which Borg won 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7(16), 8-6.

10. Ivan Lendl vs. Mats Wilander - These two met in five grand slam finals, which was the Open Era record at the time. They also battled each other for the No. 1 ranking in tennis throughout their careers. Wilander won their first meeting in five sets, which was the 1982 Roland Garros fourth round. Wilander went on to win his first grand slam title that fortnight.

9. Ivan Lendl vs. Boris Becker - Lendl is the greatest tennis player to have never won Wimbledon and he gets that distinction thanks to Boris Becker, who beat him three times at Wimbledon, including an epic five-set match in the 1989 semifinals. Also, their meeting in the 1988 Masters final, which Becker won 5-7, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2, 7-6 ended that season with arguably the greatest match of the year.

8. Bjorn Borg vs.  Jimmy Connors - This is one of the few rivalries in tennis history that spans across all surface types. The head to head record on hard courts was 3-3 and on clay courts was 3-3. Borg led 5-2 on carpet and 4-0 on grass courts, but Connors took him to five sets twice at Wimbledon, including the 1977 final.

7. Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic - Federer won the first four matches of this rivalry and has never let the lead slip even though Djokovic had two chances to tie the head-to-head this season. These two met in five straight US Opens, and after Federer won the first three, Djokovic won in 2010 and 2011, coming back from down two match points in both matches. The pair met in 20 semifinals, which is an Open Era record.

6. Boris Becker vs. Stefan Edberg - These are two top 10 players all time that peaked at the same time, creating the perfect conditions for an incredible rivalry. They met in three consecutive Wimbledon finals and played 19 finals against each other in total. The draws pitted them against each other frequently early in their careers and when their rankings rose, they were frequently the last two left in the draw. It may be the second most lopsided rivalry on the list with 15 more wins by Becker, but there was rarely a lopsided match in their 35 meetings. Their six meetings at the year-end finals event remains tied for the record.

5. John McEnroe vs. Jimmy Connors - This pair was the first rivalry that battled for the No. 1 ranking with each other on almost a weekly basis. Connors was the third player to be ranked No. 1 by a computer and McEnroe was the fifth as the pair exchanged the rankings between each other 10 times. The most famous match between the two Americans came in their home country as they met in the 1980 US Open semifinals, which was decided by a fifth set tiebreak. In total, the two played five five-set matches.

4. Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi - This is the second all-American rivalry in the top five, and is one of the most dominant duopolies in the history of the sport with a combined 387 weeks at world No. 1 and 22 grand slam titles. The two produced several of the best matches in American tennis history with 16 of their meetings coming on home soil, including three US Open finals. However, arguably their best match came in the US Open quarterfinals of 2001. After Agassi won the first set 9-7 in a tiebreaker, Sampras won three consecutive tiebreak sets, 7-2, 7-2, 7-5. The following year, Sampras got the final title of his career with a 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 win over Agassi in the US Open final.

3. Ivan Lendl vs. John McEnroe - In just 13 seasons these two met 36 times, which was the record for the most meetings in a rivalry until last year. Their 20 finals contested against each other also was a record until just a year ago. The one record they do still have is the 11 times that they traded the top ranking in the world between each other. Until just a few years ago, this was the best rivalry in tennis history because they met more times than anybody else and with more on the line in each one of their matches than any other rivalry. In every match, they battled for both titles and the No. 1 ranking. At the end, they finished with a combined 440 weeks at No. 1 and 171 titles. Both men were one title away from a career grand slam. Ivan Lendl was missing the Wimbledon title, and in their one match at SW19, McEnroe won in three sets. Meanwhile, McEnroe needed the Roland Garros title, but lost to Lendl three times in Paris, including the 1984 final, which McEnroe led by two sets to love before Lendl came roaring back for a narrow 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5 victory. That is the essence of a great rivalry: having to go through your rival to get what you want most.

2. Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer - This was my top rivalry just a couple weeks ago. When these two have both retired, they will likely be the greatest players in all of the Open Era. Even though their peaks weren't exactly at the same time, these two had several incredible matches in their 33 meetings, including a record eight grand slam finals. Their 2008 Wimbledon final is considered by many to be the greatest tennis match ever played. Like 22 other matches they played, Nadal won this one. After taking a two-set lead, 6-4, 6-4, Federer fought back into the match with two incredible tiebreak sets. However, Nadal claimed the fifth set in fading light for a 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7 win and his first Wimbledon crown after losing the final in five sets to Federer the previous year. For several years, Nadal prevented Federer from winning Roland Garros, but a fourth-round upset to Nadal in 2009 gave Federer an open path to the title and a career grand slam. Though Nadal dominated much of the rivalry, Federer's accomplishments still outnumber Nadal's. However, the Spaniard just turned 28 and still has plenty of time to catch a few of Federer's records.

1. Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic - After setting their seventh grand slam final between the two, this rivalry moved up to No. 1 on my list. They have met 42 times and in 22 finals, both of which are records. Djokovic's 19 wins against Nadal are the most against any single player while not leading the head-to-head. This is the only rivalry that has completed the career grand slam: meeting in the final of all four majors. Djokovic's four wins over Nadal in clay-court finals are the most wins against the King of Clay on his surface of any player. However, the Spaniard is still a perfect 6-0 at Roland Garros against Djokovic, who lacks only that trophy for the career grand slam. The two have already traded the No. 1 ranking twice and could do so for a third time as soon as Wimbledon. This rivalry has already met six more times than any other rivalry in the Open Era and the two players are 28 and 27 years old, meaning this could keep going for a long time. The pair averages about five or six meetings every year, so they should have well over 50 meetings when they both decide to retire.

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