Considered to be a quintessentially English game, tennis has long been labelled as the sport of gentry. A match doesn’t become aggressive until it is well underway, and even then the aggression is only taken to the ball with the bat rather than at the opposing player.
In spite of its calm demeanour, at first glance, tennis isn’t without its competition. There have been many great rivalries throughout the sports history, not just in individual competitions but throughout the seasons.
Rivalries can be created in several different ways, occasionally they are long standing and come about when players of equal measure meet on the courts. Sometimes they can spawn as a result of conflicting personalities. They can even be put down to style of game play.
Almost every great tennis rivalry consists of the world’s greatest players rather than those who are lesser known. It only takes one incident, on one occasion for the media to get hold of a story and run with it. Some of the greatest rivalries are built up not only on the courts, but also by incidents that become sensationalised stories.
In this article we looked at rivalries from players that are still challenging each other today. We also included some of the greatest rivalries in a long line of major players throughout history.
1. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer
The first and ongoing rivalry that has to top our greatest list is the one between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. It is possibly due to consistency throughout their game, as well as their almost equal ability overall. Their rivalry is so well known that they have a page on Wikipedia dedicated to it.
The pair have faced each other on thirty seven separate occasions throughout their time in the professional game. They battle it out every year to finish in consecutive positions in the world rankings. They also face each other in many ATP tour competitions, often seeded one after the other.
Of their thirty-seven matches Nadal is on top with twenty-three wins to Federer’s fourteen. Federer has more success on hard courts and grass, whilst Nadal is of course better on clay. These results are somewhat predictable as it is no secret that Federer prefers to play on grass and Nadal favours a clay surface. Nadal isn’t nicknamed the clay king for no reason.
2. Margaret Court and Billie Jean King
A major rivalry in woman’s tennis has been the long standing one between Margaret Court and Billie Jean King. Their conflict in the sport, grew from their first of thirty two matches on the courts, in the 1960’s and through to the following decade. Of their thirty-two matches, Court out played her opponent on twenty two separate occasions.
Having faced each other in finals, at no less than five grand slam events, the pair were well matched in their abilities. King secured victory over Court, just once, in a grand slam final. This was in the 1968 Australian Open, Women’s Final competition. Just prior to Kings grand slam victory, Court had taken two years out of the game.
Court and King’s rivalry was well known for two famous matches that took place at Wimbledon. The first of these two matches was played in 1962, when Billie Jean was eighteen years old, and starring in her second ever women’s singles match at Wimbledon. Seeded first that year, Margret missed out on the chance to progress any further than the opening round, in a shock defeat 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 to Billie Jean.
The second of the two great Wimbledon matches between the pair, came in 1970. The rivals battled it out in a bid for the title in the final, when it was Courts turn to finish on top. At the time both players were struggling with injuries that had an impact on their game. King played through a knee injury that would later require surgery, Court played on an ankle that had to be injected with pain killers.
The rivalry still continues today but for different reasons. Openly gay, Billie Jean King has publically expressed that she is hurt by her former rival’s opinions on same sex marriage. Margaret Court’s religion has a huge impact on her views. Despite the fact that her thoughts could affect her legacy in tennis, Court is highly unlikely to deter from them because of her beliefs.
Although the two of them have differing opinions, both still respect each other because of their history in tennis.
3. Helen Wills and Helen Jacobs
Helen Wills' rivalry with Helen Jacobs did not match the intensity of Wills' competition with Suzanne Lenglen. However, that said it was the greater of the two owing to its longevity.
Wills was the better of the pair and only conceded a single match to Jacobs in a grand slam. It is perhaps because of this, among other points, they became such great rivals.
With paralleled foundations in life, as well as a passion for tennis, the pair were nothing less than a phenomenon in the sport. Both women spent their informative years in Berkeley, both attended the same University and both trained under the same coach, Pop Fuller.
The pair faced seven grand slam final matches against each other. Jacobs only victory in a grand slam over her rival, came about in the US championships, when her opponent was forced to withdraw from the game citing back injury. The loss wasn’t taken too well by Wills who apparently snapped at Jacobs when she tried to comfort her following her retirement from the match.
4. Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras
With completely different personalities and styles Agassi and Sampras made for one of the greatest rivals ever!
With a gentlemanly appearance and a well to do nature Sampras commanded the courts with his famous serve and volley skills. On the other hand Agassi was both eccentric and occasionally rebellious in his demeanour. His famous blond locks were his signature look, and his return following a serve was his signature move.
Because they were different in every way the pair were unable to sustain any kind of relationship on or off the courts. However, they did provide audiences with interesting game play when they faced each other.
They battled it out to sit at number one in the world rankings for a number of years. Before April in 1995 Sampras had laid claim to the top spot for an impressive eighty two weeks. A position that Agassi took from him, and held on to for thirty weeks, before Sampras managed to win it back. The following year, Agassi again took the position from his rival.
Throughout their careers they played each other on thirty-four separate occasions, with Sampras finishing on top winning twenty of their matches. His victories over Agassi, included four out of five grand slam titles.
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.
5. Bill Johnston and Bill Tilden
As with all major sports America has to be credited with delivering astonishing talent, this is absolutely the case, when it comes to the great nation and their history in tennis.
Bill Tilden and Bill Johnston were the greatest American representatives in the 1920s. The pair helped to establish the game of tennis in its earlier days.
Over the course of seven years they came up against each other in the US championships. Johnston was able to secure victory in their first final meeting, However, Tilden went on to win the following five.
In 1925, the match they played in the US Championships final went down in history as one of their greatest matches ever. It was the last time they would play each other in the final of the competition. Tilden beat Johnston in a spectacular display of five sets ending 4-6, 11-9, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3.
Because they shared the same Christian name the pair were fondly nicknamed ‘Little Bill’ and ‘Big Bill’ owing to their contrasting heights.
The pair didn’t always work against each other. In 1920 – 1926 They worked together to represent the US and contribute to a seven year run as Davis Cup Champions. However they were most famously known for their rivalry against each other rather than their achievements together.
6. Steffi Graf and Monica Seles
Built on a fate of what might have been, the competition between Steffi Graf and Monica Seles began in the early 1990s. The women were at the height of their fame in tennis, well known for their abilities on the courts as well as for their rankings.
Steffi Graf had her name at the top of the rankings and had sat there comfortably for three years before her rival came along and took hold of the top spot.
The women met in the finals of three grand slams from 1992-93. They played each other in the French Open followed by Wimbledon and then in the Australian Open, in which Seles beat Graf.
A shocking turn of events in ‘93 meant that 19-year-old Seles had to retire from the sport for two years. A deranged fan of Graf’s sought revenge on Seles, who at the time had a firm grip on the number one spot. The fan wanted to see Graf back at the top of her game and took it upon himself to ensure it would happen.
During a match in Germany, the obsessed fan stabbed Monica Seles in the back. Sadly she was unable to return to the game on top form. Following on from her recovery she only managed to win one further title – the Australian Open in 1996.
The rivalry could have been so much more if it wasn’t for the fanatic that intervened.
7. Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall
In terms of longevity the rivalry between Rod Laver and ken Rosewell is unmatched by any other. Having played each other an astonishing 143 times throughout their careers, in both amateur and professional tennis, the pair have to be mentioned in the greatest ever rivalries list.
Rod Laver was arguably the better player with 80 wins out of the 143 matches.
One of their most remarkable matches took place in Dallas during 1972. By his own admission Laver claimed this match was one of the most significant in America. It contributed greatly to the game of tennis in the US as we know it today. Lavers Rival claimed the victory on said occasion in a full five set match that thrilled the audience, 6-4, 0-6, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6. A record breaking 23 million viewers tuned in their television sets to watch the rivals battle it out in spectacular fashion.
8. Serena Williams and Venus Williams
We couldn’t exclude the two sisters that took the world of tennis by storm when they turned professional. Serena Williams and Venus Williams have one of the greatest rivalries ever. Combine the determination that each sister readily displays on court with the natural phenomenon of pure sibling rivalry.
The sisters have faced each other twenty eight times with Serena, the younger of the two, coming out on top 17-11.
The pair are famed for their world record. In the 2002 French Open, the sisters faced each other in the women’s final, starting a consecutive run with appearances in the following three final grand slam events. This is the only time in history that four consecutive grand slams have featured the same two female players.
The media has credited them with being two of the greatest female tennis players ever. The fact they are from the same family in the same era is what makes the rivalry so unique.
9. John McEnroe and Björn Borg
Nicknamed the fire and ice rivalry, John McEnroe and Björn Borg had a relatively short lived conflict that spanned over the course of four years.
The pair played each other only 14 times, of which, both players won seven matches. Over the course of three years, 1979-81, the sparring players passed the number one spot to each other on seven occasions.
The rivalry between them sparked the imagination of tennis fans from around the world, their dynamic on the courts was incredible causing. Together they put on a captivating show. In fact if they came up against each other the impending match became highly anticipated. In their day they were both considered to be the world’s greatest tennis players.
Borg won five Wimbledon titles in his day using formidable techniques. He was known for his abilities, using extreme topspin on his forehand and an accurate two-handed backhand. He was also famed for his laid back attitude. McEnroe, on the other hand, was credited with his serve and volley skills. He was well known for his bad temper, particularly when things were not going his way in a match. He didn’t think twice about his conduct on the courts and there were often fireworks if he began lost out on points and sets.
The rivalry didn’t last as long as it could have. At the 1981 US Open finals Borg decided it was time for him to retire from grand slam tennis without a reasonable explanation. The Swedish tennis star was just 25 years old, and arguably in his prime. McEnroe, was 22 that year and had won three of his four grand slam titles in finals against Borg. The fiery player went on to win three further titles but didn’t win another after the age of 25. Coincidentally, the same age his rival was when he quit.
Borgs leaving the game had a lasting effect on McEnroe, who later claimed that the game was never as good as it had been when Borg was his main competition.
10. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova
Arguably the greatest rivalry in tennis ever, was that between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. It was a fierce competition on the courts that turned into a lasting friendship for the pair, both during their days on the courts, and continuing today.
The talented women played each other, an astonishing, eighty times during their careers that spanned more than a decade. Navratilova held a 43-37 lead over her rival. Evert favoured clay courts and Navratilova found her finest form on grass.
The number of times that this pair faced each other wasn’t the only phenomenon that led to the great rivalry they shared. Until Navratilova made her debut, Evert was virtually impossible to beat. Her skills in accuracy were second to none at the time. In great contrast it was Navratilova’s serve and her skills in a volley that set her above the rest.
Perhaps you can experience some of these and future tennis rivalries yourself. Whether you’re with family, friends or with colleagues, experiencing these rivalries first hand would certainly be iconic. Click here to find out more about corporate hospitality packages.