What makes a great tennis rivalry? It isn’t only about the players’ skill with the racket, there’s a lot more to it. Both players’ position in the rankings, the big titles they have fought each other for, how their games measure up against one another, their personalities, their personal equation – all of these factors play a role in putting forth unforgettable matchups.
Men’s tennis has had a number of such rivalries that tick all these boxes. From Rod Laver and Roy Emerson captivating audiences much before the Open Era began in 1968 to the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic troika rewriting the rules of the game in the 21st century, rivalries have played a huge part in helping tennis maintain it’s position as one of the most popular sports in the world.
To zero in on the greatest rivalry of all time is a difficult exercise, for it it impossible to have a fair comparison between eras. However, in this report we highlight the ones that will be etched in fans’ minds forever. Those rivalries that cut across eras and were the main storyline during their time.
Here’s our pick of the ten greatest rivalries in men’s tennis (from oldest to newest):
Rod Laver vs Roy Emerson
Rivalry: 1958 to 1975
Head-to-head: Laver, 51-21
Grand Slams: Laver 11, Emerson 12
The two Australians went toe to toe for nearly two decades with Laver being the dominant force in the rivalry. They met for the first time on the senior amateur circuit in 1958 and played each other 32 times till 1963, the year Laver turned professional. For six years thereafter, until the Open Era began in 1968, the two couldn’t play each other as Emerson was still on the amateur tour. When their rivalry resumed in 1968, Emerson had the upper hand with a 7-6 head-to-head record that year. But Laver then went on to stamp his authority and won 23 matches in a row against Emerson. Their record may be heavily in favour of Laver but Emerson did get a couple of important wins against his great rival – finals of the 1961 Australian Open and the 1962 French Championships.
Rod Laver vs Ken Rosewall
Rivalry: 1963 to 1977
Head-to-head: Laver, 89-75
Grand Slams: Laver 11, Rosewall 8
This is by far the biggest rivalry in terms of matches played. The two faced each other an astounding 164 times but most of those matches took place before the Open Era began. Rosewall, another Aussie, turned pro in 1957 but only got to face Laver in 1963 when the latter turned pro as well. In the next five years, the two went on play each other 129 times. Sadly, though, they came face-to-face only twice in Grand Slams once the Open era began – the 1968 French Open final (Rosewall won in four sets) and the 1969 French Open (Laver won in straight sets). Their dominance of men’s tennis during their time and the unpredictability of their clashes propelled their rivalry to greatness. Their five-set marathon at the 1972 World Championship Tennis Tour final, which Rosewall won with a tense tie-breaker in the decider, is probably their most iconic match.
John McEnroe vs Jimmy Connors
Rivalry: 1977 to 1991
Head-to-head: McEnroe, 20-14
Grand Slams: McEnroe 7, Connors 8
This is arguably the most volatile rivalry in tennis history. Years before Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi put USA at the top of the men’s game with their riveting duels, there were two other Americans who had the spotlight firmly on them. McEnroe and Connors had a lot in common – a never-say-die attitude, a short temper, the propensity to have a go at the chair umpire, the ability to electrify audiences with their antics, and an apparent distaste for one another. Connors had the upper hand in the first half of their rivalry, but McEnroe raced ahead with 11 wins in a row between 1983 and ‘86. McEnroe holds a 6-3 advantage when it comes to their Grand Slam meetings but in Major finals against one another, the two emerged victorious once each – Connors at the 1982 Wimbledon and McEnroe at the 1984 Wimbledon. One of their fiercest clashes came in the 1984 US Open semi-final, which McEnroe won in five sets en route his fifth title at Flushing Meadows.
John McEnroe vs Bjorn Borg
Rivalry: 1978 to 1981
Grand Slams: McEnroe 7, Borg 11
Yes, ‘a rivalry of fire and ice’ is indeed the most accurate description for McEnroe v Borg. The two were opposites in nearly every sense. McEnroe was a left-hander, he liked to rush to the net, he was aggressive, abrasive, and wore his heart on his sleeve each time he stepped on the court. Borg, on the other hand, was all things cool, the right-hander could hit passing shots from the baseline all day, and was never one for showmanship. Four of their 14 meetings came in Grand Slam finals, with the most iconic one of them being the only time Borg emerged victorious. The 1980 Wimbledon final, especially the fourth-set tie-break which McEnroe won 18-16, will never be forgotten by tennis fans. Borg may have won that match but McEnroe got his revenge two months later in another five-set epic in the US Open final. The American then defeated the Swede in both the Wimbledon and US Open finals of 1981. The two went toe to toe for just four years but this discussion would be incomplete without mentioning their names together.
Stefan Edberg vs Boris Becker
Rivalry: 1984 to 1996
Head-to-head: Becker 25-10
Grand Slams: Edberg 6, Becker 6
Becker may have the edge in their career head-to-head record but it is Edberg who holds a 3-1 advantage when it comes to their Slam meetings. The duo, along with Ivan Lendl, took up the mantle of driving men’s tennis forward once the likes Borg, McEnroe and Connors dropped from their peak. From 1988 through to 1990, Edberg and Becker faced each other in three successive Wimbledon finals. This remains the highlight of their rivalry. Their only other clash in a Major was in the 1989 French Open semi-finals, which Edberg won in five sets. The two went on to resume their rivalry years later as coaches, with Edberg joining Roger Federer’s camp and Becker teaming up with Novak Djokovic.
Ivan Lendl vs Boris Becker
Rivalry: 1985 to 1993
Head-to-head: Lendl, 11-10
Grand Slams: Lendl 8, Becker 6
Lendl won the Australian Open twice and the French and US Opens three times each. However, despite skipping Roland Garros in 1990 and ‘91 to better prepare himself, the Czech could never lay his hands on the Wimbledon trophy. And the reason for that was Becker. The German defeated Lendl in the 1986 Wimbledon final, before defeating him twice more at SW19 in the semi-finals in ‘88 and ‘89. Lendl leads their overall head-to-head but Becker holds a 5-1 advantage in Grand Slams. Lendl won their 1992 US Open fourth-round match but Becker triumphed when they met in the 1989 US Open and 1991 Australian Open finals. Their most memorable clash came in the final of the 1988 ATP Tour finals, with Becker coming out on top after clinching the tie-breaker in the deciding set after nearly five hours of absorbing tennis.
Pete Sampras vs Andre Agassi
Rivalry: 1989 to 2002
Head-to-head: Sampras, 20-14
Grand Slams: Sampras 14, Agassi 8
Just as McEnroe and Connors were starting to fade in the early ‘90s, Sampras and Agassi burst onto the scene to re-establish USA’s dominance over men’s tennis. The third match they played against one another was the 1990 US Open final, which Sampras won in straight sets. It was fitting that the last time they squared-off was also in the title match of their home slam in 2002, and once again, it was Sampras who came out on top before calling time in his career. It’s fair to say that Sampras had the edge in the rivalry when it came to tennis. He had the better head-to-head record overall as well as in Slams (6-3). But the sharp contrast in their personalities meant the audiences watched with rapt attention each time they stepped on the court together. Agassi was flamboyant, he sported funky hairstyles, flashy outfits, and was popular for his high-profile relationships. Sampras, on the other hand, was stoic on the court and rarely made headlines off it. Agassi has admitted that his 1995 US Open final loss to Sampras had a deep psychological impact on him and played a big part in his ranking plummeting to 141. The duo’s greatest match was probably their US Open quarter-final of 2001, which Sampras won after four tie-breakers and neither played managed to break serve even once.
Rafael Nadal vs Roger Federer
Rivalry: 2004 to present
Head-to-head: Nadal, 24-16
Grand Slams: Nadal 19, Federer 20
There are a number of reasons why the Federer-Nadal rivalry is considered by many to be the greatest. They’re the top two when it comes to most Grand Slams won, they have played each other for the biggest titles umpteen times, the list of classic matches they have produced is fairly long, and they both enjoy immense respect and admiration from fans and peers alike. All strong ingredients that an all-time great rivalry must have. Still, there’s a lot more that makes this matchup special. And again, it has got to do with the overall contrast. Federer is calmness personified on the court, he hits the ball flatter and and relies greatly on the variety of his strokeplay to build points. Nadal is a raging bull, he hits the ball with vicious topspin and introduced the game to a kind of power and athleticism it hadn’t seen before. The fact that one is a right-hander and the other is a lefty makes their matches all the more attractive. Nadal has always had the upper hand when it comes to their head-to-head. In fact, many argued that this was hardly a rivalry when the Spaniard led 23-10 in 2014. But Federer restored some parity by winning five matches in a row as he recovered from his knee injury in 2016. The Swiss turns 39 this year and it’s anybody’s guess how many more times these icons will do battle. But every time they will, rest assured, it’ll steal the show.
Novak Djokovic vs Roger Federer
Rivalry: 2006 to present
Head-to-head: Djokovic, 27-23
Grand Slams: Djokovic 17, Federer 20
Arguably the two greatest hard court players in history, Federer and Djokovic have produced some of the finest contests the sport has ever seen. As Federer was dominating Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, David Nalbandian and others at the start of this millennium, it was Djokovic who along with Nadal was climbing through the ranks and positioning himself at the top. It was in 2011, though, when Djokovic started to stamp his authority and reached the top of the rankings. The two have traded heavy blows right through their rivalry. They are the only ones to have beaten the other in each of the four Majors. Until 2010, it was Federer who held the upper hand in their head-to-head but in the ensuing five years, Djokovic won 16 of their 25 meetings to square things up. And since then, the Serb has had his nose ahead, pulling further away in recent years with Federer ageing. Djokovic even holds the advantage when it comes to their Grand Slam record against one another (11-6). Federer, in fact, has only defeated him once in a Major final (2007 US Open), having tasted defeat to his great rival in the 2015 US Open final and the 2014, ‘15 and ‘19 Wimbledon finals. What’s fascinating about their rivalry is that unlike most cases, the surface doesn’t have much of a bearing on their matches. Neither player gains too big an advantage be it hard, clay or grass courts. This means their clashes are evenly-contested on most days and the shot-making on display is extraordinary.
Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal
Rivalry: 2006 to present
Head-to-head: Djokovic, 29-26
Grand Slams: Djokovic 17, Nadal 19
The most prolific rivalry in the Open Era, Nadal and Djokovic have had an indelible impact on the way the sport is played. They are the biggest reason why tennis is such a physical sport today. The speed and athleticism they introduced to the court was unheard of. And because of this, their clashes over the years have produced some truly jaw-dropping moments. There are certain key aspects about their games that are both different as well as similar. They both can hit the ball deep with ridiculous consistency, they don’t make too many unforced errors, and neither of them possesses a huge serve. On the other hand, Nadal’s groundstrokes are loopy with heavy topspin while Djokivic’s are flatter with sharper angles. When all of this combines with the fact that both these players can run the ball down from hopeless positions, it makes for irresistible viewing. Djokovic is ahead in their overall head-to-head and in Masters 1000 meetings (16-12), but Nadal has a 9-6 advantage in their Grand Slam record against one another. It’s fair to say that theirs was the top rivalry in the past decade. Their most memorable matches include the 2009 Madrid Masters semi-final, the marathon 2012 Australian Open final, the 2013 French Open semi-final and the 2018 Wimbledon semi-final. With Nadal turning 34 this year and the Serb 33, they have time on their hands to add more chapters to their epic rivalry.