For a while now, women’s tennis has struggled to find a great rivalry... the kind that becomes a global spectacle and elevates the sport. A statistic that drives home this point is that in the last 18 Grand Slams, there have been 11 first-time champions.
The likes of Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka and Ashleigh Barty have undoubtedly added immense depth to the WTA Tour, but the inability of the younger players to perform consistently in the Majors has been a big drawback for women’s tennis.
This wasn’t always the case. Since well before the Open Era began in 1968, the women’s side of the tour has produced a number of memorable rivalries. From the ‘Battle of the Helens’ in the 1930s to the Williams sisters taking centre stage in the 2000s, women’s tennis has seen plenty of fascinating matchups that have captivated audiences for years on end.
In this article, we will look back at 10 such rivalries that will stand the test of time.
Here’s our pick of the 10 greatest rivalries in women’s tennis (from oldest to newest):
Helen Wills vs Helen Jacobs
Rivalry: 1925 to 1938
Head-to-head: Wills, 11-1
Grand Slams: Wills 19, Jacobs 5
It may be the weakest rivalry on this list in terms of head-to-head record, but Wills vs Jacobs makes for an important chapter in the history of women’s tennis. Wills is one of the absolute greats of the game and is tied fifth on the list of players, men or women, with most Grand Slams singles titles. Such was her dominance that between 1927 and 1930, the American won 10 out of 13 Majors. While she was a star in her own right, what brought more popularity to the sport was her rivalry with compatriot Jacobs. A winner of five Grand Slams, Jacobs managed to compete with Wills consistently, but her only victory in their matchups came in the 1933 US Open final when her opponent retired with a back injury. Two years later at the Wimbledon final, Jacobs came within a point of defeating Wills again but the latter staged a stunning fightback in front of a record 19,000 spectators. Their rivalry proved to be highly successful in increasing the audience of women’s tennis.
Margaret Court vs Billie Jean King
Rivalry: 1962 to 1973
Head-to-head: Court, 22-10
Grand Slams: Court 24, King 12
Theirs is the only rivalry on this list that started before and ended after the Open Era began. Court was undoubtedly the dominant force, with a massive advantage in their head-to-head. Their most famous match is, perhaps, the 1970 Wimbledon final which Court won 14-12, 11-9. That epic encounter saw both players competing with injuries and King saving six match points before going down. The lasting memory of their rivalry, though, is their participation in the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ in 1973. They both took on USA’s three-time Grand Slam winner Bobby Riggs – a self-proclaimed misogynist – and it was the first instance of a woman competing in a singles match against a man. Court played Riggs first and lost in straight sets before King defeated him comfortably four months later. King and Court’s names have also been in the news in recent years for their contrasting views on gay marriage and LGBTQ rights.
Chris Evert vs Evonne Goolagong
Rivalry: 1972 to 1983
Head-to-head: Evert, 26-13
Grand Slams: Evert 18, Goolagong 7
In the first half of Evert’s nearly two-decade-long career, before Martina Navratilova came into the picture, her prime rival on the court was Goolagong. The Australian’s name often gets lost in all-time lists but her seven Grand Slam titles right through the ‘70s prove that she beat the best in the world consistently. Goolagong’s victory against Evert in the 1980 Wimbledon final also saw her become the first mother since 1914 to achieve that feat. The two’s playing styles were strikingly different and that’s what made their matchup interesting. While Goolagong had plenty of variety – she used drop-shots and net-play to great effect – Evert was always solid from the back of the court. Goolagong was at her best in her home Slam, winning four Australian Open titles, but Evert had her measure at the US Open, winning their 1975 and 1976 finals in New York.
Martina Navratilova vs Chris Evert
Rivalry: 1973 to 1988
Head-to-head: Navratilova, 43-37
Grand Slams: Navratilova 18, Evert 18
Navratilova vs Evert is considered by many to be the greatest rivalry in tennis history. There isn’t much to chose between these two legends of the game. The six more victories that Navratilova has in their head-to-head are thanks to the 10-4 record she holds in their Grand Slam final meetings. It is, perhaps, safe to say that no two players have dominated the sport for such a long period like these two have. Of the 80 times they faced each other, 60 came in finals. Between 1984 and 1985, they featured in a staggering six consecutive Major finals. Evert reigned supreme in the first half of their rivalry, winning 21 of the first 25 matches between the two. But the ‘80s were Navratilova’s, with the left-hander claiming victory in 30 of their last 39 meetings. Because she kept losing to Evert early on, Navratilova went back to the gym and really worked on her physical fitness. She returned stronger – physically and mentally – and then turned the tables on the American. The most famous encounter between the two is probably the 1985 French Open final, which saw Evert winning a tense three-setter and reclaiming the No 1 ranking at the age of 30.
Martina Navratilova vs Steffi Graf
Rivalry: 1985 to 1994
Grand Slams: Graf 22, Navratilova 18
The age gap between these two is nearly 13 years, but that was hard to tell if one looked at how competitive their encounters were. Navratilova and Graf were at the peak of the game in the second half of the ‘80s. From 1987 to ‘89, the two met in six Grand Slam finals with Graf winning four of those matches. The German won her first Major at the 1987 French Open after a thrilling 6-4, 4-6, 8-6 victory against Navratilova in the final. The veteran then defeated Graf in the finals of Wimbledon and US Open that year, but her younger rival stormed back to beat her in the finals of two Wimbledon Championships and one US Open (1989) in the following two years. The three consecutive Wimbledon finals they competed in from 1987 to ‘89 remains the highlight of their rivalry. Just when it seemed Navratilova was done and dusted in the rivalry, she managed to produce one final masterclass against Graf. The two met for the last time in a Grand Slam at the 1989 US Open semi-final, which Navratilova went on to win 7-6, 6-7, 6-4 after an absorbing battle.
Steffi Graf vs Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
Rivalry: 1988 to 1996
Head-to-head: Graf, 28-8
Grand Slams: Graf 22, Vicario 4
Vicario may not be the biggest name in the game but for anyone who followed tennis in the ‘90s, her rivalry with Graf was a big attraction. The two faced each other 36 times and amazingly, 25 of those matches were finals. What’s even more fascinating is the fact that their last 16 encounters were in finals. Graf holds a massive lead in their career head-to-head and even has a 5-2 advantage in their Grand Slam final meetings. In 1995 and ‘96, the two met in consecutive French Open and Wimbledon finals, with Graf coming out on top on each of those occasions. However, Vicario did get some memorable victories against the German. The Spaniard defeated Graf as a 17-year-old to win her first Major at the 1989 French Open. In the 1994 US Open final, Vicario staged a stunning comeback to win 1-6, 7-6, 6-4.
Steffi Graf vs Monica Seles
Rivalry: 1989 to 1999
Head-to-head: Graf, 10-5
Grand Slams: Graf 22, Seles 9
The Graf-Seles rivalry will forever remain a bittersweet memory for tennis fans. From 1987 to 1990, Graf was the undisputed queen on the court. She was the top-ranked player in the world and won nine Grand Slams during that period. But the beginning of the 1990s saw the emergence of a special talent from Yugoslavia. At the French Open in 1990, a 16-year-old Seles defeated Graf in the final to win her first Grand Slam title. It was a huge moment as not many had expected the mighty Graf to fall to a teenager. But Seles soon proved that her victory was not an aberration. Between 1992 and ‘93, the two met in three out of four Major finals with Seles coming out on top twice. The 1992 French Open final is probably the finest match they competed in, with Seles winning 6-2, 3-6, 10-8. Three months after her victory against Graf at the 1993 Australia Open final, though, Seles was stabbed in the back during a match in Hamburg by a man who was obsessed with Graf. That incident remains one of the greatest tragedies of the sport. Seles was forced to take a break from professional tennis for more than two years after that and her game was never quite the same when she returned. Before the stabbing incident, Graf had a 6-4 lead in their head-to-head, but she managed to win four of their last five matches which happened after Seles’s return. The duo met in the 1995 and ‘96 US Open finals and Graf got the win both times. One can only imagine the heights this rivalry could have reached if it wasn’t for one deranged man.
Serena Williams vs Venus Williams
Rivalry: 1998 to present
Head-to-head: Serena, 18-13
Grand Slams: Serena 23, Venus 7
Venus and Serena are greatly responsible for the way women’s tennis is played today. They introduced a kind of power-hitting the sport had never seen. Once the Graf era ended with the start of the new millennium, it was the Williams sisters who stole the spotlight. They met in eight Grand Slams finals in the 2000s and formed easily the greatest sibling rivalry in the sport’s history. Venus won their first three encounters but Serena ran the show thereafter. The height of their dominance came between 2001 and ‘03, where they faced each other in six out of eight consecutive Grand Slam finals. This also included a run of four successive meetings in Major finals, which remains an Open Era record. Venus may not have a Grand Slams tally to match Serena but the fact that both of them were top-ranked players in the same era and fought for the biggest titles makes this one of the most memorable rivalries. It’s also worth noting that the American sisters won 22 doubles titles together, including 14 Grand Slams, and three Olympic gold medals.
Kim Clijsters vs Justine Henin
Rivalry: 1998 to 2010
Head-to-head: Clijsters, 13-12
Grand Slams: Henin 7, Clijsters 4
There isn’t much to choose between these two players. Each player has certain clear advantages when one looks back at their rivalry. Clijsters has the better overall head-to-head record but Henin has a 5-3 edge in their Grand Slams meetings and she also emerged victorious in all three of the Major finals they competed in. But Clijsters finished stronger of the two, winning their last three encounters. The two could well have added many more chapters to their rivalry had Clijsters not taken a two-year break in 2007, when both players were close to their peak, and had Henin not retired from the sport at the age of 29 (in 2011) due to an elbow injury. Having said that, Clijsters and Henin, both former world No 1s, did enough to establish Belgium as a strong force in women’s tennis. Their penultimate match, in the semi-finals of the 2010 Miami Open, was probably their finest as Clijsters came out on top 6-2, 6-7, 7-6.
Serena Williams vs Justine Henin
Rivalry: 2001 to 2010
Head-to-head: Williams, 8-6
Grand Slams: Williams 23, Henin 7
The first time Williams and Henin faced each other was in the round of 16 at the 2001 US Open. Williams won in straight sets that day, not dropping a single game in the second, but little did she know at that time that the diminutive player across the net would go on to become one of her fiercest rivals in the years to come. Williams leads their head-to-head but when it comes to Grand Slams, it is Henin who holds a 4-3 advantage. What made their matchup intriguing was the contrast in styles. Williams always had the brute power but when that was countered by the sublime one-handed backhand of Henin, it made for box office viewing. Henin holds the envious record of defeating the American in three consecutive Grand Slams. The Belgian got the better of Williams in the quarter-finals of the 2007 French Open, Wimbledon and US Open. Their last encounter was, surprisingly, the first time they met in a Grand Slam final. It was at the 2010 Australian Open and Williams won that match after dropping the second set. Even in the case of this rivalry, fans could have been treated to many more classics had it not been for Henin’s unfortunate, early retirement due to injury.