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Greatest rivalries from the Open era of professional tennis

Photos logoPhotos 8/28/2016

Tennis has witnessed some intense on-court rivalries in the Open era (since 1968). We look at some of the best match-ups in the last 48 years.

Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova

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One of the most historic rivalries was between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who played with each other a remarkable 80 times between 1973 and 1988, with Navratilova holding a 43-37 lead. Evert contested Grand Slam finals 34 times, more than any other player in tennis history, and she dominated on clay courts with her career winning percentage in singles matches of 94.55%. On the other hand, Navratilova reigned supreme on grass courts.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal

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Many consider Federer and Nadal as two of the greatest to have ever played. The pair became the only two players to finish in the top two rankings on the ATP tour for six consecutive years, from 2005 to 2010. While Nadal has dominated the clay and hard courts, Federer was almost unbeatable on grass. The Swiss star took the top ATP ranking in 2004 and held it for an impressive 237 weeks, until Nadal took over in 2008. Their 2008 Wimbledon final match, which lasted for almost five hours before Nadal prevailed 6–4, 6–4, 6–7(5–7), 6–7(8–10), 9–7, has been widely regarded as one of the greatest tennis matches of all time.

Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras

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Having played with each other 34 times between 1989 and 2002, the two American players with contrasting styles and temperaments made for a great on-court rivalry. Both had been world number 1, with Sampras holding it for a then-record 286 weeks while Agassi held it for 101 weeks. Though Sampras was the most dominant player of his era, he couldn’t win a Career Grand Slam — a feat Agassi achieved. One of their nail-biting encounters was the 1993 Wimbledon quarterfinal, in which Agassi recovered from two sets down before Sampras claimed the final set for a 6–2, 6–2, 3–6, 3–6, 6–4 win.

Serena and Venus Williams

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The Williams sisters won a plethora of titles, with Serena Williams claiming 71 singles titles and Venus Williams 49. They also hold the rare honor of being the only two women in the open era to play with each other in four consecutive Grand Slam finals. The Williams sisters have had 27 encounters on the pro tour, with the latest being the 2015 US Open quarterfinal, which Serena Williams won. As of 2016, their head-to-head count is 16–11, in the favor of Serena Williams.

Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova

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Graf clashed with Navratilova 18 times between 1985 and 1994. Their rivalry saw them claim nine wins each. It was, however, at the Grand Slams where Graf edged ahead of Navratilova — winning four Grand Slam finals to Navratilova’s two. They also achieved the impressive feat of playing each other in three consecutive Wimbledon singles finals, in 1987, 1988 and 1989, with Graf winning two of those titles.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal

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The two giants of the tennis court first locked horns during the 2006 French Open quarterfinal. Since then they have battled 49 times, with Djokovic leading 26–23. In 2012, at the finals of the Australian Open, they made history when they fought the longest Grand Slam final in the open era and the Serb emerged victorious after the 5-hours-and 53-minutes-long match.

Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer

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One of the most competitive pairs of the open era, Djokovic and Federer have contested 15 Grand Slam matches, four of which were finals, plus a record 10 semifinals. In total, the duo has faced each other 45 times, with the Serb having a slender 23–22 advantage. To date, Federer is the only man to have defeated Djokovic in all the four Slams, while Djokovic has returned favor by being the only man to have handed the Swiss a defeat in every Grand Slam.

Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams

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The rivalry between the two goes back to 2004, when Sharapova upset top seed and defending champion Williams to win her first Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon at the age of 17. The teenage sensation from Russia followed her Wimbledon triumph with a victory over the American at the WTA final that same year. However, the American halted the Russian star’s winning streak at the 2005 Australian Open semifinal and since then, has had the upper hand in most of their clashes.

Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander

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Lendl and Wilander met 22 times during their careers with the former holding the upper hand, winning on 15 occasions. They played five Grand Slam finals — which was an open era record during the late 1980s — with Wilander prevailing in the three of those. The duo's most memorable matches came in the 1987 and 1988 US Open finals: Lendl won the 1987 final in 4 hours 47 minutes, while Wilander reigned supreme in the 1988 final that lasted for 4 hours and 54 minutes.

Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe

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The two tennis greats met 36 times in their careers between 1980 and 1992, with the Czech winning 21 times. Out of their 10 Grand Slam matches, Lendl won seven, including two finals – the 1984 French Open and the 1985 US Open. In fact, most of their encounters were in finals of various tournaments. The 1984 French Open was one of their most memorable encounters: at the end of the 4-hours-8-minutes match, Lendl defeated the crowd favorite 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5.

Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe

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The two Americans played 34 matches from 1977 to 1991, with McEnroe leading 20-14. They met in two Wimbledon finals, with each winning one – Connors took the 1982 title while McEnroe took the 1984 title. In between them, they topped year-end ATP ranking nine times, with Connors at the top five times. Their 1980 US Open semifinal match is regarded as one of the greatest matches in the tournament’s history: after winning the first two sets, McEnroe lost the next two, only to recover in the fifth-set tiebreaker. The match is also memorable for McEnroe's outbursts throughout the match.

Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg

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Becker and Edberg dominated tennis during the late 1980s and early 1990s. After winning the 1985 Wimbledon title, Becker became the youngest male player to win Grand Slam singles championship at the age of 17, a record which was later broken by Michael Chang. From 1988 to 1990, the pair contested three consecutive Wimbledon finals, with Edberg winning two of them. In all, they played 35 matches, with Becker winning 25. Roger Federer cites the rivalry between the two players as his inspiration for choosing tennis over soccer.

Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe

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They did not play each other much but when they did, it produced some memorable clashes due to their contrasting personalities. The duo met 22 times in total, including four Grand Slam finals. In the 1980 Wimbledon final, considered to be the best ever, Borg defeated McEnroe 1–6, 7–5, 6–3, 6–7(16), 8–6 amid the cacophony of boos hurled at the American. That same year, McEnroe exacted revenge when he defended his US Open title by defeating Borg 7–6 (7–4), 6–1, 6–7(5–7), 5–7, 6–4.

Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl

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Both players enjoyed top rankings during their careers and each had eight Grand Slam titles under their belt by the time they retired from the game. They clashed 35 times, with Lendl winning 22 of those. Their 1982 US Open final match is considered to be one of the finest matches between the two tennis giants, with Connors prevailing over the Czech 6–3, 6–2, 4–6, 6–4, thanks to his consistent playing style. A year later, Connors successfully defended his title against Lendl even with injury.

Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport

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The two Americans met 27 times, with Davenport winning 14 of those. Although both the players have the same style of playing — powerful serves and lack of speed and agility around the court — Williams has a better record in the Grand Slams with seven titles under her belt compared to Davenport’s three. The 2005 Wimbledon final, which is considered to be their most memorable match, ran for 2 hours and 45 minutes, with Williams prevailing 4–6, 7–6(7–4), 9–7.

Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin

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The Belgians had a long-standing rivalry, which spanned 25 matches, including eight times in Grand Slams. At one point, Henin even admitted that her rivalry with the compatriot has helped improve her game. Their last competitive match happened at the 2010 Wimbledon Championships in the fourth round, with Clijsters winning in 3 sets, which brought their head-to-head record to 13–12 in Clijsters' favor.

Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray

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The legendary Federer-Nadal rivalry overshadowed Djokovic-Murray clashes during their initial matches, but this rivalry gradually became more prominent as the years passed. The reigning top two players have met 34 times, and Djokovic enjoys a massive 24–10 lead. Of the 17 tour finals between them, including seven at Grand Slams, Djokovic leads 10–7. The rivalry between the two can be gauged from the fact that they are the only pair in the open era to contest four Australian Open finals, and one of the two male pairs in the open era to have met in each of the four Grand Slam finals.

Roger Federer and Andy Roddick

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If it wasn't for Federer, Roddick would not have been known as a one-Slam wonder. The American reached five Grand Slam finals, winning the 2003 US Open and losing the other four, all to Federer. They played 24 ATP matches, with Federer winning 21. Their match at the 2009 Wimbledon final, where Roddick brought Federer to a 30-game fifth set, is considered to be one of the greatest clashes in tennis history.

Jim Courier and Pete Sampras

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Turning pro the same year, both Americans first met as 17-year-olds in 1988, a match that Courier went on to win. The biggest showdown between the duo came during the 1993 Wimbledon finals, when Sampras dominated his American counterpart to clinch his second Grand Slam title. Two years later, Sampras showed indomitable spirit as he came back from being two sets down to knock Courier out of the Australian Open quarterfinal, 6-7(4), 6-7(3), 6-3, 6-4, 6-3. In one of their last intense face-offs, Sampras played one of the greatest matches of his life when he again rallied from two sets down to a 6-7(4), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory in the 1996 French Open quarterfinal.

Steffi Graf and Gabriella Sabatini

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They were recognized as the biggest rivals during the 1980s, with Graf winning 29 of their 40 clashes. One of the duo’s most memorable clashes was the 1991 Wimbledon final, when the Argentine was just two point away from wining but eventually lost 6–4, 3–6, 8–6 to the German. Apart from being 11-1 against Sabatini in Grand Slams, Graf’s 1988 Golden Slam included a semifinal win over Sabatini at the French Open and wins in the 1988 Seoul Olympics final and the US Open final. Sabatini finally broke Graf’s stranglehold with a straight set win in the final of the 1990 US Open, which secured the Argentine’s first and only Grand Slam title.

Steffi Graf and Monica Seles

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Where Graf was a superior athlete, Seles was relentless ball-striker. Seles arrived on the Grand Slam scene in 1989 and soon started challenging Graf's supremacy on the tennis court. By 1993, Seles had won eight Grand Slam titles – including three wins in the finals against the German – the most by a teenager in the open era. Seles’ blitzkrieg of women’s tennis was only interrupted by her tragic stabbing incident in 1993. By the end of their careers, Graf went on to lead their head-to-head matches 10-5.

Lindsay Davenport and Serena Williams

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The two American players competed 14 times, with Williams leading 10-4, including 4-1 in Grand Slams. Their rivalry kicked off during the quarterfinals of the 2001 US Open, wherein Williams emerged victorious after a three-set slugfest and that match led to the coining of the term "Big Babe Tennis" in light of the players’ physical and power-packed tennis. Their last meeting, and the only Grand Slam final, was at the 2005 Australian Open, in which Williams came from a set down to defeat Davenport 2–6, 6–3, 6–0.

Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario

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Graf was the favorite as she arrived at the Roland-Garros in 1989. The Spaniard, on the other hand, was little-known teenage tennis player who was expected to succumb. However, Sánchez Vicario staged one of the greatest upsets in the history of the game and led to the start of one of the greatest rivalries in women’s tennis. From 1988 to 1996, Graf and Sánchez Vicario met for a total of 36 times, with the German coming out on top with 28 wins.

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