Tennis, like every other sport, is a game of rivalry. Players compete in friendly rivalries, although some of them aren’t all that friendly. Tennis has seen a slew of epic rivalries throughout the course of history. These rivalries are cherished by sports fans throughout the world because they provide spice to the game.
Several factors can create a great rivalry. Sometimes it’s longevity. Other times, it’s contrasting styles or personalities. In many cases, it’s the epic nature of their matches. Occasionally, an unusual component makes the rivalry distinctive or intriguing. Here are the 15 greatest rivalries in tennis history.
1. Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal
- H2H: Roger Federer (16 – 24) Rafael Nadal
These two are arguably the greatest players to swing a tennis racquet. You can debate about who between them is better and fail to have a conclusively satisfying answer. No tennis fan wouldn’t know about these two. Even some non-tennis fans know about them. It goes without saying that these two are the most significant icons of men’s tennis.
Nadal and Federer have dominated tennis over the past 15 years, winning a combined total of 20 grand slam singles titles. The Wimbledon 2008 final, which was unquestionably a match for the ages, was also part of this rivalry. This rivalry has produced innumerable iconic matches.
When it comes to the number of times they’ve met head-to-head, the Spaniard Nadal holds a 24-match advantage over the Swiss Federer’s 16. Given that Nadal has the advantage in their head-to-head meetings, some have argued that the two have no real rivalry.
From 2005 to 2010, both Nadal and Federer were rated as the top two ATP Tour players, and for the seventh time in 2017. They’ve played each other several times for the most prestigious trophies, and fans and colleagues alike hold them in high regard and esteem.
Federer usually thrives on the faster surfaces such as grass and hard courts owing to his attacking style of play and Nadal significantly dominated on clay which is no surprise as he is without a doubt the greatest clay-court player of all time.
The fact that Roger is a right-hander while Rafael is a lefty makes their matches all the more attractive. They are not slowing down any time soon and it’s anybody’s guess how many more times these icons will battle each other but every time they will, rest assured, it’ll steal the show.
2. Martina Navratilova vs Chris Evert
- H2H: Martina Navratilova (43 – 37) Chris Evert
Theirs is undoubtedly the greatest women’s tennis rivalry to ever exist and probably the biggest women’s sports rivalry at the time. It spanned over a period of 16 years during which they faced off 80 times against each other out of which 60 occurred in the finals. They played in an astounding six Major Finals between 1984 and 1985.
Navratilova has six more victories in their head-to-head having won 43 matches with Evert winning 37 matches. That is close enough. In the first half of their rivalry, Evert reigned supreme, winning 21 of the first 25 matches. However, in the ’80s, Navratilova was victorious in 30 of their last 39 face-off matches. Navratilova came back stronger physically and mentally, turning the tables on her compatriot.
These two phenomena were the face of women’s tennis back in the 1970s and 1980s and really put women’s tennis on the map, selling out venues wherever they played. The two played against each other mostly on the faster court surfaces of grass and indoors.
Another fun fact is that Navratilova’s offensive serve-and-volley style of play gave her the upper hand over Evert’s counter-attacking baseline approach. Evert enjoyed her greatest success against Navratilova on hard courts and especially on clay courts. This rivalry has surely earned its place in the history books.
3. Serena Williams vs Venus Williams
- H2H: Serena Williams (19 – 12) Venus Williams
If we stick to just siblings, it is easily the greatest sibling rivalry of all time. They enjoyed remarkable longevity in their careers with the rivalry lasting over two decades. Each of the Williams sisters has been ranked number one in women’s tennis at some point in their astounding careers.
The Graf period came to an end with the turn of the millennium, and the Williams sisters stepped into the limelight. Their style of power-hitting had never been seen before in the sport. Between 2001 and 2003, they dominated the sport and met in six of the eight Grand Slam finals.
It also included Serena’s record-setting run of four consecutive major finals victories, which is still an open-era record. The two have faced off a total of 31 times, with Serena taking 19 triumphs to Venus’ 12. They’ve also had tremendous success together in doubles, winning 14 Grand Slams and three Olympic gold medals.
Statistically, Venus may not have Grand Slam wins to match Serena’s but unlike others on this list, both played top positions, both sisters fought for the biggest titles toe to toe, taking sibling rivalry to new heights.
Tennis fans hope to see more epic encounters between the Williams sisters in the near future.
4. Novak Djokovic vs Roger Federer
- H2H: Novak Djokovic (27 – 23) Roger Federer
Arguably the two greatest hard-court players in history. Their rivalry still continues from 2006. Djokovic and Federer have produced some of the greatest duels the world has ever witnessed. The two have traded heavy blows right through their rivalry and are the only ones to have beaten the other in each of the four Majors.
At 40, Federer is the elder statesman, and with 20 major titles, he has also reached the most grand slam finals, semi-finals, and quarter-finals of any male player in the Open Era. By the time Djokovic won his first grand slam title in 2008, Federer already had 12 to his name. Today, they are both tied at 20 titles with Djokovic still having time on his side as he is just 34.
The Serbian has a better head-to-head record as he’s won 27 matches compared to Federer’s 23. Djokovic already leads Federer in the most important aspects of cumulative achievement, but he can’t close the case as long as Federer leads in peak value.
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.
5. Rafael Nadal vs Novak Djokovic
- H2H: Rafael Nadal (28 – 30) Novak Djokovic
The most prolific rivalry in the Open Era, Nadal and Djokovic have produced some of the finest contests ever. The speed and athleticism they introduced to the court were unheard of. And because of this, their clashes over the years have produced some truly jaw-dropping moments.
Having met 58 times, Djokovic is ahead in their overall head-to-head with 30 wins as opposed to Nadal’s 28. It’s basically the battle between the world’s number 1 vs world’s number 2, positions both frequently juggle.
6. Steffi Graf vs Monica Seles
- H2H: Steffi Graf (10 – 5) Monica Seles
Graf was the indisputable queen of the court from 1987 to 1990. During that period, she won nine Grand Slams. A special talent, Monica, emerged during the 1990 French Open where the then 16-year-old Seles won a Grand Slam title by defeating Graf. The whole tennis world was in awe as everyone expected Graf to win big. Instead, she lost to a rookie!
The two battled each other in three out of four Major finals with Seles winning twice and Graf just once. Seles was once attacked by a man who was obsessed with Graf during a match in Hamburg. This occurrence remains one of the sport’s major tragedies.
7. Billie Jean King vs Margaret Court
- H2H: Billie Jean King (10 – 22) Margaret Court
King and Court intensely fought each other, 32 times with Court winning 22 times. King and Court met in the finals of five Grand Slam events, two before Court’s brief retirement and three after. King won only one of those five matches
They no doubt would have met more often had Court not retired from tennis for two years before returning.
8. Bjorn Borg vs John McEnroe
- H2H: Bjorn Borg (7 – 7) John McEnroe
Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe met just 14 times in four years, with each winning seven matches. They exchanged the No. 1 spot seven times in the period from July 1979 to August 1981.
A fascinating interplay resulted from their polar different personalities and playing approaches. Their 22-minute fourth-set tie-breaker, which ended in a 34-34 tie, was maybe the most exciting 22 minutes in the history of tennis. They were polar opposites in nearly every way.
9. Ivan Lendl vs Boris Becker
- H2H: Ivan Lendl (10 – 11) Boris Becker
Despite missing Roland Garros in 1990 and 1991 in order to properly prepare, Lendl never won the Wimbledon Trophy thanks to a certain Boris Becker. Becker leads their all-time head-to-head 11-10, while Lendl is 5-1 in Grand Slams.
It was Becker’s victory in the 1988 ATP Tour finals tiebreaker that stands out as their most memorable match. The match lasted over five hours and was won by Becker.
10. Pete Sampras vs Andre Agassi
- H2H: Pete Sampras (20 – 14) Andre Agassi
The Sampras-Agassi rivalry benefited from the players’ divergent styles and personalities. Their differences prohibited them from forming a strong friendship, but they did so by fostering a fascinating competition.
In their 34 meetings, Sampras came out on top 20 times. They faced off in tournament finals 16 times, with Sampras coming out on top in four of their five encounters in the Grand Slams. Sampras’ victory in the 2001 US Open quarterfinal after four tie-breakers, in which neither player broke the other’s serve even once, was perhaps their best match.
11. Rod Laver vs Ken Rosewall
- H2H: Rod Laver (89 – 75) Ken Rosewall
This is the biggest rivalry in terms of matches played. There were 164 occasions the two faced off against each other, although most of those encounters took place before the Open Era began. Laver defeated Rosewall in 89 of their meetings, winning 11 Grand Slams in the process.
Their supremacy in men’s tennis at the time, as well as the unpredictable nature of their encounters, elevated their rivalry to legendary status. They are most remembered for their five-set slog in the World Championship Tennis Tour finals in 1972, which Rosewall won in a thrilling tiebreaker.
12. John McEnroe vs Jimmy Connors
- H2H: John McEnroe (20 – 14) Jimmy Connors
Arguably the most volatile rivalry in tennis history. 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.
13. Boris Becker vs Stefan Edberg
- H2H: Boris Becker (25 – 10) Stefan Edberg
Opposites do attract, but despite the fact that Becker and Edberg played a game that was objectively very similar, they were entirely different players. On the one side, there was Becker, who was the first German to win Wimbledon and relished the spotlight; on the other, there was the reserved Swede Edberg, who let his play speak for itself.
Edberg is still regarded as one of the greatest serve-and-volley players of all time. Edberg and Becker met three times in the Wimbledon Championships between 1988 and 1990. This remains the highlight of their rivalry. Their other clash in a Major was in the 1989 French Open, 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.
14. Steffi Graf vs Martina Navratilova
- H2H: Steffi Graf (9 – 9) Martina Navratilova
Despite their 13-year age difference, these two were fierce rivals. Six Grand Slam finals took place between 1987 and 1989, with Graf coming out on top four times.
One of the highlights of their rivalry was their participation in three consecutive Wimbledon finals from 1987 to 1989.
15. Kim Clijsters vs Justine Henin
- H2H: Kim Clijsters (13 – 12) Justine Henin
Looking back at their competition, each player had some distinct advantages. When it comes to their Grand Slam encounters, Clijsters has a slight advantage of 5-3 over Henin.
Henin also triumphed in all three of their Major finals. In the end, Clijsters came out on top, winning all three of their meetings. The two players from the little Belgian country reached the summit at the same moment.