Saturday 19 August 2017

Ten great tennis rivalries

John McEnroe v Bjorn Borg

Time span: '78-81 (14 matches)

Head to head: McEnroe 7 Borg 7

Grand Slam finals: Four; McEnroe won three

Wimbledon: Two finals, 1980, 1981; one each

Relatively speaking, this pair didn't play too many times. But the fireworks when they did meet produced some of the most memorable occasions, with two ass-kicking Wimbledon finals as part of that. It was Ice Man v Crazy Guy. The quiet Swede with liquid nitrogen in his veins against the hot-head big mouth who told us "You cannot be serious," and made a catchphrase out of saying "Are you kidding?" to umpires. Wimbledon, 1980, fourth set, that tie-break. Fifth set, 8-6. Instant classic. Rivals supreme.

Chris Evert v Martina Navratilova

Time span: '73-88 (80 matches) Head to head: Navratilova 43 Evert 37

Grand Slam finals: 14; Navratilova won 10

Wimbledon: Five finals; Navratilova won all

You only need to look at the number of times these two played each other to see this was a mammoth face-off for a decade and a half, and in huge matches too. Chris Evert won her share by hitting that tennis ball into the same place time and again, deep down the middle, with a consistency few have matched. There was no one big fancy weapon, just astonishing, high-level consistency. We know all about Martina, a Wimbledon legend who played competitively until she was 50. That says it all.

Pete Sampras v Andre Agassi

Time span: '89-02 (34 matches) Head to head: Sampras 20 Agassi 14

Grand Slam finals: Five; Sampras won four

Wimbledon: One final, 1999; Sampras won

This pair of American greats produced some of the most incredible matches. It was after the US Open final between them in 1995 and a defeat that really hurt Agassi that Andre's father wanted him to change his serve. It got bigger and speedier but it was always that big heavy kicker that was Andre's trademark, and I can still see in my mind's eye him running round the ball to crash inside-out forehand winners past Pistol Pete on big occasions.

What a champ Sampras was too; all those Slams, and all achieved while mooching around the court with his shoulders drooped and his tongue hanging out like a dog's.

John McEnroe v Jimmy Connors

Time span: '77-91 (34 matches) Head to head: McEnroe 20, Connors 14

Grand Slam finals: Two; one win each

Wimbledon: Two finals, 1982, 84; One each

Two fierce personalities who fought like puppies in a sack on the court, and during points in a sporting sense. Fire and fire. And they didn't stop at playing each other when it was a Mac-Jimmy day.

They played the umpire, the audience, the ball boys, you name it, in order to get any advantage going.

Monica Seles v Steffi Graf

Time span: '89-99 (15 matches) Head to head: Graf 10 Seles 5 Grand Slam finals: Six; three wins each

Wimbledon: One,'92; Graf won

The greatest tribute we can pay to Monica Seles is that, take it as read, without that appalling injury inflicted by a lunatic we would have been treated to even more sensational battles than these girls gave us anyway. But she has never moaned about her fate.

Steffi had the better of their rivalry overall but note that at the sharp end of Slams it was even. Monica's attack was epitomised by standing further inside the baseline than anyone else I can recall.

Roger Federer v Rafael Nadal

Time span: '04-present (18 matches)

Head to head: Nadal 12, Federer 6

Grand Slam finals: Six; Nadal leads 4-2

Wimbledon: Three finals, 2006, 2007; 2008; Federer won first two, Nadal won Sunday's epic.

After Sunday there can be no doubt these two now rank alongside the great tennis rivalries.

Steffi Graf v Martina Navratilova

Time span: '85-94 (19 matches) Head to head: Graf 9 Navratilova 9

Grand Slam finals: Six; Graf won four. Navratilova won two.

Wimbledon: Three finals, 1987, 1988, 1989; Graf won two, Navratilova one

It is amazing how Graf won so much with just a slice backhand but she had such a powerful stature and that big forehand with no spin at all.

This rivalry was based on the utter athleticism of both players and was pretty evenly matched for a long time.

Boris Becker v Stefan Edberg

Time span: '84-96 (35 matches) Head to head: Becker 25, Edberg 10

Grand Slam finals: Three; Edberg won two.

Wimbledon: Three finals, 1988, 1989, 1990

While people like McEnroe and Connors would rant and rave, Boris Becker would just give a drop-dead stare, either to an opponent or the man in the chair.

At Wimbledon, the locker room was his. He sent that vibe: you're in my house now. You only had to look at whose whites were greenest at the end of play to know who was most committed in his matches. Edberg and Becker had three straight finals and Stefan's gracefulness stood out.

It was amazing he was able to achieve so much with a terrible forehand but he improved it and made up for it by coming in and serving with a motion so awkward that anyone trying to copy it would require back surgery.

Ivan Lendl v John McEnroe

Time span: '80-92 (36 matches) Head to head: Lendl 21 McEnroe 15

Grand Slam finals: Three; Lendl won two

Wimbledon: Never met in a final

Away from court, Lendl would shoot his mouth off on any subject, saying he was the best. On court, to Mac's Mr Gobby he played Mr Say Nothing and let his tennis talk.

Venus and Serena v The World

Time span: '98-present (16 matches)

Head to head: Venus 9 Serena 7 Grand Slam finals: Seven; Serena leads 5-2

Wimbledon: Three finals; 2002, 2003, 2008; Serena won two

Proved in last Saturday's final that they really are the top players in the women's game today. Their father Richard told them very young not to talk tennis away from the court and they don't. The matter of the Williamses v the World will run and run. (© Independent news service)

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