Rivalries in sport add spice to the flavour and over the years tennis fans have been fortunate to have witnessed keen and prolonged duels for supremacy. But surely there is no better time for rivalries than right now when the game has not two or even three but four players vying for the top spot.
One recalls how more than half a century ago Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall were associated in a fierce rivalry that overcame the fact that both were Australians. But the rivalry was short lived as both turned professionals by the end of the decade. In the early sixties it was an Australian trio that dominated the sport. Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Neale Fraser were concerned in engrossing battles for supremacy around the circuit but Laver had the best record.
Laver turned pro at the end of 1962 but such was his durability that he was still a force to reckon with at the start of the Open era in 1968. For the next few years it was his duels with Tony Roche and John Newcombe that hogged the headlines. The great Aussie left hander – the only player to win the Grand Slam twice in 1962 and 1969 – generally got the better of his fellow Australians who were no mean players.
Laver defeated Roche in the first Open Wimbledon final in 1968. He then clinched his second Grand Slam the following year with a victory over Roche in the US Open final at Forest Hills. In between he won his fourth Wimbledon in 1969 with a four-set win over Newcombe.
At the dawn of the 70s Laver’s sublime skills finally began to wane but through the decade tennis was not deprived of its great intense rivalries. The Jimmy Connors – Bjorn Borg rivalry was among the greatest the game has seen. In the mid 70s, the ultra-competitive left-handed American was the best player in the world but the charismatic Borg soon caught up and by the late 70s the two won almost all the major titles between themselves and frequently ended up meeting in the final.
Borg won his second successive Wimbledon title in 1977 defeating Connors in the final in five sets. The following year he completed the hat-trick beating Connors in straight sets. The combative American famously said that he would not give up and follow Borg to the end of the world. He lived up to his boast by getting the better of the Swede in straight sets in the final of the US Open – a title which eluded Borg during his illustrious career.
By 1980 another feisty, temperamental American entered the scene. John McEnroe was a bundle of talent and energy and over the next few years his duels first with Borg and then with Connors constituted the stuff that dreams are made of. The 1980 Wimbledon final between Borg and McEnroe is widely considered to be a strong contender for the best of all time.
It went to five sets with an epic fourth set tie breaker which was won 18-16 by Borg talked about even today. Borg squeaked through in the classic encounter in five sets but it was obvious that McEnroe would not be denied his first Wimbledon final for long. He duly ended Borg’s reign the following year winning in four sets.
That was Borg’s swan song at Wimbledon but McEnroe’s duels with Connors continued. In the early 80s the latter seemed to have slid since his heyday in the mid 70s but could anyone write off Connors? In 1982 he won his second Wimbledon title defeating McEnroe in the final in five sets but two years later the younger man turned the tables with a straight sets walloping of Connors to win his third title.
In the mid 80s there was another keen tussle for supremacy between Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander. Both were experts on clay courts and slower surfaces. There was never much chance of the two winning Wimbledon though Lendl did well to reach the finals in 1986 and 1987. But at the French Open and the US Open the two fought out long drawn duels and both emerged victorious at these two tournaments many times – quite often meeting in the title clash.
By the late 80s another great rivalry commenced. The Boris Becker – Stefan Edberg duels around the circuit were some of the most absorbing in the Open era. For three successive years the two contested the Wimbledon final and while the Swede emerged triumphant in 1988 and 1990 the German won his third title in 1989.
A new decade brought about new rivalries. First it was Pete Sampras vs Jim Courier and then it was Sampras vs Andre Agassi. It didn’t matter that all three were Americans for on the court there was no quarter asked and none given. The duels were highly competitive with the kind of top class tennis that one can expect from the best players in the world.
There was never much chance of Courier winning Wimbledon but he was a feared opponent at the Australian and French Opens winning both twice and being a runner-up at Wimbledon (to Sampras in 1993) and the US Open. Agassi won Wimbledon in 1992 but for the rest of the decade it was all Sampras as the peerless American won the title seven times between 1993 and 2000.
He and Agassi were concerned in engrossing duels at the Australian and US Opens though his failure to win the French Open stood out like a sore thumb in an otherwise outstanding CV. Agassi to his credit won all the four major titles - the only player of his time to do so.
In the first decade of the new millennium it was the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal that took its place among the great duels for supremacy in the history of the game. While Nadal always had the better of Federer at Roland Garros, the Swiss superstar had the measure of him at Wimbledon until the Spaniard got the better of him in the famous final of 2008.
Federer finally won the French Open the following year and the two were the leading players in the game for almost a decade alternating at the No 1 spot until Novak Djokovic has now taken over at the top. But the Serb will have to be on his toes for apart from Federer and Nadal, Andy Murray too is breathing down his neck.