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The 30 greatest rivalries in tennis history
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The 30 greatest rivalries in tennis history

It’s our summer story : during the next six weeks, we’ll enable you to look back on the 30 greatest rivalries in tennis history, in and off the courts. Here’s the first episode, from the 30th to the 26th of our very personal ranking. With a little bad faith, obviously.

 

30/ Björn Borg vs Vitas Gerulaitis 

 

Even if they were friends outside the courts, the rivalry between two of the nicest blonde mops of the circuit wrote itself on the court and at the hairdresser, at a time where the Bee Gees’ success enabled these original haircuts. It’s during the 1977 season in which the hit Staying Alive came out, that they offered their greatest show : a waltz, played at dusk in the semi-final of Wimbledon, won 8/6 in the fifth set by a Borg who had conceded an early break. Gerulaitis’ fate was probably decided on that evening : the american party-animal, who was so close from playing a final which would have changed his life, would for ever be remembered as the eternal supporting role of the disco years. During the 1979 Masters, the American however managed to defeat the other boss of these times, Jimmy Connors, after 15 consecutive defeats. « And let that be a lesson : nobody beats Gerulaitis sixteen times in a row ! », he swore. Against Borg however, his record remained at 0-16. Having passed away in September 1994, at the age of 40, Vitas hasn’t lived long enough to make his dream come true. « If one day I have to bring Borg to my house, when he’s 95, and I have to help him to get out of his wheelchair, he said in 1980, I think that on that day, I’ll have of chance of defeating him. »

 

29/ Justine Hénin vs Kim Clijsters

 

The two Belgians met in 1991, during a youth tournament. « At that time, there was no rivalry, says Justine Hénin. We were very close, I must say that she was always ready to play stupid pranks. » A decade later, during the « Belgian years" of the women’s circuit, « the friendship became a rivalry » with on one side, the nice and smiling Kim ; and on the other side the cold and tenacious Justine. Having won three more major titles than her warring sister (7 against 4), Hénin analyses this result in a very personal way : « Maybe Kim should have hated people a bit more. She wasn’t mean enough. She liked everybody. » On Clijsters’ side, the analysis is even more brutal. In 2003, Kim’s father even sparked a big controversy. « You want to know why Kim regularly loses against Justine ? Because Justine’s muscle mass has practically doubled and her arm is now almost the size of Serena’s. » At the end of their career, during their confrontation on the circuit, at Wimbledon, in 2010, Hénin claimed that the two had become friends again. 

                                                                                                 

28/ Novak Djokovic vs Andy Murray  

 

In tennis just like in cinema or literature, a « classic » is not necessarily a « master piece ». Will we feel nostalgic looking back at this duel in ten or twenty years ? Out of their 36 confrontations, it’s difficult to point out one which was truly thrilling. Even if they faced each other at least once in each of the Grand Slam finals, nothing really separates these two wonderful defenders, who are actually friends outside of the courts. Not even their age as they were both born in May 1987. « With the two of them, we get bored ! », the ex-Swiss player Marc Rosset complained in 2013. « They could face each other fifty times, it’ll be the same thing every time. » Even the name of the winner rarely changes, as Djokovic leads by 25 to 11.

 

27/ Richard Gasquet vs Rafael Nadal

 

Should we really want to talk about a rivalry, looking at how much Nadal dominates their duels ? « I’ve defeated Nadal one, it was in 1999, at the Petits As. After that, it’s zero ! », Richard Gasquet perfectly summarizes, as his record is currently 14-0 in favor of the Spaniard in their confrontation on the main circuit. « We’ve seen Borg against McEnroe, Sampras against Agassi more recently, and why not Richard Gasquet against Rafael Nadal in the future ? » said the journalist Henri Sannier in the French TV Show Tout le SportIf you had told me at the time that he would go on to win Roland-Garros ten times, I would've said no. But he was hard to play against. He didn’t commit any errors. He would run everywhere. He had such a huge amount of energy. » In 2005, the world of tennis got excited at the idea of seeing the two prodigies face each other in the third round of Roland-Garros. A damp squib : the match was easily won by Nadal (6/4 6/3 6/2) and Sannier had to eat his words. « It’s true that you have more chances of defeating Nadal on a video game console but I’ll try to produce a big performance » said the Frenchman at the 2009 US Open before another match against the Spaniard…which he ended up losing 6/2 6/2 6/3 !

 

26/ Bill Tilden vs Jean Borotra

 

At a time when players would wear trousers, trash talking was already a psychological weapon used to put pressure on your opponent. « An artist and a peddler, he’s the biggest showman and charlatan in the history of tennis », Bill Tilden said once, speaking about Jean Borotra, the charming and popular Frenchman, who was capable of hand-kissing a spectator present in a box at Wimbledon in the middle of a rally, during a doubles, or to speed up to win a match to catch his train. « The great American, a majestic and scornful Lord, never knew, like Jean, how to win the spectators’ hearts in general. », Henri Cochet once said. Borotra had shown the example in 1926 at the Indoor US championships by becoming the first Frenchman to defeat the invincible Tilden, who hadn’t lost in 6 years. After this painful defeat, this huge personality -who had dreamt of becoming an actor before becoming a tennis player- made a point of honor not to lose again against Borotra. The example was given in the semi-final of Wimbledon in 1930, which the man who won ten major titles won on the epic score of 0/6 6/4 4/6 6/0 7/5.

 

By Julien Pichené