Top 5 tennis rivalries in history and what made them special

We have some pretty epic tennis rivalries currently unfolding in the game. Furthermore, it looks like these current rivalries will only get better over the coming years. But while that’s all well and good, one has to question whether these tennis rivalries are as good as those that we’ve been treated to ‘back in the day’.

Of course, the angle today is to take a stroll through memory lane and recap some of the fiercest tennis rivalries that have ever developed on the court. As you read through the details of these rivalries, which are covered in the respective sections below, you might just recall how entertaining some of these battles were (if you’re old enough).

Best tennis rivalries
Photo : PA Images / Icon Sport

My goal here is to remind you that the top tennis rivalries of all time haven’t necessarily unfolded in the golden era of the last 20 years. In fact, a few of the rivalries that I’m about to show you were arguably more entertaining than the rivalries arising from the likes of Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer. Then again – I will leave that for you to judge.

So, on that note, I think it’s time that we kicked things off and recapped some of the legendary tennis rivalries that have captivated all who were lucky enough to witness them. 

History’s greatest tennis rivalries – a quick overview

Before we look back through five of the most entertaining tennis rivalries in the Open Era, I feel it’s only fair to point something out. Each of the rivalries below has been mentioned based on criteria that will be explained as we reach each section. For some of them – they haven’t been selected because they led to the most matches played. 

While yes, this particular criteria has played a part in selecting some of the tennis rivalries discussed here, it isn’t the only factor that’s been taken into account. I’ve taken a step further and assessed all kinds of other elements to give you the most stimulating read possible. 

To give you a few ideas of what’s been looked at; I’ve analyzed the hostility between the individuals, how often they played ‘legendary’ matches, their styles of play, and more. Additionally, for those of you who wish to read even more about the most recent rivalries, I’d encourage you to read through our breakdown of the best tennis rivalries 2023.

Anyway, that’s something to keep in mind if the topic of awesome tennis rivalries really gets you going. But now, let’s delve into the main subject for today.

Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal – number one of all-time tennis rivalries

I’m sure you had a pretty good idea that these guys would come up in this breakdown of the best-ever tennis rivalries. And speaking of selection criteria, these two pretty much tick every single box I could have looked at. They have contested the most matches of any other ATP players in the Open Era, the matches they have played have been simply unbelievable, and most remarkably of all – this rivalry isn’t over yet!

To give you the specifics, Djokovic and Nadal have played each other a total of 59 matches since their very first meeting in 2006. Of these 59 matches, 28 of them have been finals, with 9 of these 28 finals being Grand Slam finals. As for who has the edge in this rivalry right now, it’s Novak Djokovic, who holds a 30-29 head-to-head lead over Rafael Nadal.

But as you can see, there is almost nothing that separates the two. Furthermore, of all the tennis rivalries discussed here, the fact that these two are both firmly in the GOAT debate just makes their rivalry extra special. And when it comes to matches they’ve played that blew us all away, there are several that must be mentioned.

Historical tennis rivalries
(Photo by Anthony Dibon/Icon Sport)

For me, the 2012 Australian Open final, which lasted 5 hours and 53 minutes, is their best ever contest. However, the Roland Garros semi-final of 2021 is a strong contender too, especially since the French President overruled the COVID restrictions at the time to allow the fans in Paris to stay and watch. 

This shows just how incredible that battle was, and personally, I’d be surprised if any other tennis rivalries come close to this one in the near future.

Andre Agassi vs Pete Sampras – one of the best tennis rivalries for ‘modern tennis’

There are some who may feel that the Agassi vs Sampras rivalry doesn’t deserve its rank as one of the top tennis rivalries of all time. However, I’ve picked this one for a few reasons that may not have crossed the mind of some tennis pundits. To emphasize what these reasons are, I feel each one deserves its own breakdown.

So first and foremost, this rivalry emerged in a transition period in the sport of tennis. The sport was moving from wooden rackets and slow-paced balls towards the modern version of the game we see today. And it was these two who first built an enthralling rivalry as the sport completed this transition. 

Secondly, the fact that both guys were American just made the rivalry even more engaging. I say this because the Agassi vs Sampras rivalry wasn’t just one that gained international interest – it also had some added spice domestically. And thirdly, the fact that Sampras was arguably the best server of all time while Agassi was arguably the best returner of all time topped things off.

All of these factors resulted in a rivalry that involved 34 total matches played, with Sampras ending the rivalry with a 20-14 lead against Agassi. Not only that, but 16 of the 34 matches were finals, and several of them turned into five-set thrillers. 

As for the stand-out matches from these guys, the 2000 Australian Open semi-final and the 2001 US Open quarter-finals are my picks of the bunch. Amazingly, in the 2001 US Open match, neither player broke the other guy’s serve, and the match finished 7-6 in the fifth for Sampras.

Serena Williams vs Venus Williams – one of those tennis rivalries that may never be repeated

As the first of two WTA tennis rivalries that feature in this recap, this is the one that even non-tennis fans are probably aware of. The story of the Williams sisters and their rise from Compton, California, onto the sport’s biggest stages has even made it onto the big screen in the form of ‘King Richard’. 

All time tennis rivalries
Photo by Icon sport

This film shows the insatiable drive of their father, Richard Williams, and his relentless belief that his daughters would become two of the greatest tennis players of all time. And as it happens, he was right. Both Venus and Serena Williams are regarded as two of the greatest WTA players ever, and the fact that they were sisters made this rivalry all the more unique.

Over the course of more than two decades, these two played 31 matches against one another, with Serena finishing as the leader with a 19-12 record against her older sister. Nine of these matches were Grand Slam finals, and the fact they are the only women in the Open Era to have played in four straight major finals against one another only emphasises their legacy further.

John McEnroe vs Bjorn Borg – arguably the most contrasting tennis rivalry ever

Of all the best tennis rivalries covered today, this has to be the one that draws the most laughs and smiles from those who remember their battles. As you can see, I am referencing John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg here, or ‘fire and ice’ as they were popularly described. 

On the one hand, you had John McEnroe, arguably one of the most volatile tennis players to have ever played the game. Yet on the other, you had Bjorn Borg – a man who barely showed any emotion at all, which set the stage for an incredible tennis rivalry. The fact that both guys were awesome players obviously helped too!

This is one of the shortest-lived tennis rivalries I could have picked for this breakdown, yet the energy of the storm these two created deserves recognition. In just 14 matches, Borg and McEnroe produced moments that will still be discussed in 100 years’ time. Of course, this relates to moments of drama, greatness, and quite sensational levels of tennis.

Ultimately, their rivalry finished 7-7 due to Borg’s early retirement, but matches such as the Wimbledon and US Open finals of 1980 remain fan favourites to this day.

Chris Evert vs Martina Navratilova – the most intense of all WTA tennis rivalries in Open Era

I hope you are sitting down when reading this. Amazingly, none of the other tennis rivalries come close to the numbers these two produced against one another. Covering a period that ran from 1973 to 1988, Evert and Navratilova played each other a grand total of 80 times!

Just to give you some perspective, Djokovic has only played Nadal 59 times, and this is the all-time record for ATP tennis in the Open Era. And it’s not just the volume of matches that make this one of the most special tennis rivalries ever – it’s the prestige of their matches that just cannot be ignored too.

Their ‘righty vs lefty’ battles captivated thousands, if not millions of fans during this time, and Navratilova finished on top with 43 wins vs 37 for Evert. Furthermore, 14 of these matches were Grand Slam finals – 5 of which came at Wimbledon. But ultimately, they both finished their careers with 18 Grand Slam singles titles each.

Needless to say, this has to go down as the most prolific of all WTA tennis rivalries in the Open Era.

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