The three best rivalries in tennis history: Which one comes out on top?

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We’ve seen countless rivalries surround the tennis world. From the game’s past greats to the present-day legends, it’s truly been a privilege to watch everyone battling their number one foes on the court. Each player was one of the best in their era and it certainly made for incredible matches throughout history. Let’s take a look at some of the game’s greatest rivalries.

 

Bjorn Borg of Sweden holds the Gentleman’s Singles trophy as John McEnroe looks down after losing their Men’s Singles Final match at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship on 6 July 1980 at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon in London, England. (Photo by Steve Powell/Allsport/Getty Images)

3. John McEnroe vs Bjorn Borg (1978-1981)

Head-to-head: 7-7

Grand Slam head-to-head: 3-1, 3-1 in finals (McEnroe)

Grand Slam Titles: Borg – 11, McEnroe – 7

What defines a rivalry? Is it the number of times played? The number of finals or important matches played? Who knows at this point. After the two rivalries above, it’s extremely difficult to pick a definitive third. I could’ve selected Serena vs Venus, two sisters battling each other and dominating women’s tennis in the 2000’s. I could’ve selected Nadal-Djokovic, the fire vs fire rivalry that has dominated tennis ever since 2010. What about Sampras vs Agassi, the successor to the McEnroe-Connors classic of the 70s and 80s and the precursor to the Fedal rivalry that is above on the list. It’s virtually impossible to be able to have a definitive answer.

With that, I’ve selected John McEnroe vs Bjorn Borg. This rivalry only took place over four short years before Borg retired at the young age of 26 years old. The “fire vs ice” rivalry left just as quickly as it arrived but paved the way for future matchups between the game’s best. Before the 2008 Wimbledon Championship became the greatest match ever played, the 1980 Wimbledon Championship. Borg held a 4-3 series advantage over the American heading into the match. In arguably the best display of tennis the game has ever seen, the Swede prevailed in a 1–6, 7–5, 6–3, 6–7, 8–6 victory, including an 18-16 4th-set tiebreak (won by McEnroe) that is, without question, the greatest set of tennis ever to be played. McEnroe fought off 5 (!) Championship Points before finally taking the set.

This match, and their rivalry as a whole, was more than just pioneer-like on the court. McEnroe and Borg were the faces of the new athlete: profitable, marketable, and symbols of the future success of the sport. Borg had already begun to show the future after becoming a professional at 15 years old, attaining countless sponsors in the process. McEnroe, on the other hand, tore through his opponents enough to get recognized and signed by a small sports company at the time, Nike (sounds familliar).

Although the two legends would meet only 3 more times in Grand Slams, with McEnroe prevailing in all, the beginning of the immense takeoff of tennis popularity stemmed from these two battling on court. They paved the way for the Evert-Navritalova and Federer-Nadal rivalries to become what they were and are today. Even though it was gone in a flash, McEnroe-Borg transcended tennis to an entirely new level, giving us fleeting moments of pure excellence and dominance on the court.

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