Rivalries are the very essence of sport, the heart of the matter, to borrow a phrase from Graham Greene. And few sports have seen ones that can even come close to that between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Numero uno: Nadal has the perfect foil in Roger Federer to keep his tennis in top gear. Caroline Blumberg / Bloomberg
Not only have they been the best players on the planet for the past four seasons, but they’ve also taken the standard of tennis to a peak that few thought possible. That culminated in the most epic of Wimbledon finals 12 months ago. Even before they walked on to Centre Court, the two knew they were making history. It was the sixth Grand Slam final that they were contesting, a third successive one at SW19 to go with three on the bounce at Roland Garros. Federer had prevailed with difficulty on grass earlier, while Nadal had usually won with ease on clay.
What they served up was the greatest of finals, one that put even John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg in the shade. With two delays for rain, they finished more than 7 hours after they started, having spent 288 minutes on court. Federer lost the first two sets, but then summoned up reserves of courage and skill that only champions can. But Nadal hung in there, his court coverage and passing shots on the run a wonder to behold. Finally, in the 16th game of the final set, Federer, the five-time champion, cracked, and Nadal sank to the turf in exhausted disbelief. No longer was he a one-surface wonder.
Swing king: Federer’s win at the French Open has again kindled talk of the Swiss being the best ever. Caroline Blumberg/Bloomberg
As Nadal, if he is able to overcome a knee injury, and Federer eye another campaign, we look back at other modern-day rivalries that have illuminated the All England Club.
Borg vs McEnroe
For nearly three decades, the 1980 final was considered the apotheosis of tennis, the gifted serve-volleyer up against the consummate counter-puncher.
John McEnroe breezed through the first set, but Bjorn Borg’s Zen-like calm and precise passes soon found him a way back into the match. Borg was poised to wrap it up in four sets, but like Jason in the Friday the 13th movies, McEnroe just refused to go away. The tie-break that followed is part of sporting lore.
Hard court: Borg countered McEnroe’s tantrums and sublime tennis with equanimity and precise shots. AFP
Finally, McEnroe clinched it, 18-16. The final set was as epic. The games ebbed and flowed and the sun had long since started to descend by the time Borg collapsed on the turf, arms aloft in weary celebration.
A year later, it was all very different. Borg eased through the opening set, but this time it was McEnroe who dominated the tie-breaks. No final set was required. Though noone present would think it possible then Borg would never win another major title. Soon after, the wooden rackets and that brand of tennis would also be history.
Navratilova vs Evert
After Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, women’s tennis found two perfect ambassadors in women who were poles apart. Evert could have been the American Girl
that Tom Petty sang about, blonde, pretty, composed, and with a game based around precise angles and deft touches. Navratilova was the Czech renegade, the defector with a booming serve and a penchant for rushing the net. She was also lesbian, and in some jaundiced eyes, less of a role model than Little Miss Perfect Evert. Evert was already a two-time champion by the time Navratilova reached her first final in 1978 and there was little support for the underdog.
Wonder woman: Navratilova’s (left) negative public image fuelled her desire to win. AFP
Evert breezed through the opening set, but Navratilova, clearly hurt by jibes over her appearance and weight, would not yield. The final set was a tense affair, but as Navratilova belied doubts about her mental strength, it heralded a new era for the women’s game. Navratilova’s style would spawn many imitators, and the Steffi Graf generation that followed was as wedded to the power game as any of the men. Navratilova and Evert would contest four more finals, with Navratilova winning them all, but it wasn’t until she started losing to Graf in the late 1980s that she found the acceptance she craved.
Evert won once more in 1981, but the second half of her career was very much in Navratilova’s shadow.
Edberg vs Becker
Boom Boom Becker was the toast of Wimbledon after his emergence in the mid-1980s, while Edberg was seen as another unflappable and boring Swede, albeit one
with a superbly calibrated serve-and-volley game. The reality, though, was very different. In a recent interview, Ivan Lendl, another much misunderstood man, spoke of how Edberg was a prankster and a real entertainer off the court. On it, he and Becker had known each other since the junior days, and when they met in the summit clash in 1988, many expected a rivalry that would last the best part of a decade. It didn’t, but for three summers they were a class apart on Wimbledon grass, serving and volleying opponents to distraction. In 1988, Edberg blunted Becker’s power with wonderful passes and cool touches at the net, but a year later, he was a helpless spectator as Becker rampaged to victory in a final moved to Monday because of rain. Then just 21, Becker was at the zenith of his powers, but he would never again hold aloft the trophy he cherished above all else.
Power vs poise: Edberg (left) and Becker’s rivalry lasted just three tournaments. David Hecker / AFP
A year later, on the very day that Lothar Mattheus’ German side won football’s world cup, Becker stormed back to win sets three and four after Edberg had cruised through the first two. But after going a break up in the final set, Becker’s game fell apart, and as he ranted and raved, Edberg cruised to victory. Becker would reach two more finals, losing to Michael Stich and Pete Sampras, while Edberg would never again scale such heights.
Sampras vs Ivanisevic
These two couldn’t have been further apart as individuals. Sampras was the player of his generation, a model of consistency and on-court poise. Ivanisevic was the temperamental Croat with the whiplash serve and an appetite for self-destruction. In 1992, he had come up short against Andre Agassi in the final. The serve was again his potent weapon as he made his way through to the final two years later, against the defending champion. The first two sets resembled a Wild West shoot-out, with one blistering serve following another. But in the moments that mattered in the tie-break, Sampras kept his head while Ivanisevic lost his.
Slugfest: Evenly matched for power, Sampras (left) and Ivanisevic’s games were often decided by their state of mind. AFP
Demoralized, the Croat lost the third set in the time it takes some to finish a bowl of strawberries and cream. Four years later, Ivanisevic was back for more. By then, Sampras was seeking a fifth Wimbledon title that would put him on the same pedestal as Borg. The challenger struck first, and it could have been his day had things turned out differently in a titanic, second-set tie-breaker. But Sampras held on, and though Ivanisevic took the match into a final set, his efforts had drained him. When he later spoke of wanting to kill himself, you feared for the guy.
Fortunately, there was a happy ending for both. Sampras won his seventh and last title in 2000, and a year later, Ivanisevic ended his Wimbledon jinx with a marathon final win against Patrick Rafter. He would never again win a Grand Slam.
The Williams Sisters
When we look back years from now, we’ll find it hard to believe just how two sisters dominated tennis’ premier tournament for the best part of a decade.
Sister act: Venus (left) and Serena haven’t let family ties come between their on-court rivalry. Alan Crowhurst / Bloomberg News
Venus Williams was already a two-time champion by the time she came up against her little sis in 2002, but it was the stockier and more powerful Serena that prevailed with surprising ease.
A year later, she lost the first set but was too strong in the climactic stages as Venus’ game lost both power and focus. Maria Sharapova intervened in 2004, crushing Serena in straight sets, but since then, barring an interruption from Amelie Mauresmo in 2006, it’s been Williams’ power all the way at SW19.
Last year, the two sisters met again in the final, but this time it was big sis who emerged triumphant in straight sets. Though it was her fifth title, the celebrations were muted, and after early losses at the French Open in 2009, you can expect both to surge through the draw when tennis switches from clay to grass. How many more will they win?
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo and Asian cricket correspondent for The Sunday Times and The Guardian.
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