Tennis has featured some of the greatest rivalries in sporting history, including those between the Big 3 of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Many of these rivalries have been contested between players since the beginning of tennis’ ‘Open Era’.
The Open Era started in 1968 when professional and amateur tennis players were both allowed to compete in Grand Slam events for the first time. Previously, only amateurs were able to play in Grand Slams or other ILTF (now ITF) tournaments.
Here, we rank the 10 best rivalries in men’s tennis during the Open Era:
# 10 Boris Becker vs Stefan Edberg
Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg met 35 times over a 12-year period from 1984 to 1996, with the German holding a 25-10 advantage. The pair, who both won six Major singles titles, are separated by just under two years, with Becker born on 22 November 1967 and Edberg born on 19 January 1966.
Becker won all three of the pair’s Davis Cup matches, four of their six year-end championship meetings and 11 of their 16 final encounters. Edberg, though, triumphed in some of the most significant clashes between the two fine serve-and-volleyers, including three of their four Grand Slam matches.
The Swede won two of the three straight Wimbledon finals the duo contested from 1988 to 1990, as well as their 1989 French Open semifinal. Becker, who retired in 1999, won the pair’s last meeting in the final of the 1996 Queen’s Club Championships – Edberg’s final year on tour.
# 9 Jimmy Connors vs Bjorn Borg
Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg faced off 23 times in an eight-year period between 1973 and 1981, with the Swede winning the series 15-8. Connors – who won eight Grand Slam titles – was born on 2 September 1952, while Borg – who won 11 – was born on 6 June 1956.
Borg won eight of the pair’s 13 matches in finals, two of their three meetings at the Masters (year-end championships) and five of their eight Grand Slam clashes. The right-handed Swede won all four Wimbledon encounters between the two great baseliners, including five-setters in the 1977 final and the 1981 semifinals.
Connors triumphed in three of the duo’s four battles at the US Open, an event that Borg never won. The American left-hander led the head-to-head series 6-1 and 8-5, before Borg won their last 10 matches, including their final meeting in the last four of the 1981 US Open (the last Major event Borg played) .
# 8 Stefan Edberg vs Ivan Lendl
Stefan Edberg and Ivan Lendl met 27 times across an eight-year period from 1984 to 1992, with the Swede finishing with a 14-13 edge. Lendl, who was born on 7 March 1960, is almost six years older than Edberg.
Lendl won four of the pair’s seven meetings in finals, while they were locked at two wins apiece in year-end championship matches. Edberg got the better of the great Czechoslovakian baseliner in five of their nine Grand Slam matches (2-1 at the US Open, 2-2 at the Australian Open, 1-1 at Wimbledon).
After Lendl had led the head-to-head 10-6 and 13-10, Edberg won their last four clashes, including their final match in the quarterfinals of the 1992 US Open. Lendl, an eight-time Major champion, retired in 1994.
# 7 Ivan Lendl vs John McEnroe
Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe faced off 36 times over 12 years from 1980 to 1992, with the former holding a 21-15 advantage. The American left-hander, who won seven Grand Slam singles titles, was born just over a year before Lendl on 16 February 1959.
McEnroe prevailed in 10 of the duo’s 17 matches in all finals, while Lendl won three of their five year-ending Masters contests. The Czechoslovakian right-hander also triumphed in seven of their 10 Major encounters (3-0 at the French Open, 3-2 at the US Open, 1-0 at the Australian Open, 0-1 at Wimbledon), including two of the three finals.
The most famous match between the pair came in the title match of the 1984 French Open, where Lendl came from 0-2 down in sets to win his maiden Major crown. McEnroe led the series 14-11, before Lendl won 10 of their last 11 meetings, including their final clash in the quarterfinals of the 1992 Canadian Open.
# 6 Jimmy Connors vs John McEnroe
Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe contested 34 matches across 14 years from 1977 to 1991, with the latter winning the series 20-14. Connors is about six-and-a-half years older than his fellow left-handed American.
The fiery pair both won seven finals each and were tied at one apiece in Grand Slam finals. McEnroe triumphed in six of the pair’s nine matches overall in Majors (3-1 at the US Open, 1-0 at the French Open, 2-2 at Wimbledon) and won both of their clashes at the year-ending Masters.
McEnroe held a 6-3 edge on hardcourts and a 10-4 advantage on indoor courts, while Connors was 3-1 on clay and 4-3 on grass. The younger American won 11 of the last 13 encounters, including their final contest in the semifinals of the 1991 Swiss Indoors.
# 5 Andre Agassi vs Pete Sampras
Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras met 34 times over a 13-year period from 1989 to 2002, with the latter holding a 20-14 edge. Agassi – who won eight Major titles – was born on 29 April 1970, while Sampras – who won 14 – was born on 12 August 1971.
Sampras won six of the pair’s nine clashes in Grand Slam events (4-0 at the US Open, 2-0 at Wimbledon, 0-1 at the French Open, 0-2 at the Australian Open), including four of five in Major finals. The younger American also triumphed in nine of 16 overall final meetings and four of six year-ending championship matches, while the pair were split at 5-5 at Masters 1000 level.
The two right-handers possessed different games, with Sampras an all-court player who frequently served and volleyed, and Agassi an aggressive baseliner. Sampras defeated Agassi in the 2002 US Open final in what was the pair’s final encounter and the former’s last ever match. Agassi retired after the 2006 US Open.
# 4 Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal
The difference in approach, playing style and personality between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal has helped shape a special tennis rivalry. Federer and Nadal have faced off 40 times between 2004 and 2019, with Nadal leading the series 24-16. The 40-year-old Swiss has won 20 Grand Slam titles, while the 35-year-old Spaniard has claimed a men’s record of 21.
Nadal has won 14 of the pair’s 24 finals and 12 of 17 Masters 1000 matches, while Federer has beaten Nadal in four of their five ATP Finals meetings. The left-handed Spaniard also holds a 10-4 lead in Grand Slam matches (6-0 at the French Open, 3-1 at the Australian Open, 1-3 at Wimbledon) against his right-handed rival, including a 6- 3 records in Major finals.
The pair contested one of the all-time great tennis matches in the 2008 Wimbledon final, where Nadal prevailed in five epic sets. Federer defeated Nadal in four sets in the pair’s most recent clash in the semifinals of the 2019 Wimbledon Championships.
# 3 Novak Djokovic vs Roger Federer
While Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer share great respect, their rivalry has arguably had slightly more edge than any other in men’s tennis over the past two decades. They have played 50 times, with the 34-year-old Serb holding a 27-23 advantage. The pair are tied currently on 20 Major singles crowns.
Djokovic has prevailed in 13 of the duo’s 19 finals, while they are locked at two apiece in ATP Finals contests. The Serb has also won 11 of 17 matches against his 40-year-old rival in Grand Slams (4-1 at the Australian Open, 3-1 at Wimbledon, 3-3 at the US Open, 1-1 at the French Open ), including four of five finals.
The pair have played many great matches, with their 2019 Wimbledon final, which Djokovic won in five sets, arguably the most memorable. The Serb won their most recent battle in the semifinals of the 2020 Australian Open.
# 2 Bjorn Borg vs John McEnroe
The contrast between the cool, right-handed baseliner Bjorn Borg and the fiery, left-handed serve-and-volleyer John McEnroe made for an iconic tennis rivalry. They contested 14 matches across a three-year period from 1978 and 1981, with the series finishing level at 7-7. Borg is older than McEnroe by almost three years.
McEnroe won five of the pair’s nine matches in finals, while Borg prevailed in both of their battles at the year-ending Masters. The American also won three of their four encounters in Grand Slam tournaments (2-0 at the US Open, 1-1 at Wimbledon) – all of which came in finals.
The duo played one of tennis’ finest matches in the 1980 Wimbledon final, arguably featuring the greatest ever tie-break, with Borg triumphing in five sets. McEnroe won their last meeting in the final of the 1981 US Open – after which the Swede won just two more matches before retiring. The American played his final singles match of him in 1994.
# 1 Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have played a men’s Open Era record of 58 matches over 15 years between 2006 and 2021, with the former holding a 30-28 edge. Djokovic and Nadal are the only men to have played each other in all four Grand Slam finals.
Djokovic has won 16 of the duo’s 29 matches in finals and three of their five ATP Finals meetings. Nadal, meanwhile, holds a 10-7 advantage in Grand Slam clashes (7-2 at the French Open, 2-1 at the US Open, 1-2 at Wimbledon, 0-2 at the Australian Open), including 5-4 in finals.
The pair’s five-hour-and-53-minute (a Major final record) 2012 Australian Open final, where Djokovic edged Nadal, is the pick of their numerous epic battles. The 34-year-old Serb defeated Nadal in their last encounter – a thrilling four-set Roland Garros semifinal last year.
Djokovic and Nadal’s incredible rivalry could yet contain many more significant chapters. They could meet for a 59th time in the semifinals of this week’s Italian Open, where Nadal is the defending champion.