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By Raymond Lee | Friday, May 13, 2022

 
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Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have created the most prolific rivalry in ATP history.

Photo credit: Getty

The International Tennis Hall of Fame recently polled fans in a number of categories to select the greatest matches and players in tennis history.

While the matches, players, and rivalries they chose were excellent, I decided to put my two cents in on some of the picks and also comment on some of the matches the Hall of Fame chose.

Most Epic Rivalry

The three-way rivalry of Big 3 champions Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer won.

Clearly for the Open Era it is well deserved. Many of the greatest matches of the Open Era occurred when two of these three were playing. I do think that Andy Murray should be added as a fourth here because he was in on the party for many years prior to his major injuries. Murray had many memorable matches with the other three among them winning Wimbledon in 2013 over Djokovic.



The Rod Laver versus Ken Rosewall rivalry was also a great possibility considering that in tournament play they often met if the finals of virtually every important pro tournament.

The rivalry began in 1963 with Rosewall dominating a head to head series at first. Eventually Laver improved because of the greater caliber of play of the Old Pro Tour and took control of the rivalry which ended with the count of 89 matches to 75 in favor of Rod Laver according to some sources.

Some players have played more head-to-head matches. I believe Pancho Gonzalez played Rosewall over 200 matches, the majority of which Gonzalez won despite Gonzalez being the older player by about 6 years.

Another legendary rivalry was the Pancho Gonzalez against Lew Hoad rivalry. Gonzalez apparently led this rivalry 103 matches to 75. Hoad was one of these players to which tennis seemed easy. Historically, some believe that at his best Hoad (along with Ellsworth Vines) was the greatest Pre-Open Era player ever.

Both Gonzalez and Hoad had huge serves and great volleys plus super mobility. Many of their matches are the stuff of legend. Hoad however had a back problem that hindered him so he could not play his best all the time. Their first head to head tour had Hoad leading Gonzalez by 18 matches to 9. Gonzalez seemed beaten but he made a few technical changes in his game that helped him to rally to defeat Hoad 51 matches to 36.

Some however believe that while the changes helped, I believe Gonzalez reached a higher level on that tour after starting out slowly. I think it was a combination of both that helped Gonzalez to win the tour. Gonzalez's son and doubles partner, Richard Gonzalez, told Tennis Now his Hall of Famer father regarded Hoad as his greatest rival and as the greatest player he ever faced.

The thing is that it’s not just the number of matches that are important but the quality of the matches that was so impressive in the Laver versus Rosewall matches.



Laver was a great attacking player with powerful topspin and slice. He was a great net player with super mobility and stamina. Rosewall was by the basic nature of his game, a counterpuncher but he also had one of the great volleys in the game.

Rosewall almost had a supernatural feel of when the ball would go and seemed to materialize out of nowhere to hit the ball. His lob was possibly the best in tennis! His serve however at best you could call decent but he did place it well so opponents couldn’t attack it often unless that person was Jimmy Connors.

The contrast in styles allowed for super rallies between the two. It was not just the shots each player hit but the shots they hit off the other player’s great shots. They both moved so well and had such great strokes that the rallies were a joy to watch.

The 1972 WCT Final match between the two was perhaps their most famous match. Rosewall defeated Laver 7-6 in the fifth set in a match some called at the time the greatest match of all time. The match went past the scheduled viewing time but the network stayed with the match with viewers watching enthralled by the rallies. Frankly I don’t think it comes close to the best match they played since they were both past their best years, but it was fantastic and it helped the popularity of tennis as a major viewing sport. Personally, I would guess the best match they played was the 1964 Wembley Final in which Laver won in five sets, winning the last two sets by 8-6 8-6. If memory serves, I believe Rosewall was serving for the match in the fifth set before Laver rallied to win.

For the WTA Tour, it has to be Chrissie Evert against Martina Navratilova as the best rivalry.

Navratilova led the final series 43 to 37 but as my friend and I think the World’s foremost Chris Evert tennis expert Stavo Craft once pointed out to me, Evert did play many matches with wood against Martina Navratilova’s more modern racquets. If Evert played with the stronger racquets of that day, who knows what the final head-to-head would have been. They played many great matches against each other. 

My personal favorite women’s rivalry is Evert against Evonne Goolagong.

Both players had every shot in the book. I loved Goolagong’s and Evert’s artistry on the court. Evonne could hit unheard of angles, and I was always amazed by the shots she could dream up. Goolagong’s movement was unbelievable. Evonne was so smooth in her movements. It was beautiful to watch.



In the relatively modern era, I liked many the matches of Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Jennifer Capriati played against each other.

They had many magnificent matches against each other.

My favorite for pure hitting was the 2009 US Open semifinal with Clijsters and Serena. It was just incredible how they both were hitting the ball so solidly and running all over the court to make impossible retrieves, often hitting winners off apparent winners.



However, there is one rivalry and one match that is absolutely legendary is the only meeting between the two invincible GOATs of Women’s tennis in the 1920s.

That is the match between Suzanne Lenglen from France and Helen Wills from the United States. Lenglen was the reigning Queen of Tennis. She was so far above her competition that people wondered if she could win tournaments without losing a game, yes that’s right, not a set but without losing a single game!

Lenglen still holds the record for fewest games lost at Wimbledon with only 5 games lost in 5 matches. If we include the World Hardcourt as a major, which it was considered then, Lenglen won 12 major tournaments in 16 attempts.

Wills was also a player that was close to Lenglen’s dominance in her best years. At one point Wills did not lose a set for 7 years. Wills was number one in the world 9 times and won 19 majors out of 24 entered! Sources have Wills as winning 158 straight matches at one point.

Both were tennis prodigies, Lenglen won the World Hardcourt, which was the clay court major at the time at age 15 in 1914 and despite interruptions in tennis in Europe from World War I Lenglen continued her domination of Women’s tennis starting again in 1919. Lenglen’s game was built on control. She rarely missed a shot and could summon great power if need be. She had an all-around game and was superb in doubles due to her excellent volley.

Lenglen’s footwork and speed was almost superhuman. Wills’s game was based on power and control. She was a more powerful hitter of the ball than Lenglen (although Lenglen had good power) but not as mobile. There were very few women in tennis history were as mobile as Lenglen if any although Wills did move well. Wills did not volley that much in singles and her groundstroke game was based on her powerful forehand controlling the rally (as it seems most of us do) and a strong consistent backhand that she seemed to hit crosscourt most of the time. She had a powerful first serve. Her slice serve was especially good. Lenglen was a global celebrity, almost as well known for her fashion tastes as her invincible tennis. Wills was the soon to be challenger to the Lenglen throne.

Wills eventually decided to go to Europe to challenge Lenglen on her home turf so to speak. The excuse was that Wills was going to Europe to study art, but it seemed clear the main reason was to play the invincible Suzanne Lenglen.

Wills was already a three-time winner of the US Championship and perhaps the only player capable of giving Lenglen any competition. They finally faced each other on February 16, 1926 at Cannes, France on a clay court. Cannes is very well known for its film festival!

It was quite fitting since Lenglen was in her own way, sort of a movie star. She was a huge celebrity for fashion.



The battle between the two has been called the Match of the Century. The anticipation was mammoth. It was the tennis equivalent of Ali vs Frazier in boxing.

Lenglen of course was the big favorite and despite trailing 1-2 down a break in the first set Lenglen won the set 6-3. Both players were nervous in the first set and did not play at the level they were capable of playing.

The second set started out with Wills hitting with increasing power as she controlled the rallies to take a 3-1 lead in the second set. From all accounts Wills eased up on the pace which allowed Lenglen to tie the set at 3. Wills held serve to lead 4-3 and later 5-4 but Lenglen took control and led 6-5 40-15 double match point. Wills then hit a forehand that someone in the crowd called out. Lenglen at that point thought she won the match but apparently the ball was called good to make the score 40-30. Wills then proceeded to hit another forehand winner to save two match points and eventually won the game to even the set at 6! After a long game in which Wills had one game point, Lenglen broke Wills to lead 7-6 and this time she held serve to win the Match of the Century 6-3 8-6.

To quote from Steve Flink’s excellent book The Greatest Matches of All Time “It had to be the most dramatic match I’ve ever seen,” said Ted Tinling, who was fifteen when he witnessed this clash, and subsequently saw many more great matches (before his death in 1990) than any other authority. “There will never be anything quite like it again with the whole tra-la-la of the buildup. Suzanne and Helen was the first big show business match in the history of tennis, a sort of precursor for Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973. If there was one match I could go back and see again, Lenglen-Wills would be it.”

Lenglen and Wills only met once but the match, considering everything may very well be the most legendary match in tennis history. If only one match can be called a rivalry, this was it.

Best Cinderella Story

In this case I totally agree with the fan vote. It was stunning how well Emma Raducanu played in winning the US Open without losing a set.

All the other Cinderella candidates turned out to be great players. We don’t know yet how Raducanu’s career will be.

Frankly while I did think Clijsters win in the 2009 US Open was a great story, everyone KNEW what a great player Kim Clijsters was and I believe most would have favored Kim to win the final. With Clijsters, who was still extremely young, it was just of question of when she would regain her form and dominate.

My second choice is the Goran Ivanisevic against Patrick Rafter in the 2001 Wimbledon final played on People's Monday.

Few thought the unseeded Ivanisevic had any chance to win the title he coveted the most. Goran had been in a number of Wimbledon finals in the past but in those three finals he faced Agassi and the last two he faced Sampras who was almost unbeatable on grass in losing all of them.

Goran was given a wild card and you would figure he’d be just a dangerous floater. Well Ivanisevic beat in his quarter the 21st seed Moya, a young up and coming great player with a huge serve in Andy Roddick and another big time server in Greg Rusedski.

Things were magically falling into place for Goran as a young 15th seed who had a huge amount of talent faced named Roger Federer defeated Goran’s Wimbledon tormentor Pete Sampras in a great match. Federer, the future king was then eliminated by Tim Henman.

Goran then reached the final against Patrick Rafter by defeating the gifted number 4 seed in Safin and the number 6 seed Henman. That is a very tough draw.

The final was just thrilling and perhaps the most emotional final game I’ve ever seen in a major. Goran was actually in tears. Even the announcers were feeling the tense emotions from the match. It would be the last tournament Goran would win! This match may get my vote for most emotional match if there was such a category.



Best Comeback

The choice of the fans was the recent Rafa Nadal against Daniil Medvedev match in the Australian Open final.

While it was an awesome comeback and of huge historical significance as Nadal captured a men's record 21st major crown, it’s something we sort of expect the great Nadal to do. Was anyone really that surprised when Nadal pulled off this comeback? He owns one of the top winning percentages in major finals in the Open Era.

I would pick the Manuel Orantes versus Guillermo Vilas match in the 1975 US Open semifinal.

The match was extremely long with rallies that seemed to go on forever. Both players were lefties but totally different types of players. The surface was har-tru which was perfect for these two who specialized on clay or clay like surfaces.

Vilas in some ways was similar Nadal today, both lefties with heavy topspin off both wings, great stamina, quick, with great range. Vilas had a good volley, but he preferred to control play from the baseline.



Orantes was a touch player who had all the shots. He had perhaps the best drop shot I’ve ever seen and like Vilas, he also never seemed to make an error.

Vilas was favored to defeat Orantes and many thought he was the favorite to win the tournament. That doesn’t take a genius to figure out since Vilas was the second seed behind only Jimmy Connors at his peak. The thought was it would be a tough match but Vilas would win to face Connors in the final. Connors had defeated Borg in straight sets by identical scores of 7-5 7-5 7-5 in the earlier semifinal.

Both players were baseline machines with excellent weapons on clay but totally different type of weapons. Vilas hit, as I wrote earlier with precise topspin power off both sides while Orantes, while about as consistent as Vilas had the ball on a string with his variety of spins, touch and angles.

Surprisingly, Vilas won the first two sets easily at 6-4 6-1 and promptly broke Orantes to lead 2-0 in the third set. It looked at this point the match could be over shortly. Orantes however could be very streaky and all of a sudden, every one of his touch shots seemed to go exactly where he wanted it too.

In what seemed like a blink of an eye Orantes won six straight games to win the third set 6-2.



Vilas won the first five games of the fourth set and had Orantes at double match point at 15-40. Orantes was serving. Orantes saved both match points and won the next seven games to win the set in stunning fashion 7-5. The last set was again long and grueling, but it just seemed to me to be simply a formality that Orantes would win and he did 6-4.

The next day he defeated Jimmy Connors in straight sets to win the US Open title. It was a great tournament for Orantes. He played beautifully and defeated Nastase, Vilas and Connors in the last three rounds.

One last match I would mention for a great comeback is the legendary Henri Cochet against Bill Tilden match in the 1927 Wimbledon semifinals.

Tilden won the first two sets easily 6-2 6-4 and led Cochet 5-1 in the third set. On grass and with Tilden’s big serve it looked to be over. Against any ordinary opponent it would be over but Cochet was far from ordinary. Cochet won 17 straight points during a period in the third and pulled out the set 7-5. He won the fourth 6-4 and the fifth set 6-3 after trailing at one point in the fifth 3-2.

Cochet went on to win Wimbledon in the final against his fellow Frenchmen Jean Borotra in the fifth set 7-5 after trailing two sets to none again and 3-5 in the fifth.

In the fifth, Borotra was serving up 40-30 match point, both were at the net with a quick exchange of volleys which appeared to be a double hit by Cochet. At the time double hits were awarded as points to the opponent so it was thought by some that Borotra won the match. Not so. It was not called a double hit.

The match continued a Cochet had three more match points against him and won them all!

One of the match points was saved on a net cord winner. So Cochet won the 1927 Wimbledon in about as amazing a comeback story ever in tennis. He came back from two sets down in each of his last three matches to win Wimbledon! I’m not sure that if I had to pick any match in history to observe, the Tilden-Cochet match in the semifinal of Wimbledon in 1927 wouldn’t be the one.

Best Moment of National Pride

I totally agree with the fans’ choice of Andy Murray winning Wimbledon in 2013.





Britain has had a great history in tennis, but they have not had a male Wimbledon Champion since 1936 when Fred Perry won Wimbledon. Murray ended that with his great victory in 2013. It wasn’t just any ordinary opponent, but a player named Novak Djokovic who was the number one seed and as we all know, one of the greatest players of all time.

Those are my choices and opinions for whatever it's worth.

Agree? Disagree? Email us at Media@TennisNow.com with your choices.

Raymond Lee is a Tennis Now contributing writer and tennis historian who lives in New York. He has written about tennis for decades serving as a contributing writer for Tennis Week Magazine and TennisWeek.com. Lee wrote Holy Grail History: Why Winning the Calendar Grand Slam is the Toughest Task in Sport.

 

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