Of serves and rallies: The greatest rivalries in women's tennis

  • Aastha Sharma, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Jul 01, 2015 17:39 IST

Every time Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier came face to face in the ring, they would muster that extra ounce of boxing brilliance. India is a cricket crazy nation, but nothing can match up to the excitement of an India-Pakistan encounter. That is the beauty of sporting rivalries - they bring out the best in the athlete. They make you use those reserves of your energy that you didn't know existed. But in the end it's always the sport that wins.

High-intensity volleys, race towards dominance and crazy rivalries are not just restricted to men’s tennis. Even women’s tennis has had, and still has, its fair share epic rivalries which have not just resulted in craziness on field but has also lifted players towards tennis greatness. While some of these women shared a off-field camraderie to match their on-field fierceness, other preferred to 'keep the heat' on even after the match had ended.

Here is a roundup of some of the greatest rivalries that tennis has witnessed over the years.

1. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova

When Evert and Navratilova clashed, they didn’t play to win the match – they played for tennis dominance. Over the course of almost two decades (1973-1988), both faced each other an astonishing 80 times! To put this into perspective, the most prolific rivalry in tennis ie Djokovic–Nadal has so far witnessed only 44 matches. Of course this men’s rivalry is an ongoing one.

The quality of tennis involved can be guessed from the fact that at the end of their careers, both Evert and Navratilova had won 18 singles titles each. Another noteworthy fact about the two of them is the fact that these on-court ‘rivals’ were off-court friends. So much so that both say their bond grew with each match. When asked to deocde this phenomenon Chris Evert had once said, "That’s a woman thing."

2. Serena Williams and Venus Williams

For a good twenty years now, women’s tennis has remained synonymous with the William sisters. The sisters, having an age gap of just a year, have faced off 25 times till now. The earlier matches were dominated by elder Venus though it wasn’t long before Serena turned the tables on her, giving us a sibling rivalry for the ages.

The sisters created history when they faced each other in the 2001 US Open final. This was the first time in 117 years that sisters were pitted against each other in a Grand Slam final. The match was also the first Slam final to be fought at night.

Despite a fierce on-court rivalry, the two remain as close as ever, even contesting (and winning) doubles tournaments together.

3. Steffi Graf and Monica Seles

The jury will forever be out on who out of these two really was the better player. The two met each other 15 times and ten of those matches were at Grand Slams. Six of these 15 encounters were Slam finals! Throughout the 90s, Graf and Seles were the top players.

The 1990 French Open final was when Seles really burst on the tennis stage, clinching the title from the top ranked Graf and consolidating the rivalry. Their growing rivalry, though, came to an unexpected halt when Seles, only 19 then, was stabbed by a Graf-crazy fan in 1993. Even though Seles returned after 2 years, she was unable to match her earlier level of play.

4. Kim Clijsters and Justin Henin

The compatriots from Belgium were embroiled in a fierce and closely-fought rivalry. They faced each other 25 times and just two of their meetings came before the quarterfinal stage of any tournament. Both won over 40 titles each in their careers.

Even though they came from the same country and have similar career records both of them were icy towards each other. At the end, their head to head count was 13-12 in Clijsters’ favor.

The 2004 Australian Open is said to be one of the best matches played between these two, which was won by Henin with a scoreline 6–3, 4–6, 6–3.

5. Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams

An ongoing and intense rivalry, Sharapova and Williams have faced each other 19 times till now. This bitter rivalry actually overflows off court as well with both taking digs at each other every now and then. The extent of the rivalry can be judged from the fact that Sharapova admits Williams is the only player who really riles up her usually composed self.

Of their 19 encounters, a majority 17 have been won by Williams. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that the two have been involved in some highly fierce and nail-biting encounters.

The 2005 Australian Open semi final was arguably the best match played by these two so far – Williams came back from one set down to win the nerve wracking match 2-6, 7-5, 8-6

6. Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini

Some twenty years ago, this rivalry was red hot. Graf, from Germany, and Sabatini, from Argentina, faced each other 40 times over a decade. Out of these 40 encounters, 3 were Grand Slam finals. In fact, Sabatini has just one Grand Slam title in her kitty and she defeated Graf to get to it. This was the 1990 US Open.

At one time, the rivalry became so huge that armies of dedicated fans used to flock to their matches and sing songs to demotivate the rival. If Sabatini was underperforming, Graf’s fans would break into a chant that went “ Oh, Oh, Gaby’s dying” which was a parody of a famous Van Halen single.

Their most fierce match, without a doubt, was 1991 Wimbledon final. Sabatini almost had the tournament in her kitty and was just two points away from a win. But Graf rose like the proverbial phoenix to win the match 8-6 in the deciding set.

7. Chris Evert and Billie Jean King

Calling both of these players ‘icons’ would be an understatement. Evert and King transformed the world of women’s tennis. They met a total of 26 times; nine of these encounters were in Grand Slams.

What made each of their encounters worth watching was the contrast – both in personalities as well as the individual approach to the games. King was fiery and aggressive on court, while Evert was as cool and composed as they come.

Even though their final head to head tally suggests a decisive 19-7 lean in Evert’s favor, she won the last 11 matches, after King had turned 34.
Their 1982 Wimbledon semi-final could be their greatest yet – where King saved 4 match points before Evert closed the game, set and match.

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