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The Top 10 Greatest Rivalries
in Open Era Men's Professional Tennis
By Vince Barr

Vince Barr Photo
Vince Barr

When I first conceived of this series of articles, one for the greatest women's professional rivalries and the other for the men's, I planned to profile only the Top 5. That strategy worked for the women, which I wrote about several months ago. But I ran into three "problems" with ranking the men. First, cutting off the list at five seemed a little arbitrary when I looked at the data since there was only 18 points separating the fifth best rivalry from the sixth-best one. Second, there was a tie for eighth place, so at a minimum, I had to expand the list to nine in order to be fair to the two rivalries involved. The third issue is that just doing the top nine rivalry pairs seemed a bit weird when most people would want to look at a "Top 5" list or a "Top 10." Since I had to do nine rivalry pairs, adding a 10th made much more sense to me than just doing an article on a "Top 9." So, that's how I ended up with 10 rivalry pairs.
 
For those of you who might have read my earlier article on The Best Women's Professional Tennis Rivalries, the point-scoring system is the same. In case you haven't read the article or are familiar with my scoring system, I assigned several points to each match within a rivalry. The idea was to award a higher number of points for a match within a rivalry that occurred in the later rounds of a tournament. If the event happened to be a Grand Slam or a season-ending tournament (like the Barclay's ATP World Tour Championships), the point totals were doubled. No points were given to any match, regardless of tournament, if it happened before the quarterfinal round, with one major exception: tiebreakers. Tiebreakers add a lot of excitement to the game of tennis, in my opinion. They reflect a high quality in the match as both players are playing at a high level. For that reason, each tiebreaker got three points in each set in which one occurred. So, if there were three tiebreakers in a match, it got nine points, regardless of which round of the event that the match was played.
 
In the course of my research that involved evaluating 878 total matches involving 18 different players, there were a few events that did not play fifth (or deciding set) tiebreakers. In those cases, if the score reached 6-all or exceeded it, I went ahead and gave each set that had that happen an additional three points per occurrence. That kept things consistent with how the other matches were scored and eliminated a possible source of unfairness in the rankings. Aside from tiebreakers, each match that occurred in a quarterfinal received an additional six points. A semifinals appearance was worth nine points while a finals earned 12 points.
 
Let's look at two examples from matches that actually occurred to illustrate the scoring system. In the 2001 U.S. Open, Pete Sampras squared off against arch-rival Andre Agassi in the quarterfinal round. In every significant way, the match was an absolute classic with four sets, all of which went to tiebreakers, with no breaks of serve. Pete eventually won, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5). Under my system, that match accumulated a total of 36 points as follows: (4) tiebreakers at 3 points each, for a total of 12 + Quarterfinal match received six points for a subtotal of 18 points. Because it happened in a Grand Slam event, those 18 points were doubled to 36.
 
In 1992, Boris Becker played Stefan Edberg in the year end event (which was just called the ATP World Tour Championship back then). That particular match happened in the round-robin format, which is unique to that event. There, a loss does not necessarily eliminate a player from the season-ending tournament which usually features the top eight-ranked players. Becker won that match in straight sets, 6-4, 6-0. That match got zero points because (1) there were no tiebreakers and (2) the match happened in the early rounds. Had the match received any points, the total would have been doubled since I consider the season-ending event to be important enough to be treated like a Grand Slam event.
 
The reason I wanted to create a point system in the first place was because I wanted to try and eliminate, inasmuch as possible, any potential bias when it comes to ranking rivalry pairs. Let's be honest: nearly everyone has a favorite player or a favorite rivalry and I am certainly no exception. Of course, even using my points system will still generate rankings that fall under the category of opinion. Someone else can develop an entirely different system and come up with drastically different results. So, my rankings list is by no means definitive. But I do hope that it provides an objective, unbiased (to the extent possible) evaluation of some of the greatest rivalries men's professional tennis has ever seen.
 
One final comment needs to be made before we begin. I only considered Open era tennis. Further, I initially planned to eliminate those players whose careers spanned both periods of tennis, but later changed my mind. This impacted the great Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Roy Emerson. Trying to include those gentlemen in the rivalry calculations was problematic for a couple of reasons: (1) the tiebreaker system made its debut in 1973, so you had periods of time where some of a player's matches would fall under a potential tiebreaker while others would not and (2) Open era tennis started in April, 1968, which would have otherwise limited the potential for doubling points if a given match occurred in an event (prior to 1969) that would now be considered a Grand Slam event. This happened with regularity in the Laver / Emerson rivalry. In the case of the Laver / Rosewall rivalry, they played 20 times (Laver led, 13-7) from 1968-1976. In the Laver / Emerson rivalry, the players played a total of 25 matches with Laver holding a commanding lead of 22 wins vs. only three losses spanning a total of 15 years, from 1960-1975.
 
I said I wanted to originally eliminate those pre-Open era rivalries due to differences in playing conditions, scoring opportunities and so forth. But two factors prevented me from following through with my original intent. The first was mere curiosity. The second factor that prevented me from following through on my original desire to eliminate pre-Open era rivalries was that I did not want to be unfair to the players involved. Obviously, age is a determining factor as to when one plays in any professional sport. As I thought about that situation, eliminating Laver / Emerson & Rosewall (all three of whom are in the International Tennis Hall of Fame) because their careers spanned the Open and pre-Open era was not fair.
 
That meant that I had to correct the deficiencies that would occur for pre-Open era matches. For instance, one correction was choosing to award three tiebreaker points for each set that went beyond 6-all, even though a tiebreaker was not played until 1973. And the second correction was to treat pre-Open era Grand Slam events (and the subsequent doubling of points) as though there were Grand Slams before 1968. This greatly affected the Laver / Emerson rivaly since they met seven times from 1960-62 in the "French, U.S. & Australian Championships" as those events were called prior to the institution of Open era tennis in 1968. Even with this correction, there are still those players in earlier eras that had to be ignored, by necessity, generally because of a lack of data or lack of time on my part to sort through what data there was.
 
A classic example of someone who was eliminated due to a lack of data was the great Tony Trabert, whose career spanned from 1948-1955. According to the ATP web site, his career win / loss record was only 58-11 which might translate to one full season for a Top 20-ranked player today. But that was Trabert's career record, not just one season. In that case, as well as others, a lack of data is impossible to overcome.  It doesn't matter who an individual played or when.  Short of making up data, there is no mathematical model you can use to fairly evaluate the player's career.  The inevitable result is that some great players are going to get eliminated from rankings consideration by default.  And Tony Trabert was, unfortunately, one of them. So, what I'm trying to say is that no rankings system is going to be the perfect solution.  Any method used to eliminate as much bias as possible will have other flaws due to changes in the competitive landscape over time.
 
An example of someone whose career I did not have time to look at was that of Stan Smith, who played from 1964-1985 and won 37 singles titles with a career win / loss record of 657 - 272 (70.7% winning percentage). I did not have time to sort through his 929 singles matches and figure out who his chief rivals were. Obviously, he was a great player who won a lot of titles, played many matches and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987. In a few months, I'm going to write a career retrospective article on Smith's legendary career because it deserves some recognition.
 
Once I decided to include Laver / Emerson and Rosewall and go through their rivalry details, I was completely surprised that neither rivalry pair broke into the Top 10. That was another factor which greatly influenced me to not consider players from earlier time periods. I might have done a lot of needless work sorting through a lot more data only to find out that none of the older rivalries would have broken into the Top 10 for this particular article. And thinking about that possibility, it made a lot of sense. In prior years, especially in the pre-Open era, players did not play anywhere near the number of matches a typical, full season consists of today. Laver / Emerson got as high as # 14 with 336 total points. That point total would have ranked them just behind the current 13th-best rivalry of Roger Federer and Andy Roddick. That rivalry has earned a total of 345 points (Roger led 21-3 in career head-to-head play). The current 14th-best rivalry is the one between Pete Sampras and Jim Courier, with 315 points. Pete led that rivalry 16-4 throughout their careers. The Laver / Rosewall rivalry earned 219 points. Laver & Rosewall would have displaced the current 23rd-best rivalry of Pete Sampras & Michael Chang. Pete and Michael earned 207 points in a series that Pete led 12-8. Laver / Rosewall would have fallen behind the current 22nd best rivalry between Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg. That particular Swedish Civil War earned 225 points, with Mats holding a narrow lead of 11-9 throughout their stellar careers.
 
So here are what I came up with as the top 10 men's rivalries. You can also download and view my Excel spreadsheet with all my support data using this link.
 
# 10: Boris Becker vs. Ivan Lendl (Lendl led, 11-10) 375 points.
A total of 13 of their 21 meetings (61.9%) took place in the finals round; six of those 13 came in either a Grand Slam final or a "Master's / season-ending ATP Championship" event. The rivalry was active from 1985-93; 15 of the 21 encounters were on a hard court surface where Lendl had a 9-6 advantage in head-to-head play. Becker's greatest advantage was on grass, where he won three of their four meetings. Three of those grass court interactions came at Wimbledon. Becker won the 1986 Wimbledon championship when he was able to successfully defend his 1985 title by beating Lendl in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 7-5. He also won two other Wimbledon meetings with Lendl in the 1988 and 1989 semifinals. Lendl's lone grass court win over Becker was at the 1990 London / Queen's Club tournament in the final, where he beat Boris in straight sets, 3 & 2. They played a total of 70 sets in those 21 meetings, 18 of which (25.7%) went to a tiebreaker.
 
#9 was a tie with # 8, both had a total of 408 points, so I will discuss each rivalry separately.
 
#9: Jimmy Connors vs. Ivan Lendl (Lendl led 22-13) 408 points.
These guys only met six times in finals, with Connors holding a 4-2 edge there. Two of those finals were at the U.S. Open, in 1982 & 1983 with both finals there taking four sets to complete. Most of their meetings, 22 out of 35 (62.85%), came in the semifinal round. That meant that they had the unlucky distinction of being on the same side of the draw in most of the tournaments they participated in. They tended to encounter each other on hard courts, with 19 of their 35 matches taking place on that particular surface (54.3%) where Lendl had a commanding lead of 14-5 on that surface. Lendl had a 6-4 edge on indoor carpet while Connors won both of their grass court matches (1983 London / Queen's Club and 1984 Wimbledon) while they split 2-all in clay court matches. Ivan beat Jimmy in the semifinals at the French Open in 1985 only to lose in four sets to Mats Wilander. That 1985 loss to Mats interrupted what would have been four straight French Open championships for Lendl, as he won three titles in Paris in a four-year span (1984-87, inclusive). Most of the Lendl / Connors rivalry took place in straight sets, which accounted for 25 of their 35 matches (71.4%). This rivalry lasted from 1979-1992.
 
#8: Jimmy Connors vs. John McEnroe (McEnroe led 20-14) 408 points.
These two Americans captured the fascination of the tennis-watching public long before we had Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi. Interestingly enough about this rivalry was that they either met in a final, with a championship at stake (14 times out of 34 matches, 41.2%) or in the semifinals (15 times, 44.1%) trying to get to the championship. Nine of the 14 finals matches (64.3%) were played on carpet, with John having a 6-3 advantage while Jimmy enjoyed a 3-1 edge on grass in the finals. Regardless of round, they played most often on carpet (12 times), followed by hard courts (11 times) and then grass (7) and clay (4). McEnroe dominated on carpet, again, regardless of round, with 9 wins in 12 carpet matches while Connors led 3-1 on clay, which was not McEnroe's best surface. They were nearly even on grass with Connors holding a slight edge, 4-3. McEnroe had a 7-4 edge on hard courts in a rivalry that took place from 1977-1991.
 
#7: Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray (Novak leads 21-9 as of the end of the 2015 ATP Season) 423 Points.
This is the first of the rivalries that are still active on the ATP Tour. As with any current rivalry, it is important to note that all stats are effective as of the end of the 2015 ATP Tour season. If you return to these rankings in five years, this rivalry, along with other current ones which will be discussed later, will likely change. At this point in their careers, these players tend to meet either in the finals (13 times) or semifinals (10 times). Twelve of their 13 finals have come on hard courts where Novak has a slim lead, 7-5 in head-to-head competition. Of course, perhaps their most significant match, at least as far as Murray is concerned, came in the finals of Wimbledon in 2013 when he became the first British male since the late Fred Perry to win his country's Grand Slam in 77 years. Twenty-five of their 30 matches have come on hard courts, which includes more than just their finals encounters (noted previously) where Novak has a commanding 18-7 lead. Since a mere 18% of their total sets played thus far have included tiebreakers (15 of 83), it is not at all surprising that most (18 of 30) of their matches are over with in straight sets. In those matches, Djokovic has an 11-7 edge in head-to-head play. Murray does have to thank Novak for both of his Grand Slam championships (the 2012 U.S. Open, where he prevailed 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2 and the aforementioned 2013 Wimbledon championship). Murray also beat Novak in the 2012 London Olympics in the semifinal round, which was held at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. One place where Andy doesn't want to play Novak is at the Australian Open. They have played there four of the last five years (2011, 2012, 2013, 2015) with Novak winning each time (three finals and one semifinal).
 
#6: Stefan Edberg vs. Ivan Lendl (Edberg led 14-13) 429 Points
I was a little surprised that this particular rivalry ranked as high as it did, especially because more than half of their meetings took place in the semifinal round (15 of 27, 55.6%). While they met in only one major final (the 1990 Australian Open, which Lendl won, 4-6, 7-6 (tiebreaker score not recorded), 5-2 (Edberg retired), they met in eight other majors (three Australians, three U.S. Opens and two Wimbledon matches). In those contests, Stefan held a 5-3 edge (six of these eight meetings were in the semifinals with the other two being quarterfinal matches). Four of these eight matches went five sets. Looking at the entire rivalry, all but three of their 27 matches were played on hard courts, where Edberg had a 13-11 edge. Those 27 matches, all played from 1984-1992, consisted of 82 sets with nearly a quarter of them resulting in a tiebreaker. In fact, 17 of their 27 matches shad at least one tiebreak set in the contest. So, not only did they encounter each other on a fairly frequent basis, the matches that they played were very closely contested as well.
 
#5: Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi (Pete led, 20-14) 447 Points
This particular rivalry was my absolute, personal favorite of all time. However, I have to admit that this one has been eclipsed by the quality of some recent rivalries that are still current on the ATP Tour. And yet, it is difficult for me to find rivalries that are more compelling in terms of the personalities involved. Those two gentlemen could not have been more different in terms of style, work ethic and personalities if they had come from different planets. Agassi was a flamboyant, extroverted, shoot-from-the-mouth personality who sought after as much off-court attention as he received on court. He dated celebrities such as Brooke Shields, who later became his first wife, endorsed many different products and had multiple interests outside of tennis while he was competing. Pete, on the other hand, was a button-down, reserved throwback to the Tony Trabert-era of professional tennis (1950s). If you did not see Pete play in a tournament or practice on a court nearby, chances are, you weren't going to see him outside of an occasional Los Angeles Lakers basketball game back in the day when they were a good team. He rarely endorsed products, even ones tied to tennis. That had to be incredibly frustrating to his agents who represented him during his peak years of 1993-98. In those years, Pete ended each year ranked #1 in the world and set a record that still stands today (i.e., six consecutive years of ending as the #1-ranked player in the world). Sampras was, in essence, Rod Laver 2.0, and that was no coincidence since Laver was his role model. Agassi went on record to say that Pete was the only player he competed against where, even if he (Agassi) was playing at a very high level, victory was never assured until the final handshake at the net.
 
They met a total of nine times in a Grand Slam event; five of which were finals. Those Grand Slam finals also happened to serve as bookends to Sampras' stellar career, as Pete won his first major title at the 1990 U.S. Open when he was just 19 years old against Agassi, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. Twelve years later, history repeated itself in the final match of Pete's career, the 2002 U.S. Open final, also against Andre, winning 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4. Twenty of their 34 meetings came on a hard court, where Pete enjoyed a relatively narrow lead of 11-9 in head-to-head competition. Sampras won their only two grass court meetings, both at Wimbledon, in the 1993 quarterfinals and in the 1999 finals. Pete also led 5-2 on carpet while Andre enjoyed a slight 3-2 edge on clay court surfaces against Pete. Over the course of 95 sets of competitive tennis, there were only a total of 16 tiebreakers played (16.8%) which suggests that, despite all the build-up to one of their matches, once they were engaged in battle, it was usually one-sided. The data bears this out as 21 of their 34 (61.8%) battles were over with in straight sets; of these 12 were won by Pete with the other nine being Agassi victories. Andre beat Pete twice in the Australian Open (1995 Finals, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (6), 6-4 and the 2000 semifinals) and once in the 1992 French Open quarterfinals.
 
Their best match by far in their storied rivalry had to be the 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinals. I'm sure you can remember the details: four sets, all ending in tiebreakers, no breaks of serve by either side. There are other matches that are probably more compelling in recent years (and I can think of one in particular), but few will ever approach the drama of that quarterfinal. I would place it in the Top 5 of all Open-era matches played on the men's professional level.
 
#4: Ivan Lendl vs. John McEnroe (Lendl led 21-15-1) 552 Points
Getting the details from the ATP Tour database to match my Excel spreadsheet took a lot longer than I expected for this particular rivalry because there actually was a tie in the head-to-head results section. The database correctly shows a summary head-to-head between these two players as 21-15 in favor of Ivan Lendl. But when you look at the match-level details, their information shows Lendl with a 22-15 edge. Since the total from the database must agree with the match-level detail, clearly, something was amiss and it took me awhile to figure out exactly why. There was actually a tie between these two players that was essentially ignored by the summary-level data on the Tour's website. The event in question, the 1987 Stratton Mountain (Vermont) championship, which no longer exists, was apparently interrupted by weather. The official summary line score shows Lendl with a "win" using the following notation "6-7 (tiebreaker score not recorded), 4-1 WEA."
 
Since it was a final, you would typically assume that if weather interrupted play, the match would be resumed the following day. But for whatever reason, the match was apparently never resumed. Which made me wonder how they decided to split the final's prize money, let alone the championship trophy. The only reason I can figure out as to why Lendl was listed as the winner was because he was leading in the second set when the weather delay happened. But he lost the first set in a tiebreaker, so really there should not have been a winner declared. And for summary purposes, the ATP essentially ignored this match as it does not roll up into Lendl's "win" column, nor does it appear in McEnroe's "loss" column. So, now you know that ties in tennis matches are possible, at least on this particular occasion.
 
As for the rivalry itself, these two players met 19 times (excluding the tie) in finals competition, which is probably a major reason why this rivalry, under my scoring system, ranked in the Top 5. Six of these finals were either in a Grand Slam (1984 French Open, 1984 & 85 U.S. Opens) where Lendl went 2-1 and the three other finals came in the year-ending Masters tournament (1982, 1983, 1984) where Lendl went 1-2. As discussed previously, all Grand Slam and season-ending Masters events point totals are automatically doubled, so more than a quarter of their rivalry points (150 out of 552) stemmed from a major or season-ending finals appearance (27.1%). If you expand that list to other Grand Slam events that were not finals, they met in 15 such events (including the Masters events as previously explained). Totaling all those points (288) accounts for slightly more than half (52.2%) of their rivalry points and that clearly propelled this rivalry into the top five list of my rankings. This was what the system was designed to do: reward rivalry appearances when there is either a major title at stake or a season-ending world championship.
 
McEnroe dominated the rivalry on indoor carpet (4-2) while Lendl turned the tables on clay (5-2) and they split the two meetings on grass with Ivan winning at the 1990 London / Queen's Club semifinals while John took the 1983 Wimbledon semifinals. Lendl held a 13-8 edge on hard courts. The rivalry was active from 1980-1992.
 
#3: Rafael Nadal vs, Roger Federer (Nadal leads, 23-11) 588 Points
Among current player rivalries, this has to be one of the best that the ATP Tour has ever seen, independent of my ranking system. Both players have achieved the world's # 1 ranking and each one has completed the career Grand Slam. They have both won multiple singles majors and from all appearances, seem to be two of the friendlier players off the court as well. I think the most incredible stat from this rivalry also explains why their ranking is so high: of their 34 matches, only four of them have come outside of a semifinal or finals encounter! The source of Rafa's significant head-to-head advantage is his 13-2 edge on clay courts while Roger has a 2-1 edge in their grass court meetings, all three of which came at the Wimbledon finals (2006, 2007 & 2008). Those three Wimbledon finals took at least four sets each with two of them going the full five set distance and have to be some of the most compelling professional tennis ever played. Across all rounds, they have met 11 times in Grand Slam play, with Rafa commanding a huge 9-2 edge in head-to-head meetings. Even if you toss out five of those clay court encounters, Nadal still has a 4-2 edge in non-clay court Grand Slam events, so he is not just someone who happens to play very well historically on clay. Obviously, he is a great clay court player; it's just that he's not a one-dimensional one who only does well on one particular surface. Close to 21% of all 106 sets played in their rivalry thus far have ended in a tiebreaker. The rivalry has fallen off a bit in recent years; since the end of 2013, they have only met twice in two full seasons. On the ATP Tour Masters 1000-level, they have met a total of 16 times, with Nadal emerging victorious 75% of the time (12 of 16). In those 16 matches on the Masters 1000 level against Federer, half of those wins were on clay, four wins on hard court while Roger has prevailed twice on clay (2007 Hamburg when it was still a 1000-level event and 2009 Madrid) and twice on hard courts. The thing that is perhaps most surprising is that 15 of their 34 (44.1%) meetings thus far have concluded in straight sets.
 
#2: Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic (Tied 23-all through the end of the 2015 ATP Season) 645 Points
These two players have met a total of 13 times in Grand Slam competition with Rafa holding a comfortable 9-4 lead in head-to-head play. With the overall series tied, two matches tend to stand out when the stakes were at their highest. The first came in the finals of the 2012 Australian Open which Novak won in a match that lasted nearly six hours, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5. The second one was in the semifinals of the 2013 French Open that served to deny Djokovic the only Grand Slam that, as of the end of 2015, he has yet to win to complete his quest for a career Grand Slam. The match was a classic win for Rafa in five thrilling sets, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7. Novak has a 2-1 advantage in the season-ending Barclay's ATP World Tour Championship. Twenty of their 46 matches have been on clay with Nadal leading 14-6 (70%). Five of Novak's clay court wins have come on the ATP Masters 1000 series tournaments with the most famous win coming in Monte Carlo two years ago when he managed to stop Rafa's 46-match winning streak in that particular tournament. Nadal had a stranglehold on that event having won it eight consecutive years (2005-2012 inclusive) and was threatening to win a 9th consecutive title until Novak stopped him with a 6-2, 7-6 (1) win in 2013. Through the end of 2015, Rafa still owns a remarkable 53-4 win / loss record in Monte Carlo (93% winning rate). The only other event that he has played on a consistent basis where he has more wins and has a better winning percentage is the French Open. At the end of 2015, he maintains a 70-2 win / loss record there with a 97.2% winning rate.
 
Rafa has a 2-1 edge in head-to-head meetings on grass, having won the 2007 Wimbledon semifinals (3-6, 6-1, 4-1 Djokovic retirement) and the 2008 London / Queen's Club final over Novak, 7-6 (6), 7-5. His only grass court loss to Novak came in the 2011 Wimbledon finals, which was Novak's first championship at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3. They have met 23 times on hard courts with Novak maintaining a commanding 16-7 lead (69.6%) on that particular surface. As with many great rivalries, the matches themselves can be somewhat of a disappointment if whomever wins does so in straight sets. That has happened for the majority of this rivalry with 29 of their 46 matches being over with in that fashion; Novak has won 17 of those 29 matches that have concluded in straight sets, for a winning rate of 58.6%. Eleven of their 46 matches have featured at least one tiebreaker and when that happens, Rafa has a slight edge in their meetings, 6-5.
 
#1: Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic (Series Tied at the end of 2015, 22-all) With 669 Points
The difference between the best rivalry and the second best (according to my rankings system) is extremely small and you could really make a case for either one being the best. It has to be a statistical coincidence that both of the Top Two rivalries are tied in terms of career head-to-head meetings with the Nadal / Djokovic match consisting of two more matches, each of which was split between the two players. If you wanted to be somewhat arbitrary about it, you might choose to say that the best rivalry is the one with the most career head-to-head meetings in Grand Slam events. But doing that still makes this the best rivalry as Roger and Novak have met in a total of 14 Grand Slam events through the years (2007-2015) while the Novak and Rafa rivalry has met in one fewer Grand Slam event (13 from 2006-15). If that's not good enough, you could make another cut by stating that the best rivalry is the one where the pair has met in the most Grand Slam finals, which would elevate the Novak / Rafa rivalry (7 of 13 meetings in Grand Slam finals) ahead of the Roger / Novak one (4 of 14).
 
But the problem there is that neither player can control how the other one does in any tournament, Grand Slam or otherwise. To meet in a Grand Slam final, both players have to be playing well at the same time on a consistent basis, at least for a two-week period during any given slam. During such events, player injuries occur and you also have the occasional upset in earlier rounds that prevent a particular rivalry from taking place. Neither factor is a controllable one by either player and, in my opinion, it is unfair to set one rivalry ahead of another on that basis. At least with my rankings system, it is about as impartial evaluation as it is possible since it rewards encounters that occur in the later rounds higher than it does in earlier ones (with no points being awarded outside of possible tiebreaker sets in any tournament or round prior to the quarterfinals). There are other rankings systems that could be developed and, depending on how particular matches were weighted, there might be drastically different rankings than the ones I have here. And as I said at the beginning, all this ranking system does is result in an opinion as to which rivalries have been the most compelling over the years given criteria that many people would probably agree with. Specifically, encounters in a slam should be weighted more heavily than those in regular, one-week ATP events throughout the years. Appearances in the later rounds of events probably should have a higher point value than those in the earlier rounds, in the event that one chooses to award any points to an early round encounter.
 
In terms of the Roger / Novak rivalry, there have been eight clay court meetings with each player winning four times. Novak has a slight edge of 2-1 in their three grass court encounters all of which occurred at Wimbledon (2012 semifinals, which Roger won in four sets; 2014 finals, won by Novak, 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4 and the 2015 final, again won by Novak 7-6 (1), 6-7 (10), 6-4, 6-3). The remaining 33 matches have all been on hard courts with Roger having a slight edge, 17-16. When one of their matches involves at least one tiebreak set, Novak has a commanding lead by a large margin in career head-to-heads, 11-6 (64.7% winning rate) and when there are at least two tiebreak sets, Novak has a slight 3-2 edge in five such meetings. Exactly half of their matches (22) have been over with in straight sets, whether a tiebreaker occurred or not. In those 22 instances, Roger has a dominant edge, 14-8 (63.6%). Obviously, both rivalries (Rafa / Novak and Roger / Novak) are high quality between the greatest players in recent history, all of whom have been ranked # 1 and won bunches of major titles. Both Roger and Rafa have completed their career Grand Slams while Novak has yet to win the French Open (having been the runner-up three times, 2012, 2014 & 2015).
 
One rivalry that just missed the cut was the one between Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker. Those two met a total of 35 times, with Stefan having a 25-10 advantage, but the rivalry pair only managed to earn 369 points where the data cut off at 375 points for inclusion in the Top 10. It is true that I treated the two eighth-place rivalries as # 8 and # 9 where traditionally, a statistician would simply note a tie for 8th place and then give a 9th place rivalry to round out their top 10. I didn't feel it was fair to do that, so I discussed each 8th place rivalry separately. In any event, the Edberg / Becker rivalry would still have missed the Top 10 cut either way you sliced the data.
 
Hopefully, you have enjoyed this series of the greatest men's (and women's) rivalries in the Open era. I certainly welcome any comments you might have about the rankings process and / or who you think should have been included (but wasn't) or was included that you feel should not have been!
 

 


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