What The Greatest Rivalries in Tennis Can Teach Us About Love

Although tennis is synonymous with being a “gentleman’s sport”, it’s also a game that’s featured some of the most bitter (and engaging!) rivalries in recent memory. Billie Jean King and Margaret Court duked it out in the 60s and 70s, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras held the nation captive as they each fought for the title of #1 through the 90s, and the Williams sisters have “wowed” us time-and-time again with their on-court battles. While the tennis court has long been a place to fight for fame and glory - it’s also a place where sportsmanship, kindness, self-respect, and love have taken center stage.

Below, we have listed three of the most epic tennis rivalries of all time - and highlighted how each of them can teach us about something more important than just winning the match - love.

Photo credit: Women’s Tennis Association

  • Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova: From 1973 - 1988, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played each other a total of 80 times and fought tooth and nail to overcome the other’s powerful game. Although Navratilova held a slim lead (43-37), today both women hold 18 Grand Slam titles. Their matches were intense - often going into 3 sets with both opponents leaving everything they had on the court. Although their match-up is arguably one of the greatest sports rivalries in history (even going so far as to be featured by the ESPN Sports Documentary, Unmatched) it’s their relationship off that court that can teach us a thing or two. These women have a long-standing friendship and have stood alongside each other, even in the depths of rivalry. Often, they practiced together, ate lunch together and traveled to the next tournament together - consciously putting their friendship ahead of the game. Today, the women remain close - proving that we all have more to gain by showing kindness and appreciation than by showing anger and angst.
  • Photo credit: Tennis World USA

    1. John McEnroe vs. Bjorn Borg: Notorious for being one of the most bitter rivalries in tennis, you might be scratching your head as to how we found a lesson of love in this match-up. Although McEnroe and Borg played each other just 14 times in four years - their matches are things of legend. Both were at the top of their game in the 1970s and the 1980s, and complete opposites. McEnroe was known to have a hot head and Bjorn was stoic in both his attitude and playing style. With Borg holding a narrow 7-6 lead in their rivalry, the two collided in the 1981 Wimbledon final for what is largely considered one of the greatest matches of all time. After being defeated by McEnroe at Wimbledon (a tournament he had previously dominated with 5 straight wins), Borg abruptly left the sport of tennis at the young age of 26. And yet, neither player says they held animosity off of the court. McEnroe still recalls the respect Borg showed him in the locker room when he was 19 and had recalled that “people think we had our differences, but we didn’t really, and off-court our personalities were more similar than people realized. We had similar senses of humor, we looked at things in the same way and we were bemused by a lot that was going on”. It goes to show that we may have more in common with our greatest competitors than even our closest friends. The renowned players stay they still keep in contact to this day - with McEnroe even going as far as to visit Borg in Paris for his birthday.

    Photo credit: Tennis World USA

    1. Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal: As this rivalry arguably enters its twilight, it is fitting to reflect back on the weight and influence these close competitors have had on the tennis world. Out of the 26 Grand Slam Tournaments that occurred from spring of 2004 to summer of 2019, either Federer or Nadal won 23 of them. Arguably making them two of the best men’s tennis players of all time. Between them, they have claimed 36 Grand Slam titles. They are legends in the modern tennis age and yet - despite the hype and constant competition - they are close friends off the court. Even going as far as to support each other’s charitable ventures. When Nadal opened his tennis academy, he asked Federer to help support him, and at the unveiling he shared a photo collage commemorating their most memorable matches against each other. Often dubbed a “bromance” by the media, Federer and Nadal remain supportive of each other’s success and in Federer’s words, my “friendship with Rafael Nadal shows tennis is just a sport”, proving to us all that the real meaning for sports isn’t competition, it’s connection.