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Where does Rafael Nadal vs Novak Djokovic stand among tennis' greatest ever rivalries?

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have one of the greatest rivals in tennis, but where does it stand among the biggest rivalries of the past?

When Rafael Nadal beat Novak Djokovic in the 2022 French Open quarter-final, it was the 59th edition of what has become one of the greatest rivalries in sport.

The duo have fought it out for 16 years since their first meeting back in 2006 - which was also at Roland Garros - when Djokovic was ranked 63 in the world and was forced to retire hurt after the second set.
Nadal and Djokovic treated us to a true masterpiece on Court Philippe-Chatrier, and the fact they can still do that after so many battles is remarkable in itself.
Some will say Nadal and Djokovic have the sports' greatest rivalry, but that is a big claim to make given what has come before them. So just where does it stand among tennis' greatest ever rivalries?

Steffi Graf vs Monica Seles

Let's start off with a great rivalry that was ultimately denied us. Everyone knows how brilliant Steffi Graf was, but it's easy to forget about Monica Seles' level.

Seles emerged into a WTA Tour as a teenager at a time when Graf was dominating. However, before she had even hit 20 years old she had already won an astonishing nine Grand Slams.

Graf had gone from winning everything to winning occasionally when the teenager crashed the party. That brought out of the best in the German and the two had some scintillating contests between 1989 and 1993.

There were ten matches in that period of time in total, including two French Open finals, a Wimbledon final and an Australian Open final. Seles won three of them.

Sadly, in 1993 during a quarter-final match in Hamburg against Magdalena Maleeva, a deranged Graf fan had decided he'd had enough of watch Seles win, and he stabbed her in the back with a knife during a changeover.

Seles did come back, and she fought two more Grand Slam finals (both US Open) against Graf, losing them both. She never reached her previous levels, understandably, and though the rivalry was incredible while it lasted, it was taken from us far too soon.

Andre Agassi vs Pete Sampras

In the 1990s there is no doubt that the Americans ruled men's tennis. Jim Courier and Michael Chang were players who were impossible to dislike but hard to love, but Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were very different.
From the moment that Agassi broke into the game, he was loved by just about everyone. He was from Las Vegas and he played like it, seemingly gambling without fear on just about every shot - big moves, all or nothing, every point.
Agassi was adored by the neutrals and by 1995 he had already won three majors. He then had to wait another four years though until he won another, and a big reason for that was Pete Sampras.
Sampras was everything Agassi wasn't. He played it safe by landing a big and reliable serve and following it in - a low risk, small gains play that was seemingly infinitely repeatable. He was relentless, almost robotic in his delivery and demeanour.
When you have one popular player being stopped from winning by another who was just that little bit better when at their absolute best, great rivalries - and villains - emerge. Just ask Novak Djokovic.

Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal

One of the most impressive things about all Novak Djokovic achieved was that he had to crash a rivalry of legends to do any of it.
When Djokovic started, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were already winning everything. They were also both incredibly popular, and Djokovic not only had to beat them on the tennis court but try to wrestle a fanbase of his own from them too.
That popularity of Nadal and Federer is what has seen Djokovic cast as the villain of the piece. The majority of tennis fans loved Nadal or Federer, or both, and so Djokovic was not resented for his success but for interrupting theirs.
Over time, Djokovic as developed a rivalry in his own right with Rafael Nadal that will challenge any other in the history of tennis.

They have played each other 59 times now and Djokovic has shaded the head-to-head 30-29.

Sadly, we are coming towards the end of this great rivalry now, but it has left a legacy few will ever touch.

Bjorn Borg vs John McEnroe

The Bjorn Borg/John McEnroe rivalry was not the first in tennis, but it was an era-defining one.
If you could have hand-picked the ingredients with which to start the perfect sporting rivalry, Bjorg and McEnroe is what you would have come up with.

First of all it had two obscenely talented sportsmen who tended to only meet in high-stakes matches. There was much more than that too, though. Everything about them were diametrically opposed.

Borg had an ice cold personality, McEnroe had the fiery tempter. Borg was a suave European and was hailed as a fashion icon, where as McEnroe was the American rock music enthusiast. Borg was the relentlessly solid right-hander, McEnroe the flamboyant left-hander.

Due to Borg's early retirement they played each other only 14 times, with each winning seven.

Rafael Nadal vs Roger Federer

For all tennis had its big names during the 1990s, it had definitely lost its superstars. Big servers had stripped away much of the drama in matches and the spectacle was definitely suffering.

Tennis made a few regulatory changes to combat that, and within a few years Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer emerged as perhaps the most iconic sporting rivalry on the planet at that point.

These days, Nadal and Federer appear to be very good friends and comfortable cosying up together. On the rare occasions they do play each other - and they have only done so three times since 2017, it has more of a nostalgia-filled exhibition than anything with any actual edge to it.
It wasn't always that way, though. For years it was really quite bitter on court. The mild-mannered Federer seemed genuinely annoyed by the demonstrative passion of Nadal and those differences were apparent in the game too.

However, out of that animosity, brilliance emerged. Many still consider the 2008 Wimbledon final between the two to be the greatest ever final at the All-England Club, although the 2019 marathon between Federer and Djokovic certainly challenges it.

Nadal had the best of the rivalry in the end, largely thanks to his dominance on clay where his high bouncing top-spin forehand was a nightmare for Federer's one-handed backhand, but sometimes it the rivalry and not the result that matters more.

Martina Navratilova vs Chris Evert

Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert have become incredibly close friends now, but that was hard to imagine back in the 70s and 80s when they were battling it out on court.
It was Evert who emerged on the scene first, but both were consider precocious tennis talents from childhood.
During their careers they fought it out for years, alternating the world number one position between them and, at times, monopolising the majors.
Again, there was a real beauty in their differences. Navratilova was a real power player who loved the faster courts, while Evert was cerebral and cunning and is the only player in tennis history who could rival the clay court record of Rafael Nadal.
Between them they won an astonishing 321 WTA singles titles, with Navratilova winning an equally mind-blowing 177 more in doubles competitions.

These are numbers no male rivalry can match and careers you just can't see ever being repeated.

READ MORE: French Open: Pundit slams crowd over jeering world number one Novak Djokovic

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