Most NFL fans expected Sunday’s meeting of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning to be the last in their 16-year rivalry. Manning will finish his career with most of the NFL’s passing records, while Brady will be remembered as one of the winningest quarterbacks in league history, with four Super Bowl championships. We asked a few of our writers, from around the world, to name the greatest rivalry between athletes, whether top players on closely matched teams (like Manning and Brady) or athletes who competed as individuals.
The rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier immediately comes to mind and is probably my favorite, with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson a close second. Both were full of drama and symbolism. But because of the recent and startling match-fixing allegations, tennis is on my mind. McEnroe v. Borg, and later Lendl. Evert v. Navratilova. Federer v. Nadal. Williams v. Williams. They were all (and in a few cases, still are) terrific rivalries, pitting different styles of play and personalities against one another.
Yet perhaps the most important and memorable tennis rivalry was a one-off and a true cultural event: the famous 1973 match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. The so-called “Battle of the Sexes,” which King won in straight sets (6-4, 6-3, 6-3), touched a national nerve. “You felt this was a symbolic match that was going to be used against women and to humiliate them if Billie Jean lost,” says feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem, in Selena Roberts’s book about the event, A Necessary Spectacle. “And for her to take that on, to put herself under that pressure, is the true meaning of heroism.”
The Riggs-King rivalry sometimes seemed like a joke, largely because Riggs (who died in 1995) was such a male chauvinist blowhard and jackass. In addition, it was an exhibition match intended to do what? Get television ratings? Make money? Sure. Fifty million Americans watched it on primetime television. At the same time, the match also made an important point about female athletic ability and performance, as Roberts, historian Susan Ware, and others have stressed. Riggs v. King was an unusual rivalry, to be sure, and one with unusually resonant meaning.
–Daniel Nathan is chair of the American studies department at Skidmore College and editor of Rooting for the Home Team: Sport, Community, and Identity.
Shane Warne vs Sachin Tendulkar. Watching India’s all-time great batsman play one of Australia’s all-time great bowlers was fascinating for cricket fans. The fact that Tendulkar was so skilled at facing leg-spin made the contest between the two all the more compelling, especially given the longevity of both their careers. Warne and Tendulkar also present contrasts in terms of publicly displayed character, with Tendulkar’s apparent humility set against Warne’s vocal boorishness. Notably, Warne had a comparatively poor record against India compared to other international teams, averaging 47.18 runs per wicket against India compared to under 30 runs against all other international teams. This rivalry was most recently used as a promotional gimmick to try and sell cricket to America (again) through a Cricket All Star Series, with games played in New York, Houston, and Los Angeles.
–Brett Hutchins teaches in the School of Film, Media & Journalism at Monash University. He is co-author of Sport Beyond Television: The Internet, Digital Media & the Rise of Networked Media Sport.
Messi-Ronaldo and Nadal-Federer have certainly held my attention in recent years. The 2008 Wimbledon final is a where-were-you-when sports moment for me. I always hoped the competition between Michelle Kwan and Tara Lapinski would develop into something more, with the small caveat that it didn’t involve one ordering a hit on the other. The press did an astounding job of building up that rivalry, but frankly, I still feel a little bit let down by it.
So for me, it has to be Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova. Over a 16-year period between 1973 and 1988, they played one another 80 times. Sixty of those meetings were tournament finals and 14 of those were Grand Slam finals. Think about this: They did not meet earlier than the semi-final match of any tournament after 1975. Overall, the rivalry was somewhat even, with Navratilova winning 43 matches and Evert 37, but in Grand Slam finals Navratilova prevailed in 10 of their meetings.
Their rivalry was authentic – not manufactured by someone in a suit at Nike headquarters. But it was about more than just the numbers. It was also about distinctive styles on and off court: Evert, the all-American, girl next-door, with her baseline game versus the Czech defector Navratilova and her aggressive serve-and-volley game. They dominated an era at the time that women’s tennis was on the rise. And most extraordinarily, apart from a few hiccups along the way, they remained truly good friends. I doubt we’ll ever see Messi and Ronaldo share a bagel on the touchline anytime soon.
–Amanda Coletta is a journalist for FactsCan, the fact-checking site for Canadian politics.
Facing off 142 times over ten years, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain knew one another well. Russell, a defensive wizard and initiator of the fast break, often got the best of his rival, at least on the scoreboard. Russell’s Celtics won 85 games against Chamberlain and seven of eight postseason encounters. Chamberlain, however, dominated the stat sheet by outscoring Russell time and time again. Their race, though, truly made their rivalry special. At a time in history when most African Americans faced persistent racism and discrimination on almost a daily basis, the NBA’s two shining stars were black men. “He sent me through hell so many nights,” recalled Russell at Chamberlain’s funeral. “As we got older, the more we liked each other. We were important to each other.”
–Eric Allen Hall teaches history at Georgia Southern University. He is author of Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era.
My pick for the greatest rivalry is the one between Venus and Serena Williams. Beyond training together and competing against one another professionally for over 20 years, they have teamed with one another to become champion doubles players. Each player has held the rank of World No. 1 women’s tennis player; they have been co-World No. 1 doubles players (in 2010); and they have won a total of five Olympic gold medals – one each in singles and three together in doubles. At least one Williams has been in the top ten of the WTA year-end rankings every year since 1998, with the exception of 2006 and 2011. Together they have won a combined 117 singles titles, 29 of which are Grand Slam titles, as well as 13 doubles Grand Slam titles. Adding another layer of complexity, Venus and Serena are sisters. Thus, their observation and knowledge of each other’s’ physical and psychological strengths, as well as weaknesses, should be unparalleled. Their consistent dominance in major tennis fixtures – within our contemporary, technology-driven, global sport marketplace and with the unrelenting pace of professional events – may be the last of its kind. It is certainly difficult to imagine a sibling rivalry of this depth emerging again.
While the Evert-Navratilova rivalry is formidable (80 meetings over 16 years), half of Venus and Serena’s 27 meetings since 1998 have been in Grand Slams and thirty percent in Grand Slam finals (Venus has won 11 of their meetings, Serena 16; in Grand Slam finals, the record is 6-2 in Serena’s favor). In most of these tournaments, the sisters were playing in concurrent doubles events. Imagine walking off the court with a trusted teammate only to face them across the net the next day.
The realities of illness and injuries, interests external from sport, and other challenges facing their sporting participation add further dimension to their on-going match-ups. Finally, the relationships of power built through racialization, sexualizing, and other trivializing media discourse around the sisters individually and together serve to set them apart from peers and competitors. As these athletes continue to compete, their rivalry is cemented for continued analysis. And of course, it is a rivalry to watch.
–Meghan Ferriter is project coordinator at the Smithsonian Transcription Center and has taught in the School of Recreation, Health & Tourism at George Mason University.
Generally I shy away from thinking of rivalries on team sports because so much of what is possible is because of their teammates. In cricket, you can get direct confrontation between the bowler and batsman (as in baseball, too). But even in cricket, I think of batsmen facing groups of bowlers (bowling attacks). And in the case of football, Manning and Brady never play directly against each other.
So when I think about individual rivalries, I look to tennis. I think the Nadal-Federer, Federer-Djokovic, Nadal-Djokovic rivalries are wonderful. But I started watching these players in my thirties. They don’t have the same impact on me as John McEnroe and Björn Borg for a very simple reason: I saw McEnroe-Borg in my early days of tennis watching, in my pre-teen and early teen days, when the mind was more impressionable.
On strictly sporting grounds the fascination lay in the fact that Borg seemed absolutely unbeatable on radically different kinds of surfaces. I think people forget that Borg won six French Opens beside his five Wimbledons, It just boggles the mind to think how he made that transition from clay to grass, and so quickly. But Borg couldn’t quite figure out McEnroe. Sure, he beat McEnroe seven times in their 14 matches, but in Grand Slam finals, the scale tilted to McEnroe at 1-3, with Borg’s lone win coming in that epic 1980 Wimbledon final. And they had another epic final that same year, when McEnroe won in five sets at the US Open.
Their matchups had everything: the IceBorg vs. the Brat, a lefty who used a wooden racket to hit single-handed shots and was a grass court natural against a clay court player who used double-handed backhands with a carbon graphite racket, a baseliner against a serve-and-volleyer. Interestingly, Borg made McEnroe behave better. McEnroe’s famous temper was almost always held in abeyance when he played Borg; he knew he had to keep it together to beat Borg. And he did, on some truly memorable occasions.
–Samir Chopra is professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is author of Eye on Cricket: Reflections on the Great Game.
To my mind, any true rivalry has to be a titanic tussle between two sportsmen or women who dominate their sport over several years, preferably with very different personalities or approaches. It also helps if there was one moment where the clash was crystalised. For me, having grown up with a penchant for middle distance running in the great era of English domination, this can only mean one thing – the great rivalry between Seb Coe and Steve Ovett, and their one defining moment was at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Let’s start with a few facts. Ovett turned up in Moscow without any defeats at either the 1500m or mile for three years. He held the mile record and had equaled Coe’s 1500m record. Meanwhile, that year Coe had been the holder of all four middle distance records – 800m, 1000m, 1500m, and mile – until Ovett took the mile record within an hour of Coe setting his mark. Ovett was expected to use Coe’s favourite event, the 800, as the warm-up for his own favoured event, the 1500m, but in the end he won the 800 gold while Coe picked up the 1500 gold.
Their rivalry was an epic contest that held the British public (and the world) enthralled. This was a coming-together of great athletes to rival any other, but what made it so special was the clash of personalities. Coe was the smooth operator, with handsome features and a sense of belonging. He moved seamlessly into politics (he became a Conservative MP) and then sports administration, bringing the 2012 Olympics to London and now setting himself the task of cleaning out the augean stables of world athletics. Ovett, meanwhile, was spikey, individualistic, and private. His personality is summed up by his decision to junk a promising football career, opting instead for athletics on the simple grounds that he did not have to rely upon teammates. Everybody had their favourite, and who that favourite was – Coe or Ovett – said a lot about the holder of those views. For me it was the greatest rivalry in sport.
–Nicholas Walton is former European editor for the BBC World Service, a journalist and author, and consultant for various NGOs in Singapore.
Growing up in the 1990s as a fan of tennis and Formula 1, I watched the great rivalries between André Agassi and Pete Sampras on the one hand and Michael Schumacher and a range of drivers, including Damon Hill and Nigel Mansel, on the other. For me, sporting rivalry always had more of an individual look about it.
Of course, there are great antagonisms in sport between players on clubs or national sides. But there are also rivalries between individuals on the same team. In any team, there is always competition to be chosen first – and this pressure is greatest in the international squads. For me, the greatest of these rivalries was the contest between Neil Jenkins and Arwel Thomas in the late-1990s over who was to be first choice to wear the coveted number 10 jersey for Wales in international rugby. For much of the nineties, Jenkins had been the undisputed wearer of the red 10: he remains Wales’s all-time top points scorer and once held the world record for the most points scored in rugby (surpassed later by England’s Jonny Wilkinson and Dan Carter of the All Blacks). But in 1996, Jenkins left the field injured in a match against Italy, and on came the young pretender: Arwel Thomas. Thomas was a prolific points scorer at the club level, quick and agile on the pitch, and exciting to watch. It was the first major threat to Jenkins’s dominance and the rivalry lingered for several years, coming to a head in 2000 during a test match against South Africa.
South Africa won the match, but Jenkins won back his uncontested place on the team – in no small part because Thomas’s mistakes turned the game to the Springboks. Few people were happier than Neil’s dad, who happened to be the bus driver for my high school. Gutted though we were that Wales had lost, we all got to re-live Jenkins’ performance the Monday morning after the match with his father. That’s how you know sporting rivalries matter to the fans.
–Daryl Leeworthy teaches history at the Swansea University and is author of Fields of Play: The Sporting Heritage of Wales.
Venus and Serena Williams’ rivalry on the international tennis stage stands out for me as both unusual and extremely compelling, even leaving aside the fact they are two of the athletes I most like to watch. While some say that their early encounters were a little lacklustre because of their closeness off the court and the hostility they faced together, these days that is certainly not the case. What I enjoy most about this rivalry is the way both women can give their all on the court, but then finish the match with a hug and a celebration, which is a testament to both their characters. They stand up for, and with, each other off the court. And even though they play against each other so often, it does not seem to negatively affect their relationship – even though Venus must be incredibly frustrated to lose to her little sister so often!
I had the privilege of sitting just a few rows from the court at the 2003 Australian Open, watching Venus and Serena play each other in the final as well as in their respective semi-finals. The final was a gripping, hard-fought match with a tie-breaker in the first set. As she often does, Serena seemed to pull out something “extra” to take out the final set after Venus had taken the second. It’s an experience I would love to repeat, particularly as their rivalry encapsulates everything that sport “should be”: striving to be your absolute best, keeping aggression confined to the court, and being gracious in victory and defeat. On and off the court, the Williams sisters and their rivalry do great things for tennis, women, African Americans, and society as a whole.
–Deb Waterhouse-Watson is postdoctoral research fellow at Macquarie University.
For best sport rivalry, I will go with figure skaters John Curry of England and Toller Cranston of Canada, two men who, each in his own way, tried to stretch the artistic bounds of their sport. Always described as “elegant” and “sophisticated,” Curry skated with a remarkable body-line and drew conceptually and technically on classical ballet. He had impeccable carriage and assured technique. Curry’s skating was cool, lyrical, and sublime, while Cranston’s was full of angles and operatic and baroque embellishments. His performances were spectacle and innovation, and they pulled audiences to the edges of their seats like nothing anyone had seen before. In terms of their competitive records, Curry had the greater success, winning the 1976 Olympic gold medal. Cranston began that competition by placing poorly in the school figures, as he often did. So despite beating Curry in the free-skate event, Cranston ended up with the bronze medal. Had they competed in the present day, under current rules (school figures were eliminated from skating championships in 1989), the results might have been reversed.
Both skaters faced homophobia and the particular kind of gender policing experienced by men who do not express themselves in conventionally masculine ways, yet young male skaters who came after them emulated both men. In Canada, people would say that a skater’s movements or style had been “Tollerized.” When Curry and Cranston retired from competitive skating, they both went on to establish ice theatre companies in New York in the hopes of developing skating as a legitimate performing art. Each had financial difficulties and eventually went broke. Neither was able to fully realize his artistic vision of what skating could be.
What I find remarkable is that Curry and Cranston – the two male skaters who, I would say, enacted the biggest transformations of men’s figure skating over the past half century – were skating at the same time and against one another. It is hard to convey how just different they were from the wooden male skaters who came before them. Curry and Cranston have both been called geniuses; it’s not an overstatement.
–Mary Louise Adams is professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University. She is author of Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity and the Limits of Sport.
Who is the greatest woman tennis player of all time – Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Serena Williams? Williams will equal Graf’s Grand Slam singles tally of 22, if she wins the Australian Open being played right now, and she could even overtake Court’s 24 in time. But, along with most experts, I’d still place Graf in front. She is the only player of either gender to have won each of the four major tournaments four times, and she held the No. 1 ranking for an unparalleled 377 weeks.
For three years, though, from 1990 to 1992, Graf struggled to stay ahead. She first came up against Monica Seles in the semi-finals of the French Open in 1989. Graf won that match, but in the next year’s final she couldn’t resist the sixteen-year old from Yugoslavia. In the first set tie-break, Seles saved four set points, taking the ball on the rise and blasting the sidelines with two-fisted groundshots. She went on to win in straight sets.
Seles won seven more Grand Slams before her twentieth birthday, while Graf won only two titles during that period, both at Wimbledon. Then in April 1993, three months after Seles had beaten Graf for her third straight Australian Open title, a crazed Graf fan stabbed Seles in the back at a tournament in Hamburg. Seles was out for two years and was never the same again. She did win one more Grand Slam, in Sydney in 1996, but her transcendent will to win had somehow gone.
At the time of the stabbing, Graf was up 6-4 in head-to-head matches, but Seles led 3-1 in Grand Slam finals. Graf may have been the best in history, but for that brief time Seles was even better. If not for the tragic stabbing, Monica Seles and Steffi Graf would have battled it out for years. As it is, their contests define one of the peaks of tennis history.
–David Papineau is professor of philosophy at King’s College London and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain faced each other 142 times, including the regular season and playoffs, over the course of ten seasons (1959-1969). I can’t think of two important players in any team sport who squared off more frequently. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird only played one another 37 times. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have gone head to head 16 times, or one full NFL season. But 142 games – that’s the equivalent of one and a half NBA seasons.
But the Russell-Chamberlain rivalry is about more than just frequency. Because of their positions and the nature of the sport, they weren’t just on the court at the same time in 142 games, they were guarding each other, unstoppable force and immoveable object, dueling in the paint and above the rim, for most of the minutes of those 142 games. Moreover, their rivalry often played out for the highest stakes: Chamberlain and Russell and their respective squads competed for conference titles six times, and for NBA titles twice. All of this makes for great argument: Who was better – Russell or Chamberlain? Indeed, the “Great Debate” of professional basketball history and the accompanying cultural discourse it has generated are another reason to consider this the greatest rivalry of all time. According to Bethlehem Shoals in FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, “The Russell/Wilt Binaries have since become staples of NBA discourse.” Russell came to be associated with teamwork, unselfishness, defense, effort, devotion to the game, results, and winning, while Chamberlain came to be associated with a contrasting set of traits: individual greatness, selfishness, offense, natural talent, wavering interest, obsession with statistics, and losing. Even philosopher David O’Connor has seen in the debate the continuation of a conversation going back to Aristotle about excellence, how to achieve it, and the role of heroes in our efforts to do so. Bill Russell once reflected that “almost any argument people wanted to have could be carried on in the Russell versus Chamberlain Debate, and almost any virtue and sin was imagined to be at stake.” And while there are no shortage of Chamberlain partisans, by and large the debate tends to favor Russell.
But in my opinion, the great significance of their rivalry emerges best when we set aside our need to choose one. As a friend of mine once asked wryly on Twitter, “You see a man with 31,000 points [Wilt]. Another has eleven rings [Russell]. You think: I have to choose. What the hell is wrong with you?” In fact, Russell himself challenged the very applicability of the idea of rivalry on the occasion of Chamberlain’s death in 1999: “We didn’t have a rivalry; we had a genuinely fierce competition that was based on friendship and respect. We just loved playing against each other.” Perhaps Russell is quibbling over semantics. His definition of competition might just be someone else’s definition of rivalry. But be that as it may, I think Russell is trying to suggest something deeper than the zero-sum logic we can be led into when focusing on the outcome of rivalries. He wants us to see that their competition was a joint human venture in creativity, in which their respective effort and abilities mutually spurred one another to unparalleled achievements. In doing so, Russell and Chamberlain revolutionized the sport by taking it “above the rim.” And as the first black basketball superstars, they led the way for a desegregation of the NBA that would see the league go from mostly white when they first played in 1959 to mostly black when they ended their competition in 1969. In that sense, their competition exposed and demolished racist barriers in the game, doing so in the broader context of the black freedom struggle in American society.
There is virtually no aspect of basketball as millions around the world play and watch it today that cannot be traced back, more or less directly, to the tactical and cultural revolution that Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain together, friends and competitors, ushered in. I can think of no other matchup between individual athletes that has had such a forceful impact on their sport and society.
–Yago Colás teaches about sport, culture, and society at the University of Michigan. He is author of the forthcoming Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball.