The experience of sport fans has always been enriched by on-court rivalries like the one between Roger and Rafa. They get noticed by the world in general including many who are not big fans of the particular sport the contestants play.
Great sports rivalries have always had a fascination for sports fans. When Roger Federer takes on Rafael Nadal in the Miami Open final their epic rivalry has been continuing for more than a decade.
There is another rivalry between the present world No. 1 Andy Murray and No. 2 Novak Djokovic that the world loves to watch. But nothing beats the rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on the football pitch. Such rivalries emerge when two top players continue to be at the top of their game for a long period and there are occasions for the two to meet repeatedly.
Indians are more familiar with the rivalries on the cricket pitch, especially between Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne and Virender Sehwag and Shoaib Akhtar.
There have been many similar rivalries that have fired up the imagination of the sports world through the ages, in tennis as well as in other sports events. The intensity of the rivalry in individual events is indeed high and the atmosphere becomes highly charged before and during a match. Two such fierce competitors meeting in the final of a tournament is the ultimate entertainment to the fans.
Of course individual events can take rivalries into their vicious heights. Who can forget the fiery contests between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman that culminated in the Rumble in the Jungle match up. It’s true that combat sports take the rivalries to a murderous new level when the combatants square up against one another in the ring.
Rivalries are not the preserve of individual sports. We all know about football rivalries like those of Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spanish La Liga, Chelsea and Manchester United in British Premier League and the North London Derby fever of an Arsenal-Totenham clash. Such clashes reverberate outside the pitch and across continents. Why go anywhere else even the rivalry between Kolkata clubs Mohan Bagan and East Bengal has been stuff of legends.
But even team games do provide ammo for personal rivalries, even though the players themselves pretend not to notice. The fans do take it to a whole new level. In cricket, the on-pitch rivalry between India’s Sachin Tendulkar and Pakistan’s Shoaib Akhtar has been much written about. However, no rivalry fires up the imagination of present day fans like that between Barca’s Argentine star Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo.
In tennis, the King of Career Comebacks, Federer is ‘Mr Consistent’ having performed without much ebbs and flows in his career over nearly two decades since he turned pro in 1998. His career is a study in keeping fit and avoiding excesses in life both on and off court. He has maintained his appetite for the game nearly two decades after turning pro. The 36-year-old Swiss, who has kissed a Grand Slam cup 18 times, the most for any male player in the Open Era, is considered by many including some who are not his fans as the greatest player of all time. This may or may not be true, but there is no doubt that he is right up there among tennis greats of all time and arguably the best by a long shot of the last 50 years.
Nadal, the mercurial King of the Clay is another story. The 31-year-old Spaniard has been flamboyant on and off the court. Though he has been most consistent on clay, the south paw has shown repeatedly that he is never a push over on any surface, having beaten the top even on other surfaces. Having turned pro at the age of 15 in 2001, the Mallorca, Spain resident has had a roller-coaster ride marred by injuries, yet wining 14 Grand Slam titles.
The rivalry between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic is running parallel to that of Roger and Rafa. The 29-year-old Serb is known for his accurate ground strokes. Murray, also 29, is credited enormous reserves that help him to get out of tight situations through grit and hard work.
Another great rivalry on tennis court was seen shaping up in a Miami Open quarterfinal match the other day when 21-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios took on 19-year-old German Alexander ‘Sasha’ Zverev. Zverev took a set off the flamboyant Kyrgios and being of the similar age and contrasting temperaments the tennis pro circuit must be waiting to watch a great rivalry to take shape between these two players.
In the women’s circuit the current No. 1 Serena Williams has been exceptional. She has a credible claim as a tennis GOAT – greatest of all time – and her fans have reason to challenge GQ Magazine’s attempt to anoint Federer. With 23 Grand Slam Singles titles in her pocket, the most in the Open Era and only one less than all-time record held by Brit Margaret Court, she and her fans have every reason to show frustration. Add her 14 Grand Slam doubles titles she has won with her sister Venus and the picture will be even clearer. The media’s treatment of her achievements also sharpen her complains about gender discrimination in pay to women atheletes.
Tennis fans of yesteryears will remember the tension and passion that a game between the ‘Bearded Wonder’ Bjorn ‘Ice’ Borg and the highly inflammable south paw John McEnroe – a match-up that equals that of RoRa meeting.
Athletics have also thrown up scintillating moments of extreme rivalries over the years. It may be that the dominance of Usain Bolt has been so total in the sprint events, there is no credible challenge yet to his supremacy. By all indications his career will end without room for another rivalry. But old timers will remember the days – when there was no live TV or even good radio coverage – when we used to wait to read about the rivalry between English athletes Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovette.
The spirit of competition is there in every human heart and its expression on the sports field is the healthiest. That is why the world is drawn to such contests. The interesting thing about such contests is that they attract the attention of the world in general, not necessarily that of the fans of that particular sports discipline.
This has been a rambling journey through some of the recognized sports rivalries that have sparked interest around the world. I would like to treat some of the more stand-out rivalries among these in future and believe that would be worth the effort.