Rivalry defines any sport. It creates appointment viewing.
In tennis, however, it’s even more significant. Rivalry has a face. It forces you to raise your game in specific ways because of a specific person. Like boxing, tennis is an individual sport in which you almost need a dance partner to prove your greatness. And unlike boxing, a rivalry features a lot more than two or three battles.
Rivalry plus history produces something even more special.
If we wanted to, we could use this weekend’s Australian Open finals as an indictment of tennis’ future.
When the top two seeds go down — as men’s No. 2 Novak Djokovic did in the second round and No. 1 Andy Murray did in the fourth — it is a prime opportunity for a rising star to pounce on the opportunity.
Instead, the No. 3 seed, 26-year-old Milos Raonic, lost to a 30-year-old former champion in the quarterfinals. So did No. 6 Gael Monfils. The No. 4 and 5 seeds, Stan Wawrinka and 27-year-old Kei Nishikori, lost to a 35-year-old. No. 7 Marin Cilic, gifted with an opportunity to win a second slam, lost in the second round. No. 8 Dominic Thiem, a rising 23-year-old, lost in the fourth.
On the women’s side, it was the same story. No. 1 Angelique Kerber got blasted out of the tournament by CoCo Vandeweghe, but rising stars like Karolina Plíšková (last year’s U.S. Open finalist) and Garbine Muguruza (the reigning French Open champion) couldn’t take advantage.
We could look at it that way. But we won’t. Because the two finals matchups are a damn blessing.
Years after their prime, years after they defined the sport, two all-time rivalries will decide the Aussie trophy holders: Venus Williams vs. Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer.
How unlikely was this? Consider one of tennis’ most celebrated runs: that of Jimmy Connors to the 1991 U.S. Open semifinals. Connors was an old star at the tail end of his career. He missed most of 1990 to a wrist injury, and he had to withdraw from the 1991 French Open with a back injury.
But there he was, outlasting Patrick McEnroe in a first-round five-setter, sweeping No. 10-seed Karel Nováček in the third round, beating Aaron Krickstein in a fifth set tiebreaker in the Round of 16, and dominating Paul Haarhuis in the quarters. It was thrilling enough that we still remember it 25 years later.
Connors was 38 when that tournament began. Venus Williams will turn 37, and Federer and Serena Williams will turn 36, this summer. Federer missed much of 2016 with his first major injury.
In 2011, Venus was diagnosed with Sjögren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease that forced her to completely redefine how she trains and how she draws up her schedule. Between the 2011 and 2014 U.S. Opens, she never advanced past the third round of a Slam, and she missed two with injury issues.
In 2015, however, a new act to her career began. She made the quarters at both the Australian and U.S. Opens and reached the fourth round at Wimbledon. In 2016, she reached two more fourth rounds and the Wimbledon semis. And her semifinal win over CoCo Vandeweghe on Thursday set up her first Slam final appearance since 2008 Wimbledon.
She beat Serena at that one, naturally. They’ve met for all the marbles just a few times.
Then there's Nadal. His grinding game both knocked Federer off of his pedestal and created a steady stream of injury issues. He missed portions of 2009, 2012, 2013, and 2014 with injury, and after runs to the quarterfinals of the first two slams of 2015, he had gone just 8-5 at his last five slams and missed Wimbledon last summer. He is a mere 30, but the odometer is awfully high.
But in Friday's semifinal, he outlasted a fit, sharp Grigor Dimitrov in five sets and nearly five hours. This after he was taken to five sets by rising 19-year old Alexander Zverev in the third round and four sets by No. 6 Gaël Monfils in the fourth. The battle with Raonic was the easiest he's had since the second round. He has been forced to grind for nearly two weeks. It’s what he does. And now he’s three sets from title No. 15.
That Nadal looks like Nadal again, and that Serena Williams isn’t off of her all-time 2015 form at age 35, is remarkable enough. That all four are here together is impossibly special. And if Venus Williams or Federer were to win the title, it would be more than a heartwarming story: It would be a rivalry reversal. As Chris Evert can attest, those can be particularly sweet.
Age was beginning to catch up to Chris Evert-Lloyd, as she was then known, when she took down Martina Navratilova in the 1986 French Open finals. It was the typical Evert-Navratilova match in a lot of ways: lengthy, with plot twists and full court coverage.
Navratilova cruised through a 6-2 opening set, but as was typically the case in Paris, Evert battled back. She took the second set 6-3, then broke Martina twice in the third. On championship point, the two exchanged a brief rally at the baseline, and Evert charged the net on her first opportunity. A gorgeous drop volley won it.
It was Evert's seventh French Open championship and her 18th and final overall slam. She was the bridge between the King-and-Court era — her first two slam finals were losses to Margaret Court in the 1973 French Open and to Billie Jean King at 1973 Wimbledon — and what would become the more power-based era of Steffi Graf and Monica Seles.
The Chrissie-Martina rivalry defined women's tennis for more than a decade, between their first slam final battle (1975 French) and last (1986 French) and the 12 such meetings in between.
But you could probably forgive Evert for perhaps occasionally wondering what her accomplishments might have been if, say, a young Navratilova had taken up skiing instead.
As impressive as 18 slam titles might sound, Evert also lost 16 slam finals, and 10 came to her chief rival. She beat Navratilova three of four times in the French finals but went just 1-9 in the other three. Winning Wimbledon three times is an incredible accomplishment, but she fell to the same person five more times in the final round.
Such is life in tennis. Rivalry builds your stature and raises your game. It gets you 30-for-30s. But it also creates a massive set of what-ifs.
In an Earth-Two-style alternate universe, where Nadal and Venus’ little sister find their passion better suited in some other sport, these two legends would find their already incredible résumés significantly bolstered. The elder Williams sister has seven slam titles but has lost to her little sister in a slam final six times.
Federer, meanwhile, is 17-10 in slam finals: 2-6 against Nadal and 15-4 against everybody else. He already has more slam titles than anybody man in the Open Era, and he has been to seven more Slam finals than Nadal. But sports are all about matchups, and Nadal’s game was custom-made to take down the Swiss champion.
That underlying narrative makes this fortnight’s development at the Australian Open even more stirring. At 36 and 35 years of age, Venus and Serena will take each other on for the ninth time in a Slam final on Saturday. On Sunday, 35-year old Federer and 30-year old Nadal will also battle for the ninth time on such a stage. The legacies of these four are set; this is just icing on the cake. But for Venus and Roger, it’s a chance to steal one back.
Venus vs. Serena and Roger vs. Rafa defined the sport of tennis in the 2000s. We’re well into the 2010s now, however, and this wasn’t supposed to happen again. Bask in this. It is hard as hell to reach tennis’ pinnacle, and it’s even harder to find a rival to take you there so constantly.
That we get both of these matches in the same weekend is special. And the nature of these rivalries suggest that wins by either Venus or Roger would make it even more special.