Before we take a deeper look at this hot topic, let’s be clear – everyone will have a different opinion of what the greatest match of all time will be. If I ask my dad it will be a match pre-1980 (Bjorg is his hero) and anyone in the past 20 years will no doubt choose Federer, Djokovic, Nadal or Williams who have so dominated the game.
What deems the greatest match is also in question – some will say it is a nail-biting final set finish, others will say a straight sets victory where near sublime tennis has been played will make it top of their list. The beauty is of the millions of tennis matches that have been played, we are all entitled to our view of what makes the greatest match in tennis.
The sport has been blessed with many great players and rivalries for generations. To determine our top ten, the Tennis Pursuits team sat down and discussed this in detail. Fair to say it was not straightforward and we did manage to decide, eventually. It was great to look back at some of these matches and watch some reruns.
John McEnroe vs Bjorn Borg (1980 Wimbledon final)
No top ten list is not complete without this epic Wimbledon contest. The contrast of styles could not have been greater, the hot-headed American, John McEnroe versus the cool and calm Swede Bjorn Borg.
McEnroe was booed upon entering the court having had a heated semifinal exchange with the All England club officials during his match with Jimmy Connors. He started the stronger and won the first set comfortably blowing the Swede off court. Bjorg regained his composure, took the next two sets, and found himself with championship points at 5-4 in the fourth set. McEnroe had other ideas and came back to level the match in what is one of the most famous tie breaks of all time. a 34-point tiebreaker went back and forth between these two titans with McEnroe eventually winning 18-16. McEnroe saved five match points! Bjorg open proceedings in the fifth set and incredibly won 19 straight points on serve in the deciding set and prevailed after 3 hours, 53 minutes to win the final set 8-6.
It was Borg’s fifth straight Wimbledon title. It was also his last, he lost to McEnroe in the 1981 Wimbledon final ending a run of 41 straight victories. Shortly after he retired at the young age of 26 years old.
Bjorn Borg Won: 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6
Monica Seles vs Steffi Graf (1992 French Open Final)
The 1992 French Open Final between Monica Seles and Steffi Graf was a historic match that lasted for two hours and 43 minutes. The match was closely contested, with both players matching each other shot for shot and fighting for the lead game after game. Monica had a more combative, hard hitting style having grown up on US hard courts, her opponent played a more mixed game of slice and pace.
Seles won the first set 6-2, but Graf fought back and won the second set 3-6. The third set was an epic battle that lasted 18 games and 91 minutes, an incredible feat of endurance from both players. Seles served for the match at 8-7 and held five match points before finally emerging as the winner with a 10-8 victory in the third set. The match was characterized by the drama and competition between two all-time greats, making it one of the most memorable women’s tennis matches of all time.
Monica Seles Won: 6–2, 3–6, 10–8
Nicolas Mahut vs John Isner (2010 Wimbledon – first round)
On paper this looked like a normal first round match at Wimbledon in 2010 for both players and the crowds watching. Fast forward eleven hours and five minutes later and played over the course of three days, this court 18 encounter goes down in the history books as the longest match ever played, not only in Wimbledon history, but in tennis history.
Rain affected day one proceedings after a late start and after fading lights both players left the court before the start of the fifth set. Both players returned on the following day and began their long battle in the fifth set in what was quite the most remarkable day of tennis ever seen. Both players relentlessly held on to their serves again, again and again, before play had to be suspended again after 9pm due to bad light at 59-59 games all (note the electronic scoreboard actually stopped working at 47-47 as it had not been programmed to keep scores higher than this). The players then returned for day three of this unbelievable match. Both players continued to battle with John Isner winning out 70-68 with the match ending at 4.47 pm three days after it began. This match was the catalyst for a change in the rules, now all Grand Slams adopt the “10-point tie-break” when the 5th set reaches six games all 6–6.
Both players served over 100 aces each and held serve for an incredible 168 consecutive games through the match. A truly incredible match, the likes of which will not be seen again due to the rule changes now in place.
John Isner Won; 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68
Rafael Nadal vs Roger Federer (2008 Wimbledon Final)
Regarded by many as the two best players of the open era, these players faced each other 40 times in competitions over the years. 2008 was close to the peak of both of their powers, going into this match they had won 14 of the previous 16 grand slam titles between them. The cool style of the Swiss maestro versus the bustling intensity of a short-sleeved, muscle-bursting Rafa Nadal.
Having won the title against Nadal in 2007, Federer started the Wimbledon final the favorite given grass was his preferred surface, Nadal had won the prestigious Queens Club tournament the week before so was in form on the green stuff. The battle ensued in what was a rain-interrupted final. Nadal took the first two sets, before play was first stopped for rain (note this was before the roof was built).
The next two sets were sheer brilliance, with some commenting it was the highest quality tennis to be played in the history of the sport. Federer took the third set in a tight tiebreak, Nadal led in the fourth set 5-2 and held championship points but Federer held on to win it. Federer hit quite simply the most incredible backhand down the line to save match point. The fifth set was equally intense; with the lead moving between both of them. Eventually, Nadal got the break of serve, Federer hitting a forehand into the net and Nadal, who fell to his knees under a dark London sky, won 9-7 on the most famous court in the world.
Rafael Nadal won 6–4, 6–4, 6–7, 6–7, 9–7
Roger Federer vs Andy Roddick (2009 Wimbledon Final)
Off the back of the incredible 2008 final, Roger Federer found himself back in the Wimbledon final in 2009. This time his opponent was the energetic, big-serving American, Andy Roddick. This was an incredible final, Pete Sampras was in the crowds as Federer aimed to overtake his 14 Grand Slams. Roddick came out firing and took his break points at 6-5 in the first set on Federer’s serve. The second set ended in a tie break, Roddick took a 6-2 lead, and looking like he was heading for a 2-0 lead. Instead, Federer pulled a rabbit out of a hat and reeled off six straight points to take the second set. The most memorable point was Roddick had a backhand volley to an open court at 6-5 and hit the volley outside of the doubles court. Agonizing for the American.
The third set was an edgy affair, there were no breaks of serve for the second consecutive set. Federer managed to win the tiebreaker. Roddick however had unfinished business and came roaring back, to win the fourth set and take this to a deciding set.
The fifth set was a true spectacle, each player serving well and each holding service until 14-15, and with Roddick serving to stay in the match, Federer found himself with his first break points of the match and in turn took them. Federer secured his fifteenth Grand Slam title. The final set is still the longest ever played in a Grand Slam final.
Roger Federer won 5–7, 7–6(8–6), 7–6(7–5), 3–6, 16–14.
Andre Agassi vs Pete Sampras (US Open final 2002)
These titans of tennis had many battles on the court over the years and we have chosen this match as their greatest encounter. They played each other in many grand slam events and Sampras had not won this tournament since 1996 and came into the final in mixed form. Agassi beat Leyton Hewitt in the semifinals and was in great form.
Agassi knew that to have any chance against Sampras in the first set he needed to wear him out and hope he could beat him on stamina. This did not happen and Sampras took the first two sets with relative ease. It was not until the third set that Agassi started to bring his best tennis to the New York crowds. Sampras began to tire and Agassi started to pick Sampras’s serve and he came back to win the third set. It looked likely that he would force a decider as Sampras looked tired, slumped over his chair between games, and slowing between service points. Agassi was probably at his fittest so Sampras knew he had to take on some more risk to finish the points if he was going to win in five sets. At 4-4 all in the final. He broke and served out for the match. He won his 14th and final major on a beautifully angled volley
This was the first time two thirty-somethings contested a Grand Slam final and it also ended up being Sampras’s last career match, although he did not retire until 2023.
Pete Sampras won 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4
Rafa Nadal vs Fernando Verdasco (Australian Open 2009 semi-final)
The two Spaniards battled late into the night in this epic encounter. Both players left nothing on the court as they traded blows from the baseline in what could have been a boxing match so brutal was the impact. The first set lasted 75 minutes and the match 5h and 14 minutes.
Verdasco took a tight first set on a tiebreak having won the last 4 points. Some say the first set reminded them of a clay court battle such was the ferocity of the baseline hitting. Game on.
Another tiebreaker loomed in the second set with Verdasco serving at 4-5, 40-15. Nadal brought the game back to deuce and Nadal produced a display of brilliance with a deft flick volley to get to advantage Verdasco then hit the ball long to give Nadal the second set and with it the wind in his sails.
They swapped four service breaks in the third set, and the third tiebreaker quickly went Nadal’s way, with Verdasco looking increasingly empty.
Verdasco needed the trainer at the end of the set and looked in pain but decided to battle on. The fourth set went all the way to a tiebreak and it was one-way traffic from Verdasco as he raced to a 6-0 lead while forcing a deciding fifth set.
The fifth set was played on adrenaline, Verdasco saved five break points in the fifth set before finally faltering. Serving at 4-5 he fell behind 0-40 to set up three match points for Nadal. He saved two, then double-faulted — such an incredibly sad way to end what was one of the greatest matches of all time. Both players dropped to the floor in pure exhaustion before Nadal got up, jumped over the net, and gave his friend a hug.
Rafa Nadal won 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (1), 6-4
Stanislas Wawrinka vs Novak Djokovic (French Open 2015 final)
It was a rare sight at Roland Garros to not see Rafa Nadal in attendance in a final. This time Wawrinka and Djokovic did battle for the first time in a grand slam final. The match was a memorable one, with Wawrinka showcasing his strong serve, powerful forehand, and immense backhand down the line that frustrated Djokovic throughout the match
Wawrinka’s victory marked his second Grand Slam title, having previously won the Australian Open in 2014. He finished the match with 60 winners compared to Djokovic’s 30 and only had four more unforced errors.
The turning point of the match came when Wawrinka ripped a backhand pass winner in the second set, which shifted the momentum in his favor. Overall, it was a remarkable performance from Wawrinka, and he emerged as the champion of the French Open 2015. Wawrinka is one of the few players to have challenged the big four in Grand Slams in recent years.
Stanislas Wawrinka won 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4
Arthur Ashe vs Jimmy Connors (1975 Wimbledon Men’s Final)
This match makes our list for a different reason, whilst the quality of tennis was high it was the sheer brilliance of Arthur Ashe who outwitted the heavy favorite Jimmy Connors to win his one and only Wimbledon title. Jimmy Connors was on fire that season and was the heavy favorite going into the match, few gave Arthur Ashe any chance. The extra spice to this encounter was that Ashe and Connors really didn’t like each other, Ashe was a team player, and Connors a solo artist, brash in style. The two rarely spoke.
The match began with Arthur Ashe dominating the first two sets, winning them by the astounding scores of 6-1, and 6-1. It is fair to say he completely bamboozled the fired-up Connors. Ashe’s powerful and precise game proved to be too much for Connors to handle in the early stages of the match. However, Connors showed his resilience and fought back in the third set, managing to win it and gain some momentum.
Despite losing the third set, Ashe remained composed and focused on his game plan. He displayed incredible mental strength, closing his eyes in meditation during each changeover, and stuck to his strategy of taking the pace off the ball and giving Connors nothing. Connors, known for his aggressive and relentless style of play, tried to mount a comeback in the fourth set by breaking Ashe’s serve and taking the lead.
However, Ashe refused to be shaken and continued to execute his game plan with precision. He showcased his thoughtfulness and courage, proving that anyone in tennis can be beaten with enough strategy and determination. Ashe’s calm and composed demeanor helped him regain control of the match, and he fought back to level the fourth set.
In a thrilling climax, Ashe managed to break Connors’ serve and take the lead in the fourth set. With each point, the tension in the match grew, as both players fought fiercely for victory. In the end, Ashe emerged as the victor, winning the fourth set and securing the Wimbledon title.
The match between Ashe and Connors was a testament to Ashe’s skill, mental fortitude, and ability to adapt to different situations. It showcased the beauty of tennis and the excitement of a closely contested final. Ashe’s victory over Connors remains a significant moment in tennis history, demonstrating that with the right mindset and strategy, even seemingly invincible opponents can be defeated.
Arthur Ashe won 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4
Martina Navratilova vs Chris Evert (1981 Australian Open Final)
These two had a fantastic rivalry and this match is right up there as one of the best. The Australian Open was still played on grass in 1981 and this 3-set match was a thrilling match with all the 3 sets very evenly contested. The 1st set went again to Chris Evert In a tie break after it was 6-6 and she won 7-6 but as usual, the comeback queen Martina Navratilova won the next 2 sets but it wasn’t easy. She won the 2nd set 6-4 and the 3rd set 7-5.
Overall, the 1981 Australian Open Final between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova was a closely contested match that showcased the skill and competitiveness of both players. The match was significant in the Evert-Navratilova rivalry and added another chapter to their storied history on the tennis court. Both have gone on to become legends of the game.
Martina Navratilova Won: 6–7, 6–4, 7–5
Ivan Lendl vs Mats Wilander (1988 US Open Final)
Ivan Lendl was a three-time U.S. Open champion and the firm favorite going into this game. The year before, he had defeated Mats Wilander in four set thriller and the match lasted over 4 1/2 hours. The 1988 match had a different feel to it. Wilander was having a great year, he had secured the Australian Open title against Pat Cash and also had won the French Open so was in red-hot form. This was also the battle for the number 1 spot and Ivan Lendl was not going to give it up easily after 159 weeks at the top of the world.
This match was going to be a game of endurance from the off, many long rallies of 20+ shots occurred with each player drawing for breath after each. Who was going to crack first? Wilander secured the first set having taken the lead 5-4 but Lendl took the second set with the same scoreline. This game was very evenly matched. Wilander took the third 6-3 and he should have taken the 4th set after breaking Lendl at 4-3, but he couldn’t hold the break and Lendl did what he did best and took the set 7-5. The 5th set was not the great epic that saw McEnroe and Bjorg in 1980, Wilander broke Lendl in the middle of the set and went on to win, claiming the US Open and his 3rd major title that year. It was to be his best year and victory was even sweeter against his arch rival Ivan Lendl.
Mats Wilander won 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4
Carlos Alcaraz vs Novak Djokovic (2023 Wimbledon Final)
I wanted to add this match as it felt like a changing of the guard for what has arguably been the greatest era and dominance in the male era. Carlos Alcaraz burst onto the scene a few years ago and has gone on to reach world number 1 at 19 years of age. On paper Novak was the heavy favorite, he has made center court his own since Roger Federer retired and he had been unbeaten in 45 matches, last losing to Andy Murray in 2013.
The match started with great expectation and Novak stormed through the first set beating the young Spaniard 6-1. Was this going to be a whitewash? Did the Spaniard have the mental ability to cope with the occasion? the second set was closer, and Carlos started to fight back and traded blows with Novak. The second set went to a tiebreak and neck and neck until Carlos managed to win it 8-6. Game on! It was then Carlos’s turn to blow Novak off court in the third set winning it 6-1. He found amazing angles, hit the ball as cleanly as I have seen anyone, and his forehand could do no wrong. Carlos did to Novak what had been done to him in the first set. But Novak is not the greatest of all time for no reason. In the fourth set, he reset and found his consistency. Carlos had his chances to break but Novak was not giving an inch. Novak forced the errors and won the fourth set 6-3. Into a fifth set and who was going to win, the defending champion or the new kid on the block? Some amazing rallies started the fifth set and it was the Spaniard who broke early in the set and then managed to hold onto this to win his first Wimbledon title. The level of tennis was insane and whilst Novak remains the person to beat in tennis, Carlos proved that there is room for others to win grand slam titles outside of Rafa, Roger, Novak, and Andy. Watch this space for more amazing tennis from Carlos, we can’t wait.
Carlos Alcaraz won 1-6 7-6 (8-6) 6-1 3-6 6-4.
There have been so many great matches over the years it really is hard to choose from one. People have their own favorite players and some matches will mean more to you than they will to me. That said, I think we can all agree that the matches listed above certainly deserve to be recognized, these matches have changed the game of tennis in some cases. If I had to pick a match here I would have to choose the Federer vs Nadal final, I remember it so vividly, I was in my early twenties at the time and was glued to the rivalry between these two titans.
Let us know what your best tennis matches of all time are and tell us why.