Epic rivalries elevate sport

In sport, greatness is seldom achieved alone. For greatness’s ultimate stamp of approval, its one unequivocal endorsement, lies in the overcoming of the thrilling challenges provided by a meaty foe, a worthy opponent who can take the race all the way to the wire. For greatness cannot exist in a vacuum, so to say. It is accomplished when the owner of the tag stands up to gladiatorial challenges from men and women who themselves are seeking the surname Great. One man’s claim to lasting reputation depends on the other.

That it takes two to tango is more than a mere cliché in sport. There are all kinds of great rivalries in sport. They can span the spectrum from friendly rivalry to those with heavy geographical and political baggage to ones that are based on visceral hate and open hostility generated by all sorts of emotions.

In some cases, it — the rivalry — is deemed great because of the sheer length of time. An example that immediately comes to mind is the Ashes urn for which the old enemies Australia and England contest every two years.

Then there are ones that spring up as a by-product of history, geography; they are thought of as great simply because they have always had greatness stamped upon them irrespective of how often these rivalries throw up contests of seat-edge, nerve-jangling compulsion.

In the case of individual rivalries, a striking contrast in personalities and styles of play can make a big difference to whether the contests can be elevated enough to the level of great ones.

And in team sports, from the fans’ perspective, you not only have to worship the team you adore but you also have to hate another to the point where you rejoice when they are humiliated by your heroes in a match.

Rivalries that are built on deep religious and political tension slowly lose some of their intensity, as has the India-Pakistan series.

But as we look back we can retroactively appreciate the significance of the special moments produced by two great players or teams.

So here we go: the ones below are my top 10, a very, very subjective choice. Some of them might seem unpalatable or some, others questionable to many, but they are mine and I can live with them.

1. Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier: They fought three times and two of those occasions turned out to be the finest — in 1971 at the Madison Square Garden in New York and the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ four years later – two of the greatest matches in boxing history. After their fight, Ali said that Frazier was the greatest opponent of his career.

2. Bjorn Borg vs John McEnroe: This was not Federer vs Nadal or Federer vs Djokovic. They played just 14 times and the head to head was 7-7. It’s tough to pick a winner considering the contrast of styles and personalities, but McEnroe edged Borg because he won three of the four Grand Slam finals in which they played.

3. India vs Pakistan: Totally overshadowed by politics, this is not a rivalry like any other. Politics has decided when they play and where they would play. But, thankfully, the players themselves rose above the ground realities and have managed to come up with their very best when they were challenged.

4. Manchester United vs Liverpool: The two most famous clubs in the English Premier League have played each other several times and their clashes have always been among the most thrilling in the league history. United, of course, has a much bigger universal following than Liverpool.

5. Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal: Slightly lopsided (in favour of Nadal) but still a riveting rivalry that has brought the best out of the Swiss maestro and the Spanish matador.

6. Ayrton Senna vs Alain Prost: One man — Senna — was arguably the greatest Formula One driver in history while his French opponent lived up to his nickname: The Professor. Prost had the better car, Senna was a superior driver.

7. India vs Australia (cricket): From humble beginnings — with India as the punching bag — this rivalry has come a long way. The players respect each other and their contests have been thrilling and much-looked-forward-to.

8. Bobby Fischer vs Boris Spassky: The high noon of the Cold War era might have been past when the two met. But the World championship match itself turned into an America vs Soviet Union battle. Given Fischer’s tantrums and his genius, it was the greatest chess match (series) ever played.

9. Celtic vs Rangers: Given the size of Scotland you would imagine that this rivalry is unlikely to find a place here. But religion and politics turned a small-country rivalry into a world class affair.

10. Martina Navratilova vs Chris Evert: Hey, how about the Williams sisters — Venus and Serena — and how about this or that, you might ask. But this was the finest rivalry in women’s tennis history — aclash of playing styles and personalities.

Greatness’s ultimate stamp of approval lies in the overcoming of the thrilling challenges provided by a meaty foe

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 11:31:02 PM |

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