Federer, Tyson, Woods, Ali, Nadal: Sport's 20 greatest ever rivalries

  • Kobe Tong
Nadal and Federer in 2009.

Roger Federer announced his retirement from tennis this week and the sporting world has had something in its eye ever since.

In an emotional statement on Thursday, the legendary Grand Slam champion revealed that he would be hanging up his racket after he competes at the Laver Cup in London later this month.

The 41-year-old wrote: “This is a bittersweet decision because I will miss everything the tour has given me. But, at the same time, there is so much to celebrate.

Federer retires from tennis

“I consider myself one of the most fortunate people on Earth. I was given a special talent to play tennis and I did it at a level that I never imagined for much longer than I ever thought possible.”

It really has been incredible to watch Federer all these years with his breath-taking ability and unerring respectfulness making him a much-loved role model to sports fans around the world.

But of all the tributes paid to Federer upon his touching announcement, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that any of them tugged harder at the heart strings than that of Rafael Nadal.

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Nadal, Federer

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Nadal’s message for Federer

In a movingly personal message to his greatest of competitors, Nadal reflected: “Dear Roger, my friend and rival. I wish this day would have never come.

“It’s a sad day for me personally and for sports around the world. It’s been a pleasure but also an honor and privilege to share all these years with you, living so many amazing moments on and off the court

“We will have many more moments to share together in the future, there are still lots of things to do together, we know that. For now, I truly wish you all the happiness with your wife, Mirka, your kids, your family and enjoy what’s ahead of you. I’ll see you in London.”

Nadal and Federer at a Laver Cup.
Tennis – Laver Cup – Palexpo, Geneva, Switzerland – September 21, 2019 Team Europe’s Rafael Nadal with Roger Federer during his singles match against Team World’s Milos Raonic REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

A truly special rivalry

It truly has been one of the biggest treats of all sporting history to watch Nadal and Federer go head-to-head so many times throughout their decorated careers on the court.

From that epic night at Wimbledon in 2008 to forming the dream doubles team for one night and one night only, the pair have shared a rivalry so special for both its sheer overload of talent and for the respect that they held for each other.

As such, it should come as no surprise to learn that Nadal vs Federer has been ranked by fans as one of the greatest individual rivalries that sport has ever seen.

Nadal and Federer embrace.
Tennis – Australian Open – Melbourne Park, Australia – 1/2/09 Switzerland’s Roger Federer (R) looks dejected at the end after defeat in the final while winner Rafael Nadal of Spain holds the trophy Mandatory Credit: Action Images / Jason O’Brien

The greatest sporting rivalries in history

As soon as we saw that the curtain was being drawn on the pair’s Herculean rallies at the highest level, we just had to see how their rivalry compared to other legendary head-to-heads.

And over at Ranker, Nadal vs Federer is currently ranked in fourth place on their interactive list titled: “The Greatest Individual Rivalries in Sports History,” courtesy of over 2,700 votes.

So, to find out which sporting rivalries could possibly top the iconic status of Nadal vs Federer, then be sure to check out the top 20 at the time of writing down below:

20. Kobe Bryant vs Shaquille O’Neal (basketball)

Bryant and O'Neal with the LA Lakers.
The Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant (L) and Shaquille O’Neal return to the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers after a timeout in the first period during their NBA matchup, January 12, 2001 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Published reports have shed light on the tension between the two NBA superstars over whom will lead the team. SSM/ME

19. Jimmy Connors vs John McEnroe (tennis)

18. Tiger Woods vs Phil Mickelson (golf)

17. Julius Erving vs Larry Bird (basketball)

16. Wayne Gretzky vs Mario Lemieux (ice hockey)

15. Joe Louis vs Max Schmeling (boxing)

Louis and Schmeling fight.
BRONX, NY – JUNE 22: Max Schmeling (1905-2005) the former champion (1930) is floored by Joe Louis (1914-1981) during their World Heavyweight bout on June 22, 1938 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. Referee Arthur Donovan holds back Schmeling’s cornerman Max Machon after the fight. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

14. Evander Holyfield vs Mike Tyson (boxing)

13. Pete Sampras vs Andre Agassi (tennis)

12. Sidney Crosby vs Alexander Ovechkin (ice hockey)

11. Ted Williams vs Joe DiMaggio (baseball)

10. Jake LaMotta vs Sugar Ray Robinson (boxing)

LaMotta and Robinson renuite.
Boxer Jake “The Raging Bull” Lamotta (L) and Sugar Ray Robinson Jr. pose for photographers at Madison Square Garden in New York April 7, 2006. The first-day issue of stamps commemorating boxing great Sugar Ray Robinson was unveiled on Friday. Lamotta fought Robinson at Madison Square Garden. REUTERS/Teddy Blackburn

9. Chris Evert vs Martina Navratilova (tennis)

8. Arnold Palmer vs Jack Nicklaus (golf)

7. Sugar Ray Leonard vs Roberto Duran (boxing)

6. John McEnroe vs Björn Borg (tennis)

5. Tom Brady vs Payton Manning (American football)

Brady and Manning are NFL legends.
DENVER, CO – JANUARY 24: Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos and Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots speak after the AFC Championship game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 24, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Patriots 20-18. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

4. Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal (tennis)

3. Wilt Chamberlain vs Bill Russell (tennis)

2. Magic Johnson vs Larry Bird (basketball)

  1. Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier (boxing)
Frazier knocks down Ali.
March 1971: In a title fight at Madison Square Gardens, New York, Muhammad Ali goes down in the 15th round to a left hook from world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier who kept the title with an unanimous points win. Cameramen are crowded round the ring. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Ali vs Frazier beats Federer vs Nadal

So many special sporting rivalries. You love to see it.

So much of what makes sport such compulsive viewing is the personalities and narratives that course through all the competitions regardless of whether it’s a fiery rivalry or a respectful one.

Yes, you’ve got the high-octane clashes of Tyson taking a chunk out of Holyfield’s ear, but you’ve also got the mutual respect between icons across American football, basketball and golf.

And while the emotions of the week probably leave us thinking that Nadal vs Federer should place even higher, we will concede that Ali vs Frazier truly was a rivalry for the ages.

You know you’re doing something right when you’re slugging it out in the ‘Fight of the Century,’ after all.

Frazier and Ali reunite.
Boxers Joe Frazier (L) and Muhammad Ali pose together as they arrive at the 10th annual ESPY Awards which honor excellence in all sports, July 10, 2002 in Hollywood. REUTERS/Fred Prouser FSP/ME

Nevertheless, the moral of the story means that we are now all waving goodbye to a glittering era of sport where two all-time greats were blessed to share the same generation with one another.

Tennis really won’t be the same without you, Roger.

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