1. LIONEL MESSI V CRISTIANO RONALDO
One 1.87m, the other 1.70m; one with gel in his hair, the other moving like liquid; one a professor of levitation, the other a genius at staying low to the ground. Eleven Ballon d’Ors between them, nine Champions League titles, enough Golden Boots to fill a shoe shop, trophies enough to require a separate house, 169 goals for their nations together, hoggers of highlight reels for over a decade and always doing three brilliant things: Making their teams better, making football better but, most tellingly, making each other better. Watch: bit.ly/3bhbTuZ
2. STEFFI GRAF V MONICA SELES
The athletic German was four years older, had a forehand borrowed from an armoury and a backhand slice that hissed like a cat whose tail had been stepped on. The grunter was born in the former Yugoslavia, had a dad who was a cartoonist and hit two-handed from both sides. Their rivalry was ferocious and even though Graf led Seles 10-5 – and they will never play again – it is a rivalry that seems unfinished.
Graf won seven Grand Slam titles in 1988 and 1989 but, when Seles arrived, life changed. The German won only three Slams from 1990 to 1992, as Seles took seven. Then in April 1993, Seles was stabbed by a Graf fan. She would win only one more Slam title, Graf would win 11.
They played in six Grand Slam finals (3-3) but their masterpiece was arguably the 1992 French Open final. The third set lasted 91 minutes. Graf saved five match points but Seles won 6-2, 3-6, 10-8. “She’s definitely a tough player,” said Graf, “and even if it’s close, and even if she’s tired, she’s always going for it.” Watch: bit.ly/3evAoGE
3. LIN DAN V LEE CHONG WEI
Rivalries are complicated. They can last for more than a century between teams, comprise three fights between boxers or 80 encounters between tennis players. They can be evenly matched or, like badminton stars Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei, simply lopsided. The Chinese player led 28-12 and yet it didn’t matter. Where Lin went, Lee followed. What Lee learnt, Lin had to counter. Even The New York Times took notice.
The Chinese player won all their six meetings at the world championships, Asian Games and Olympics and then came Rio 2016. Lee had lost at London 2012 despite leading 19-18 in the third game, yet here, finally, he squeezed through 22-20 in the deciding game. He had made the rivalry real by never going away.
When that Rio match ended and they met at the net, they embraced, exchanged shirts, then hugged again. Their shirts were wet with sweat, a reminder of how hard they always tried to beat each other. Watch: bit.ly/2wPi1eY
4. MARY DECKER V ZOLA BUDD
One established world champion in the 3,000m from America, one teenager from South Africa who was better at the longer 5,000m, one over-hyped rivalry. Decker was a great talent who’d been constantly injured and then missed the 1980 Olympics because of the US boycott. But 1984 was her home Olympic Games and she was flying. Budd’s nation was banned from the Games but she was encouraged to represent Britain, where her paternal grandfather was from.
Other British runners initially were not happy with Budd’s new passport and Decker as a teenager had once hurled a relay baton at a rival. Trouble was brewing.
Eventually a documentary was made on their incident called The Fall and two books were written, Collision Course and Olympic Collision. Yes, it was that dramatic. In short, the runners bumped into each other mid-race, Decker fell, Budd was booed and neither won. Later, Decker said, “I don’t think there’s any question that she was in the wrong” and Budd would tell the Daily Mail “I don’t know what happened, but I think she ran into the back of me”.
Later, they promoted the documentary together but one thing we should never forget. As a girl, Budd had a picture of Decker on her wall. Watch: bit.ly/2K8Wcdo
5. BJORN BORG V JOHN MCENROE
In 2006, just one of the 16 years they played each other, Federer-Nadal met six times. Borg-McEnroe played each other only 14 times in total across four years. These inseparable talents finished, fittingly, at 7-7.
The only thing these men had in common was headbands. Else it was their diversity which fuelled their appeal. Unhinged New Yorker versus unemotional Swede; Sergio Tacchini clothes versus Fila; Dunlop racket versus Donnay; invention versus consistency; volleyer versus baseliner.
Their rivalry spawned three books, a Hollywood film and an unforgettable fourth-set tie-breaker in their classic Wimbledon 1980 final which comprised 34 points. McEnroe saved five match points in the tie-breaker, won it 18-16 and thought then: “I knew I was going to win the match.”
Borg did, in five sets. Watch: bit.ly/2Ve7ZgP