The great stage of the US Open has hosted any number of remarkable rivalries and classic matches through its long and storied history. From nail-biting first-round upsets through thrilling edge-of-your-seat finals, there have been countless matchups that have brought down the house—and helped build the Open’s reputation as one of the world’s greatest sporting events.
The US Open is high drama at its most irresistible, providing a showcase for the greatest in the game to prove why they merit that moniker. And when greatness collides with greatness, the result is seldom short of brilliant. That has been the formula for the success of this singular event—as well as for those who have won here. Every competitor comes to New York knowing that in order to be the best, they’ll need to beat the best.
So what if the greats of one era could, somehow, compete with the greats of another? What if the “bests” were not separated by time, but only by a net? Just imagine if you could sit in the stands in Arthur Ashe Stadium and watch the towering champions of the past facing the fi nest players of the current generation with both players at the height of their powers. Who would you want to see face off—and who would win?
That’s what USTA Magazine asked a distinguished panel of players, coaches and journalists to do: pick their dream matchup, and tell us how it might turn out. Here are their answers.
NICK BOLLETTIERI: PETE SAMPRAS VS. ROGER FEDERER
A Pete Sampras-Roger Federer US Open match would be more than interesting, the biggest and best I can think of between two all-time greats who have both been such a credit to the game. It would have been a battle of one-handed backhands, with Sampras hitting his backhand flatter but Federer more versatile off that side. Backhand to backhand, Roger would have the edge. It would be an incredible match to watch between two of the great servers of all time, with Sampras using that slice serve out wide in the deuce court and Federer bringing the juice when he has to. Sampras would have the edge with the running forehand, but Federer would cover more ground than Sampras. It would be a heck of a match to predict. Sampras would attack and play serve-and-volley and he would keep coming at Roger on his backhand side. Both players are so good under pressure. In the end, though, I think Federer would find a way to negate Sampras attacking him all the time, so I would see him winning a very close match.
TONY TRABERT: TRABERT VS. NOVAK DJOKOVIC
U.S. Nationals Champion 1953, 1955
I would find it intriguing to play a US Open match at my best against Novak Djokovic when he is at the top of his game. The first thing I would do is try to disrupt his rhythm and give him some soft shots that bounce higher, to keep him from getting in his groove. I would serve-and-volley some, but not all the time; I’d keep mixing it up. I would make him serve to me down the middle in the deuce court because he doesn’t like that one as much as going wide. I would also try to use short angles to get him out of position, pulling my backhand short and making the ball land near the service line to force him out wide. Disrupting his flow would be the key for me but it would not be easy. Novak would be a tough guy to beat, but you want to discover how you would perform in a situation like this. It would be a challenge I would enjoy.
STEVE FLINK: PETE SAMPRAS VS. RAFAEL NADAL
Pete Sampras takes on Rafael Nadal, and the two icons put on a stupendous show for the fans that often leaves them gasping. I have been watching big-time tennis since 1965, and have seen a cavalcade of great players in my time, from Laver and Rosewall and Gonzalez, right on up to Roger Federer. But Sampras and Nadal are the two players in the men’s game that I have most admired. In my book, Sampras was the ultimate champion, the greatest server the game has yet witnessed, the man who has played the game on medium to fast courts better than anyone. Nadal is the quintessential competitor, singularly resilient, indefatigable. Sampras comes full force at Nadal with his elegant serve-and-volley attacking game, while Nadal counters with his lethal brand of topspin, his tricky left-handed serve, and the best forehand of all time. Sampras and Nadal go to a fifth-set tie-break, and the American is down match point at 5-6. He aces Nadal down the T, then puts away a crisp backhand volley after swinging his slice serve wide in the deuce court. Now Nadal is down match point at 6-7. He unleashes a scorching inside-out forehand, but Sampras answers with a dazzling running forehand crosscourt winner that not even the redoubtable Nadal can track down. The two great champions embrace at the net afterwards, well aware that they have staged a classic.
BUD COLLINS: BILL TILDEN VS. ANDRE AGASSI; STEFFI GRAF VS. MAUREEN CONNOLLY
American journalist, Boston Globe
I must choose two matches: Bill Tilden-Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf-Maureen Connolly. Big Bill in impeccable white flannels, Agassi in one of his garish outfits. They play marvelous rallies. But Bill, with a cannonball serve, incredible anticipation and master of every stroke, wins. Graf and Connolly would be the only meeting between two champions who have won the Grand Slam. Both are great retrievers and competitors. But Graf could be an Olympic sprinter; her speed and reach give her the edge.
PETER BODO: JIM COURIER VS. BJORN BORG
American journalist, Tennis Magazine
On paper, you might think that Jim Courier and Bjorn Borg on the hard courts of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center would be a mismatch. After all, Courier won a grand total of four major titles while Borg bagged 11. However, neither man ever won the US Open. Borg was in four US Open finals but, haunted by bad luck and antipathy to playing under artificial lights, he grew less and less confident as the years rolled by. Courier also was snakebit at Flushing Meadows, despite having a game that earned him two Australian Open titles on hard courts.
So what happens when two excellent clay-court players who never won a US Open title meet, with one of them destined to break the hex? Borg’s serve was solid, his ground strokes were excellent and his movement perhaps the best in tennis history up to that time. Courier was a baseliner cut from a different cloth. He relied on a fairly basic game plan—step into the court and put yourself in position to hit a big forehand blast. Borg undoubtedly would be looking to find Courier’s backhand. Courier, by contrast, would focus on getting himself set up for the kill shot. No point getting into a track meet with Borg.
Ultimately, I would pick Borg to master the US Open demons and win, because as devastating as Courier’s forehand could be, Borg would have run down all but the best of them. It would be an absorbing spectacle, though, because Borg was a different player at the US Open than anywhere else, and mental goblins are sometimes more daunting than physical ones.
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: NAVRATILOVA VS. SERENA WILLIAMS
US Open champion 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987
I would be inspired if I could play Serena Williams on that US Open stadium court. The atmosphere with both of us in our primes would be electric. The key for me would be to neutralize her power and get into the points on her serve, to make her hit more balls than she is used to hitting in most of her matches. I would need to keep the ball as low as possible, and I would try to hit short to bring her forward, and then come in deep going the other way. Now she is going backwards as I come in to the net.
On my serve I would not be able to serve-and-volley all of the time, but I would do it a lot. I would serve into her body, mix it up a lot. I served-and-volleyed a lot against Monica Seles and she had the best return in the game then, and it was effective. I believe I could deal with Serena’s pace. The harder the ball comes to me the faster it tends to come back. And I would try to give her a lot of off-paced balls. Getting into the rally would be another key for me. I could see Serena and me having a very close match, something like 6-4 in the third set, with maybe a few tie-breaks before that. There would be very few service breaks and I could imagine a set without any breaks at all. It would be exciting because we are two of the best athletes tennis has ever seen and the crowd would respond positively to that.
JOHN NEWCOMBE: NEWCOMBE VS. ANDRE AGASSI
U.S. Nationals Champion 1967 & US Open Champion 1973
I would enjoy playing against Andre Agassi at the US Open. I called some of his matches against Pat Rafter on television, and I think Andre and I would have had similar types of matches to those he had with Pat. I would have kept coming at him and attacking and you would not have seen me playing from the backcourt. Andre would have done his great counterpunching and hit those returns of serve he was known for. It would have been fun and I would have loved the battle, getting in the cauldron with him. It would have been for me like playing Jimmy Connors in some ways, and I can imagine we would have appreciated what we both were bringing to the court. I would have given him that nod of approval after he hit a great passing shot, and he would have been that way with me. If we could have played at the Open a few times, I think we each would have won against each other. It would certainly be the kind of match that would give the fans some great tennis.
NEIL HARMAN: ANDY MURRAY VS. JIMMY CONNORS
How about Andy Murray and Jimmy Connors? The thought of the more cerebral right-hander from Scotland against the most ferocious competitor I ever saw on a tennis court would make for a magical matchup in New York. Connors frightened me, so his opponents would fear him as well: that we can know. The lefty against righty mixture, the flat-hitting, smoking ground strokes of Connors against the more flighty, thoughtful play of Murray. Fire against brimstone, two driven men, neither of whom ever contemplated the prospect of defeat—what could be better than that? I suppose Connors by virtue of his record would emerge with a victory, but just to imagine these two locking antlers would be enough to whet the appetite of any tennis fan.
MARY CARILLO: MONICA SELES VS. SERENA WILLIAMS
CBS TV commentator
A dream US Open match for me would be between Monica Seles and Serena Williams, with both in peak form. Seles, the best returner I’ve ever seen against the best server in Williams. Monica forcing Serena to deal with short court angles she’s never faced in modern tennis, testing her stamina and footwork. Facing off against Serena’s stunning athleticism and ability to take anyone’s best stuff and deal with it. Both of them refusing to lose. Two fierce competitors, understanding and embracing the enormity of the moment on a Saturday night in New York. I would be there for that one.
CLIFF DRYSDALE: RAFAEL NADAL VS. ROD LAVER
ESPN TV commentator
Let me see Rafa Nadal against Rod Laver at the US Open, because I want to find out how the modern game of Nadal would do against the best athlete tennis has ever had in Laver. Rod would not be able to serve and volley against Nadal the way he did in his day, and would have to wait for his chances to come in. Nadal would give Laver some problems with his high topspin because Rod had a Continental grip, but Laver was so great he would give Nadal a lot to worry about as well. It would be fascinating to see. All things being equal, Nadal wins in four sets, but it would depend on the equipment. If Rod could play Rafa with the old wood racquets and strings, he would have a better chance, but with the modern equipment Rafa would be tough to stop. The fans would be in for a real treat if these two guys could meet in some kind of time warp. I know I would be there to watch it.
CHRIS EVERT: EVERT VS. MARTINA HINGIS
US Open champion 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1982
I would really enjoy playing against Martina Hingis with us both in our primes because it would be a tactical match that would bring out the best in both of us. If I played Maria Sharapova or either of the Williams sisters, I might get blown off the court, but with Martina I am sure I would be more comfortable and could get into the match. It would be a thoughtful and interesting battle between us with strategy playing a big role in it. I would have to be very alert because Martina is such a tricky player. She has so much variety in her game. I would not know when she might come to the net, or when she would use her drop shot. I would use my drop shot as well. The tennis would be fun for both of us because we would use our heads to try to find ways to win. I don’t know who would win. Maybe I wouldn’t miss a ball but maybe Martina would have too many surprises for me up her sleeve. It would be a nice battle of the minds.
UBALDO SCANAGATTA: JOHN MCENROE VS. ROGER FEDERER
Nothing could be better than to see two artists both called “genius” by the unimaginative press: John McEnroe and Roger Federer. Here are the most magical hands ever placed on a racquet: the left one of McEnroe and the right one of Federer. I can imagine McEnroe saying of Federer, “This guy behaves so well he reminds me of Borg.” And Federer replying, “Oh, no, another left-hander! Wasn’t Nadal enough?” Who do I see winning? Federer. Roger would return better than his opponent and neutralize John’s first serve with a more effective sliced backhand. He would also bother John with his higher trajectory ground strokes. Federer wins in five after trailing two sets to love.
L. JON WERTHEIM: CHRIS EVERT VS. VENUS WILLIAMS
American journalist, Sports Illustrated
They say in boxing that “styles make fights.” And the same goes for tennis. Yes, best matches are packed with fluctuating momentum and moments of truth, demanding that both players ask deep questions of themselves and their opponents. But the best matches also pit together two different players—different games, different skill sets, different philosophies. You could hardly get more different than Chris Evert and Venus Williams. A quarter-century of time separates them; it may as well be a millennium. Relentless consistency versus unparalleled athleticism. A modest physique versus height that exceeds six feet. You could play the “compare and contrast game” for a long time here.
Yet for every difference there is a similarity. Two ambitious women, who came of age in South Florida, taught the sport by their parents. They both prolonged their careers into their 30s. Maybe above all, they both carried themselves with a certain dignity, a certain intensity they brought to bear on the court.
Would Venus—the Venus who won the US Open and Wimbledon in 2000 and 2001—simply steamroll Chrissie with her force? Would Chrissie—the Chrissie who won multiple majors in the same year as a matter of course—neutralize the power on the other side of the net with her pinpoint precision? Who would blink first? However it played out, we would want to see it.
BJORN HELLBERG: ROY EMERSON VS. RAFAEL NADAL
Here is a top-class contest at the US Open—Roy Emerson vs. Rafael Nadal. These are two of the strongest battlers in the history of tennis, both with the stamina to survive several hours in the toughest of conditions in New York. It would be especially intriguing because of the sharp contrast in styles between the two players: Nadal the brilliant baseliner against the ruthless serve-and-volleyer and fighter Emerson. Nadal would operate from the backcourt while Emerson would take every opportunity to get to the net. I am sure this would be a most exciting clash. Emerson would have to use all of his speed capacity if he has any serious intentions of beating the steady Spaniard with the wonderful topspin ground strokes. The fans would be thrilled to see this clash of styles.
MARK PRESTON: MARTINA NAVRATILOVA VS. SERENA WILLIAMS
American journalist, USTA Magazine
There has never been a player I’ve admired more than Martina Navratilova, both for her talent and her remarkable competitive ability. Born in Czechoslovakia, but most assuredly made in America, Navratilova did nothing less than change the face of women’s tennis with her aggressive game, unparalleled commitment to fitness and unquenchable desire to be the best. The only other woman on par with Navratilova in terms of mental toughness and sheer fighting spirit is Serena Williams, the greatest pure competitor of this era of women’s tennis. For that reason alone, it would be a joy to see these two go head-to-head on the game’s biggest stage; Navratilova’s precise serve-and-volley game against Williams’ punishing power. The exchanges would be staggering in their brilliance; two fighters engaged in the sort of heavyweight slugfest that usually has ropes around it. Without a doubt, this one goes the distance, as neither woman gives an inch. In three, it’s Navratilova.
STAN SMITH: SMITH VS. PETE SAMPRAS
US Open Champion 1971
For me, playing against Pete Sampras at the US Open would be a great experience. Our games were so similar as serve-and-volleyers. It would probably come down to who would return better off the backhand, which was the weaker side for both of us. But it would be a straightforward serve-and-volley match. I know it would be tough for me to return against Pete. He had such a great serve and his second serve was outstanding. One of us would have to hit a big shot at the right time to take control. It would be very difficult for me to break his serve. Pete was so great whenever he was down on his serve but I would really like the chance to compete against him since he was a player I respected a lot.
BOB BRETT: ROGER FEDERER VS. ROD LAVER
I would want to see Roger Federer play Rod Laver at the US Open. Both players changed the game in their times. Laver was the first to really hit the topspin backhand, and Federer changed tennis with the way he stepped inside the court and stood in so close. Both Rod and Roger are great shot-makers and both knew how to adjust, so if Federer had played Laver with a wood racquet he would have adjusted to that, and if Rod had played Roger with the newer racquets, he would have made that work as well. If they had played on grass at the US Open in the old days maybe Rod would have won, and on the hard courts now maybe Roger would have the edge. I guess it would have ended up going to a fifth-set tie-break either way.
S.L. PRICE: LEW HOAD VS. JOHN MCENROE
American journalist, Sports Illustrated
I was reporting a piece on Pancho Gonzalez, and, just to get a sense of Pancho’s legendarily powerful serve, I began watching some black-and-white footage of his matches from the 1950s. In the film, Gonzalez’ opponent was Lew Hoad, a graceful Australian with a cannon forehand that seemed transported back in time. Hoad was so athletic, so daring, so spectacularly forceful that—even seen through the limiting lens of a single-shot, distantly-placed camera—the effect was electrifying. I couldn’t stop watching him—not Gonzalez. I started to learn, then—and had it confirmed later—that Hoad was the one player that the fearsome Gonzalez ever feared. Over and over, in chats with Rod Laver and other Aussie greats, I kept hearing how, on his best days, Hoad could’ve taken apart anyone: Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal.
So this is the match for me: Hoad, ballistic and free-wheeling, against John McEnroe, who with his unique serve and astonishing net game, those incredible hands and that combustible head, remains the first—and only—player who ever made the hair on the back of my neck literally rise in respect and awe. Because I never saw Hoad play live. And ever since that day I saw him on fi lm, I’m certain that he would be the second.
TRACY AUSTIN: AUSTIN VS. CAROLINE WOZNIACKI
US Open Champion 1979, 1981
I wonder what it would be like to play against Caroline Wozniacki in a big US Open match. I felt I was a very good mover, a smart player, good with the tactics. My strengths were my consistency and focus, my mental toughness. Caroline is a lot like I used to be. It would be a good chess match between us. There would be very few free points for either of us. Both of us have the ability to play well, point-in and point-out, to outmaneuver each other. It would come down to who would blink first. Neither one of us is overpowering but we don’t give an inch.
The match would be decided by who plays the right shot at the right time. She wears down her opponent and doesn’t give them anything and you must earn every point against Caroline.
Whoever plays the big points better would win, and it would be a very good contest.
STEPHEN TIGNOR: JUSTINE HENIN VS. EVONNE GOOLAGONG
American journalist, Tennis magazine
My dream matchup? I want to see backhands. With that sweep across the body, it’s the shot that allows the pros to show off their artistic sides. There are two different but equally artistic players I would love to see across the net from each other. One is Evonne Goolagong, the laconically graceful Australian champion from the 1970s. The other is Justine Henin, the dynamically graceful Belgian champion who retired this year.
Here the beauty of old school and new would be united. Goolagong’s easy movement, her caressed ground strokes, her flowing serve-and-volley game, and her signature, sweeping underspin backhand would take us back to the sport at the highest point in its wood racquet evolution. At the same time, Henin’s whirling speed, her power-packed forehand—she launched herself off the court to hit it—and her famous flyaway one-handed topspin backhand would be as fine a representative of the game’s power era that we could ask.
Goolagong and Henin were flip sides of the same artistic coin. Face to face, they would bring the sport’s two schools of beauty, forever separate in time, onto one court.