By Thaddeus McCarthy
The Monte Carlo final last week featured Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka, currently world number 3 and 4, who both come from Switzerland. This happens to first time that a Swiss pair has clashed in an ATP tournament final since Marc Rossett and Federer met in 2000. But it is not the first time that we have seen a home country clash. In fact it was only a couple of days before the Wawrinka/Federer match that David Ferrer knocked his countryman Nadal out in the Quarterfinals. Considering that Federer and Wawrinka have such a surprisingly good relationship on court, I thought that now would be a good time to look at some historical countryman rivalries and to see whether their relationship was cordial (like Fed & Wawrinka) or whether it was fiery and bitter.
I will start with looking at the rivalry between the Australian players of the 60s and 70s. These were all-time greats like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, Tony Roche and Fred Stolle. Incredibly successful and some, especially in the cases of Laver and Rosewall, may be rated in the top 5 to ever play the game. I have recently finished the Ilie Nastase book, in which he said that they were in fact the friendliest players on the tour. They would always travel together and could frequently be seen together at the bar having a beer after a match. Throughout the amateur era and during their time in the professional and open ranks Laver came out on top of Rosewall 80-64. And yet, even after this obviously long and closely fought rivalry they can be seen year after year at the Aussie Open looking like long lost pals when they see each other.
Next up it is worth looking at the relationship between Americans John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, which was totally different to that enjoyed by the Aussies. They both had a fiery reputation as competitors against anyone, but against each other they really clashed. The first time they met in a locker room Connors totally ignored Mac. As they begun to clash on the court, which finished 20-14 in favour of Mac, the tempers really flared. Their rivalry is known as one of the most bitter in all of sports. Even today, as Connors says in his book, they are not especially friendly.
The battle for the title of the 90s was waged between a few Americans; Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Agassi and Couriers had an odd relationship, as although they had gone to the Bolleteiri Academy together in their teens, they were not friendly with each other. Agassi was surely a little bit annoyed that as he had been Nick Bolleteiri’s golden boy (at the academy); it was Courier who was finding Grand Slam success earlier. By the same token though, Courier was very driven and focused, especially in his earlier career. Courier and Sampras had a very similar (serious) demeanour. There was one moment in the mid-90s during a conversation Agassi was having with Sampras where he said how good it was to have a tight-knit team around you, because tennis is such a lonely sport. In response to this, Sampras shrugged his shoulders. It was obvious that Sampras didn’t think tennis was as lonely as Agassi thought. In a match they played after Sampras had learned of Tim Gulliksons terminal illness in 1995, he totally broke down crying on court. Agassi, asking if he would like to postpone the match, was surprised when ‘Pistol Pete’ began blasting aces past him in between sobs. Agassi mentions frequently in his autobiography that they were never really friends, and that although Sampras seemed like a nice guy, he was very difficult to be friendly with.
If we look back across tennis history there have often been times when the game has been heavily influenced by a few players from the same country. Most of us knowledgeable fans out there will know about ‘The Four Musketeers’ in the 1920s, who were a group of players from France who dominated the game. As mentioned earlier, there were the great Australians of the 50s and 60s. There was Connors and McEnroe in the 70s and 80s, who were joined in the top end of the rankings for a while by a New Yorker, Vitas Gurulaitis. In the 1990s there was of course Courier, Agassi and Sampras. All the relationships between them being distinctly different.
Lately though we haven’t had a group of strong players coming from one country. The closest we have come to this is with Spanish players like Nadal, Tommy Robredo, and David Ferrer. But of course only one of them has won a Grand Slam title/s. Lately, there has been a term going iround in the tennis world about the ‘New Musketeers’, which includes Gilles Simon, Richard Gasquet, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and Gael Monfils. This group of players is not of the same calibre as Henri Cochet, Rene Lacoste & co. were back in the 20s though, so it kind of feels like the press are trying to cling to something which is not really there.
In sports hometown rivalries generate huge interest in the game. In tennis the rule is no different. It is my hope that a strong group of players can emerge at the very top in the future from an Australia, United States, or even a new area of the world like China. Personally though, I hope that Australian tennis has a renaissance, as it has been a long time since the likes of Laver graced the courts. And the Slams won between Pat Cash, Pat Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt in the last few decades only stands at a measly 5.