COMMENTARY | Good rivalries in professional tennis are like good tequila in margaritas -- they both make life a lot more enjoyable.
Looking back on the history of tennis, the most exciting periods in the game are those that contained the highest-caliber rivalries. Eras in which players pushed each other to new heights of performance and in the process captivated the world of tennis.
The Grand Slams, boasting the best-of-five format, are the events at which most rivalries record their most important milestones. Going the distance in these tournaments requires not only tennis savvy and skill but also incredible endurance and willpower.
The highlight of the season therefore occurs when peaking rivals collide in a Slam. And in a hyper-competitive era, such as the one unfolding today, there is the potential for not just one, but multiple rivalry-soaked matches.
From this perspective, the 2013 edition of the US Open deserves special attention.
Over the last 10 years, the US Open has had the highest number of unique male champions of the four Slams. This statistic suggests that the 2013 US Open will arguably field the largest group of legitimate contenders for a Slam in quite some time.
Number of unique male individuals to win each Grand Slam since 2003:
Australian Open (5)
French Open (4)
US Open (6)
Outside of the Big Four, the only player to win a Slam in recent memory is Juan Martin del Potro. A player that beat Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in successive fashion to claim the 2009 US Open title and become the first man ever to beat both of those living legends in the same major.
With del Potro currently ranked No. 7 in the world and Roger Federer ranked No. 5, it is extremely likely that the draw this year in New York could read like the map from a WW II minefield.
It also indicates that the eventual champion will likely be forced to run one of the most grueling gauntlets seen in the current era. There is a long transition period on hard court before the US Open begins, which should also drastically reduce the number of upsets as compared to the slew observed at Wimbledon this year.
Although the US Open is still merely a speck on the tennis horizon, it's easy to let the mind wander in consideration of the possibilities.
The discussion also begs another question: What are some of the most impressive gauntlets ever run in the history of the Slams?
Listed below in chronological order are some notable Grand Slams in which the champion overcame at least three of his primary rivals to stand alone atop the mountain.
For reasons of comparability, this analysis is limited to the Open Era and is, of course, for entertainment purposes only.
1969 US Open
Champion: Rod Laver
On route to his second calendar Grand Slam, Rod Laver overcame three legends of the sport to win the final piece of that historic puzzle. Laver beat Roy Emerson in the quarterfinals, Arthur Ash in the semifinals, and Tony Roche in the final. When considering just how much was at stake and the talent he was facing, Laver's achievement becomes even more unthinkable.
Champion: Arthur Ashe
Anyone faced with the prospect of playing Bjorn Borg in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon probably recognizes he'll have to dig pretty deep to win the tournament. Arthur Ashe did just that and then beat Tony Roche and Jimmy Connors in the next two rounds. If you think Roche isn't a legitimate rival, then consider the fact that he was the only player in the tournament to force five sets against Ashe.
1980 US Open
Champion: John McEnroe
Of the tournaments listed, the 1980 US Open might have the closest parallels to the 2013 US Open. On his way to winning the title, McEnroe beat three players that made up another "Big Four" in tennis history. In the quarterfinals, McEnroe beat Ivan Lendl in four sets, then went five against both Jimmy Connors in the semifinals and Bjorn Borg in the final. Even writing about this feat is exhausting.
1983 Australian Open
Champion: Mats Wilander
Often living in the shadow of Bjorn Borg is another great Swedish champion by the name of Mats Wilander. At the Australian Open in 1983, Wilander beat Johan Kriek in the quarterfinals and then went on to overcome both McEnroe and then Lendl in the semifinals and final. Over the course of the last three rounds, Wilander defeated the one, two and five seeds.
1990 US Open
Champion: Pete Sampras
Seeded 12th at the 1990 US Open and having never previously won a Grand Slam, Pete Sampras took down Ivan Lendl in an epic five-set quarterfinal. He then proceeded to beat John McEnroe in the semifinals and Andre Agassi in the final. Despite his relative inexperience the American must have built considerable confidence as the tournament wore on -- the championship match was decided in only three sets.
Champion: Michael Stich
Michael Stich of Germany may be the perfect tennis version of a one-hit wonder. Like bands that are associated with only one legendary song, Stich made a thunderous impact on route to his only Grand Slam title. In the quarterfinal round Stich beat the number four seed, Jim Courier, in straight sets. The hard-serving German went on to win three tie-breakers against Stefan Edberg and then upset his countryman Boris Becker in straight sets during the final. Stich beat three of the top four seeds in consecutive fashion to close out his tremendous campaign.
1992 US Open
Champion: Stefan Edberg
Stefan Edberg is another Swedish player often overlooked in history (Borg casts a formidable shadow). However, Edberg's showing at the US Open in 1992 was one for the ages. During the tournament, he bested Ivan Lendl in the quarterfinals and Michael Chang in the semifinals, with both matches going the distance. Somehow, the athletic serve-and-volleyer found a way to solve Pete Sampras in only four sets during the final.
There are only two players in history that have ever beaten Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal during the same Grand Slam. Although they may not have had quarterfinal rounds as difficult as those players listed above, it seems remiss to ignore their incredible achievements.
2009 US Open
Champion: Juan Martin del Potro
2011 US Open
Champion: Novak Djokovic
Andrew Prochnow is a derivatives trader by day and a tennis buff by night. You can follow him on Twitter @AndrewProchnow.
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