Tennis memorabilia and 7 of history’s most memorable matches

Autographs - Tennis: Grand Slam Champions. Autographs - Tennis: Grand Slam Champions. Sold for $2,659 via RR Auction (July 2011).

As an allegory for our existence, tennis offers a surprising picture of life in miniature. Sometimes you win and sometimes lose, every point is hard fought, and it’s that fear of losing that drives us to work harder, just like tennis. So, when two people pitch themselves in a one-on-one competition for victory it can result in some epic matches that mirror the highs and lows of our lives.

“Tennis is, more than most sports, a sport of the mind,” Rafael Nadal.

Steeped in etiquette, tennis whites, and strawberries and cream – if you’re in west London for Wimbledon, you might be forgiven for thinking that tennis is a gentle game to play in the sunshine. But scratch beneath the polite surface and there’s a single-minded gladiatorial brutality, as players compete for supremacy with each and every shot.

Whether it’s the grass courts of Wimbledon, the deep red clay of Roland Garros or the hard court of the US Open, tennis has brought this polite combat to fans across the world for over a century in the form of increasingly thrilling encounters.

Famous names, fantastic locations and even better matches have all contributed to some of the most memorable moments in tennis history, which have thankfully been commemorated with some of the most collectible memorabilia to come from these hallowed courts.

Bjorn Borg v John McEnroe – 1980 Wimbledon Final

Bjorn Borg's 1981 Wimbledon Final racket.

Bjorn Borg’s 1981 Wimbledon Final racket. Sold for £13,200 via  Christie’s (July 2007).

McEnroe’s famous “you cannot be serious” tirade directed at the umpire during the 1981 Wimbledon championships might be associated with the vocal and volatile tennis champ, but a year earlier he and his achingly cool nemesis, Bjorn Borg treated the world to possibly the greatest ever tennis encounter.

The fierce rivals met in a final that had it all. There was a 34-point tiebreaker and in the fourth set McEnroe and Borg traded set points, before McEnroe prevailed. But in the fifth, Borg won 19 straight points on serve to win after three hours and 53 minutes. McEnroe’s tirade served him well a year later though, as he beat Borg in the 1981 final re-match.

Roger Federer v Rafael Nadal – 2008 Wimbledon Final

Two titans of the modern game who had won 14 of the previous 16 Grand Slam titles met in leafy west London for a match of titanic endurance and one that would prove to rank as one of the greatest of all time.

Nadal was King of Clay and Federer King of Grass, having won the previous five Wimbledon titles, so the Swiss star was expected to dominate. Instead, Nadal won the first two sets with some of the highest quality tennis in the history of the sport, before Nadal responded in kind to set up a decisive fifth set. Nadal saved 12 of the 13 break points he faced to win the longest final in Wimbledon history, in an epic four hours and 48 minutes.

Pete Sampras v Agassi – 2001 US Open Quarter Final

Between them, Sampras and Agassi were the icons of 90s tennis, but for very different reasons. Sampras was calm, measured, and methodical. Agassi, on the other hand, was the rebellious fire to Sampras’s ice, as the pair met in the twilight of their career.

In front of a home crowd, tennis fans were treated to four sets that all went to tie breaks in an entertaining exhibition of tennis in which Sampras’s big serves helped him to a three set win that earned a standing ovation for both players from the crowd.

Monica Seles v Steffi Graf – 1995 US Open Final

1922 Bill Tilden US Open Singles Championship Trophy.

1922 Bill Tilden US Open Singles Championship Trophy. Sold for $9,000 via Heritage Auctions (April 2011)

By the age of 20, Seles had already won eight Grand Slams, but fast forward three years and her career was in tatters, after she was dramatically stabbed on court by an unstable spectator.

Seven signed photos or cards including Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Ivan Lendl, Monica Seles.

Seven signed photos or cards including Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Ivan Lendl, Monica Seles. Sold for $40 via Alex Cooper (April 2013).

The injury wasn’t as serious as the mental road to recovery, but the 1995 US Open marked Seles’s triumphant return to action as she beat a number of top 10 players to set up the final with the five-time US Open winner. The indomitable Graf proved too much for Seles, but the match proved to be a high watermark for the standard of women’s tennis, while also symbolising Seles’s determination.

Chris Evert v Martina Navratilova – 1985 French Open Final

Incredibly, the 1985 French Open was the 65th and most memorable of the 80 encounters between Evert and Navratilova, giving new definition to the term rivalry in a match remembered for its grit, determination and over-arching tension.

Navratilova had triumphed in the French Open the year before, but in the final of two contrasting styles the Czech-born tennis ace looked to be heading for defeat in the deciding set, but Navratilova tied it 5-5 with momentum on her side. Impressively, Evert held her nerve to hold serve and then break Navratilova’s to win the title. Navratilova consoled herself with US Open titles in 1986 and 87.

Ken Rosewall v Rod Laver – 1972 WCT Finals, Dallas

“I think if one match can be said to have made tennis in the United States, this was it,” said Rod Laver in his memoir; a sentiment echoed in World Tennis magazine and it was television that played a vital role in the elevation of tennis in the US.

The fact that the match was full of gripping tennis enraptured the audience of 23 million on NBC, which delayed following programs to show Rosewall overturn a 5-4 lead in the final-set tiebreaker to take the victory on the day and put tennis on the American map.

Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal, Australian Open Finals, 2012

Dripping with energy and emotion, Djokovic and Nadal matched up in their third straight Grand Slam final that would prove to be their most dramatic, and would break the record for the longest Grand Slam final in history by over an hour, clocking in at five hours and 53 minutes.

When Nadal dropped to his knees in celebration after winning the fourth-set tiebreaker to take a 4-2 lead into the final set, it looked like he’d endured the marathon of tennis, but incredibly Djokovic fought back in an exhaustive game to tie it at 4-4. Djokovic survived a 32-shot rally in the ninth game, but held his nerve to win the game and claim the record for longest game.