In last week’s Basel final, Roger Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro faced off for the seventh time this year, and the 16th time overall. Seven times in one year is an awful lot, about 10% of Delpo’s matches. It’s even more remarkable because only two of those contests have been finals — in order to meet so many times, the draws of several tournaments had to complement their consistently strong play.
Making matters even more extreme is that there is a better-than-50% chance that Federer and Del Potro will meet in London next week, bringing the total to 8. And there’s a slim chance–if they are drawn in the same group, then play again in the final–that the sum will reach 9.
So, what’s the record? Seven is already pretty good, right?
Single year head-to-heads
In fact, as with so many other records, Federer is #1 in the last 30 years. He holds the record with Jo Wilfried Tsonga, against whom he played eight times last year. (In the entire professional era, the mark belongs to Ilie Nastase and Tom Gorman, who played at least nine times in 1972. I’ve excluded years before 1980 because a variety of factors caused the top players to meet much more frequently than they do these days.)
As long as Fed and Delpo are at seven, they will be tied with four other pairs: John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl in 1984, Jim Courier and Michael Chang in 1995, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in 2007, and Novak/Rafa again in 2009. Another 11 pairs met six times in a single year, including Nadal and Djokovic in 2008 and 2011. (Along with, weirdly, Rajeev Ram and Donald Young in 2007. Must be the wild cards.)
Since Djokovic and Nadal show up at the top of the single-year list no more than four times, it stands to reason that they must be near the top of the all-time list, as well. Indeed, they are.
In fact, assuming Nadal returns to health in anywhere near his historical form, this current pair of stars will almost undoubtedly take over the all-time lead next year. They could hold it for a very long time.
Player 1 Player 2 H2Hs W-L Ivan Lendl John McEnroe 35 20-15 Ivan Lendl Jimmy Connors 34 22-12 Pete Sampras Andre Agassi 34 20-14 John McEnroe Jimmy Connors 34 20-14 Rafael Nadal Novak Djokovic 33 19-14 Boris Becker Stefan Edberg 32 22-10 Roger Federer Novak Djokovic 28 16-12 Rafael Nadal Roger Federer 28 18-10 Stefan Edberg Ivan Lendl 26 14-12 Roger Federer Lleyton Hewitt 26 18-8
This is one record that, for all of his dominance, Federer will probably never co-hold. To find yourself on this list, you not only need to rank among the all-time greats, you need a very-near-contemporary who ranks just as high.
(If you’re interested in head-to-head records, I hope you’re already using the Head-to-Head Matrix on TennisAbstract.com. It’s updated every week, and shows the career H2H records of every matchup within the current top 15. Each H2H record is linked directly to a listing of the relevant matches.)