Drew and I discussed who the top men’s tennis player of all time is, while I was a contestant in the KOBST competition. It made me think about who I thought it was and what the criteria should be. I have limited it to the Open era (post 1968) since comparing accomplishments amongst modern players and the amateur era is almost impossible. It’s tough enough to compare guys from the 70’s to guys from the 90’s, so I’ll just stick with that. For those who didn’t know, the reason its so difficult to judge pre-1968, is that all the big tournaments were amateur only. Guys like Tilden and Perry and Kramer and Budge turned pro and then just played exhibitions for money for the rest of their careers.
My first thought is you can’t just limit it to one criteria. Drew seemed to think Grand Slam titles were preeminent, and that limited the discussion to Federer and Sampras. I disagree. The main reason is that the Grand Slams were not all created equal. In much the same way that the Triple Crown races took decades to become “the Triple Crown”, The big four of Men’s Tennis was a big 2 and a somewhat bigger than normal 2. The French and Australian Opens were not thought of on the same plane as Wimbledon and the US Opens. Drew said Golf is all about the majors. He knows golf better than me, so I have a question for him. In golf, all the top players in the world play all four majors now, just like tennis. But in the 50’s did all the American stars go to the British Open and did all the European top guys come to the PGA. I really don’t know, but in tennis they didn’t play them all before the mid-80’s. Any observer would admit that McEnroe, Connors, and Borg were the big 3 of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Connors and McEnroe only sporadically played the French Open early in their careers and they rarely played the Australian. Connors only went to Australia in ’74 and ’75 getting one championship and one runner-up and then never going again. In fact the Australian did not include Borg, Connors or, McEnroe from 1976 to 1982. During that time Mark Edmonson, Roscoe Tanner, Vitas Gerulaitis, Guillermo Vilas, Brian Teacher, and Johan Kriek took it. Only Vilas deserves to be mentioned even in the same breath as the elite. So you can see, that era’s Grand Slam total is skewed when compared to today’s players that build their whole seasons around all four.
During my conversation with Drew, it was also brought up that Federer might need to win the French to be considered better than Sampras. I do think that winning a “career grand slam” is an impressive accomplishment. Heck, only Rod Laver and Andre Agassi have done it in the Open Era, but it is only one benchmark. If you buy into Sampras and Federer being the top two, why would Roger need to win the French, Pete never did. In fact he was down right terrible there. In addition, two things need to be considered. One is that the Australian and US Opens have changed surfaces. The Australian was on grass until 1988 and the US Open was grass until 1974 and then clay from ’75-’77.Wimbledon changed their grass in 2001 and slowed the surface down, just enough to give baseline players a better shot. So Laver got his Grand Slam by winning three grass court tournaments; and Connors never won the French , but he won the 1976 US Open on clay. Nadal and Hewitt won Wimbledon on a surface that was much more forgiving to their games than the one Lendl or Wilander dealt with. All these little twists have to be figured in somehow.
I also think that you have to look at the level of competition that was faced in any era. Federer and Nadal are great, that is obvious; but is the fact that they make so many of the finals because of a lack of competition. So you must not just compare Federer and Nadal to Borg and Connors, but also look at their rivals. How do Djokovic, Roddick, Murray, etc. stack up to Guillermo Vilas, Ilie Nastase, Arthur Ashe, Ivan Lendl, and the others that beat Borg and Connors occasionally. Did their prowess hold down the Grand Slam accomplishments of the better players from reaching the numbers that a Federer can get to.
To make a fair ranking you must take into account the changes in rackets and conditioning that have happened in the last 30 years. Bjorn Borg won 5 straight Wimbledons, but if you plucked him out of 1979 and put him in this years tournament; well, he might not make it out of the third round. Just like you couldn’t expect a tackle from the 1958 Colts to block today’s NFL player, you have to make allowances for the changed game. Pretend they all had to play with the same racket, on a fair surface, and had the same access to training and conditioning methods. Then what would happen.
So I tried to look at Grand Slam titles, overall career tournaments won, ability to win on varied surfaces, longevity of excellence, skill level of their rivals, and just gut feeling about the transcendence of their game. Here is my list. I know how subjective it is, and that’s the way it should be. There really is no “BEST” player since we can never get them out on a court in their primes to see. And if we did, what kind of court would it be on. So this is just one man’s opinion, you should give me yours.
TOP 20 Male Tennis Players Of The Open Era (Since 1968)
( active players can still move up later, of course)
20. Lleyton Hewitt
19. Stan Smith
18. Arthur Ashe
17. Ilie Nastase
16. Jim Courier
15. Guillermo Vilas
14. Rafael Nadal
13. Stefan Edberg
12. Ken Rosewall
11. Mats Wilander
10. Boris Becker
Won six Grand Slams. Made the Semis at the French 3 times. Made 7 Wimbledon finals (winning three). Had a great Davis Cup career and was the number one player in the world in 1991.
9. John McEnroe
Won seven Grand Slams, all US Opens and Wimbledon’s. Won 82% of his ATP matches. Was number one for large chunks of 1981 to 1984. He would be ranked higher but he only spent 7 years as a truly elite player.
8. John Newcombe
Won 7 Grand Slams (5 in the Open Era). Had a big upset of Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Aussie final at 31. Had tremendous success in Davis Cup and as a doubles player. He was considered the best player in the world during the time between Rod Laver’s prime and Jimmy Connors.
7. Ivan Lendl
Often overlooked, but he won 8 Grand Slams. He did it by beating players like McEnroe, Wilander and Edberg in finals. Only the great grass court play of McEnroe and Becker kept him from elusive Wimbledon. He played in a record 19 Slam finals.
6. Andre Agassi
He has the aforementioned elusive career Grand Slam. He won eight overall and had a tremendous rivalry with Pete Sampras. He was number one for most of 1995 and then again in 1999 and 2000. If he hadn’t disappeared for awhile in between the two, he’d be rated higher. In his case image didn’t turn out to be everything. He was a great and gutsy player as well.
5. Rod Laver
Many consider him the greatest of all-time. He won 11 Grand Slams, but only 5 were during the Open era, which is why he is only fifth in this poll. His 1968 Grand Slam has never been duplicated, but it was on three grass surfaces that year. That’s something Becker or Sampras would have loved. He never made another grand slam final after 1969 but was competitive until 1974, when he was 36 years old.
4. Pete Sampras
Pete has won 14 grand slam titles, the most in history. 12 of them came at Wimbledon and the US Open. He was number one for most of 1994 to 1998. He is probably the greatest grass court player of all-time. He would be higher on the list, but was dreadful on clay and had little competiton in the late 90’s. Too many Todd Martin and Cedric Pioline finals.
3. Bjorn Borg
He won 11 Grand Slams. Never able to take the US Open, but he made 4 finals there losing each time to McEnroe or Connors. He won 5 straight Wimbledons and three times won the French and Wimbledon back to back. That only happened again last year when Nadal did it 28 years later. He made 16 Grand Slam finals and was number one from 1979 to 1981.
2. Roger Federer
He is second with 13 Grand Slam titles. 5 Wimbledon, 5 US Open, and 3 Australian. He sits along with Borg and Sampras as the only men with at least 5 titles at two Grand Slams. Unlike Sampras, he has been excellent at the French Open making three finals. Only Nadal’s brilliant clay court play has denied him that trophy. He has won 81% of his lifetime ATP matches. He currently has either won or lost to the eventual champion at 19 straight Grand Slam tournaments. He was number one for 237 consecutive weeks from 2004 to mid 2008. In time he will probably ascend to number on on this list. But for now……..
#1 JIMMY CONNORS
He won 8 Grand Slam titles, even though he rarely played the French or Aussie Opens in his prime. He did make the French semis (the only one he never won) four times. He won 82% of his career tennis matches and he won 147 tournaments, the most in the modern era. His 1241 singles victories is also the most all-time. He won 5 total US Opens, 1 on Clay, 1 on grass, and 3 on hard courts. He showed he was competitive on any surface. He was the number one ranked player for all but one week between July 1974 and July 1979, an amazing 244 out of 245 weeks. He was also number one on various occasions in 1982 and 1983. He had almost 10 years between his first and last number one ranking and for an amazing 14 years from 1973-1986 he was ranked in the top 5 in the world. No one else has had that kind of longevity with their excellence. That combined with the fact that he had to contend with the 3rd, 7th, and 9th players on this list during the bulk of that run makes him my best player ever.