This article first appeared in the Sep/Oct 2012 issue of World Gaming magazine.
The argument about tennis’ greatest players has raged for some time so WGM’s very own sporting guru Big Jim decided to make the hard calls and come up with his top 10 racket exponents of all time.
Whenever you start talking “greatest ever” lists the biggest problem lies in comparing players from different eras. Whilst this does make it tough I don’t think it makes it impossible. There is no right or wrong decision when it comes to creating a list like this, but for any list to have credibility the selection criteria must be clear. In tennis, major championships are very important and the ability to win majors on different surfaces is also a big plus. There have been periods in men’s tennis where the competition has been harder than other eras, so championships during the highly competitive times hold more weight. Eventually you have to make the hard calls and stick by them. I hope you enjoy my reasoning and I welcome any of you to challenge my list.
Grand Slams: 17*
Clearly number one, quite simply Federer is an awesome force who has stood the test of time. He has won the most Grand Slam titles, which is an excellent start. It is true that before Nadal and Djokovic came to prominence men’s tennis was at its weakest, but it’s not like they just give away Grand Slam titles and the “Fed Express” still had to win them the hard way. To be classed as truly great you need to perform well on all surfaces. Federer won the premier clay court tournament, the French Open, and has come back towards the end of his career to win another Grand Slam in dominating fashion, taking down the only major still played on grass, Wimbledon. He has his cherished French Open title and his performance in winning the 2012 Wimbledon title proved once and for all that he is the best there has ever been.
Country: United States
Grand Slams: 14
Pete was the best until Roger came to town and took his crown away. The big thing going for Pete was that he played in a very tough era. His unforgiving competition included high-caliber players like John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Stephan Edberg and Ivan Lendl to name but a few. The problem Pete had was the fact he never managed to win the French Open, his best result being a 1996 quarterfinal finish after losing to eventual winner, Russia’s Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Not only did Sampras never win the French, he didn’t have to compete against Nadal, who was basically unbeatable on clay for a decade. Pete may have had a personality bypass but he had an incredible all-round game. It’s a shame we never got to see him at his best against Federer, which would have been great to have witnessed.
Grand Slams: 11
“Rocket” Rod Laver is the only male tennis player to win the Grand Slam during the open era. This means he won all four Grand Slam tournaments in the same year. What makes this all the more impressive is that Laver accomplished this awesome feat twice, once as an amateur in 1962 and then again in 1969 as a professional. Regardless of the era, this is an incredible achievement and one that has yet to be repeated. Even though countryman Roy Emerson won one more Grand Slam title in the same era, it is commonly accepted by tennis experts that Laver was the best tennis player before Federer and Sampras. He is honored today by having the center court at the Australian Open named after him.
Grand Slams: 11*
Rafa is a machine. His bravery, refusal to accept defeat and tolerance to pain may be unmatched in any sport, let alone tennis. With seven French Open Grand Slam victories in the last eight years, Nadal is the greatest ever clay court player, without question. Currently ranked world number three he has also been crowned Wimbledon champion twice and has both Australian and US Open Grand Slam titles in his war chest, in addition to a 2008 Olympic gold medal. People wonder how many Grand Slams Federer may have won if Nadal wasn’t around. The same question applies the other way around, especially now that Rafa has proven he is no one-trick pony.
Country: United States
Grand Slams: 8
If Pete Sampras is the most boring tennis player to ever live then Andrei Agassi is the most flamboyant. One of the game’s most dominant players for over a decade from the early ’90s to the mid 2000s, Andrei started off his professional career looking like the lead singer of a glam rock band, transformed into a pirate and ended up a very humble, quiet character loved by everyone. He is one of only four male tennis players to have won every Grand Slam title (the Career Grand Slam), which is an incredible effort. Another former Olympic gold medalist, Agassi emerged triumphant at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games. Agassi also had his ups and downs with injury and was hounded by both positive and negative media, especially after he admitted methamphetamine (crystal meth) usage in his 2009 autobiography Open. Tennis needs more Aggasis.
Grand Slams: 11
The great Swede is one of the hardest to slip into this list. He totally dominated tennis in Europe at his peak but seemed to have no interest in the other two Slams (Australia and the US). However, Borg is still widely regarded by many to be one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Borg is one of only four players in the open era to win both Wimbledon and the French Open in the same year, and is the only player to accomplish this feat for three consecutive years. His dominance on clay and grass suggests he could have won many more titles. Borg will always be remembered for his total dominance at Wimbledon, his long flowing hair and three-day stubble.
Grand Slams: 12
In some ways Roy Emerson is the forgotten man of Australian tennis. This may have something to do with the fact he has called the US home for most of his life. He has also become well known for his tennis camps and training facilities in the US, which are considered some of the best in the world. Emerson should always be remembered as an Australian sporting icon and was a member of a record eight Davis Cup winning teams between 1959 and 1967. His achievements on the court can never be doubted. He amassed 12 Grand Slam titles, which was the benchmark until Sampras came along decades later. He was also an incredible doubles player and accumulated no less than a further 16 Grand Slam titles there. Emerson’s figure of 28 overall Grand Slam titles may well never be beaten.
Country: Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic)
Grand Slams: 8
Ivan Lendl was one of the first athletes in the world who truly had ice running through his veins. While originally from the former Czechoslovakia, Lendl became a US permanent resident in 1987 and finished his professional career as a US citizen in 1994 after being granted citizenship in 1992. He looked as if he had been starved of both food and personality but his serious demeanor was what made him special. A heavy hitter, Lendl was powerful but inconsistent and struggled when playing on a grass court. Lendl’s quest to win Wimbledon was part of his legacy and while he made the final in both 1986 and 1987, this feat remained a hurdle he never managed to conquer in his professional career.
Country: United States
Grand Slams: 8
Another former world number one, Connors had plenty of passion and character especially in front of his home crowd at the US Open where he was adored. Connors was always at his best on home soil with five of his eight Grand Slam victories coming at the US Open. He is the only man to have won the US Open on grass, clay and hard courts. While Connors won an impressive eight Grand Slam titles, which included two Wimbledon victories, he never won the French Open so was unable to bag the elusive career Gland Slam. His two Wimbledon titles cemented his place on this list.
Grand Slams: 5
Another former Olympic medalist, winning bronze in the 2008 Beijing Games, Djokovic is the first male Serbian tennis player to win a major singles title. In addition to this he is the youngest player in the open era to reach the semifinals of all four Grand Slam events so I am slotting the young Serbian in at number 10, even though he may not have qualified yet on performances. The only major Djokovic has yet to win is the French Open and being as he is in the prime of his playing career I think we can safely assume he will rocket up this list in the years to come. You would expect him to win at least 10 Grand Slams in his career if everything goes to plan. He has dominated men’s tennis over the last 12 to 18 months and he did this after Ferderer and Nadal dominated him in his early career. With Federer and Nadal coming to the end of their careers there might be a bundle of Slams waiting for this relentless talent.
Well there it is: my all-time top 10. There always has to be some unlucky players that would have been honorable inclusions in any list like this. Newcomb, McEnroe, Edberg, Rosewall, Wilander and Becker are all multiple Grand Slam winners who won on more than one surface and, it could be argued, deserve a place on the top 10 list.