July 20, 2010
Ranking the top-10 women's players of all time proved to be a fairly easy task. There wasn't much debate that Martina Navratilova was No. 1, that Steffi Graf and Chris Evert were near the top and that Serena Williams was just below them with the opportunity to move up the list as her career comes to a close.
If only ranking the men were as simple.
Below is Busted Racquet's list of the top-10 men's tennis players of the Open era. Aside from Nos. 1 and 2, we switched the order a few dozen times. The second-tier of men's players are bunched up in Grand Slams and win percentage, which makes the rankings a bit more complicated than the women's. Feel free to debate, praise or tell us we're wrong in the comments, on Twitter or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I anticipate a few of you will choose the latter option. We'll post the best replies on Wednesday.
(Note: Asterisks indicate all-time Open era leader)
10. Mats Wilander — Seven Grand Slams, 33 titles, 72% win percentage, 20 weeks at No. 1
How does a guy with 11 less titles than Thomas Muster and 23 less weeks at No. 1 than Gustavo Kuerten sneak onto the list? Seven Grand Slams and a 1988 season for the record books, that's how. Wilander became the second man after Jimmy Connors to win Slams on clay, grass and hard courts and lived up to his billing as the heir apparent to fellow Swede Bjorn Borg.
9. Andre Agassi — Eight Grand Slams, 60 titles, 76.1% win percentage, 101 weeks
This seems a bit low for one of only three men to have won the career Grand Slam in the modern era (and the only to win the Golden Slam), just going to show how stacked the rest of the field is. Agassi's epically abysmal 1997 season loses him some points, but consider this: Before his dip, the Las Vegas native won three Slams. After, he hoisted the trophy five more times.
8. Rafael Nadal — Eight Grand Slams, 41 titles, 82.4% win, 53 weeks
Since 2005, Nadal has a 176-6 mark on clay — a staggering win percentage of 96.7. He's won at Wimbledon the last two times he's played, hoisted the trophy in Melbourne last year and has undeniably dethroned Roger Federer as the greatest active player in the game. Oh, and he just turned 24.
7. Ivan Lendl — Eight Grand Slams, 94 titles, 81.8% win, 270 weeks
It's a shame Lendl is most remembered for what he didn't do: winning Wimbledon. Here's what he did do: held records for most weeks at No. 1, most appearances in a Grand Slam finals and most consecutive years with a tournament title; is second overall in career titles and winning percentage; earned three wins at both the French and U.S. Opens and had a 44-match winning streak in 1982.
6. Jimmy Connors — Eight Grand Slams, 109 titles*, 81.5% win, 268 weeks
5. John McEnroe — Seven Grand Slams, 77 titles, 81% win, 170 weeks
McEnroe has the edge on Connors in their all-time series (31-20) and, more importantly, in their head-to-head matchups during their overlapping primes (11-8 from 1979-1983). I flip-flopped the two rivals in these rankings a few times, finally deciding on Johnny Mac ahead of Jimbo because of his doubles prowess and greatness in the Davis Cup. On the other hand, Connors gave us this. Is it too late to switch them back?
4. Bjorn Borg — 11 Grand Slams, 63 titles, 82.7% win*, 109 weeks
The Swede won 41 percent of the Grand Slam tournaments he entered during his career (by comparison, Roger Federer has won 36 percent), including a record four straight at the French Open and five consecutive Wimbledons. The 1980 final of the latter is one of the two best matches in history, peaking with a riveting 34-point tiebreak that saw Borg drop five match points and holding off six McEnroe set points before dropping the fourth set. He ended up winning the match anyway. Borg could never conquer the U.S. Open though, losing four times in the finals (once on clay and three times on hard courts). His loss in 1981 to John McEnroe dropped him from the No. 1 ranking and effectively ended his career. Still just 25 years old, he would never play another Grand Slam match.
3. Rod Laver — 11 Grand Slams (five in Open era), 40 titles, 79.8% win, n/a
In 1969 (the second year of the Open era), Laver won the Grand Slam, 18 of the 32 tournaments he entered and finished the year with a 106-16 record. The Aussie may not have invented topspin, but he perfected it. Though he's reluctant to get into a debate about who's the best ever, Laver did answer when asked whether he could have beaten Federer while in his prime. "I'd pit myself against anyone with a wooden racket, I'll say that."
2. Pete Sampras — 14 Grand Slams, 64 titles, 77.4% win, 286 weeks*
For six consecutive years from 1993 to 1998, Sampras finished the year at No. 1, an Open-era record. He spent 286 weeks in the top spot, a record which still stands despite a recent assault by Roger Federer. Pistol Pete won seven times at Wimbledon and five times at Flushing Meadow, but never could prevail on the slow courts at Roland Garros. He went 0-13 in Paris and only made it past the quarterfinals on one occasion.
1. Roger Federer — 16 Grand Slams*, 62 titles, 80.7% win, 285 weeks
It's become fashionable to poke holes in Federer's accomplishments. "How can he be the best ever when he can't beat Nadal?" "His competition wasn't nearly as good as what Sampras faced." "Good thing Rafa didn't play in the French last year or Roger never would have won the title." Nonsense. Nadal has Federer's number on clay (the Spaniard has won 10 of 12 head-to-head matches on the surface), but Federer holds a slight 5-4 edge on grass and hard courts. But though their careers are inextricably linked, Federer shouldn't be judged solely by his rivalry with Nadal. The Swiss star has won 16 Grand Slams, a mark which would seem a lot more impressive if Sampras hadn't recently set the standard at 14 and if Federer's greatness didn't rely on such unexciting things as flawless groundstrokes and deceiving quickness. He makes greatness look easy.