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The Top Male Grass Court Players of the Open Era, Part II

Jul 16, 2012 2 comments

Wimbledon in many ways is out of step with the modern game: As clothes get brighter and crowds become more boisterous, Wimbledon clings to its all-white tradition and on-court silence. As grass courts disappear around the world, giving way to hard and clay, Wimbledon maintains its lawns (but has not been above varying the speed it plays at).

Through it all, Wimbledon has not ceased to produce the greatest matches of recent memory, and its most successful champions remain the game’s most accomplished, and most recognizable, practitioners.

Last time we started with some of the grass surface’s most successful players. As we reach the end of this list, you’ll find that the best grass court players rank among the best of any surface, country, or era.

Let’s begin with …

5: John McEnroe

Three Wimbledon titles, twice a runner up

As is the case with Arthur Ashe, our No. 10, the image of John McEnroe continues to overshadow what he accomplished on the court. That their images were opposite is well known, though, as Johnny Mac will forever be associated with a sense of bratty entitlement and a competitive mindset that thrived on conflict, be it with his opponent, the officiating, and anyone else in ranting range.

As a result, he’s one of the most recognizable players among the general public, but not for the brilliance of his play in the early 1980s. This is a shame, because his winding left-handed serve, his magical feel around the net and early ball-striking made his Wimbledon final with Bjorn Borg in 1980, a long-time favorite in the greatest-match-of-all-time debate. A year later, it made him the first player since 1975 to beat the Swede on the lawns.

McEnroe added another two Wimbledon titles by 1984. His last crown there was captured with the most dominant Wimbledon final among men in the Open Era, denying Jimmy Connors all but four games. In doing so, he proved his game to be almost as sharp as his tongue. It’s just a shame he is not better remembered for it.

4: Boris Becker

Three Wimbledon titles in seven final round appearanced

Youngest-ever Wimbledon champion (1985)

After John McEnroe carved up the competition, Boris Becker bludgeoned it.

1985 was a year of the big serve, as the Kevin Curren blasted both Johnny Mac and Jimbo off the court on his way to the final round. Unfortunately for him, something even bigger awaited in the final, as the 17-year-old Becker won the duel of unreturnables to become the youngest-ever winner of a major (he’d later be overtaken by Michael Chang at the 1989 Roland Garros, but retains that designation at Wimbledon).

But Becker was more than just a prodigy. Remarkably for one so young, he was back in the final a year later, overcoming both Ivan Lendl and the pressure of defending his title. As he grew older the competition grew tougher, and while Becker won a third title in 1989, he stumbled at the last hurdle in 1988, 1990 and 1991. These losses, coupled with his shock upset in the second round in 1987, have left many to wonder how many he might’ve won, if only he’d responded to adversity differently.

But 10 years after his first title there, an aging Becker revived his career in the majors by beating world No. 1 Andre Agassi to reach the Wimbledon final in 1995. Though he fell to Pete Sampras in the final, this springboarded Becker to an Australian Open title in 1996, making him one of the very few players to have won his last major more than a decade after his first.

But he’ll always be identified with his early success at Wimbledon, the place he called his living room. It’s also the place where he reached seven finals, a record he shared with Pete Sampras, at least until this year.

3: Bjorn Borg

Five consecutive Wimbledon titles (1976-80)

Six consecutive Wimbledon finals (1976-81)

Between 2008 and 2010 Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer pulled off the “Channel Slam,” capturing Wimbledon and Roland Garros crowns in the same year three times in a row. These were extraordinary efforts, requiring five-set matches, a spectacular level of play and some fortuitous turns of events. If there’s a downside to their success, it’s that they may make Bjorn Borg’s Channel Slams appear less special.

But they were out of the ordinary: Borg’s endurance, unerring groundstrokes and patience made him as natural a clay court player as has ever played the game. Yet early on he identified Wimbledon as a goal, leaving his contemporaries to wonder how he’d prevail on a speedy surface whose short points seemingly neutralized his greatest strengths.

There were bigger weapons under the surface, though, including a remarkable (and adaptable) athleticism, height that could translate into effective serving on the lawns and an internal cool that could not be shaken. This was evident whether Borg was being challenged early in the event when he was still adjusting to the speed of the grass, or at the end of the fortnight when his toughest contemporaries were trying to take the crown away from him.

Over and over again they failed, and by 1980, the question had evolved from “Could Borg win Wimbledon?” to “Who could beat Borg at Wimbledon?” John McEnroe would eventually answer the question, but not until after pushing the Swede in one of the tensest matches in Grand Slam history … and falling short.

After Borg finally fell to Johnny Mac in 1981, he left the game, his icy façade shattered by disappointment. Still, his reputation would endure: It would be two decades before anyone would win more Wimbledons than Borg did, and nearly three before anyone duplicated the Channel Slam.

And even today, no one has won the RG and Wimbledon in the same year three times.

2: Pete Sampras

Seven Wimbledon titles

Four consecutive titles (1997-2000)

Three consecutive titles (1993-95)

Many of his records have since fallen, overtaken in much less time than it took for him to break them. Still, Pete Sampras remains tennis’ most successful experiment.

He started his junior career as a baseliner with a two-handed backhand, thriving on the asphalt and disliking grass. No matter; he and coach Pete Fischer decided early on that, as Wimbledon was the game’s biggest event, he would be trained to win Wimbledon. So one hand had to be taken off the backhand, forcing him to come to net more often. The serve had to be trained, as raw pace would have to be coupled with variety, reliability, and especially disguise.

Still, the first two years he played in London he didn’t win a single round, as he hated the movement on grass and struggled with returning skidding serves. Only with the help of another coach, Tim Gullikson, did he learn the efficient strokes needed to thrive on the lawns and the calm required to wait out the serving barrages that would come from the Ivanisevics and the Philippousi across the net.

Those lessons, coupled with the programming Fischer had written decades earlier, made Sampras unbeatable on the lawns in seven out of eight years. For a time, this made him both the most decorated Wimbledon champion and the king of Grand Slam titles. When he set both of these marks at the beginning of the new century, it appeared these records would last a lifetime.

It would certainly take someone special to match them.

1: Roger Federer

Seven Wimbledon titles

Eight finals

Five consecutive titles (2003-07)

He started off coming to net behind every first serve. That’s how he ended Pete Sampras’ Wimbledon run in 2001, and how he won his first title at the All England Club in 2003. He was to be the successor to not only Sampras, but to every guy from Laver to McEnroe to Becker who excelled from every part of the court, equally comfortable picking up half volleys as he was belting inside-out forehands.

But then returns got more accurate, and groundstrokes more reliable, ushering out most remnants of the serve and volley approach. Wimbledon recognized this, seeing a chance to immunize itself from ‘90s-era complaints that points were to short and matches too boring by slowing down its grass and fluffing up the balls. Where would this leave Federer, already a traditionalist though still in his early 20s?

No worse off, actually: Federer anticipated the change, started staying back on both serves and coming to net primarily to finish off points his textbook groundies had set up for him. His game had greatness to spare, and it wasn’t long before he was in position to equal Bjorn Borg’s mark of five Wimbledons in a row.

Much as was the case with Borg, Federer had to overcome a stiff challenge to tie that mark, as Rafael Nadal served as his McEnroe in 2007. As with Borg-McEnroe at the start of the ‘80s, that challenge grew stiffer and became too much for the great champion to overcome: Federer n 2008 and Borg in 1981 both saw their quest for a sixth straight title end in a final-round disappointment.

Borg responded to this impediment, along with his failure to win a US Open, by giving up at age 26. Federer had been similarly frustrated at Roland Garros, but proved more durable than not only Borg, but his younger rivals: When Nadal stumbled in mid-2009, Federer finally took the Paris title that had eluded him and captured yet another Wimbledon, breaking Sampras’ Grand Slam mark in the process.

Age, the resurgence of Nadal and emergence of Novak Djokovic had left The Great Swiss slam-less and outside the top of the rankings for much of the last two years. But this year, a modern update contributed to revival of grass court traditionalism, and the ever-durable Federer was there to capitalize.

Nadal, whose game has always required more of an adjustment to grass than Federer’s, finally met an early challenge this year that he could not overcome. Before the rains came before his semifinal encounter with Djokovic, the Serb’s solid baseline play looked a stiff challenge to Federer’s quest, but the closing of the roof sent the Swiss’ serve zipping through the court and his volleys slicing through the Djokovic’s defense.

The same thing happened Sunday, as Federer faced Britain’s own Andy Murray, an inspired opponent backed by the hopes of an entire nation. Federer responded by making 69 percent of first serves, by attacking Murray’s second deliveries with sliced approaches, and by hitting the ball earlier than all but a few of the game’s greats are capable of.

When Murray’s last shot landed wide, the man who earlier tied Borg’s streak had match a few other designations: Like Sampras, he has seven titles, but had a record eight finals to his credit.  Connors won his last Wimbledon eight years after the first, but Federer’s most recent came nine years after his maiden title.

And with that, the man who was supposed to preserve traditional lawn tennis in the age of baseliners became the most accomplished grass court player of them all. When the next great player with a traditionalist bent appears, it’s Federer he’ll be playing successor to.

Categories: Tennis

The Top Male Grass Court Players of the Open Era, Part I

Jul 9, 2012 9 comments

As long as tennis is played, there will be grass courts, and those who specialize in them. Yes, the surface no longer plays faster than all others, and racket technology has made serving big and charging the net less effective there, but its unusual footing and unpredictable bounces make it a unique discipline even now.

In the Open Era, since the game’s four majors became the metric by which tennis greatness was defined, a few players stand above the rest. This week we count down 10-6, with an honorable mention thrown in. Can you guess those in this section?

Honorable Mention: Goran Ivanisevic 

One Wimbledon title

Four Wimbledon finals

Goran Ivanisevic’s run in 2001, in which he won his only Wimbledon title despite being unseeded and having not reached so much as a tour final since 1998, wasn’t just a miraculous, feel-good story. Without that one title, much of his achievements on the surface would have felt like promise not met, and the massive serving that intimidated even Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi would have not received its just reward.

He’d already been to three Wimbledon finals, with only Agassi and Sampras, the most accomplished all-surface players of his era, denying him the championship. But in 2001, thanks to a wildcard from tournament organizers, seven rounds of inspired play and a little luck, the player who helped make ‘90s grass court tennis what it was enters the record books not as a disappointment, but as one of the most accomplished grass court players of his era. 

10: Arthur Ashe 

One Wimbledon, one Australian Open title, one US Open title  

Arthur Ashe is best known for fighting apartheid and for changing how AIDS was perceived even as it claimed his life. Many still call him the greatest ambassador the sport ever had. 

If there’s any downside to his advocacy work, it’s that it gets more attention than his numerous merits as a player. Going into the 1975 Wimbledon final, he’d already won a couple of grass court majors in New York and Australia, but was considered a heavy underdog against the proto-power baseliner Jimmy Connors, winner of three major titles the previous year. However, the thoughtful Ashe played the quintessential tactical match, employing service placement, chipped returns and off-speed groundstrokes to drive his younger, stronger opponent mad. 

Though Connors would spend the next two decades building his reputation as an all-time great and tireless competitor, Ashe shattered his image of invincibility, while furthering his own as a champion. In doing so, he achieved a broader platform for his later fights against racism and fear of HIV/AIDS.

9: Stefan Edberg

Two Wimbledon titles, once a Wimbledon runner up

Two Australian Open titles 

Whenever tennis watchers say they miss serve-and-volley tennis, what they really mean is that they miss Stefan Edberg.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s the game was starting to bifurcate along power lines, as hard and clay courts were being taken over by overpowering baseliners and grass courts by towering servers. Edberg had neither of these weapons, but still found great success in disarming both styles with his swift feet and great hands. While his high-kicking serve and elegant backhand helped put him in contention, it was his swarming of the net that made his rivalry with Boris Becker at Wimbledon in the late-’80s and early ’90s great viewing.

His early Australian Open successes made him an accomplished grass court player, but it was his those three Wimbledon finals that made him a legend. One of those watching the Becker-Edberg trilogy on Centre Court was Roger Federer. That Edberg won two of the three finals against Boom Boom during that stretch showed that feel and movement could overcome size and power, a lesson the Great Swiss would apply decades later. 

8: Rafael Nadal

Two Wimbledon titles, three times a runner up

When he followed up his first Roland Garros title in 2005 by falling to Gilles Muller in round two of Wimbledon, few could have imagined the journey Rafael Nadal would tread across England’s lawns over the next few years. In fact, few would have guessed that only one year later the Spaniard with the loopy groundstrokes, iffy serve and deep court positioning could make the necessary adjustments to reach his first Wimbledon final.

His exemplary athletic ability certainly helped, but it was his careful planning that made his three consecutive finals appearances possible, and his incomparable heart that made his victory in 2008 the greatest match in the Open Era. 

He’s added an additional title and runner up appearance since then, emerging from the shadow of the Great Swiss and carving his own legacy on Wimbledon’s list of champions.

Not bad for a clay court player.

7: Jimmy Connors

Two Wimbledon titles, four times a runner up

One US Open title on grass (five on all surfaces)

One Australian Open title

Arthur Ashe’s 1975 triumph wouldn’t have meant nearly as much without Jimmy Connors’ 1974 season, one of the great performances in the history of men’s tennis.

At the game’s three grass court majors Connors prevailed that year, and it was perhaps nothing more than bureaucratic feuding that kept Jimbo from matching Rod Laver’s 1969 calendar-year Grand Slam. We’ll never know for sure, but we do know how he dominated the events he did play.

And no one knows that like Ken Rosewall. Already a legend of the game, a former No. 1 with eight major titles to his credit, Rosewall added to his stature by reaching the finals of that year’s Wimbledon and US Open despite turning 40 later that year.  In those finals, though, Rosewall had no answer for Connors’ crushing returns and underrated net play, winning just six games in England and only two in New York.

Connors reign would be short-lived, though, as Ashe disrupted it the following year, and starting in 1976 Jimbo would be overmatched on the lawns of London by Bjorn Borg: Though he won his share against the Cyborg Swede, particularly in at the US Open, Borg defeated him three times at Wimbledon’s latter rounds.

Of course today Connors is better known today for his undying hunger, and not his early dominance, and he demonstrated this in 1982. Eight years after his first title there, Connors outlasted John McEnroe, the man who’d finally beaten Borg the year before, in five sets.

It was a longer journey than expected, but in retrospect, the one that feels most appropriate for Jimbo. As he would later say: “(T)here’s always somebody out there who’s willing to push it that extra inch, or mile, and that was me. I didn’t care if it took me 30 minutes or five hours. If you beat me, you had to be the best, or the best you had that day.”

And hunger is essential on the one surface that some creatures consider food.

6: Rod Laver

Two Wimbledons, one Australian Open title, and one US Open title (as a pro)

Two Wimbledons, two Australian Championships, and one US Championship (as an amateur)

Some questions can never be answered, and that’s especially true when comparing the pre-Open Era greats with those who came later. It makes the career of Rocket Rod Laver especially hard to analyze, as the Grand Slam-centric Open Era started in 1968, about three years after his status as the game’s top player started and at least two before he was dethroned.

Sticking to the criteria of measuring the players strictly by their Open Era achievements, though, Laver still put up some remarkable numbers. In 1969 he swept the game’s major titles when three of the four were played on grass. Given that he’d also won Wimbledon the year before, and would win 77 titles after 1968, many of which came on lawns, his status as one of the Open Era greats is assured.

When lumped together with his pre-Open Era achievements, including another calendar-year Slam as an amateur in 1962 and 200 singles titles, there are many who consider Laver the greatest of all time.

That’s debatable, but his position as a universally admired player and person is beyond questioning, as is his impeccable grass court acumen.

Coming soon: The top five grass court players in the Open Era. Can you guess them?

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