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

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

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
  1. Paul Z.
    Jul 19, 2012 at 5:15 PM

    Quite simply, an outstanding article. Thoroughly enjoyed it!!!

    • rjamesyork
      Jul 19, 2012 at 5:26 PM

      Glad to be of service. Thanks for the feedback.

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