As a kid watching and playing tennis in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the great players were superheroes to me. Each had unique talents and strengths they used to vanquish their opponents but they also had exploitable weaknesses. Who’s the Superman of male tennis players? Let’s find out.
When it comes to comparing players of different eras, tennis has a few advantages here compared to other sports. As an individual sport, each player has to hit every shot so greatness cannot be achieved through too much specialization. The requirement to play on different surfaces (clay, grass, hard) further inhibits specialization. In most sports, there is one championship to be had each year. Hot streaks and lucky breaks can go a long way. In tennis, there are four major Grand Slam championships (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open) up for grabs each year. To win a Grand Slam you have to beat the best head-to-head. To win multiple grand slams you have to do so time and time again. Speaking of luck, the chance that an official makes a decisive call in tennis has always been low and essentially eliminated 10 years ago with replay. In football, you can lob a pass into the end zone and hope the referee flags a defensive back for pass interference. In soccer, you can try for a best acting award in the penalty area and hope the referee buys your act. Good luck getting the chair umpire in tennis to bail out your crummy lob or feel pity for your ill-advised drop shot. Finally, tennis already has a ranking system with 40+ years of data to consider.
My ranking will be based on the following: Grand Slam titles won, total time at #1, consecutive weeks as #1, longevity and lasting influence on the game.
#10 – John McEnroe
- 7 Grand Slam titles but none at the Australian or French Opens. To be fair, the Australian Open was not a priority in the 70s and early 80s.
- 170 total weeks at #1 (6th all time)
- Possibly the greatest hands in tennis of all time and, while not a big factor here, he still plays great tennis into his late 50s
- Unlike some of the other players on this list, McEnroe was not really a transformative or innovative player. He grew up watching serve and volley tennis and that’s how he played. That he was competitive with this style as tennis transitioned to big baseline hitting in the late 80s and early 90s is a testament to his skill.
#9 – Bjorn Borg
- 11 Grand Slam titles. Borg essentially owned Wimbledon and the French Open in his prime. Again, the Australian was not a big deal in his day but the fact that he never won the US Open keeps him towards the bottom of this list.
- 109 total weeks at #1 (8th all time)
- Borg’s style was unique. In the era of wooden racquets and serve-and-volley tennis, Borg was willing to outlast opponents from the baseline. Being a great player, he had enough flexibility in his game to play attacking tennis on the grass of Wimbledon.
- Borg likely left several Grand Slam titles and weeks as #1 on the table by essentially retiring from tennis in his mid-20s.
#8 – Roy Emerson
- 12 Grand Slam titles including 10 straight GS finals victories. That’s dominance.
- I am only factoring in singles stats, but how can I ignore 16 Grand Slam doubles titles?
- Emerson was probably the first player to take conditioning to a professional level. Nobody could outlast Emerson and everyone knew it.
#7 – Rafael Nadal
- 14 Grand Slam titles including a career Grand Slam (all four titles).
- 141 total weeks at #1 (5th all time)
- Even at a time when players hit with significant topspin, the rpms on Nadal’s forehand are incredible. Like all great players, Nadal’s will to win is immense with his willingness to get into a tennis street fight only outdone by #5 on this list.
- Nadal is the first active player on this list and so his resume is not complete. However, multiple prolonged absences due to injury require me to deduct points for longevity. If he has a post-30 resurgence, a top five spot is certainly possible.
- Lastly, the fact that 9 of his 14 Grand Slams are French Open titles speaks to his greatness as a grinder. However, it may suggest he needs to be at the best of his best to compete on other surfaces.
#6 – Ivan Lendl
- 8 Grand Slam titles
- 270 total weeks at #1 (3rd all time)
- 157 consecutive weeks at #1 (3rd all time)
- One of only three players with more than 1000 career victories
- In an era that featured the likes of Connors, McEnroe, Wilander, Becker, Edberg and other great players, Lendl was the best week after week after week.
- Lendl may also be the first player who consistently used the power and spin we see so much in modern tennis.
#5 – Jimmy Connors
- 8 Grand Slam titles
- 268 total weeks at #1 (4th all time)
- 160 consecutive weeks at #1 (2nd all time)
- 1256 wins and 109 career singles titles (#1 in the Open Era)
- In his youth, Connors brutalized and intimidated opponents unlike any player before him. In his mid to late 30s, he stayed competitive using strokes that simply did not break down. Until the guy at #1 decides to stick around for another 4 or 5 years, Connors is ranked #1 in longevity.
#4 – Novak Djokovic
- 12 Grand Slam titles
- 208 (and counting) weeks at #1 (5th all time)
- 107 (and counting) consecutive weeks at #1 (4th all time)
- While Nadal has more Grand Slam titles, Novak’s consistency and position as the favorite to win several more Grand Slams gives him an edge over his contemporary. Although a fairly standard issue modern player (topspin, two-handed backhand, strong serve), Novak does bring an important innovation to tennis – no obvious weakness for an opponent to attack.
- One or two more years like 2015 and early 2016 and Novak can ask #3 and possibly #2 to step aside.
#3 – Rod Laver
- 11 Grand Slam titles
- Two calendar year Grand Slams (1962 and 1969)
- Winning two calendar year Grand Slams seven years apart shows amazing longevity. Like Djokovic, Laver had no discernible weakness and to do that while standing only 5’7” and holding a wooden racquet is a testament to Laver’s other-worldly talent. Only #10 and #1 on this list can compete with Laver for wizardry with a tennis racquet.
#2 – Pete Sampras
- 14 Grand Slam titles
- 286 total weeks at #1 (2nd all time)
- Sampras won his first Grand Slam title in 1990 and his last 12 year later in 2002. That’s some good longevity. He is also one of only three players to win two different Grand Slam titles 5 or more times. That’s some good flexibility of style.
- At a time when more and more players were hitting significant topspin on the forehand side, Sampras hit his forehand flatter, harder and more consistent than any of his peers. Not only did he have the best forehand of his day, he had the greatest second serve of all time. That might not sound like a lot, but while most players rely on neutral second serves Sampras attacked opponents with placement and spin unlike any player before or since.
#1 – Roger Federer
- 17 Grand Slam titles including a career Grand Slam
- 302 total weeks at #1 (1st all time)
- 237 consecutive weeks at #1 (1st all time)
- Federer has won three different Grand Slam titles four times. No other player has won three different Grand Slams even three times (Djokovic is likely to get there).
- While Federer’s forehand and serve are among the best of all time, his true weapons are movement and court positioning. Federer hits a greater percentage of shots on his terms than any other player in history. While the final result (the stroke) looks beautifully effortless, it is his work between shots that makes the beauty possible.
Two comments and a few observations regarding the top 10.
- It is important to remember that the number of seeded players in Grand Slams has changed over the years. Today, the Grand Slams seed 32 players. Twenty years ago, only the top 16 players were seeded. So, it is easier for the top players to make it out of the earlier rounds as first-week marquee matches and upsets are less common today than they were in the days of Connors, Lendl, McEnroe or earlier. Seed expansion also makes it harder for young upstarts to break through and challenge the top players.
- You might be asking, “What about Agassi?!” I’ve got him at #11 and I would not protest too much if you put him #10 in place of McEnroe. He does have a career Grand Slam on his resume. But, his weeks at #1 overall and consecutively are ranked 9th and 14th, respectively. Also, he was a non-factor for two full years during what should have been his prime playing days. A truly great player and one of the best of all time to be sure. Just not top 10 for me.
- Four of these top 10 players are left-handed. Where does the lefty advantage in tennis come from? Aside for the novelty of having to face a left-handed player, more of the important points are played in the ad-court (towards the right of the server). A lefty server can more readily move his opponent off the court and towards the traditionally weaker backhand side of a right-handed player. Also, a lefty returner has a longer, forehand reach towards to the outside of the court in the ad-court.
- Nine on these top 10 players consistently play(ed) attacking styles of tennis. Only Borg tried to outlast his opponents and even he changed tactics when playing Wimbledon.
- Only two players, Connors and Nadal, had average serves for their day. The fact that both are left-handed was helpful. The fact that both were great returners helped more.
So, if you want to be a great tennis player try to be left-handed, have a great serve and attack your opponent on your terms as much as possible.