Summer of Tennis : The Top 15 Tennis Players 1974 – 2014

We are all products of our time, and my formative years were those of the late 1970s and early 1980s when giants strode the tennis scene.

The first was the Swedish viking Bjorn Borg, the iceman of tennis whom every teenage male wanted to be. He won five Wimbledon titles in a row, and six French Opens in an eight year period. All but one of his Wimbledon victories were over players who also won multiple Grand Slams: Connors, McEnroe and Nastase. The one minor gap on his CV was the US Open where he was runner-up four times and appeared distracted by the grit and noise. Like most top players of that era, he rarely played the Australian Open.

John McEnroe was Borg’s ultimate opposite: the brash and fiery New Yorker. Borg hit inch perfect top spin on both sides whilst McEnroe stroked flat ground shots with minimum effort, and catapulted through an audacious service action. Their matches were legend, and McEnroe’s victories in both the 1981 Wimbledon and U.S Open Finals drove Borg into early retirement at the age of 26. From there, McEnroe dominated for three years, and only lost three matches out of 85 in 2004. He took time out in 1985, and was never a real threat to be number one again. He admitted to missing the challenge of playing Borg.

Jimmy Connors was also a giant from that era. He revolutionised tennis with his aggressive returns of serve, played tennis like a football player, and was unbeatable on his day. His successive U.S Open victories over Ivan Lendl in 1982-83 were like watching a knockout in a boxing match. But he arguably under-achieved with his eight Grand Slam victories.

Guilllermo Vilas is forgotten by many, but this stylish left-handed clay courter only just fell short of Borg. His victories in the 1977 French and US Opens arguably made him the Number One player in the world, if briefly. I was lucky enough to watch him close-up by as a ball boy during his 1978 and ’79 victories in the Australian Open – albeit against weak fields.

The ill-fated Vitas Gerulaitis was arguably just below those four. In a weaker era (absent Borg and McEnroe), he may have won at least one or two more Grand Slams to add to his single Australian Open title.

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are easily the stand out players of the current era. Federer is the style player of the day, Nadal is the modern Connors who leaves nothing in the tank, and the Djoker is in between.

Their weaknesses are very minor. But the facts suggest that Federer won a lot of his early Grand Slams (total 17) in a weak era against players such as Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt, whilst Nadal has won 9 of his 14 Grand Slams in Paris. Djokovic has only won 7 slams to date, but may eventually catch up to the other two given that he is super fit and has no obvious skill weaknesses in his game.

Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Ivan Lendl were all outstanding players in a strong era. The three consecutive Wimbledon finals that Becker and Edberg played from 1988-1990 were magnificent contrasts of style and strategy. Becker was ‘boom boom’ and more, whilst Edberg was like Borg with a serious serve and volley game.

Lendl hit harder and longer than any other player at his peak, but was rather robot-like which probably explains why he only won eight slams. Mats Wilander was the link between two eras. He crushed Vilas as a young Borg-clone in the French final of 1982, but was good enough to develop more than a baseline game to win three Grand Slams in the one year in 1988 and seven slams in total.

It will be controversial to some that I rank Sampras and Agassi only 11 and 12. Sampras arguably won a lot of his 14 Grand Slam titles against weaker opponents, or those past their best. Agassi was amazingly resilient in winning all four Grand Slams (and eight in total) over a 12 year period, but I always felt he had just one game plan, and lost too many big matches to weaker players because he was unable to switch his strategy. Courier at his best was a highly competitive bludgeoner of the ball as reflected in his four Grand Slam victories.

 

The List – 1974-2014

Bjorn Borg

John McEnroe

Roger Federer

Rafael Nadal

Boris Becker

Jimmy Connors

Stefan Edberg

Guillermo Vilas

Mats Wilander

Novak Djokovic

Ivan Lendl

Pete Sampras

Andre Agassi

Vitas Gerulaitis

Jim Courier

 

About Philip Mendes

Philip Mendes is an academic who follows AFL, soccer, tennis and cricket. He supported Fitzroy Football Club from 1970-1996, and on their death he adopted the North Melbourne Kangaroos as his new team. In his spare time, he occasionally writes about his current and past football teams.

Comments

  1. Sampras at 12 (which is where you seem to have him) seems way too low. Better than Becker, Edberg and Vilas, IMO. It may matter a bit who he beat, but if it was so easy to win 14 Grand Slams, someone would have done it before him. He’s got to be in the top five. Borg was the most dominant player I’ve ever seen, but his career was relatively short and he never won a hard-court Slam. Comparing eras is tricky, but Federer plays a stylish game that would have fit wonderfully in any era, and arguing that some of his early Slams came in a so-called weaker era ignores that so many later in his career came in the stronger era. He’s my No. 1.

  2. Philip Mendes says

    Good comments Glenn. I love watching Rodger the dodger play – sometimes I just focus on his perfect footwork rather than watching the rallies – but I’m not convinced he would have had the flexibility and subtlety to beat either Borg or McEnroe at their peak. I admit to being a bit prejudiced against Sampras, Agassi and Courier – I found them awfully boring to watch – and couldn’t see any evidence of variety in their games – it was just hit the ball hard and even harder. At least Sampras could serve and volley, that probably explains his great record at Wimbledon.

  3. Peter Flynn says

    It’s not easy ranking this list.

    My bias for Mac precludes me from making any credible assessment.

    And there’s some rippers not on the list.

    I’d try and fit Sampras in the top 5 if I was having a go at this.

    Not that old Mate Abbott would care, but a woman’s list would be really interesting.

    The more hilarious list would be Aussies from the same period.

  4. Philip Mendes says

    Peter – the Aussie Top 15 should be following in the next day or so.

  5. loved Vitas’ comment when he finally beat Borg: “nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row”

  6. Peter Flynn says

    NoelMc,

    Pretty sure it was Connors not Borg.

    PF

  7. Better fit the Cockaleechie Kid in that Aussie 15, Philip :) And, it, Vitas was referring to Connors.

    It’s a tough job comparing players within their contexts. I have no doubt that the three from the current period would wipe the court with the rest of the list – they are just such complete players. But it would be like racing a Model-T against a Formula 1 car – one cannot happen without the other.

    My memories growing up on the scrapes of Canberra and the plexipave of Adelaide are of particular players’ strokes: Edberg’s technically perfect topspin backhand; Becker’s rhythmic serve (I would not have him so high); McEnroe’s perfect half volleys despite him never bending his knees. Borg changed the game forever – never better demonstrated than watching a video of Newk trying to demonstrate topspin technique. A worthy top of your list.

  8. Philip Mendes says

    Dave – yes Fitzy is there – see https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/summer-of-tennis-the-top-15-australian-mens-tennis-players-1974-2014/

    I agree its hard to compare eras given different fitness levels, coaching techniques, and also racquet sizes. I like your comment about Newk – I assume he struggled with that skill given his forehand was very flat. Some of the older men at my local club also hit that very flat shot. Growing up in the Borg and Vilas era I hit top spin and nothing else.

  9. Philip, the flat forehand works on antbed!

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