Into the 80s
While the tennis of the 1970s was already quite different than the decade before it, both because of the Open Era but also a shift in the way the game was played, the 1980s saw even further change: namely through the transition to metal racquets as well as the rise of the Australian Open. By 1987 the competition at the AO was, if not quite on par with the other three Slams, very close. A few years later it would be equal.
While the last three generations each had a singular dominant player, the 1959-63 generation is the first since the 1934-38 generation that saw two players vying for the top spot. In some ways John McEnroe, nicknamed “Superbrat” by the British press, seems more part of Borg’s generation, yet he is much closer in age to Ivan “the Terrible” Lendl. Their respective peaks are a bit different, only overlapping for a year or two; McEnroe was at his best from the late 70s until 1985, Lendl not peaking until well into the 80s and remaining an elite player into the 90s. They are, clearly, the twin crown princes of the generation and the two best players born between Bjorn Borg (1956) and Pete Sampras (1971).
Best Players by Birth Year
1959: John McEnroe (USA, 7), Eliot Teltscher (USA)
1960: Ivan Lendl (CZE, 8), Yannick Noah (FRA, 1), Andres Gomez (ECU, 1), Tim Mayotte (USA)
1961: Brad Gilbert (USA), Anders Jarryd (SWE)
1962: Juan Aguilera (ESP)
1963: Henri Leconte (FRA), Joakim Nystrom (SWE), Mikael Pernfors (SWE)
Ivan Lendl is the only player of the Open Era with 6+ Slams who has a losing record in finals (8-11), but that speaks more to the strength of the era he played in than any lack of effort on his part. First of all, we should consider that he has played in more Slam finals than anyone in the Open Era other than Sampras, Federer, and Nadal (although Novak will almost certainly surpass him in 2016 – he’s just one behind). Consider also that Lendl’s career overlapped with the peaks of Connors, Borg, McEnroe, Wilander, Edberg, Becker, Courier, Agassi, and Sampras; there is really no other great player of the Open Era who faced such a multi-generational array of all-time greats, with the exception of Jimmy Connors and possibly Andre Agassi. The main tarnish on Lendl’s record, and his unfulfilled White Whale, was his inability to win the grandaddy of all tournaments: Wimbledon.
Johnny Mac is the most memorable player of the generation, and one of the most infamous players in tennis history, both because of his legendary temper tantrums, one of which made the title of the article famous, but also because of his intuitively brilliant play. He also has the honor of being the only player that could consistently beat Bjorn Borg. While their perhaps unparalleled rivalry yielded a 7-7 record (plus 4-4 in invitational matches), McEnroe held the edge over Borg the last couple years and had a 3-1 record in Grand Slams. The two provide us with an example of an interesting dynamic in discussing tennis greats: While Borg is generally ranked higher on all-time lists, by the time he retired McEnroe was a better player and McEnroe’s overall career accomplishments—aside from Slam titles—are better. This points to the ongoing developmental nature of the game. Regardless, the two are much closer than their Slam title totals (11 and 7) would imply.
Underachievers and Forgotten Players
This generation was so dominated by Lendl and McEnroe that it is hard to accuse any player of being an underachiever. I suppose Yannick Noah, who is probably more well-known than his career would entail, could have accomplished more. Noah is well-known not only for being the only French Slam winner of the Open Era, but the second black player to win a Slam, and also for his leadership in the Davis Cup.
Did You Know?
Yannick Noah has so many different angles on fame. Aside from his tennis accomplishments, he is also the father of NBA player Joakim Noah, and had a relatively successful music career.
Top Ten Players of the Generation
- Ivan Lendl
- John McEnroe
- Yannick Noah
- Andres Gomez
- Henri Leconte
- Brad Gilbert
- Tim Mayotte
- Anders Jarryd
- Eliot Teltscher
- Joakim Nystrom
Honorable Mention: Juan Aguilera
Some might take issue with my ranking Lendl over McEnroe, but Lendl’s record is just better. While McEnroe had a higher peak and was probably a more brilliant tennis player, with a level of dominance and a brilliance of play unmatched by the Czech, Lendl’s peak wasn’t that much lower and he sustained an elite level far longer than McEnroe.
Noah and Gomez—the only others to win Slams—are pretty easy to rank at No. 3 and No. 4, and then the rest taper off. Gomez is an interesting player in that he won his only Slam in 1990 at the age of 30, against a young Andre Agassi. Gomez—born the same year as Lendl and a year after McEnroe—won his lone Slam just after Lendl’s last and six years after McEnroe’s last, in 1984. He’s a good reminder for players like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych that there’s always hope.