By Jonathan Northrop
With another year in the books, and encouraged by an email from a reader of Tennis Frontier, I thought I’d offer a highly subjective but statistically informed list of the greatest players of the Open Era. Another factor in deciding to do this is, of course, Andy Murray’s epic and—for most—unexpected rise to #1. I was curious where he might rank, or if he would make it into the top twenty at all.
A few preliminary thoughts and clarifications. First of all, the Open Era spans from the 1968 French Open to the present. Some of the players on this list—most notably Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, but also John Newcombe and Arthur Ashe—had careers spanning that turning point of modern tennis, even winning Slams before and after. Actually, Laver and Rosewall are the only two players to win Professional, Amateur, and Open Era Slams. In compiling such a list I am left with a judgement call: Do I include these players and, if so, do I include only their Open Era record or their entire career? I have chosen the latter; to include them, but to use their entire career. I feel that we cannot penalize Laver and Rosewall for playing the bulk of their careers—and their best years, for the most part—before the Open Era. Both were great enough in the Open Era that they should be included simply by virtue of their Open Era accomplishments, but I just can’t stomach the idea of ranking them lower on this list, as would be required if we only considered their Open Era careers. I have excluded such greats as Roy Emerson and Pancho Gonzales, both of whom played during the Open Era but whose best years were before.
The other thing I want to talk about is methodology. I rank players by a statistical formula which accumulates points for every Slam result, every title, and year-end rankings. But I don’t stop there; if I did, I’d have Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl ranked ahead of Pete Sampras, and that just doesn’t feel right. I also look at a variant that more strongly weighs certain factors (e.g. giving far more weight to Slams and #1 rankings, for example). And then I make a subjective adjustment based upon what I know about the context in which that player played. Any serious historian of tennis knows that the two Grand Slams won by Johan Kriek are far less impressive than any of those won by Novak Djokovic, or that Jan Kodes three Slams are less impressive than Stan Wawrinka’s. But it is difficult (even impossible) to objectively account for that, so I’ve just used my best judgement.
A major aspect of methodology is how to weigh peak vs. longevity. Most analysts tend to emphasize the former, which I generally agree with, but it isn’t an either/or matter. The key is finding the right balance, which unfortunately only really can be done subjectively. For example, I’ve created several variations of my formula and they all rank Connors and Lendl ahead of Borg, which I find problematic. Even TennisBase.com, which uses a far more sophisticated formula than I do, ranks those two ahead of not only Borg, but Sampras as well. While I don’t want to overly focus on Slam titles, I cannot so easily ignore the +6 lead Sampras has over those two. Tennis Base also ranks Andy Murray ahead of Mats Wilander and John Newcombe, because they emphasize depth of records and longevity. Again, I don’t think we can rank Andy ahead of those two seven-Slam winners, at least not yet. But given the rest of their careers, it is reasonable to think that if Andy can win even just a couple more Slams, his overall record would push him ahead of those two. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Finally, I’m ranking them in clusters or tiers, because there are gaps in terms of which players are closer in their overall greatness. This will be discussed below.
All that said, the curtain is pulled back and here is the list…
1. Rod Laver
2. Roger Federer
3. Ken Rosewall
These are the big three. For awhile it looked like Rafa was going to be joining them, but it seems that ship has sailed unless, of course, he (re)discovers the Fountain of Youth in 2017. For Rafa to get in, he probably needs at least a couple more Slams. Novak is also a contender for this tier, but the jury is still out. But as of this writing, these three stand above the rest of the pack by a solid margin. If we were doing an all-time list I’d probably put Bill Tilden as the fourth, with Pancho Gonzales also a candidate, but possibly in the next group down.
Why Laver first? No player has had as dominant a decade as Laver, from 1960-1969. During those ten years he was about as dominant as Federer was for his best four, 2004-07. Add to that not one but two calendar year Grand Slams and 200 titles! That’s almost 70 more than the next guy down, Rosewall, and more than double Federer. If we want to find one chink in Laver’s armor, it is that he stopped winning Slams in 1969. But this is largely due to his scheduling and some of the politics of the early 70s; he only played in eight Slams from 1070-77, although remained a top 10 player through 1975.
It is tempting to put Rosewall above Roger due to the massive accumulation of statistics. In fact, if we look at longevity, no one comes even close to what Rosewall accomplished. Rosewall was a freak, winning Slams across over 22 years—double the range of Laver—winning his first Slam in 1951 at age 18 and his last in 1972 at age 37. That would be like Rafael Nadal winning his first Slam in 2005 at age 19 (which he did), but winning his last in 2024 at age 38! Rosewall was the Jimmy Connors of his era; he was very, very good for a very long time, but there was (almost) always someone better than him. First it was Pancho Gonzales, then Lew Hoad, then Laver, then Connors. Still, no one has the breadth of his career, except for perhaps Martina Navratilova and Serena Williams, and no one has the Slam count: 23 including Pro, Amateur, and Open (Laver’s total is 19).
4. Novak Djokovic
5. Pete Sampras
6. Rafael Nadal
Perhaps the most controversial thing here is that I rank Novak higher than both Pete and Rafa, but understand that it is very, very close, and I think there are arguments to be made for any arrangement of the three. Pete still has a slight edge with his 14 Slams to Novak’s 12 and 6 year-end #1s to Novak’s four, but Novak is building a stronger overall resume, with more titles, almost triple the Masters, and better overall Slam results. Part of this is due to the era; Pete played during a time in which courts were more diverse, and had serious trouble on clay. That said, we cannot penalize Novak for playing in the time he has; one of the core qualities of greatness is adapting to the context you play in, and Novak has done that in an almost unparalleled fashion. I think it is also worth mentioning that Novak–unlike Rafa, Pete, and even moreso, Roger–doesn’t have many “gimme” Slam titles. In fact, he only has one: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Sampras had quite a few, Rafa several, and Roger even more.
Of course the book isn’t closed on Novak or Rafa. Perhaps Rafa has one more surge in him, another Slam (or even two), and several more Masters. I think just one more Slam that would put him ahead of Sampras, who gets the edge over Rafa because of his greater consistency and year-end #1s; but right now, I give the edge to Pete. If Novak wins just two more Slams, I think my ranking will be more fully justified. If he wins 3+ more and maybe another year-end #1, he enters the top echelon of greats.
7. Bjorn Borg
8. Ivan Lendl
9. John McEnroe
10. Jimmy Connors
11. Andre Agassi
Here also you can play with the rankings a bit, although I’d always leave Agassi last among these five. He just didn’t have as strong a peak as any of them. Borg is one of the great “What if” stories: what if he hadn’t retired at age 25? How many Slams would he have finished with? It is easy to imagine several more and him being in the first tier; on the other hand, he retired when it was clear he was no longer the best player in the sport. I do think he would have won two or three more, but not four or more. But we’ll never know.
Still, I have to rank Borg ahead of the rest. Some also might take issue with my ranking Lendl ahead of McEnroe, but despite the latter having greater virtuoso brilliance and a higher level of dominance, I must respect the workman-like consistency of Lendl, which saw him playing in 19 Slam finals during one of the most competitive eras in tennis history. In fact, Lendl is the only player to have played against three groups of greats playing at or near their peaks; Connors, Borg and McEnroe in the late 70s to early 80s; Wilander, Edberg, and Becker in the 80s; and Sampras and Agassi in the early 90s. That’s a tough context to play in.
12. Boris Becker
13. Stefan Edberg
14. John Newcombe
15. Mats Wilander
This is another group that could be ranked differently, but I do think Becker and Edberg are closely paired, with Newcombe and Wilander a bit behind. I give a slight edge to Boris, but have gone back and forth. Edberg has the edge in the rankings, with two year-end #1s and 72 weeks at #1 to Boris’ mere 12 weeks, but Boris’ non-Slam title count is significantly better, and of course he had a huge edge in the head-to-head.
Newcombe is hard to rank because he played within a very different context and won several of his seven Slams in the weak era of the Australian Open when mainly only Australians played, but he also is one of the few players to win all four Slams and was a consistent great for a decade; he is perhaps the most understated, least known great player of the Open Era, at least today. Plus, there’s the handle-bar mustache.
As for Wilander, he had that terrific 1988, in which he was the only player between Jimmy Connors in 1974 and Roger Federer in 2004 to win three Slams in a year, and was really good for the half decade before that, but he just collapsed at the age of 24 and his overall record is weakened for it.
16. Andy Murray
17. Guillermo Vilas
18. Arthur Ashe
19. Ilie Nastase
20. Jim Courier
This ordering might generate controversy, but I now think that Andy Murray is the “best of the near-greats.” I also rank Nastase ahead of Courier, despite the 2-to-4 Slam deficit. But Nastase is another player—like Newcombe—that is too easily forgotten. He only won two Slams, but he won 58 ATP events and several more in the early Open Era during a time when Slams weren’t quite as prestigious as they are today. Ashe is also difficult to rank, because he only has those three Slams across a long career. But he won a ton of titles before the ATP era, and of course also had a harder context to play in than any player on this list, due to the color of his skin.
Back to Andy for a moment. As of this writing he really has an unusual record. His stats, if you count everything and look at Slam finals rather than wins, is very much closer to that of the next tier up. He played in one more Slam final (11) than Becker and Newcombe (10 each), and as many Slam finals as Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander and John McEnroe, but has gone 3-8 instead of 6-5, 7-4 and 7-4, respectively. The reason? Well, consider who Andy lost eight times to: three times to Roger Federer and five times to Novak Djokovic. He beat Novak twice and beat Milos Raonic at Wimbledon this year. In other words, of his 11 chances only once did he not face one of the five or so best players of the Open Era. Consider that 10 of Roger’s 17 Slam titles were played against players that are not on this list; he beat Agassi in one Slam final, Rafa in two, Novak in one and Andy in three, and the rest were against lesser players. This isn’t to downplay Roger’s greatness, as his match-ups were more consistent with historical norms, but to point out just how hard Andy’s lot has been.
Rafa and Novak have also had some tough Slam finals, but even Rafa had more (relatively) easy match-ups: Mariano Puerta, Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych, and David Ferrer. Novak’s only had Tsonga, which accounts for his lower win percentage in Slam finals: 12-9 (57%) vs Rafa’s 14-6 (70%) and Roger’s 17-10 (63%).
My point is not that Andy is as good as the other members of the Big Four—he isn’t—but that he is better than his three Slams account for, even much better, and that if he can win another Slam or two, he’ll move up to the next group and possibly even surpass them.
Honorable Mentions: Stan Smith, Thomas Muster, Michael Chang, Gustavo Kuerten, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, Stan Wawrinka.
There’s a significant (and convenient) gap between the top twenty and this next group, who would be the next tier down. None of these players really even come close to the top 20. That said, if Stan Wawrinka wins another Slam it will be hard not to seriously consider him. He has such an anomalous record, similar to Jan Kodes in that aside from the three Slam titles there isn’t a huge amount of career accomplishments; Stan’s record aside from those three Slams is more like Tomas Berdych’s than Andy Murray’s and unlike Kodes, all three of his titles are against great opponents (twice Novak, once Rafa); Kodes beat Nastase in one, but Zeljko Franulovic and Alex Metreveli in the other two, players comparable to contemporaries like Nicolas Almagro or Gilles Simon.
I’ll take another look at this list a year from now as a few things could alter the rankings. If Stan wins another Slam, he could put pressure on Courier and Nastase. If Andy wins another Slam or two, he could be passing Wilander and Newcombe and be looking at surpassing Becker and Edberg before he’s through (although probably not Agassi). If Rafa wins another Slam, he passes Pete; if Novak wins another Slam or two, his ranking is stabilized and he could be looking at making the Open Era Big Three a Big Four. Finally, if Roger wins another Slam…well, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to rank him above Laver, but it would be tempting. If he is able to win #18 (possible, if unlikely), and re-take #1 if only for a week (very unlikely) and reach 100+ titles, then I think I’d have to slide him past Laver. But that’s a lot to ask for a 35 year old.
Over Photo by mirsasha, courtesy of Creative Commons License.