A Transitional Generation
The generation born between 1944 and 1948 began establishing itself in the mid-60s but was in peak form during the early years of the Open Era. This was the last generation that saw some players with a significant portion of their careers before the Open Era began, although it is also the first generation that saw the majority of its players peak in the Open Era.
Best Players by Birth Year
1944: John Newcombe (AUS, 7), Tom Okker (NED), Alex Metreveli (USSR)
1945: Tony Roche (AUS, 1)
1946: Jan Kodes (CZE, 3), Ilie Nastase (ROM, 2), Stan Smith (USA, 2), Cliff Richey (USA)
1947: Bob Lutz (USA), Zeljko Franulovic (CRO), Gerald Battrick (UK)
1948: Brian Fairlie (NZ), John Bartlett (AUS), Vladimir Korotkov (USSR)
There are several players in this generation that have a lasting heritage. John Newcombe, as will be discussed, is a bit of an underrated great, standing in the shadow of his greater predecessors, Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver. But he was the best player of this generation, and tied with Jimmy Connors for second most Slam titles in the 1970s (5) after Bjorn Borg (8).
After Newcombe, the class of 1946 presents a strong year of tennis births, with multi-Slam winners Nastase, Kodes, and Smith, who split seven Slams among them.
Nastase is a player whose Slam count doesn’t adequately reflect how good he was. He is perhaps best known for being the first ATP ranked year-end No. 1 player in 1973. He was a Top 10 player for most of the 70s and won a huge total of 58 titles overall, or by some accounts as many as 87—one less than Roger Federer—due to the fact that records were not fully accurate before the ATP in 1973.
Underachievers and Forgotten Players
The first player I’d like to mention is this generation’s greatest player, John Newcombe. While Newcombe, with seven Slams, cannot be considered an underachiever, he is a bit forgotten, for a couple reasons. One, he wasn’t as great as his Australian predecessors in Rosewall and Laver. Secondly, he didn’t quite have the cachet and sex appeal of later tennis superstars Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe. Yet Newcombe was a great player; while he won three Australian Opens during an era when the field was still weaker than the other Grand Slams, he also won Wimbledon and the US Open twice each, defeating champions as diverse in range as Ken Rosewall (b. 1938) in the 1970 Wimbledon, to Jimmy Connors (b. 1952) in the 1975 Australian Open. Furthermore, Newcombe was one of the few top players of the amateur era whose success translated to the Open Era. With apologies to Patrick Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt, Newcombe is the last truly great Australian male tennis player.
I wouldn’t call Tom Okker an underachiever as much as a nearly-great player that never won a Slam. In a way he was his generation’s version of David Ferrer – a player always in the mix, with great results and many titles, but no majors. In fact, as discussed in one Tennis Frontier discussion thread, Okker is a good candidate for the best Slam-less player of the Open Era.
Finally, we have Stan Smith, who is probably the best suited to the title of underachiever, or at least a peak that didn’t match his total career. First of all he was a relatively late bloomer, although less so by his era’s standards. He didn’t reach his first Slam QF until 1970 when he was 23 years old, and won his first of two Slams a year later at 24. For a few years—the first half of the 70s—he was a Top 10 player, and for a couple years—1971-72—he was either No. 1 or co-No. 1. But after 1974 his performance dropped substantially. Throughout the late 70s and into the 80s he was a borderline Top 20 player, but no longer a star. Smith was one of the greatest Davis Cup players, being part of seven US titles. In my National Tennis Careers blog series, I ranked him as the 8th greatest American male tennis player of the Open Era right between No. 7, Andy Roddick, and No. 9, Michael Chang.
Did You Know?
1946 saw three multi-Slam winners born. While many years since then have had two multi-Slam winners born, or multiple Slam winners born, you have to go all the way back to 1921 to find another year that had three multi-Slam winners: Jack Kramer (5, 3 Grand, and 2 Pro), Pancho Segura (4 Pro Slams), and Jaroslav Drobny (3 Grand Slams).
Top Ten Players of the Generation
- John Newcombe
- Ilie Nastase
- Stan Smith
- Jan Kodes
- Tony Roche
- Tom Okker
- Cliff Richey
- Alex Metreveli
- Zeljko Franulovic
- Onny Parun
Honorable Mentions: Bob Lutz, Brian Fairlie, Vladimir Korotkov, John Bartlett, Gerald Battrick.
The first two spots are easy. Newcombe has a record head and shoulders above the rest, his seven Slams — as much as Kodes, Nastase, and Smith combined. Nastase is a clear No. 2. He had one less Slam than Kodes, but his career was much better. Not only was he the first year-end No. 1 of the ATP era but he won an impressive 58 titles (or 87 by some accounts). Smith also was a stronger peak player than Kodes, although had a weak second half of his career, as mentioned. I was tempted to put Roche above Kodes as he probably had a better overall career, with 26 titles versus Kodes’ 11; but it is hard to argue with Kodes’ three Slams to Roche’s one, even if one of Kodes’ was the 1973 Wimbledon which the majority of top players boycotted due to the banning of Nikola Pilic. But Roche’s lone Slam was during the pre-Open Era in a relatively weak field, defeating Alexander Metreveli, Francois Jauffret, and Istvan Gulyas in the last three matches on the way to the title (who? That’s the point!). Roche also had a Murray-esque 1-5 record in Slam finals.
After the top five, Tom Okker is an easy pick; I was even tempted to edge him over Roche but controlled myself. Cliff Richey is also a relatively easy next pick, but after that the rankings and talent gets murky. But the gap between the top five and Okker is far slimmer than Okker and the rest of the generation, which is pretty weak from that point on and difficult to rank.