The 20 Greatest Male Tennis Players of All-Time
In every day and age, people label the dominant player of that time ‘the greatest ever’. From Tilden in the 20s to Connors in the 70s, from Laver in the 60s to Federer in the 2000s, every generation has had its own ‘greatest tennis player’. But the question everyone asks is, “how will these all-time greats stack up against one another?” Any tennis lover would kill to watch a five-set Wimbledon final between Laver and Federer. Imagine the sight of Nadal slugging it out against Borg on the red clay courts of Roland Garros. Sadly though, up until we develop the technology to create robotic equivalents of these past greats and pit them against each other create live action simulations of the all-time greats, we will have to be content with more barbaric, primitive statistical methods.
This list, though, does not rely on statistics alone. Indeed, winning more tournaments (particularly the major ones) is a good benchmark to determine the greatness of any player; I have also tried to take into account their longevity, domination, impact on the game and of course, the calibre of the players they played against. So based on all these parameters (and whatever knowledge of tennis I possess), I present to you 20 of the greatest beings who took to tennis courts in shorts (or trousers in some cases).
20. JACK CRAWFORD (AUS) (1908-1991) (Career- 1930-39)
Grand Slams- 6 Singles Titles, 6 Doubles Titles, 5 Mixed Doubles Titles
One of the first Australian greats in tennis, Jack Crawford dominated the game in the early 1930s. He won his first Grand Slam in the form of the 1929 Australian Open Men’s Doubles, a title he won in 1930, 1932 and 1935 as well. He also won the Men’s Doubles title of the French Open and Wimbledon in 1935. Crawford’s prowess in the doubles is further evident by the fact that he won 5 mixed doubles titles as well- the 1931, 1932 and 1933 Australian Open, the 1933 French Open and the 1935 Wimbledon. He won the Australian Open singles crown in 1931 and successfully defended it in 1932. In 1933, he completed his hat-trick of Australian Open titles and added the French Open and Wimbledon titles as well, becoming the first man to win three Grand Slam singles in one year. In the process, he also became the World No. 1 amateur player.
19. TODD WOODBRIDGE (AUS) (b 1971) (Career- 1988-2005)
Grand Slams- 16 Doubles Titles, 7 Mixed Doubles Titles
Tour Finals- 2 Championships (Doubles)
Olympics- 1 Doubles Gold, 1 Doubles Silver
Todd Woodbridge is widely considered to be the greatest doubles specialist in men’s tennis history. He was never ranked higher than 19 in the singles world rankings but in the doubles, he was a force to reckon with, holding the No. 1 position for 204 weeks in 9 different reigns from 1992 to 2001. He holds the Open era record for most Men’s Doubles Grand Slam titles (16) and also the most Grand Slam titles by one team (12 titles with Mark Woodforde). In addition, Woodbridge jointly holds the record for most ATP doubles titles (83). Woodbridge played with compatriot Mark Woodforde for the majority of his career, winning 61 ATP titles and two Olympic medals with him (a Gold in 1996 and a Silver in 2000). He also won 7 mixed doubles Grand Slam titles- 3 US Opens, 2 French Opens and 1 each of Australian Open and Wimbledon.
18. FRANK SEDGMAN (AUS) (b 1927) (Career- 1946-76)
Grand Slams- 5 Singles Titles, 9 Doubles Titles, 8 Mixed Doubles Titles
Pro Majors- 2 Singles Titles
One of the greatest players in the post-war amateur era, Frank Sedgman took the tennis world by storm in the late-1940s. His first success came in the form of the 1948 Wimbledon Men’s Doubles crown. In the next four years, he won two more Wimbledon Men’s doubles as well as two each of the men’s doubles titles in the other three Grand Slams. In 1951, he partnered Ken McGregor to win the men’s doubles of all four Grand Slam tournaments. Sedgman also won eight mixed doubles Grand Slam titles, again two each from all the four Grand Slams. An accomplished singles player as well, Sedgman won the men’s singles of the Australian Open in 1949 and 1950, Wimbledon in 1952 and the US Open in 1951 and 1952. He was the World No. 1 amateur player in 1952. After turning professional in 1953, Sedgman won two professional majors as well, clinching the Wembley Championship in 1953 and 1958.
17. HENRI COCHET (FRA) (1901-87) (Career- 1920-55)
Grand Slams- 7 Singles Titles, 5 Doubles Titles, 2 Mixed Doubles Titles
Pro Majors- 1 Singles Title
World Championships- 3 Singles Titles, 3 Doubles Titles, 2 Mixed Doubles Titles
Olympics- 1 Singles Silver, 1 Doubles Silver
Henri Cochet was one of France’s “Four Musketeers” who dominated tennis in the 1920s and 30s. Cochet came to prominence by winning the singles and men’s doubles in both the Wold Hard Court Championships and the World Covered Court Championships in 1922. He also won the mixed doubles title in the hard court championships. In 1923, he defended both his covered court titles successfully. He then won a silver each in singles and doubles in the 1924 Olympics. His first Grand Slam title came in 1926 with the French Open, which he won again in 1928, 1930 and 1932. He added the Wimbledon to his kitty in 1926 and 1928, and the US Open in 1928. Cochet also won 7 doubles titles in Grand Slams and was an integral part of the French Davis Cup team that won 6 consecutive titles from 1927-32. As a professional, Cochet’s only major win came in the 1936 French Pro Championship.
16. ROY EMERSON (AUS) (b 1936) (Career- 1957-83)
Grand Slams- 12 Singles Titles, 16 Doubles Titles
Emerson is the most prolific champion in tennis, winning the most number of Grand Slams in singles and doubles combined. He held the record for most Grand Slam singles (12) for nearly four decades. He won a record 6 Australian Opens (1961, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967), 2 French Opens (1963, 1967), 2 Wimbledons (1964, 1965) and 2 US Opens (1961, 1964). He was the World No. 1 amateur player between 1964 and 1967. Emerson was also an accomplished doubles player winning the men’s doubles title in Australian Open thrice (1962, 1966, 1969), the French Open 6 times (1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965), Wimbledon thrice (1959, 1961, 1971) and the US Open 4 times (1959, 1960, 1965, 1966). However, it is often argued that most of his titles came at a time when the top players (Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall) played in the professional circuit. In the Open era, he never progressed beyond the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam.
15. FRED PERRY (ENG) (1909-1995) (Career- 1932-56)
Grand Slams- 8 Singles Titles, 2 Doubles Titles, 4 Mixed Doubles Titles
Pro Majors- 2 Singles Titles
Unarguably the greatest British tennis player ever, Fred Perry carried the Union Jack single-handedly for over a decade prior to the Second World War. He won his first Grand Slam at the 1933 US Open. The next year, he became the World No. 1 amateur player by winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon as well as defending his US Open title. He added the French Open to his list of conquests in 1935 along with a second Wimbledon title and rounded off the set with victories in Wimbledon and the US Open in 1936. He was a part of the British Davis Cup team that ended the French dominance by winning four consecutive titles from 1933-36. Perry also won two men’s doubles (1933 French Open and 1934 Australian Open) and 4 mixed doubles Grand Slam titles. As a professional, his career was hampered by the war and he won only two major tournaments- the 1938 and 1941 US Pro Championships.
14. JOHN NEWCOMBE (AUS) (b 1944) (Career- 1964-81)
Grand Slams- 7 Singles Titles, 17 Doubles Titles, 2 Mixed Doubles Titles
Newcombe arrived on the world tennis scene as a doubles specialist winning a record 17 doubles titles in Grand Slams, including the Australian Open 5 times (1965, 1967, 1971, 1973, 1976), the French Open thrice (1967, 1969, 1973), the Wimbledon 6 times (1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1974) and the US Open thrice as well (1967, 1971, 1973). He also won the mixed doubles title at the 1964 US Open and the 1965 Australian Open. But he soon developed into one of the finest singles players of his time, winning 7 Grand Slams and reaching the World No. 1 rank in 1974. He won the Australian Open twice (1973, 1975), Wimbledon thrice (1967, 1970, 1971) and the US Open twice (1967, 1973). Newcombe is one of the few men to be ranked the World No. 1 player in both singles and doubles rankings.
13. IVAN LENDL (CZE) (b 1960) (Career- 1978-94)
Grand Slams- 8 Singles Titles
Tour Finals- 7 Championships
One of the greatest forehand players ever, Ivan Lendl personified grit and longevity throughout his playing days. He became the World No. 1 player in 1983, even though he hadn’t won a Grand Slam by that time. His first major win came in the 1984 French Open. He went on to win the tournament two more times, in 1986 and 1987. Lendl also won the US Open three times in a row, from 1985-87 and the Australian Open in 1989 and 1990. He won the Grand Prix Masters (currently the ATP Tour Finals) 5 times (1981, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1987) and the WCT Finals twice (1982, 1985). Lendl held the World No. 1 ranking for 270 weeks in 8 different reigns, setting a new world record in the process. His records for most ATP Tour Finals, most weeks as World No. 1, and most Grand Slam finals stood for over two decades.
12. ANDRE AGASSI (USA) (b 1970) (Career- 1986-2006)
Grand Slams- 8 Singles Titles
Tour Finals- 1 Championship
Olympics- 1 Singles Gold
Andre Agassi was grit personified. The way he dominated hard courts in the 1990s was unprecedented. Known as ‘The Punisher’ in his playing days, Agassi is widely regarded as one of the greatest all-round players the game has seen. His first major success came in the form of the Masters Cup (now the ATP Tour Finals) in 1990 and kick-started his legendary rivalry with fellow American Pete Sampras. He won the Wimbledon crown in 1992, followed by the US Open in 1994 and Australian Open in 1995. The wins, followed by a good clay court season catapulted him to the World No. 1 ranking. Agassi won the gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics before injuries took toll and his form deserted him. However, he made a stupendous comeback winning five more Grand Slams- the French Open and US Open in 1999, and the Australian Open in 2000, 2001 and 2003; with his last Grand Slam coming at the age of 32.
11. DON BUDGE (USA) (1915-2000) (Career- 1936-54)
Grand Slams- 6 Singles Titles, 4 Doubles Titles, 4 Mixed Doubles Titles
Pro Majors- 4 Singles Titles
An excellent all-surface player, Don Budge sky-rocketed to fame in the late 1930s by winning the US Open doubles in 1936. He took the world by storm in the next two years by winning an unprecedented 13 Grand Slams (6 singles, 3 doubles, and 4 mixed doubles). He won the singles, doubles and mixed doubles of Wimbledon and the singles and mixed doubles of the US Open in 1937. In 1938, he defended all these titles and added the US Open doubles crown to his list of conquests. But his real claim to fame that year was the Grand Slam- winning all the four major tournaments in the same year. In 1939, Budge turned professional and celebrated in style by winning two majors- the Wembley Championship and the French Pro Championship. In the years to come, war curtailed tennis in the world and Budge could add only two more titles to his bag- the 1940 and 1942 US Pro Championships.
10. JIMMY CONNORS (USA) (b 1952) (Career- 1970-96)
Grand Slams- 8 Singles Titles, 2 Doubles Titles
Tour Finals- 3 Championships
Not many have played as well for as long a period as James Scott Connors did over the period of his 26-year long career. Connors was the most dominant player of his generation and his feuds with greats like Ashe, Borg and McEnroe are the stuff of legends. He holds the records for most tournament wins (109), and most matches won (1242). His first success in the Grand Slam arena came in the form of the doubles titles at the 1973 Wimbledon and the 1975 US Open. Connors began his singles winning streak by winning the Australian Open, the Wimbledon and the US Open in 1974. He won four more US Open titles in his career (1976, 1978, 1982, 1983) and another Wimbledon crown in 1982. From 1974-77, he was World No. 1 for 160 weeks straight, a record that stood for 30 years. Connors also won the Masters Cup in 1977 and the WCT Finals in 1977 and 1980.
9. RAFAEL NADAL (ESP) (b 1986) (Career- 2001 onwards)
Grand Slams- 11 Singles Titles
Olympics- 1 Singles Gold
Rafa Nadal is one of the most explosive and dominant players the game of tennis has ever seen. Barely 26, he already ranks as one of the all-time greats. Nadal won his first Grand Slam at the age of just 19 at the 2005 French Open. Solidifying his stature as a dominant clay court specialist, he successfully defended the title three more times (2006, 2007, 2008). Throughout the 2000s, he was the only real threat to the World No. 1 Roger Federer, laying the foundation for one of the greatest rivalries in sports. In 2008, he won his first Wimbledon crown, a feat he repeated in 2010. He added the 2009 Australian Open and the 2010 US Open to his bag of major victories. In 2012, Nadal broke the great Bjorn Borg’s record of most French Open titles by winning his seventh title at Roland Garros. He is also an Olympic gold medallist from the 2008 Olympics.
8. PANCHO GONZALES (USA) (1928-1995) (Career- 1948-74)
Grand Slams- 2 Singles Titles
Pro Majors- 15 Singles Titles
Pancho Gonzales put racial discrimination, a troubled youth and brushes with the law behind him to emerge as the finest tennis player of his generation and an all-time great. In his heyday, he was referred to as the greatest of all time. Gonzales won his first major tournament at the 1948 US Open and successfully defended it the next year. In 1950, he turned professional and began playing in the Pro Majors. He won the US Professional Championship a record 8 times (1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1961) and the Wembley Championship 4 times (1950, 1951, 1952, 1956). In addition, he also won three editions of the Tournament of Champions, a precursor to the ATP Tour Finals (1956, 1957, 1958). He was the World No. 1 for eight years straight (1952-59). Even in the twilight of his career, Gonzales was good enough to reach the semi-finals of the 1968 French Open at the age of 40.
7. BILL TILDEN (USA) (1893-1953) (Career- 1918-45)
Grand Slams- 10 Singles Titles, 6 Doubles Titles, 5 Mixed Doubles Titles
Pro Majors- 4 Singles Titles
World Championships- 1 Singles Title
There is no doubt that Bill Tilden is the greatest tennis player from the pre-Open era. For over a decade starting with 1920, ‘Big Bill’ dominated the world tennis scene, first as an amateur and later as a professional. Somewhat of a late bloomer, Tilden won his first major at the 1920 US Open at the age of 27. He won six consecutive US Open titles from 1920-25 and added a seventh title later in 1929. His world record of most US Open titles still stands. He won three Wimbledon crowns in 1920, 1921 and 1930, the last coming at the age of 37. During his amateur career, he won 138 tournaments including the 1921 World Hard Court Championship, was the World No. 1 for seven years and won 93.6% of his matches (907 out of 969). As a professional, Tilden was the biggest superstar around, winning four majors- the US Pro in 1931 and 1935 and the French Pro in 1933 and 1934.
6. KEN ROSEWALL (AUS) (b 1934) (Career- 1949-80)
Grand Slams- 8 Singles Titles, 9 Doubles Titles
Pro Majors- 15 Singles Titles
Tour Finals- 2 Championships
No other player has stayed among the best in the world for as long as Ken Rosewall. Rosewall was already in the amateur top 10 ranks by the age of 17. In 1953, he won the Australian Open and French Open at the age of 18. He won the 1955 Australian Open and the 1956 US Open before turning professional in 1957. As a professional, his 15 major wins included 2 US Pro Championships (1963, 1965), a record 5 Wembley Championships (1957, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963) and a record 8 French Pro Championships (1958, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966). He was the World No. 1 player from 1960-64 and the first player to win all three majors in one year. In the Open-era, Rosewall won four more Grand Slams- the 1968 French Open, the 1970 US Open and the Australian Open in 1971 and 1972 (at the age of 38). Rosewall also won the WCT Finals in 1971 and 1972 beating arch-rival Rod Laver in the finals on both the occasions.
5. PETE SAMPRAS (USA) (b 1971) (Career- 1988-2002)
Grand Slams- 14 Singles Titles
Tour Finals- 5 Championships
Now anyone who has ever played any amount of tennis (read: watched it on ESPN) knows that it is a game that requires stamina. To play it professionally and win at the highest level, you need to be impeccably fit. So, say you have β-thalassemia minor, a genetic trait that sometimes causes mild anaemia; you really don’t stand a chance, do you? Well it seems Pete Sampras didn’t get that memo. Despite having a condition that makes exertion painfully difficult, Sampras racked up 64 professional titles, including a then World record 14 Grand Slam singles. In the course of 14 year long career, Sampras was World No. 1 for 285 weeks over 6 years. He won the Holy Grail of tennis, the Wimbledon Championship a record 7 times, including 4 times in a row. Sampras also won the US Open and the Masters Cup 5 times each (both Open era records). The only blemish on his amazing record was his modest record on clay, where he only won 3 titles, failing to reach the finals of the French Open even once.
4. JOHN MCENROE (USA) (b 1959) (Career- 1976-92)
Grand Slams- 8 Singles Titles, 9 Doubles Titles, 1 Mixed Doubles Title
Tour Finals- 8 Championships
McEnroe was known as much for his game as for his mercurial temper. His legendary phrase “you cannot be serious” (shouted at the chair umpire) later became the title of his autobiography. But his temper aside, Jonny Mac is indeed an all-time great. He is a rarity in modern tennis, as a player equally adept at both singles and doubles. He was the World no. 1 singles player for 170 weeks and the World no. 1 doubles player for 269 weeks (then a World record). A remarkably versatile player, McEnroe has often been called ‘the greatest doubles player ever’ and his partnership with Peter Fleming is one of the greatest in tennis history. Together, the duo won 57 titles including 7 Grand Slams. In singles, McEnroe won the US Open 4 times (1979, 1980, 1981, 1984) and the Wimbledon thrice (1981, 1983, 1984). He also won the year-end championships a record 8 times (3 Masters and 5 WCT Finals). What makes him so special is his amazing consistency. He was 20 when his first Grand Slam singles title (1979 US Open) and when he won his last major title (1992 Davis Cup), he was 33.
3. BJORN BORG (SWE) (b 1956) (Career- 1971-82)
Grand Slams- 11 Singles Titles
Tour Finals- 3 Championships
Champions don’t just amaze the audience; they inspire awe in us. It is that quality which makes Bjorn Borg the biggest rockstar in men’s tennis history. He was just 17 when he won his first Grand Slam at the 1974 French Open. He would go on to win this title 5 more times (1975, 1978-81) in his brief yet magnificent career. Borg was undoubtedly the ‘King of Clay’ with 6 French Open crowns and 29 titles overall; but that didn’t mean that he was weak on other surfaces. He won 63 professional titles in his career, which included 6 on grass, 7 on hard courts and 21 on carpet. From 1976-80, Borg won the Wimbledon singles title 5 years in a row, a feat repeated only by Federer. Most tennis experts consider the Wimbledon-French Open double as the most difficult in tennis. It is because the two tournaments are played only 3 weeks apart and on drastically different surfaces. No player has managed to repeat this feat for even two consecutive years; Borg did it for three straight years. Borg managed 11 Grand Slam singles titles despite playing in the Australian Open only once (as a 17-year old). Quite shockingly, in 1982 the great Swede retired at the age of 26. In fact, his last full season was 1981. Most players begin their conquests at 25; Borg had called a day by then.
2. ROGER FEDERER (SUI) (b 1981) (Career- 1998 onwards)
Grand Slams- 17 Singles Titles
Tour Finals- 6 Championships
Olympics- 1 Singles Silver, 1 Doubles Gold
The first decade of the 21st century belonged to Roger Federer in totality. No other player has dominated the game quite like him. Between 2004 and 2008, he was the World No.1 for a record breaking 235 weeks straight. He holds the records for most Grand Slam singles (17), most Grand Slam finals, most Grand Slam matches won, most titles in a calendar year (12), most weeks as World No. 1 (302), and many more. In his career so far, he has won a world record 7 Wimbledon titles (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012), an Open-era record 5 US Open titles (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008), an Open-era record 4 Australian Open titles (2004, 2006, 2007, 2010) and 1 French Open title (2009). Federer has also won a world record six ATP Tour Finals (2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011) giving him a total of 76 ATP titles (4th all-time). He is the only man to win five consecutive titles in two separate Grand Slams; the only man to win four titles in three different Grand Slams and one of only 5 men to have won all the four Grand Slams at least once. He partnered Stanislas Wawrinka to win the doubles Gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and also won the singles Silver at the 2012 London Games. Still only 31, Federer looks to strengthen his numbers even more and solidify his position as the greatest player in the Open-era.
1. ROD LAVER (AUS) (b 1938) (Career- 1957-79)
Grand Slams- 11 Singles Titles, 6 Doubles Titles, 3 Mixed Doubles Titles
Pro Majors- 8 Singles Titles
The word Grand Slam is often used to describe the four biggest tournaments in tennis- the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. ‘Grand Slam’ actually refers to a very rare and difficult accomplishment in tennis, viz. winning all these 4 titles in the same calendar year. Only 2 men have ever done it, and only one has had the audacity to do it twice. That man is Rodney George Laver! There is a reason why Laver has been ranked ahead of Borg (the one with the coolest game), McEnroe (The one with the amazing versatility) and Federer (the one with the mind-boggling numbers); and that reason is Laver’s unequalled achievement- the Slam. First of all, Laver won a phenomenal 200 professional titles in his career (42 of those in the ATP circuit). He won the Australian Open thrice (1960, 1962, 1969), the French Open twice (1962, 1969), Wimbledon four times (1961, 1962, 1968, 1969) and the US Open twice (1962, 1969). Astute readers will observe that both in 1962 and 1969, the man won all the four slams in the year (a feat no one has repeated since).
Laver would have easily won a lot more Grand Slams had he not turned professional in 1963 (professionals weren’t allowed to play in the Grand Slams till 1968). In the professional circuits, he won 8 Majors (the equivalent of Grand Slams) – The US Pro Championship thrice (1964, 1966, 1967), the Wembley Championship four times (1964, 1965, 1966, 1967) and the French Pro Championship once (1967). Here also, he achieved the Pro Grand Slam by winning all the three titles in one year in 1967. Despite having to compete against some of the greatest names in tennis history (Rosewall, Emerson, Hoad, etc.), Laver maintained an unprecedented dominance. He was the World No. 1 for two years as an amateur and four years as a professional. Summing up all his achievements is almost impossible. Laver remains the only man to achieve the Calendar Grand Slam twice, the only man to achieve both the Grand Slam and the Pro Slam, one of only two men to win all the four Grand Slams at least twice, and one of only two men to win all seven major titles (4 Grand Slams and 3 Pro Majors). He reached his first Grand Slam final as an unseeded 20 year old at the 1959 Wimbledon. A decade later, he was still good enough to win 38 titles in his 30s, including a world record 18 in 1969 alone. He was the World No. 3 at the age of 35 and still in the top 10 when he retired in 1975, aged 37. A legend through and through!!
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Posted on March 31, 2013, in The Lists and tagged agassi, borg, federer, frank sedgman, fred perry, greatest tennis players, jack crawford, jimmy connors, ken rosewall, laver, mcenroe, nadal, pancho gonzales, sampras, tennis. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.