Australian Open 2012: Top 15 Hard-Court Players of All Time

Glenn VallachContributor IIIJanuary 12, 2012

Australian Open 2012: Top 15 Hard-Court Players of All Time

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    With the 2012 Australian Open just around the corner, tennis fans everywhere are reaching for their analyst caps and trying to predict a winner.

    Countless factors will steer their opinions: health, age, present form, history, draws, even fashion and hairstyle.

    One of the most important factors in these analyses is court surface.  By now, we all know that Rafael Nadal prefers clay and Novak Djokovic likes the hard stuff—their records allow for no other conclusions.

    The Australian Open is played on Plexicushion Prestige, a form of hard court.

    And that's no surprise, is it?  In today's tennis, hard court has become the norm, the default surface of the ATP.

    Two of the four slams, six of the nine Masters 1000s and the World Tour Finals are played on hard courts.

    Hard courts are so prevalent, in fact, that we've even started to sort tournaments and accomplishments according to type of hard court.  There's indoor hard and outdoor hard; fast, medium and slow hard; low-bouncing hard and high-bouncing hard—and a million theories to go along with each.

    But a glimpse at tennis history tells us that hard courts haven't dominated the sport for very long.  In fact, there were no hard court majors before the 1978 U.S. Open, and the Australian Open was not a hard court tournament until 1988.

    So with the Australian Open, generally considered a slower hard court tournament, just days away, we try to rank the top 15 hard-court players of all time, even if "all time" doesn't go as far back as we might have thought.

    Enjoy!

Number 15: Andy Roddick

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    Yes, Andy Roddick remains a "one slam wonder," but a thorough examination of his record reveals that the American has compiled some mighty impressive hard court credentials over the years.

    First, obviously, he won the 2003 U.S. Open title, beating Juan Carlos Ferrero in straight sets in the final.  But Roddick really won the title in the semis against David Nalbandian, where he came back from two sets down and saved a match point to win a five-set thriller.  Nalbandian fans, no doubt, are still annoyed at some untimely fan shouting in the fourth set of that one.

    Roddick has also made the quarterfinals or better of hard court majors an impressive 14 times. 

    Sure, he failed to close the deal in 13 of them, but so many of those losses came to a legend, Roger Federer.

    Federer beat Roddick in the 2006 U.S. Open final, Andy's second and only appearance in a hard-court major final.  He also beat Andy in the 2007 Australian Open semis, the 2007 U.S. Open quarters and the 2009 Australian Open semis.  Who knows how many hard-court majors Roddick could have won without Federer there to deny him time and again.

    Outside of the slams, Roddick has made nine hard-court Masters Series finals, winning five of them.

    He's won 20 hard-court titles overall, and made it to the semis of the Year End Championships three times. 

    Andy Roddick may end up being ultimately remembered as a bridesmaid, but he is undeniably one of the best hard-court players of his generation.

Number 14: Patrick Rafter

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    No one's calling Patrick Rafter an all-time great, but he is one of the precious few that have collected multiple hard-court major titles in the Open Era.

    He won his only two hard-court grand slam final matches, both at the U.S. Open, over Greg Rusedski and Mark Philippoussis respectively. 

    In his first run to the title in New York, he beat hard-court legend Andre Agassi in the fourth round, and took advantage of the fact that Pete Sampras got stunned by Petr Korda to win the 1997 championship. 

    The next year, Rafter took care of matters himself, beating Sampras in a five-set semi.  After the match, he lamented the fact that Pistol Pete never gave him any credit, admitting that it was the reason he tried to get under the legend's skin so often.

    He won seven career hard-court titles, two of them Masters Series titles.

Number 13: Marat Safin

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    When you get past how much talent Marat Safin wasted, you can actually see that the big Russian put together a pretty stellar hard-court career.

    He won two hard-court major finals, beating Pete Sampras in straights at the 2000 U.S. Open and Lleyton Hewitt in four at the 2005 Australian Open.  Not bad.

    His two hard-court slam final losses both came at the Australian Open, to Thomas Johannson and Roger Federer respectively.

    En route to his 2005 Aussie Open title, Safin won one of the most classic hard-court matches of the Open Era, defeating Roger Federer 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6, 9-7 in the semifinals.  Everybody remembers that fourth-set tie-break, where Federer actually held a match point. How many people, besides Novak Djokovic, have survived Fed's match points at majors?

    He won 10 hard-court titles, including two hard-court Masters Series titles.

    Just imagine if he never had Federer and motivation issues to deal with.

Number 12: Mats Wilander

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    All-surface ace Mats Wilander comes in at No. 12.

    We all know that, prior to becoming a famous tennis commentator, Wilander put together one of the greatest seasons in the Open Era, winning the Australian Open, French Open and U.S. Open in 1988.

    The Australian Open and U.S. Open victories marked the only two hard-court slam titles Wilander recorded in his career.  The victory in Melbourne was historic: he beat Pat Cash 8-6 in the fifth set of the final to win the event's first ever hard-court tournament.  He also beat Ivan Lendl in a five-set thriller for his U.S. Open crown.  Say what you want about Wilander, he made his hard-court slams count.

    In his only other appearance in a hard-court major final, he lost a heartbreaker to Lendl in four after winning the first set in a 9-7 tiebreak.

    Wilander also won two Australian Opens while the tournament was still played on grass.

    He finished with nine hard-court titles.

Number 11: Jim Courier

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    Former No. 1 Jim Courier is No. 11 on our list.

    Courier won two hard court majors, both four set victories over Stefan Edberg at the Australian Open.  Edberg, however, beat Courier in the American's lone trip to the U.S. Open finals.

    Courier won 17 hard-court titles, and all three of his hard-court Masters Series finals.

    Who knows how much Courier would have been able to build upon his hard-court legacy if Pete Sampras hadn't come around.  Courier lost six of seven slam matches to Sampras from 1991 forward.

Number 10: Stefan Edberg

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    Master net player Stefan Edberg comes in at No. 10 on our list.  Though the Swede's stunning volleys made him a grass-court legend, he racked up a nice little hard-court resume too.

    He won two U.S. Open titles, beating Jim Courier and Pete Sampras in the finals in 1991 and 1992.  And who can forget those runs to the title for Edberg?  They were his last two slam titles, and you could almost feel Edberg fans around the world pulling for their aging hero. 

    This was especially the case in '92, when Edberg had to crawl through a minefield draw to nab his last slam.  He beat Ivan Lendl in the quarters, and came back from an 0-3 deficit in the fifth set to outlast Michael Chang in a five-hour-and-26-minute semifinal war.  Somehow, some way, Edberg then mustered up the energy to beat the all-time great Sampras in the finals.  Incredible.

    Interestingly, five of the last six major finals that Edberg qualified for came on hard courts.

    He lost three hard-court Aussie Open finals, one to Lendl and two to Courier.

    Edberg did win two Australian Opens, but both came while the tournament was still played on grass.

    He finished with 23 hard-court titles and the fifth most career hard-court major match wins.

Number 9: Rafael Nadal

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    If Rafael Nadal had his wish, he'd play every match on the clay of Roland Garros.  Or maybe Monte Carlo.  But don't let that fool you into thinking that the Spanish Bull's success is limited to the red stuff.  In fact, Rafa has sneakily compiled one of the better hard-court resumes of the Open Era.

    He's won two hard-court slams, and he should really get some extra style points for the manner in which he won them.  He beat Roger Federer in a five set epic for the Australian Open title in 2009, just days after he outlasted Fernando Verdasco in one of the most grueling matches of all time, a five-hour slug fest in the semis.

    For his U.S. Open title, he beat the great Novak Djokovic in an entertaining Monday evening four-setter in 2010, sealing his career slam.

    His lone loss in a hard-court major final came to Djokovic in a brutal grind at the 2011 U.S. Open, capping one of the best years of all time for the Serb.  No shame in that.

    People tend to forget that Rafa's gold medal in singles at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing also came on a hard court.  Sure, it may not be as big of a deal as a major, but it's close.

    Five of Rafa's record 19 Masters 1000 titles have come on hard courts, too.

    Label this guy a clay-court specialist at your own risk.

    Yes, he's never won a Year End Championship, and yes he failed to make a U.S. Open final while Federer was waiting for him all those years, but so what?  Rafa's bread and butter is clay and grass, and his hard-court accomplishments far outnumber those of many so called hard court specialists, most notably Andy Murray.

    Oh, and he's not done yet.

Number 8: Novak Djokovic

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    It may seem early, but really, its time to start viewing Novak Djokovic through the lens of history, especially when it comes to hard-court aptitude.

    The surging Serb has won three hard-court slams, two in Melbourne and one in New York.

    He hasn't had it easy, either, seemingly landing in Roger Federer's half of every hard court major for years on end.

    He's equipped himself well, though, beating the Swiss great in four hard-court major matches, two in which he faced multiple match points in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

    He also beat the great Rafael Nadal in a war of attrition in the 2011 U.S. Open final. 

    Overall, he's 3-2 in hard-court major finals, dropping U.S. Open championships to Federer and Nadal in 2007 and 2010, respectively, and beating Nadal, Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga for his victories.

    And who's to say Novak is anywhere near done? 

    His unbelievable combination of cat-like quickness on defense and controlled yet unforgiving aggression on offense makes him a contender at hard-court slams for years to come, especially with Federer aging by the day.  When it's all said and done, Nole may be at or near the top of this list.

    His hard-court accomplishments don't end at the majors either, as he's won an impressive eight hard-court Masters 1000 titles, beating Federer, Nadal and Murray in finals.  He's also won a Year End Championship on hard courts.

    We kept Novak at eight due to respect for the long career he has in front of him, but by the time the Djoker hangs them up, we won't be surprised if he's considered one of the best hard court players of all time.

Number 7: Boris Becker

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    The German comes in at seven on our list, having racked up three hard-court slams in his day, two Australian Opens and one U.S. Open.

    Becker actually never lost a hard-court major final, beating Ivan Lendl in two tight four setters, and Michael Chang for his second Australian Open championship in 1996.

    He made it to an astonishing eight Year End Championship Finals, winning three (one was a five set classic over over Lendl in 1988).  Yes, the YECs were played on carpet back then.

    He even managed to compile five hard-court ATP Masters Series titles from 1990 on, one a five-set battle over Pete Sampras in 1996.

    He finished with 16 hard-court titles and 26 titles on carpet.

    Look, we know Mr. Becker's cumulative hard-court accomplishments look a little lean compared to many on this list, but that impressive 3-0 in hard court major finals just can't be overlooked.

    Becker was a master on grass, but also more than held his own on hard courts.

Number 6: Andre Agassi

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    You'll find Andre Agassi's name at or near the top of almost every hard-court tennis accomplishment list.

    He's won the third most hard-court slams ever, with 6, behind only Federer and Sampras.

    He's tied with Federer for the most Australian Open titles, with four.

    He has the most hard-court grand slam match wins, the sixth-highest career hard-court grand slam match winning percentage, the second most career hard-court titles and the most hard-court career match wins.

    Had he not run into his tormentor Pete Sampras in four hard-court major finals, his resume might even be gaudier. 

    The one weakness in Agassi's hard-court portfolio is the fact that he tended to feast on weaker opponents for his slam titles, while almost always losing to the greats.  He went 1-3 in hard-court major finals against Sampras and 0-1 against Federer.  For his hard court major wins, he beat Michael Stich, Sampras, Todd Martin, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Arnaud Clement and Rainer Schuttler.  Besides Sampras, that is not exactly a murderer's row.

    But you can't fault a guy for winning matches he's supposed to win, especially since he worked himself into such great shape later in his career to get there.

    The staple of Andre's hard-court resume is clearly the Australian Open, and its pretty well-known that he credits his three late-career Melbourne titles to his offseason workout regimen, when he claims he outworked the younger competition. 

    Whatever the reason, Agassi is obviously one of the best hard courters ever.

Number 5: John McEnroe

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    John McEnroe ranks fifth on our list.

    An elite volleyer, McEnroe's game translated smoothly onto hard courts, where he won four majors, ranking behind only Federer, Agassi, Lendl and Sampras. 

    All four came at the U.S. Open, where he won his first four finals, two over Bjorn Borg, one over Vitas Gerulaitis and one over Ivan Lendl. 

    In two of these years, '80 and '84, McEnroe defeated Jimmy Connors in classic five-set semifinals to reach the finals.

    He finally lost in his fifth U.S. Open final appearance, to Lendl. 

    A pretty impressive list.

    Like Connors, McEnroe didn't play many Australian Opens, only entering two before 1989, the year he turned 30.  One can only wonder how many titles he would've taken in Melbourne had he spent more of his prime chasing championships down under.

    He has the seventh most career hard-court major match wins, the eighth highest career hard-court major match winning percentage and the seventh most career hard-court titles.

    The Wimbledon grass, of course, came first for Johnny Mac, but he was also one of the greatest hard courters ever to live.

Number 4: Jimmy Connors

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    At first glance, Jimmy Connors' three hard-court major titles doesn't impress all that much compared to the others on this prestigious list.  But a deeper examination reveals that this relatively paltry number is the result of extenuating circumstances.

    You see, Connors won two U.S. Open championships before the tournament had even turned to hard-court, and he's actually the only man to have won the U.S. Open on three different surfaces.  He also only participated in the Australian Open twice in his entire career, both before the tournament had switched to hard court.

    Clearly, his hard-court slam count is skewed.

    But there is no denying that Connors was one of the very best hard courters of all time.  He won his only three hard-court major finals, all three at the U.S. Open - two over Lendl and one over Bjorn Borg.  Not bad.

    He managed the ninth most career hard-court grand slam match wins.  He has the third highest career hard-court grand slam match winning percentage, behind Federer and Sampras.

    He won the third most career hard-court titles and matches, behind Federer and Agassi in both.

    Again, it's pretty hard to argue against Jimbo's hard-court acumen.  He clearly could have won a lot more hard-court majors if he had been born into a different era.

    It's amazing that Connors was as good as he was on the hard stuff, considering the lack of a killer serve or net game.  But as was often the case with Jimmy, he seemed to will himself to success.

Number 3: Ivan Lendl

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    Sure, Ivan Lendl lost a lot of big hard-court matches, but a review of his resume indicates that he qualified for so many, some losses were inevitable.  The man was truly a hard-court master.

    He won the fourth most hard-court slams, behind only Federer, Sampras and Agassi.  He won three U.S. Opens and two Australian Opens.

    He made a staggering eight straight U.S. Open finals, a feat not even Federer or Sampras could match.  He's also the only man to have made three straight finals in Melbourne.

    He compiled the fourth most career hard-court slam match wins, the third most Australian Open and U.S. Open match wins, the fourth highest hard-court slam match winning percentage and the fifth most career hard-court tournament wins.

    Yes, Agassi snuck ahead of him in many of the crucial barometers for hard-court success, and yes, he lost his first five major hard-court finals, but the ruthlessness of Lendl's era easily explains these two facts away.

    His first two hard-court slam finals losses came to Connors at the U.S. Open, nothing to hang your head over.  He then lost two more U.S. Open finals to John McEnroe in 1984 and 1985.  Again, no bad losses there, this is like a who's who of tennis legends so far.  He went on to lose another to Wilander and two to Boris Becker. 

    Who knows how many hard-court majors Lendl would have had if he came up in a more forgiving era?

    He did record hard-court major final wins over McEnroe, Wilander (twice) and Stefan Edberg.  Not too shabby.

    Perhaps the most enjoyable part of Lendl's hard court legacy is the well-known tidbit that he hired groundskeepers to install an exact replica of the U.S. Open hard court on his estate. (Haven't you always wondered if players did that?)

    Clearly, Lendl would stop at nothing to excel on hard courts.

Number 2: Pete Sampras

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    While Pete Sampras may have been passed by Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors in several prominent hard-court statistics, including career titles and match victories, a closer examination of their records indicates that Sampras owns the "quality" distinctions.

    It's no secret that both Agassi and Connors hung around, in pretty amazing shape, forever, accumulating composite numbers that most players could never dream of.  But the numbers show that, at everyone's best, Sampras won the most important hard-court matches more often than did Agassi and Connors.

    He's second in career hard-court slams only to Federer, with seven.  He's also second only to Federer in career hard-court slam match winning percentage.

    These seem like the truest tests of hard court excellence, and since Pistol Pete ranks second in both, we rank him number two on our list.

    But the accomplishments don't stop there. 

    He's tied with Federer for most hard-court U.S. Open titles, with five.  He won two Australian Opens and compiled a 45-9 career record in Melbourne, sixth all time. 

    He's third all time in career hard-court slam match wins.  He won the fourth most career-hard court titles.  He also amassed the fourth most career hard-court match wins.

    As great as Pete was on grass, he was almost as great on hard courts.

    He also outclassed Agassi in their hard-court encounters, winning 11 of their 20 meetings—four of six in slams.  The two met in four hard-court major finals, with Sampras winning three of them.

    As you can see, Pistol Pete's power service game held up pretty well on the hard stuff.

Number 1: Roger Federer

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    It may be predictable, or even boring, but it's the right choice.

    By all objective measures, Roger Federer is the most successful hard-court player of all time.

    He's tied for the most U.S. Open titles (5) with Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors, though Connors won two of his on grass and Har-Tru clay, respectively.

    He's tied for the most Australian Open titles (4) with Andre Agassi.

    Obviously, Fed's won the most hard-court major titles, with nine.

    But that's just the beginning of the story.

    He's won the most career hard court titles (48), has the second most career hard-court match wins and the second highest overall career hard-court winning percentage.

    He owns the highest career grand slam hard-court match winning percentage.  He's won the second most career grand slam hard-court matches.

    He has the third highest career winning percentage at the Australian Open and the highest career winning percentage at the U.S. Open.

    He has the longest streak of consecutive match wins at the U.S. Open.

    He's won the third most prestigious hard-court event on the calendar, the ATP world finals, a record six times.

    He's had the two longest hard-court winning streaks ever: 56 matches in 2005 and 2006 and 36 matches in 2006 and 2007.

    We could keep going, but simply put: Federer has no peers on the hard courts.

    He hasn't beaten a bunch of cupcakes for his hard court majors, either.  He's beaten Andre Agassi, Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin in hard-court slam finals, all of whom have won-hard court majors themselves.

    Perhaps the greatest testament to Federer's hard-court acumen, however, is the fact that his two hard court major final losses are the ones we remember most: five-set losses to Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro in the 2009 Australian and U.S. Opens, both epic shockers.

    It took legendary performances by both of his conquerors to stop him, and even then Fed still barely lost. 

    Roger, of course, has never had to go the distance in any of his hard-court slam final victories, he's simply been too good.