Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and the 9 Greatest European Tennis Stars of All Time

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistAugust 17, 2012

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and the 9 Greatest European Tennis Stars of All Time

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    Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have ensured that tennis power shines most forcefully in Europe. It’s no surprise that European tennis has always consistently produced dominant champions in making its claim as the hotbed of tennis.

    The following will be strictly European. With all apologies to Rod Laver’s Australian generation of tennis greats and to American periods of dominance ranging from Jimmy Connors through Andre Agassi, they will not be considered. Neither will their home continent Grand Slam venues.

    European champions dream of winning the French Open and Wimbledon, the two Grand Slam titles featured on their home continent. Therefore, it’s essential that the great European champions win on clay and grass, though hard courts and carpet host some tournaments as well.

    There are 22 European-born champions who won at least one Grand Slam title on European soil. Thirteen of these champions could only pull off the feat one time, though a few of them also won Slams in Australia or America.

    For this all-European article, there are only nine tennis champions who won multiple titles with the French Open-Wimbledon combination. They will be ranked according to their European Slams, but other particulars to their European tournament success will be detailed alongside a few curious trivial facts to flavor their personalities.

Honorable Mention to the One-European Slam Winners

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    If you are a president elected to one term, you get one paragraph in the history books. If you are elected to two terms, you get a whole chapter. Such is life.

    Andres Gimeno, 1972 French Open

    Ilie Nastase, 1973 French Open

    Adriano Panatta, 1976 French Open

    Yannick Noah, 1983 French Open

    Michael Stich, 1991 Wimbledon

    Thomas Muster, 1995 French Open

    Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 1996 French Open

    Richard Krajicek, 1996 Wimbledon

    Carlos Moya, 1998 French Open

    Goran Ivanisevic, 2001 Wimbledon

    Albert Costa, 2002 French Open

    Juan Carlos Ferrero, 2003 French Open

    Novak Djokovic, 2011 Wimbledon

9. Sergi Bruguera (2 European Slams)

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    The Spaniard Sergi Bruguera would like to play poker with Gael Monfils. He loves to listen to John McEnroe ramble on about tennis, roots for the LA Lakers and hates shopping.

    His claim to fame was a 1993 five-set upset over two-time defending French Open champion Jim Courier. Bruguera stayed far behind the baseline and walloped looping topspin while chasing down balls with the speed of a deer.

    He followed this up with a French Open repeat over fellow Spaniard Alberto Berasategui.

    All 14 of Bruguera’s titles were won in Europe, including 13 on clay and two Masters tournament titles.

    The end came swiftly when he was dealt a straight-sets loss to upstart Gustavo Kuerten in the 1997 French Open finals.

8. Jan Kodes (3 European Slams)

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    Hailing from the former Czechoslovakia, Kodes continues to support Tomas Berdych, though he misspells his first name. Kodes recently published a book, Jan Kodes: A Journey to Glory From Behind the Iron Curtain.

    Kodes was a clay-court player who won the French Open in 1970 and 1971. He is also only one of four European-born players to win both of its Grand Slam titles. His Wimbledon title in 1973 does deserve an asterisk because 81 players and 13 of the top 16 seeds were on a player strike.

    Kodes never reached higher than No. 4 in the world rankings and won only eight overall titles, but capitalized on his unique French Open-Wimbledon achievement.

7. Stefan Edberg (2 European Slams)

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    The last great Swedish champion used to like playing practical jokes on his juniors friends, such as spiking their milk with dish detergent. Edberg learned to be disciplined with using a skipping rope to loosen up or eating his usual fruit juice, cereal, toast and cold cuts meats for breakfast.

    His Wimbledon titles over Boris Becker in 1988 and 1990 launched him as a global star. He embodied beautiful net play behind his beloved kicker serve. It was a contrarian style to the usual Swedish way of baseline tennis techniques.

    He won only three other grass titles and three clay titles but added great success with other Slam titles in America and Australia.

6. Mats Wilander (3 European Slams)

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    Wilander’s great heroics for Sweden somehow ended up with a retirement home at a ski resort in Idaho of the United States. He likes red potatoes and raw carrots, and he is a big Bob Dylan fan who doesn’t mind playing his own guitar as well.

    He won the French Open three times but had trouble on Wimbledon’s fast grass despite his success on the sun-baked grass at the Australian Open for those two titles.

    Though Masters 1000 tournaments were not calculated the way they are now, Wilander won three Grand Prix tournaments, two at Monte Carlo and one at Rome. He totaled 19 European clay court titles and three more on hard or carpet surfaces.

    His skill was through tireless ground strokes and placement. He strategized how to hit safely against his opponents until their games cracked with errors. To oppose Wilander must have been like playing the old Atari game Pong.

5. Ivan Lendl (3 European Slams)

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    The Czechoslovakian born Ivan Lendl came from a coal mining town that was under communist regime.

    When he eventually settled into America, he had a tennis court built at his home in Connecticut to mimic the conditions as the U.S. Open. There were times he had Wilander over for practice, though this may not have been a good idea for the 1988 U.S. Open final.

    Lendl’s three French Open titles were never as big as his futile quest to win Wimbledon. But the Lendl way was to keep training and trying his entire career, and it’s hard to argue his results everywhere else.

    Lendl totaled 28 clay court titles and two titles at the Queen’s Club on London grass.

4. Boris Becker (3 European Slams)

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    As a teenager, Becker was considered clumsy and unnatural for tennis, but Ion Tiriac loves his fight and believed he would be a champion. He became arguably Germany’s biggest sports celebrity ever.

    Becker also claims poker takes a tennis-like discipline and concentration. Certainly winning three Wimbledon titles by age 21 was no bluff.

    Though he won four other grass-court titles and a handful of important hard court tournaments in Europe, Becker was a supremely dominant on carpet with a 26-11 record in finals appearances. He never won a clay-court title.

3. Roger Federer (8 European Slams)

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    Early in his career, Federer did not like the U.S. Open. It was too loud, crazy, windy and humid. But things obviously changed with winning.

    Federer admitted that getting to No. 1 was hard, but once there it allowed him to “play freely again.”

    He likes using Facebook to keep in touch with fans.

    Federer cannot be called an exclusively European player like the two names mentioned ahead of him on this list. He possesses a cosmopolitan attitude and is a global phenomenon. Even Europe is not big enough to contain him.

    Besides his well-known Grand Slam record including seven Wimbledon titles and one French Open win, Federer has nine additional clay-court titles and five on grass. He especially liked Hamburg and Madrid for seven European Masters titles.

2. Rafael Nadal (9 European Slams)

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    At age 14, Nadal defeated 36-year-old former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash in an exhibition match on clay. The win hardly seems surprising a decade later.

    By now you may know that Nadal loves olives and Nutella. He is a big fan of Tiger Woods because of his mental strength on the golf course.

    His seven French Open titles is the most impressive domination of clay in history, but his two Wimbledon titles would still qualify him for the list, even without Roland Garros.

    Nadal has also rewritten the record books with an unprecedented 17 Masters 1000 titles in Europe. His 36-4 clay-court record in tournament finals may never be approached.

    With Nadal’s ongoing knee injuries, he might consider whether it will even be worth ever leaving Europe again to play tennis.

1. Bjorn Borg (11 European Slams)

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    His father won a tennis racket for winning a ping-pong tournament and gave the prize to his grateful son. Bjorn took the oversized racket and learned to hit with two hands as he pounded tennis balls on the garage door.

    Ilie Nastase used to call him “The Martian” because he could never tell if Borg had won or lost a match coming into the locker room. It was usually the former.

    Before Gatorade and sports drinks became common, Borg used to drink black-currant syrup mixed with carbonated lemonade, claiming it helped his backhand. Who can argue otherwise?

    Above all, Borg became tennis’s first superstar and the first to ever win a million dollars for a season of tennis.

    His six titles at the French Open and five at Wimbledon are one of tennis’s greatest achievements. He won 24 other clay-court titles and one on grass.

    All hail to the King of Europe!

     

    Click here to read about Federer's quest for 20 Slams

    Click here to read about 'Rafa'