Most of us either claim we can tell who is the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) in men's tennis, by our past history of tennis analysis or through some form of ranking based on wins and statistics.
By almost any standard, Roger Federer is now generally recognized as the GOAT, not only for men's tennis, but for all tennis greats combined. His achievements are unequalled in history, and his play appears magical at times, with his hands capable of shots mere mortals only dream about.
Still, is Roger Federer the GOAT for the US Open (GOAT-USO)?
Let's call this the GOAT-USO and create some standard of review to do so.
Certainly, the eras have differed in many ways. The surfaces have changed, and the tennis equipment has improved through the years. We also face a different game today, even compared to that of a decade ago, in part due to at least the change in equipment. Everyone is bigger, has greater court coverage and appears to be in better shape.
Before we were so wrapped up in determining the GOAT in men's tennis, we found surfaces immaterial. Little attention was paid to whether the court was faster or slower or whether the balls were very different.
After all, every player had to play under the same conditions. The U.S. Open has been played on grass, clay and hard court. Only Jimmy Connors has won on all three surfaces.
Of all the men's tennis players in history, Pancho Gonzales could have been the GOAT, without all the drinking and smoking he did throughout his career. Nevertheless, among those who seem to know—and considering head-to-head during that time—Rod Laver had a better record and comes out ahead on that score.
We might have left the comparison to all time, but doing so makes the comparison very long and diminishes the comparison because of the "open" period, as opposed to the "professional" period.
Before 1968, the U.S. Open was called the U.S. National Championships.
At that time, the Open Period began, when all of the tennis Grand Slams agreed to allow professionals into the tournaments, and the fields were largely similar.
While we can argue about whether this form of tennis was truly competitive or more competitive than today's format, associations and groupings, there is no reason to do so among the tennis greats.
And while surfaces changed, we can still argue that the U.S. Open, along with the other Grand Slams during the Open Period, is the best measure of greatness. Doing this with the US Open, despite the differing surfaces, is a good and timely way to consider the greatest era of all time.
Perhaps, most importantly, if we pick periods that include all of the most likely choices as GOAT at or below 30 years of age, we are most likely to choose the GOAT-USO in a fair and reasonable way.
So we have chosen the 1968, 1974, 1982, 1992, 2002 and 2011 U.S. Opens to compare in order to see if this helps us choose the GOAT-USO. Comparing the competition to others might help distinguish between Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors and Roger Federer, the three men who have won five U.S. Open men's championships and any others who deserve a shot.
The 1968 US Open was played when Rod Laver was thirty years old. The talent of that U.S. Open presented perhaps the most prominent tennis stars in history.
The seedings and results for these seeds were as follows:
1. Rod Laver, (Fourth Round); 2. Tony Roche, (Fourth Round); 3. Ken Rosewall, (Semifinals); 4. John Newcombe, (Quarterfinals); 5. Arthur Ashe, (Champion); 6. Dennis Ralston, (Quarterfinals); 7. Clark Graebner, (Semifinals); 8. Tom Okker, (Finals); 9. Andrés Gimeno, (First Round); 10. Fred Stolle, (Second Round); 11. Charlie Pasarell, (Third Round); 12. Richard Pancho Gonzales, (Quarterfinals); 13. Roy Emerson, (Fourth Round); 14. Marty Riessen, (Second Round); 15. Cliff Drysdale, (Quarterfinals).
Fully nine of these players—Laver, Roche, Rosewall, Newcombe, Ashe, Stolle, Gonzales, Emerson and Drysdale—had won or would win a U.S. Open or its predecessor, the U.S. National Championships. Two, Laver and Gonzales, are often mentioned as among the very best in the world. Some lists have almost half among the top 100 tennis players of all time, men and women.
For, perhaps, reasons unrelated to true overall tennis talent, Arthur Ashe, truly one of the greatest tennis players of all-time, won. The fact that Tom Okker was in the finals in 1968 is perhaps the best marker that this may not have been the greatest in terms of talent of the competition in 1968.
Most important to our analysis—only three others—Laver (1969), Rosewall (1970) and Newcombe (1973), won during the US Open.
The 1974 U.S. Open was another talent-laden affair. As it turns out, this Open had eight players who won the U.S. Open—perhaps the most of any US Open in history.
The list of seeds who also won a US Open with results was as follows:
Jimmy Connors (Champion); John Newcombe (Semifinalist); Stan Smith (Quarterfinalist); Ken Rosewall (Finalist); Ilie Năstase (Third round); Arthur Ashe (Quarterfinalist); Guillermo Vilas (Fourth round); and Manuel Orantes (Second round).
Include Bjorn Borg in the mix, and you have a huge amount of talent present for this Open.
Not only was this U.S. Open better statistically than the 1968 Open, it has the most players ranked in the most popular top 100 of all-time list. If one considers championship caliber to be the test, this U.S. Open was perhaps the best of all-time.
The 1982 U.S. Open found John McEnroe, perhaps the most over-rated player in the most popular top 100 tennis player list, seeded number one. However, eight years after his first US Open, Jimmy Connors again rose to the challenge, beating Ivan Lendl in one of his best played matches to clinch the championship. Lendl himself is a worthy contender for GOAT-USO, given his eight U.S. Open Finals and three wins.
The players who were seeded and how deep they ran in the tournament included the following, who also won US Opens (results taken from here):
John McEnroe (Semifinalist); Jimmy Connors (Champion); Ivan Lendl (Finalist); Guillermo Vilas (Semifinalist); and Mats Wilander (Fourth round).
In 1992, Jim Courier was seeded No. 1, a telling sign for the talent that year and how the top stars were playing.
The list of the US Open winners playing that year and how far they reached is below:
Stefan Edberg (Champion); Pete Sampras (Finalist); Boris Becker (Fourth round); Andre Agassi (Quarterfinalist) Ivan Lendl (Quarterfinalist); and John McEnroe (Fourth round).
In 2002, the list of U.S. Open winners playing was just as short:
The field perhaps looks even greater than it really is because Federer had yet to start his unprecedented streak of five straight US Open Championships.
Although these tournaments were picked somewhat arbitrarily, they represent a good sampling of past U.S. Opens. And a few things shine through pretty clearly.
First, Jimmy Connors, winner of five U.S. Opens and semifinalist in two others, is the greatest U.S. Open champion of all time.
So far, the 1974 U.S. Open was the most talented field in history, and Connors triumphed in that great tournament. As GOAT-USO, Connors reigns because of the competition and the fact that he is the only one to have won on all three surfaces played at the U.S. Open.
Who is greatest US Open men's tennis player?
Second, although Pete Sampras and Roger Federer have also won five other U.S. Opens, and Federer won five in a row, the level of play was possibly less overall during that time.
Third, the 2012 U.S. Open will not have the greatest field, continuing the trend for the last ten years or so.
Still, the quality of play remains very high, with men's GOAT Federer seeking his sixth championship and a place at the top of all the great champions who have come before.
Finally, Federer winning an unprecedented sixth U.S. Open championship this year will cement his place as the greatest U.S. Open champion of all time.
Until he wins his sixth, he has to take a backseat to Jimmy Connors, the pick as the current and still-reigning GOAT-USO. It will require a win by Fed to unseat him.
Until then, Jimmy Connors reigns supreme at the U.S. Open.