US Open Tennis 2012: Power Ranking the 5 Best Past Men's Champions

Dave Ungar@@DaveUngar68Correspondent IIIAugust 29, 2012

US Open Tennis 2012: Power Ranking the 5 Best Past Men's Champions

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    When one thinks of the all-time greats in tennis and where they made their mark, the U.S. Open has to come to mind.

    The final Grand Slam event of the season has been a practical showcase for the immortals and a spawning point for legends.

    While Wimbledon arguably gets more attention from the casual fan, those who follow tennis regularly will passionately debate you as to how the U.S. Open is actually the toughest of the four Grand Slam events to win.

    Whether they are right or wrong, what is not subject to debate is how some of the all-time greats in the sport honed their craft at the U.S. Open. The list of past winners is both long and distinguished.

    But who is the best? Who is the greatest past champion of all time? It is a subject that can be hotly debated, and to state that there is an absolute answer would just not be fair or accurate.

    What follows is my power ranking of the top five past men's champions in U.S. Open history.

    One caveat to note, though, is that for purposes of this discussion, I am limiting the candidates to the Open era. The Amateur era had great champions, to be sure. But I figured most of the folks reading this will be much more familiar with the champions of the Open era.

    After all, many tennis fans will have heard of Bill Tilden but not know why or where they heard of him.

    In any event, let's take a quick look at a couple of past champions who did not make the top five but were worthy of mentioning as the great champions they were.

Honorable Mentions

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    Andre Agassi

    If this were just a popularity contest, Andre Agassi would be in the top three, without question.

    As it stands, though, Agassi will have to be relegated to honorable-mention status.

    Agassi, always one of the most popular stars in tennis, took his trademark mullet and lit the tennis world on fire.

    In 1994, New York's love affair with Agassi began in earnest. Agassi put on a spirited performance as he captured his first U.S. Open championship.

    The highlights of Agassi's run to the 1994 title were his epic five-set win over sixth-seeded Michael Chang in the fourth round and his straight-set battering of the fourth-seed Michael Stitch in the final, 6-1, 7-6 (5), 7-5.

    Agassi became the first unseeded player to win the U.S. Open in the Open Era.

    Agassi would become a two-time champion when he won the 1999 championship. This time around, Agassi was the No. 2 seed, and he played extraordinary tennis as he advanced relatively easily to the final.

    There, he would receive his stiffest challenge thus far, as he was pushed to the limit by the seventh seed, Todd Martin. The two Americans put on a show, but Agassi was the better man, as he prevailed in five intense sets, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (2), 6-3, 6-2.

    The two time champion—and one of the most popular players in tennis history—just barely missed the top five. But his accomplishments at the U.S. Open certainly deserve recognition.


    Stefan Edberg

    Another two-time champion who nearly made the cut was Swedish superstar Stefan Edberg.

    Unlike Agassi, Edberg won back-to-back championships, capturing the 1991 and 1992 titles in succession.

    Edberg's resiliency has to be taken into consideration as well, as in 1990 he suffered one of, if not the biggest upset in U.S. Open history when, as the top seed, he lost in the first round to Alexander Volkov, ranked 52nd in the world at the time.

    Instead of letting that crushing defeat beat him, though, Edberg would win the title the very next year. Edberg was not really challenged much in his run to the 1991 title, as he only dropped two sets on his way to the championship. In the final, Edberg mauled Jim Courier, 6-2, 6-4, 6-0.

    The next year, Edberg would be back for another run at the crown. Through the first three rounds, it looked like Edberg would have no trouble rolling to the title.

    But in the fourth round, he would be taken to five sets by 15th-seeded Richard Krajicek. Things got rougher from there, as the defending champion was taken to five sets by Ivan Lendl in the quarterfinals and then by fourth-seeded Michael Chang in the semifinals.

    In the finals, Edberg would meet a young and hungry Pete Sampras. Edberg would delay the start of the Sampras dynasty—temporarily—by beating Sampras in four sets, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-2.

    Edberg's tremendous performance during the 1992 U.S. Open was one of the best overall performances anyone had ever seen over the course of a single tournament and easily good enough to warrant Edberg's placement on this list as an honorable mention.

5. Ivan Lendl

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    Ivan Lendl never really got over with the fans—at least not to the extent that John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors did.

    But what Lendl might have been lacking in charisma or approachability, he made up for by delivering a dominating performance at the U.S. Open from 1985-1987.

    For those three tournaments, Lendl was nearly unbeatable. Along the way, Lendl made a habit of beating McEnroe and Connors, and pretty much anyone else who got in the way.

    In 1985, Lendl dropped all of one set as he rolled to the title. What made this one tough for American fans to stomach was how effortlessly Lendl dismantled first Connors in the semifinals and then McEnroe in the final.

    But that is just how good he was at the time. Lendl's 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over McEnroe in the final signified Lendl's arrival to the masses.

    The following  year, Lendl successfully defended his crown. In one of the most dominating performances in U.S. Open history, Lendl would only lose one set the entire tournament. 

    The highlight of the tournament for Lendl had to be his straight-set win over an up-and-coming player by the name of Stefan Edberg and his thrashing of Miloslav Mecir in the final, 6-4, 6-2, 6-0.

    In 1987, Lendl would complete the hat trick and capture his third straight U.S. Open championship. Lendl may very well have saved his absolute best for last. It began with a straight-set destruction of Barry Moir, at love.

    For the rest of the tournament, Lendl was untouchable. This included a straight-set win over John McEnroe in the quarterfinals and a similar straight-set win over Jimmy Connors in the semifinals.

    In the final, Mats Wilander was finally able to at least take a set from Lendl. But it did not faze Lendl, as he would win the next three sets to capture his third consecutive title, 6-7, 6-0, 7-6, 6-4.

    Lendl, who was of Czechoslovakian descent, was perceived as an unbeatable machine by many fans. Of course, one must recall the environment of the world back then and how Americans perceived the Eastern bloc countries and their residents.

    That aura took a hit the next year, when Wilander would get even and end Lendl's run of U.S. Open championships at three.

    But for those three years, the world witnessed one of the all-time greats put on a tennis clinic.

    Lendl's performance for those three years earns him the No. 5 spot on our list of the greatest past U.S. Open champions.

4. John McEnroe

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    John McEnroe is a name most Americans recognize immediately.

    Known as the bad boy of tennis and for his tirades against officials when things were not going his way, McEnroe is one of the players most responsible for tennis gaining in popularity in the United States during the early 1980s.

    The four-time U.S. Open champion actually made his mark on the tennis world in 1979, when he won his first championship. Along the way to the title, McEnroe would beat the likes of Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors.

    In the final, McEnroe would beat Vitas Gerulaitis in straight sets, 7-5, 6-3, 6-3.

    In 1980, McEnroe would return and win his second consecutive title. This title run in 1980 is, in my opinion, what made McEnroe the legend he is today.

    In the quarterfinals, McEnroe would defeat a young Ivan Lendl who had not hit his prime yet but was still very good.

    In the semifinals, McEnroe would again oust Jimmy Connors, although this time around it would take five sets of amazing tennis to accomplish the feat.

    The final was one of the all-time great matches in U.S. Open history. Many people only recall the 1980 Wimbledon final between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, and that is understandable. But their U.S. Open final rematch in 1980 was tremendous as well.

    McEnroe would jump out to a two-set lead only to have Borg storm back to tie the match. In the fifth set, one break is all it took for McEnroe to secure control and win the five-set epic, 7-6 (4), 6-1, 6-7 (5), 5-7, 6-4.

    In 1981, McEnroe was back for his third consecutive title. The road to the title was easier this time around. He would once again meet Borg in the final. But by this time, McEnroe had already solved the Borg mystery, having defeated him at Wimbledon a couple months earlier.

    In Borg's final attempt to capture the elusive U.S. Open crown, things started well as Borg took the first set. From there, though, McEnroe controlled the match, eventually winning in four sets, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3.

    McEnroe would be eliminated in the semifinals in 1982 and then suffer a massive upset loss to 16th-seeded Bill Scanlon in the fourth round of the 1983 event.

    In 1984, McEnroe would show he still had one last run in him. Included in his championship run in 1984 was his epic five-set win over Jimmy Connors, who was the two-time defending champion at the time.

    This match took place on what has been called Super Saturday, as on the same day, in the other semifinal, Ivan Lendl had beaten Pat Cash in another five-set epic.

    Sandwiched between all that was Martina Navratilova beating Chris Evert in three sets to win her second U.S. Open crown.

    When McEnroe beat Lendl in three sets (6-3, 6-4, 6-1) it was a somewhat anticlimactic end.

    Though it would be McEnroe's final Grand Slam victory, it was merely the icing on the cake of a superb career at the U.S. Open. With four championships and plenty of amazing performances, placing John McEnroe as the fourth-greatest U.S. Open champion is an easy choice.

3. Pete Sampras

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    These last three champions are largely interchangeable.

    All of them are five-time winners, and all are great champions.

    But choices must be made, and there are subtle differences between them that dictate my choices here.

    At No. 3 I have Pete Sampras. While Sampras was busy dominating Wimbledon, he was also incredibly successful at the U.S. Open, winning the title five times.

    His first title came in 1990, when he was seeded 12th. Sampras had not yet even hit his prime, but he was already good enough to beat the best the world had to offer.

    His coming-of-age moment came in the semifinals, when he met John McEnroe, who was an unseeded surprise semifinalist. With the crowd solidly behind McEnroe, Sampras would shrug it all off and defeat McEnroe in four sets.

    The final would feature an installment in one of the best rivalries in tennis for the next decade: Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi. Agassi, the No. 4 seed in the tournament, could not deal with the young Sampras, who won his first title in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.

    It would be three years before Sampras captured his second title. Sampras came in as the No. 2 seed and really did not have much of a challenge as he stormed to his second title.

    In the final, he would meet No. 15 seed Cedric Pioline, the man who had stunned No. 1 seed Jim Courier earlier in the tournament.

    Pioline was no match for Sampras, who won his second championship in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3.

    In 1995, Sampras would win title No. 3. After beating Courier in the semifinals, Sampras would again meet Agassi, who was the defending champion.

    Sampras was again too much for Agassi, though, as he prevailed in four sets, 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5.

    In 1996, Sampras would win the U.S. Open for the fourth time. It would be the only time he captured back-to-back championships. It would also be his toughest road to the championship yet.

    Sampras, who had hardly been pressed much at all in winning his first three U.S. Open titles, was extended to five sets twice just to get to the final. Jiri Novak extended Sampras to a fifth set in the second round and unseeded Alex Corretja also went the distance with Sampras in the quarterfinals.

    With that out of the way, though, Sampras would dispatch Goran Ivanisevic in the semifinals and would then beat fellow American Michael Chang in straight sets in the final, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (3).

    But, without question, it was championship No. 5 that had to be the sweetest for Sampras. Sampras was no longer a dominant force in tennis when the 2002 U.S. Open came around. He had dealt with injuries, upsets and consecutive losses in the final in 2000 to Marat Safin and then in 2001 to Lleyton Hewitt.

    Many questioned whether Sampras still had enough in the tank to win a fifth U.S. Open.

    He did.

    Despite his No. 17 seed, Sampras was able to defeat the likes of Andy Roddick as he made it to the final for the third straight year. Waiting for him was his old friend/rival Agassi.

    Once again, Sampras got the best of Agassi, beating him in four sets, 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4.

    It would be the last Grand Slam title of Sampras' career.

    But what a career it was. With five U.S. Open championships to his name, spanning a 12-year period of time, against a literal who's who of tennis' best, Sampras has to be considered one of the greatest U.S. Open champions in history.

2. Jimmy Connors

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    For those who weren't actively watching tennis during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jimmy Connors is one of those guys who seems to get lost in the mix a bit.

    If you ask most people who the dominant male tennis players were during this time frame, you will hear a lot of people talk about Bjorn Borg or John McEnroe. A few may mention Ivan Lendl.

    But the truly knowledgeable will rave about Jimmy Connors—and for good reasons.

    What many don't realize is that Connors won the U.S. Open five times against some tremendous competition, during a time when wooden and metal rackets were still "cutting edge."

    Connors won his first U.S. Open in 1974. He was the top seed and really was not challenged much. His straight-set final victory over Ken Rosewall (6-1, 6-0, 6-1) took barely an hour.

    After being upset in the final in 1975, Connors would capture his second U.S. Open crown in 1976. In the final, Connors would meet Borg. The Connors vs. Borg rivalry was picking up a lot of steam at this point in time, and the two would battle many times in Grand Slam events over the next few years (including two Wimbledon finals).

    On this day, Connors would be too much for Borg, as he prevailed in four sets (6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4) to win his second championship.

    After losing to Guillermo Vilas in the 1977 final, Connors would win his third championship in 1978. Once again, he would meet his main rival, Borg, in the final. This was the first year the U.S. Open was played on hard courts, and Connors made the adjustment very well. He defeated Borg in straight sets, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2.

    An interesting fact is that with Connors' win on the hard courts in 1978, combined with his win on grass in 1974 and his win on clay in 1976, Connors became, and remains, the only person to have won the U.S. Open on all three surfaces (Wikipedia).

    For the next three years, Connors would take a back seat to John McEnroe. But in 1982, Connors would reemerge as one of, if not the best player in the world. This was on full display at the 1982 U.S. Open.

    After gaining a measure of revenge against Vilas in the semifinals, Connors would meet Ivan Lendl in the final. Lendl, who had eliminated McEnroe (a major thorn in the side of Connors for several years), figured to pose a significant challenge to Connors. Connors shrugged off the challenge and defeated Lendl in four sets, 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.

    In 1983, Connors would come back to capture his fifth and final Grand Slam title. Once again, Connors would meet Lendl in the final, with a similar result, namely a four-set victory for Connors, 6-3, 6-7, 7-5, 6-0.

    So some of you may be wondering why I have Connors ranked ahead of Sampras. I really looked at the competition each man faced in winning their five titles, and I gave a slight edge to Connors.

    Beating Borg twice and Lendl twice, in my opinion, carries a bit more weight than three wins over Andre Agassi. Agassi was a great champion. Sampras just had his number most of the time.

    However one wants to qualify it, Jimmy Connors, with five U.S. Open championships against elite competition, on all three surfaces, using antiquated equipment (by modern standards, anyway) is clearly one of the all-time great champions in U.S. Open history.

1. Roger Federer

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    The greatest U.S. Open champion of all time—in my opinion, anyway—is Roger Federer.

    Yes, I am aware that he has five titles, the same as Pete Sampras or Jimmy Connors.

    A key difference, however, is that Federer won the title five times in a row, an amazing feat. If it weren't for an epic upset by Juan Martin del Potro in 2009, it would have been six in a row.

    Beyond that, though, it is the manner in which Federer won those five titles in a row that really swayed me to believe he is the most dominant of the past U.S. Open champions.

    Federer won his first championship in 2004. He was already the No. 1 seed and best player in the world, and it showed throughout the tournament. The only man to give Federer trouble was Andre Agassi, who pushed Federer to five sets in the quarterfinals.

    With Agassi out of the way, Federer steamrolled Lleyton Hewitt in the final, 6-0, 7-6 (3), 6-0.

    2005 saw similar domination from Federer. Hewitt would actually press him a bit in the semifinals, forcing the match to a fourth set. In the final, Federer would meet Agassi. Agassi would present a game challenge but simply did not have the firepower to keep pace with Federer.

    Federer would beat Agassi in four sets (6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-1) to capture his second consecutive title.

    2006 saw more of the same sort of domination from Federer. He only dropped one set on his journey to the final, where he would meet Andy Roddick. Those who have followed tennis for the past decade or so know that Roddick does not usually fare well at all against Federer.

    The 2006 U.S. Open final was no exception. Federer dispatched Roddick in four sets (6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1) for title No. 3.

    Federer's fourth consecutive title in 2007 may have been his most dominant. While he dropped a couple of sets here and there in the opening rounds, once he reached the quarterfinals, Federer turned on the afterburners. He beat Roddick in straight sets in the quarterfinals and then repeated that result in the semifinals against Nikolay Davydenko.

    In the final, he would meet one of his chief current rivals, Novak Djokovic. In 2007, Djokovic's game was not what it is today, and Federer took him down in straight sets, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2) , 6-4.

    Things were not nearly so easy in 2008, though, for Federer's fifth and (so far) final U.S. Open championship.

    Federer was nearly upset in the fourth round by 23rd-seeded Igor Andreev. But Federer survived that five-set test and moved on. In the semifinals, he would again eliminate Djokovic, and the world anticipated a match in the final against Federer's main rival and the man who had replaced him as No. 1 in the world, Rafael Nadal.

    But Andy Murray had different ideas, as he eliminated Nadal in the semifinals and moved on to face Federer in the final. With Nadal out of the way, Federer put on a virtuoso performance, crushing Murray in straight sets (6-2, 7-5, 6-2) to win his fifth consecutive title.

    Five titles in a row. Think about that for a moment. It is hard enough to win one U.S. Open championship, let alone multiple championships, to say nothing of five in a row. And to do it in such dominating fashion—Federer lost only two sets in the final during his five-year run—is a feat we may never see repeated.

    For all these reasons, Roger Federer is the greatest past U.S. Open men's champion of them all.