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Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Top 20 Grand Slam Upset Champions

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2013

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Top 20 Grand Slam Upset Champions

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    It's usually not surprising when Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic win Grand Slam titles. Talent and hard work can seem routine.

    Some memorable Grand Slam titles were unexpected. Occasionally this occurred with a young, potential star, but at other times a journeyman rose up for his greatest achievement.

    The following list ranks only remarkable upsets that culminated in an Open Era title. It ignores upsets from the likes of Peter Doohan or Lukas Rosol, because they did not ultimately win the title to complete their five minutes of fame.

    This list also examines the upsets within the corridors of their times. Expectations and hype sometimes differed from the modern historian's perspectives.

    Feel free to post your own evaluations or memories about the most surprising title runs of the Open Era.

20. Novak Djokovic Defeats Roger Federer and Wins 2008 Australian Open Title

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    In 2013, this might not jump off the pages as a major upset, but through the lenses of early 2008, Roger Federer was the ruling power of the ATP. He had just completed the greatest four-year run in tennis history, and any Federer loss was call for investigation. 

    Astute tennis fans knew Novak Djokovic was a star in the making, but his straight sets victory in the semifinals still created a major buzz amongst emerging social media. It was also the first time in three years Federer failed to reach a Slam final. 

    Furthermore, it would be three more years before Djokovic’s dominance legitimized his status as a superstar.

19. Manuel Orantes Defeats Jimmy Connors to Win 1975 US Open Title

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    It was extraordinary that clay-court specialist Manuel Orantes won his only Grand Slam title with a victory against prime Jimmy Connors at his beloved New York City. 

    The caveat was the green clay the U.S. Open used from 1975-77. Connors did get his green clay title a year later, but predictably lost to Guillermo Vilas in 1977. 

    Finally, the Americans figured they wanted Connors and other compatriots to have greater advantage on their home turf against foreign players like Vilas and Bjorn Borg. They ripped out the green stuff and promptly watched Connors and McEnroe reel off the next seven U.S. Open titles.

18. Gustavo Kuerten Defeats Sergi Bruguera to Win 1997 French Open

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    Smiling, skinny 19-year-old Gustavo Kuerten hopped his way past the previous French Open champions to win his first French Open title. His murderer’s row of victims were Thomas Muster, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Sergi Bruguera. 

    By the end of the final, everyone would know Guga. He became one of the most popular athletes in Latin America and one of the modern era’s greatest clay-court players. 

    If only his hips had held up, perhaps Guga vs. Rafa would have spawned epic red clay battles.

17. Jan Kodes Wins 1973 Wimbledon for Career European Double

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    Jan Kodes already had two French Open titles under his belt before capitalizing on the unique chaos of 1973 Wimbledon. Kodes, seeded 14th before the tournament, was re-seeded second after 81 of the top players boycotted.

    Ilie Nastase, seeded second before the boycott, was the new heavy favorite. It was his tournament to lose and he did, bowing out meekly in the fourth round. 

    Kodes’ win by world ranking would be comparable today to Gilles Simon winning Wimbledon, and having Novak Djokovic bounced out by the second week. 

    History now lists Kodes with Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer as the only Open Era players to win the European double.

16. Adriano Panatta Beats Bjorn Borg and Wins 1976 French Open

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    It’s tempting to call this a major upset, but only after historical hindsight. Bjorn Borg was not yet the god-like legend he would become. 

    Panatta had excellent clay-court strokes and could serve and volley like an early version of Stefan Edberg. He beat the great champions of the 1970s and perhaps could have been a king in his own right. 

    It would also be wrong to dismiss Panatta as a footnote because he defeated the legendary Borg not once but twice—beating Borg in the 1973 French Open as well. They would be the only two losses Borg would ever suffer at Roland Garros.

15. Roger Federer Wins the 2009 French Open Title

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    If there was one time since 2003 that Roger Federer was a bigger underdog to win a French Open title, it would be 2009. He had been defeated by Rafael Nadal at the previous Wimbledon and Australian Open tournaments, and Nadal was firmly established as the best player in the world. Nadal had never been defeated at Roland Garros and was seeking a fifth straight French Open title.

    Even after Rafael Nadal’s stunning loss to Robin Soderling in the fourth round, the pressure only magnified the “win or fail” ultimatum from fans, media and possibly Federer’s private thoughts. This was no mere formality.

    Federer's triumph is still the only non-Nadal French Open title since 2005. It also validates Federer as a great clay-court player. Whether or not this was an upset, it was a special triumph at a time when Roland Garros escaped lockdown.

14. Michael Stich Defeats Edberg and Becker for 1991 Wimbledon Title

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    How many people in June of 1991 would have nodded their heads if you told them a player from Germany would win Wimbledon? Except, Boris Becker is not the answer.

    Tennis observers respected Michael Stich’s all-court talents, backed by a strong serve-and-volley ability. He was seeded sixth for Wimbledon and faced almost no attention.

    In the semifinal, he defeated two-time champion Stefan Edberg despite not breaking serve a single time in the four sets. 

    Stich then steamrolled Golden Boy Becker with a win that irritated his compatriot. They were teammates at times, but cool at best. They disparaged each other in the press for years to come, proving that tennis does not always prove love results.

13. Goran Ivanisevic’s Wildcard Ride to the 2001 Wimbledon Title

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    Wimbledon 2001 was a wild card year in which one champion (Pete Sampras) had suddenly aged, and another champion (Roger Federer) had not yet arrived.

    Ivanisevic’s window had seemingly closed. He was battling injuries, career fatigue and the demons of too many misses at SW19. His ranking plummeted to No. 125.

    The tournament tested Ivanisevic as he persevered through Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, Tim Henman and finalist Patrick Rafter. It was a reminder that a turbulent plot still has time for a storybook ending.

12. Thomas Johansson Overcomes Marat Safin in Australian Open 2002

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    Thomas Johansson’s unexpected title came with fortunate timing. Andre Agassi, in the middle of three Aussie Open titles in four years, was not able to play the 2002 tournament.

    Johansson, seeded 16th, did not have to face a player above his ranking until the finals against heavily favored Marat Safin. His victory completed the achievement of his tennis life.

    This may be more of an indictment on Safin’s enigmatic career. There will always be questions about his motivation, and this match was one that he must feel he should have won.

11. Andre Agassi’s Wimbledon Title of 1992

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    It may have been the most memorable moment of Andre Agassi’s unpredictable career. He had failed to close out wins in two French Open finals and at the U.S. Open. He would not even appear at the Australian Open until 1995. He famously skipped Wimbledon because he was at odds with the white-attire dress code.

    At a time when serve-and-volley was the only way to win Wimbledon, Agassi turned around this formula with highlight passing shots and astonishing returns.

    He had to earn this one by defeating Boris Becker, John McEnroe and bullet-serving Goran Ivanisevic.

    Nobody could say Agassi lacked drama.

10. Arthur Ashe Stymies Jimmy Connors for 1975 Wimbledon Title

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    Jimmy Connors, a year removed from his dominant 1974 season, suddenly found things more difficult. Novak Djokovic in 2012 could relate.

    Pre-Open Era veterans like John Newcombe and Manuel Orantes pulled out their bags of tricks to disrupt the brash southpaw.

    But it was Arthur Ashe who delivered an old man’s schooling on Centre Court at Wimbledon to be canonized for the decades to come. He dinked, dropped, sliced and feathered short, shallow shots that unwound the feisty Connors—and more importantly did not allow him to rip his favored backhand.

    It was the crown jewel for Ashe’s excellent career, and perhaps a reminder to all players that great tennis is a thinking sport in conjunction with reactions of programmed techniques.

9. Richard Krajicek Shocks Pete Sampras and Wins Wimbledon 1996

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    It was the only time in eight years Pete Sampras did not win Wimbledon. The damage was done in the quarterfinals of two days and three tight sets.

    In many ways, Krajicek mirrored Sampras with a big serve and adequate volley game. Above all, he attacked the world’s best player before he could be victimized.

    There was always a plodding element about Krajicek’s game, somewhat comparable to today’s John Isner or Milos Raonic, but he sealed the deal by holding up a Grand Slam trophy for the only time in his career.

8. Rafael Nadal Outgrinds Roger Federer and Wins 2005 French Open

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    Few people outside the Iberian Peninsula had heard of 18-year-old Rafael Nadal. His spectacular topspin was already kicking off clay with a 24-match streak including Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome.

    So maybe it wasn’t a complete surprise that he celebrated his 19th birthday by chewing up Roger Federer’s backhand with his now familiar formula. Even so, there was a sense then that Federer had an off day.

    It’s easier to say now that Rafa was not an upset winner. Not even the consumption of too many chocolate croissants could stop him from his first French Open title.

7. Pete Sampras Surprises Lendl, McEnroe, Agassi to Win 1990 US Open Title

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    Pistol Pete Sampras’s coming-out party was a sonic boom to the old ways of tennis. He brushed aside Ivan Lendl in a five-set quarterfinal before serving through the partisan bad boy John McEnroe in the semifinals.

    The future was next. Sampras blistered Andre Agassi, who had been most people’s choice to dominate the 90s. The dye had been cast, and it would be Sampras who would own the next decade—too often at the expense of his charismatic Nike rival.

6. Boris Becker Steals the 1985 Wimbledon Title

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    Big-serving Kevin Curren took down giants Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, but it was Boris Becker who signaled that a new generation of tennis had arrived.

    Becker’s big-booming serve was enhanced with the new graphite rackets. His dives at net helped shape ESPN showmanship with the likes of Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson and other exciting new stars.

    Few people realized that the Grand Slam winning days of McEnroe and Connors were already archived.

5. Pat Cash Climbs Past Ivan Lendl to Win 1987 Wimbledon Title

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    The big tennis story of summer 1987 was Ivan Lendl’s quest to finally win Wimbledon. He had been so dominate the past two years and had made no secret about his desire to win on grass.

    The path was clear from the opening of the tournament after two-time defending champion Boris Becker had been dismissed. He eliminated Stefan Edberg in the semifinals.

    Only unheralded Pat Cash stood in the way of his final ambition. But Cash’s classic serve-and-volley game was well suited for grass. He executed his masterful game and created his own immortality by climbing into the stands to be with his family. It was a precedent that has become common for many subsequent Grand Slam champions.

    Sadly, Cash was in and out of tennis contention with rashes of injuries and fatigue due to excessive matches for his home county Australia.

4. Juan Martin Del Potro Beats Nadal and Federer to Win the 2009 US Open Title

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    A superstar’s mantle of greatness carries the burden of championship relief or failure. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had become every other player’s upset dream, but it was inconceivable that someone could beat them in consecutive matches.

    Tennis fans knew that Juan Martin del Potro was a formidable threat to win the U.S. Open. He nearly knocked off Federer in the French Open semifinals, and he had just plastered Nadal in the U.S. Open semifinals. Then he completed his Grand Slam victory with a five set shootout versus Federer.

    Three and a half years have passed since Del Potro’s gem. Many fans now look at 2009 as a fluke. Perhaps 20 years from now a young tennis fan will wonder more about the man who stopped Federer from winning six straight U.S. Open titles.

3. Andres Gomez Outplays Andre Agassi to Win the 1990 French Open Title

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    Nineteen-year-old Andre Agassi was such an enormous product of American hype that the French Open final was proclaimed a coronation for the young “superstar.” His opponent was 30-year-old Andres Gomez, a virtual unknown from Ecuador.

    It sent shockwaves through the New World when Gomez grinded his way to a fairly easy victory.

    In hindsight, perhaps Gomez should have been the favorite. He was seeded fourth, but had proven himself to be a cagey clay-courter and doubles player. He had a decade of experience and nothing to lose.

    Agassi later admitted in his autobiography that his greatest worry for the final was to ensure that his hairpins kept his receding mane from falling out. It was also his first experience in a Grand Slam final, and with relatively little experience on clay.

    Give credit to Gomez.

2. Yannick Noah Upsets Lendl and Wilander for the 1983 French Open Title

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    To many tennis-watching kids in the 1980s, Yannick Noah was a talented showman who loved to hit the tweener shot.

    Perhaps nobody in French Open era tennis has been lionized more. His French toast heroics included a quarterfinals win over Ivan Lendl and a final victory over Mats Wilander—players who would go on to win three French titles of their own.

    He was the first Frenchman to win their beloved title, which has not been matched three decades later.  There will be highlights of this 30 year anniversary in a few months.

1. Michael Chang's Astonishing Survival for the 1989 French Open Title

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    In the mid-1990s, Michael Chang had become a fit, determined tennis retriever and legitimate Grand Slam title contender with three Major finals appearances at all but Wimbledon. He climbed to No. 2 in the world at his absolute peak.

    This makes his 1989 French Open title all the more remarkable with his miracle match against Ivan Lendl. As a 17-year-old, Chang often had leg cramps. He took salt tablets and ate bananas. The Lendl match saw him crawl back from two sets and more cramping. He hit moonballs and a famous underhand serve, all of which rattled Lendl and catapulted Chang into the second week.

    Even the final was a major upset against serve-and-volley master Stefan Edberg. Chang’s legendary run is still astonishing and worthy to be called the most amazing—if not the greatest—upset journey to winning a Grand Slam title.

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