The 10 Era-Changing Grand Slam Finals in Men's Tennis History
The mythical statuses at which we hold most legendary tennis players have been established based on their respective performances at the Grand Slams.
Although the vast majority of epic major finals featured an enticing bout of grit, grace and the sheer will to win, there were a few that transcended the sport as a whole.
This will not be a list of the greatest Grand Slam finals ever played, but rather a look at the encounters that truly helped usher in a significant era of change—on the courts or off.
1968 French Open
During the tournament, in May-June of 1968, the French were in the midst of a heated industrial strike which eventually involved well over 20 percent of the entire population. The ensuing riots even led President Charles de Gaulle to run for cover in a German military base.
In the backdrop of the civil turmoil, however, the No. 1-ranked Rod Laver squared off against the No. 2-ranked Ken Rosewall in the finals of the French Open.
Not only was this the first (and only) time these two fabled athletes were going to decide the outcome of a major championship, but the fans were also going to witness which of these illustrious Australian stalwarts would go down as the first Grand Slam champion of the recently instituted Open Era.
Although the match itself didn't quite live up to the hype of being the first major to host amateurs along with professionals—with Rosewall coming out on top (6-3, 6-1, 2-6, 6-2)—the fact that this tournament was considered the first of its kind and helped the citizens of France momentarily escape their problems undoubtedly adds to its prestige.
1968 U.S. Open
The 1968 U.S. Open, while held New York, was played during the infamous Democratic Convention riots in Chicago where more than 10,000 demonstrators held violent protests and combated over 20,000 police officers and National Guardsmen.
From the escalating war in Vietnam, assassinations of political leaders and even the counterculture movement, 1968 was quite possibly the most tumultuous year in the history of the United States of America.
Arthur Ashe, an NCAA singles champion and social activist, won the first ever U.S. Open to be held in the Open Era by defeating Tom Okker in five grueling sets (14–12, 5–7, 6–3, 3–6, 6–3).
It was just a few months after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights of 1968 Act into office—which outlawed discrimination of selling, renting and purchasing homes based on race. To see an African American succeed at the highest level, especially in that era, in his chosen profession undoubtedly instilled inspiration in people, regardless of color.
To this day, Arthur Ashe remains the only African American man to win a singles championship at the Australian Open, Wimbledon or U.S. Open.
1980 U.S. Open
Of the four John McEnroe vs. Bjorn Borg Grand Slam finals the world was privileged to see, the 1980 U.S. Open seems to get lost in the shuffle.
The 1980 Wimbledon had "The Tiebreak."
The 1981 Wimbledon was remembered for "McBrat" ending Borg's reign at SW19.
The 1981 U.S. Open was the last meaningful match in Borg's career.
Yet, in my opinion, it is the 1980 U.S. Open which carries the most weight.
Entering the tournament, Borg and McEnroe were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. It was Borg's third attempt (first time on hard courts) at capturing the American major, and McEnroe was trying to be the first man to win the championship in back-to-back years since Neale Fraser in 1960.
Earlier in the tournament, Borg had narrowly escaped a five-setter against hard-serving American Roscoe Tanner in the quarterfinals as well as mounted a spirited comeback from a two-set hole in the semifinals against the South African Johan Kriek. McEnroe's road wasn't a cakewalk either, as he was forced to fend off a young Ivan Lendl in the quarterfinals and the pesky Jimmy Connors in five hard-fought sets in the semifinals.
In their first match since their 1980 Wimbledon encounter, McEnroe was leading two sets to love. Like the first set, the third set went to another high-quality tiebreak; and while it was not as epic as their famous scrimmage from the summer, it went the full 12-point distance with Borg this time coming out on top.
McEnroe had been only a couple points away from sweeping Borg three sets to love! Nevertheless, the stoic Swede carried his gained momentum by winning the fourth set, and now the two combatants were suddenly getting ready to slug it out for the decisive fifth set.
Déjà vu, anyone?
Knowing that unlike the other majors, a tiebreak would be played in the final set, both men knew the finish line was near. The two went eye-to-eye for six games, but in the seventh game McEnroe broke Borg's serve. McEnroe went on to hold for the rest of the set and clinched the championship (7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4).
The win was significant because this was the first time McEnroe defeated Borg in a Grand Slam. He never again lost to him in a major, marking the beginning of the transfer of power.
Exactly one year later, after another loss to McEnroe in the final of the U.S. Open, Borg quietly retired.
The old Route 66 was officially demolished, and Back to the Future hit theaters during Wimbledon in 1985, but there was no better way to herald the arrival of the new generation than a victory by Boris Becker.
Sure, the pure serve-and-volley style of play is all but dead in today's world, but Becker was a precursor to men like Pete Sampras, Richard Krajicek, Stefan Edberg and Patrick Rafter, players who won Grand Slams by relying on their strong serves and powerful shots from the net.
Graphite rackets, as opposed to wood, had been around for a couple of years, but the powerful serves of "Boom-Boom" along with his famous diving volleys once and for all ushered in the modern power game. Players who relied on "touch" like John McEnroe would never again win a major singles title after Becker defeated Kevin Curren in the finals (6–3, 6–7, 7–6, 6–4).
1985 U.S. Open
1985 was also the first year we witnessed how raw fitness could boost one's career. While Boris Becker may have been the one to usher in the power era, Ivan Lendl was the forefather to players who rely heavily on working out to hone supreme conditioning throughout the year.
The story of Ivan Lendl is one that had been retold several times in the lead up to 2012 U.S. Open victory of Andy Murray. Lendl, like Murray, was labeled as a choker who could not win any of the bigger tournaments even though the men he lost to were named Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.
Although Lendl eventually broke through and defeated John McEnroe in the 1984 French Open finals, many choose to give the credit more so to McEnroe's unraveling after being up two sets.
Entering the 1985 U.S. Open, the 25-year-old Lendl had lost six Grand Slam finals, including the previous three U.S Open tournaments.
Just like how the RMS Titanic was discovered that week, Lendl too discovered a solution in the fog of loss. Knowing that the talent gap between players like himself and McEnroe could not be bridged, he outworked everyone else on the tour by being one of the first ATP professionals with year-round trainers, dietitians, psychologists, etc.
The hard work paid off greatly when Lendl defeated McEnroe 7–6, 6–3, 6–4 to capture his first championship at Flushing Meadows and second Grand Slam overall. It would also prove to be the 26-year-old McEnroe's last showing in a major final.
These days, each top player has an entourage that includes a fleet of training personnel at their beckoning.
Those players should thank Ivan Lendl for starting that trend, and it would not be a stretch to say the effects of his grueling training regimen were felt in the rest of the sporting world.
1989 French Open
Many fans point to the 1990 U.S. Open as when the greatest American generation in tennis really started to take off. If that is indeed true, then the 1989 French Open rang the opening bell.
At Roland Garros that year, 17-year-old Michael Chang defeated fellow youngster Pete Sampras in straight sets in the second round, three-time champion Ivan Lendl in the fourth round and Stefan Edberg—the reigning Wimbledon champion—in the final (6–1, 3–6, 4–6, 6–4, 6–2). Prior to Chang's victory on the red dirt, there had been a five-year drought for American men at majors since Edberg, Lendl, Becker and Mats Wilander had been dominating the scene.
The win, like Ashe's, was also monumental in the battle for racial equality. Chang, an American of Chinese descent, defeated some of the greatest names in the history of the sport and legitimately shocked the world during the same fortnight during which the infamous student massacre at Tiananmen Square tragically occurred.
While Chang never again won a Grand Slam, he cracked the door ajar, and his compatriots soon kicked it wide open.
Any amateur historian of the game can go on about the exploits of Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and, yes, even Todd Martin, which followed Chang's triumph.
As Courier once quipped to ESPN, "Michael winning the tournament opened up my eyes, and probably Pete's, too, as to what was immediately possible." He added, "Simply put, I knew if Michael could do it, I could."
Blasting winners from the baseline.
Sounds like a typical match in 2013, but if one were to attempt to win with that playing style on grass a couple decades ago, they would be scoffed at.
Andre Agassi thought otherwise and gave us glimpses of the future, way back in 1992, in his championship match at Wimbledon against Goran Ivanisevic.
Granted, the surface at Wimbledon has since considerably slowed down to make life easier on players who prefer to stay back. Yet prior to their encounter in the finals, the last time there was an ace machine squaring off against a baselining dictator in the finals at SW19, one would have to travel back to 1979 and be a spectator in the match between Roscoe Tanner and Bjorn Borg.
However, those were the days when the rackets were primarily made out of wood as opposed to the titanium alloys and fiberglass composed rackets we see today, so the speed at which the balls were being put into play were considerably slower.
Both finalists were aiming for their first Grand Slam championship and had defeated former winners in their quest. Agassi survived a five-setter against Boris Becker in the quarterfinals, while Ivanisevic went through the same circumstance against Stefan Edberg. Agassi then took down an aging John McEnroe in the semifinals, while Ivanisevic overwhelmed Pete Sampras—who had yet to win the first of his seven Wimbledon trophies.
Eventually, charismatic baseliner Andre Agassi survived past the hard-serving lefty (6–7, 6–4, 6–4, 1–6, 6–4).
It was not until 10 years later that we saw another baseliner, Lleyton Hewitt, win at the hallowed grounds. Of course, you can blame Pete Sampras for that.
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Boris Becker was the last relevant gunslinger of a bygone time.
Stefan Edberg, Michael Stich, Pat Cash, Ivan Lendl and numerous other luminaries had been defeated by Father Time by the mid-1990s.
Interestingly enough, even though Becker was only three-and-a-half years older than Pete Sampras, the men who combined for 14 Wimbledon finals and 10 championships between them had never faced each other in the final before their showdown in 1995.
Almost 10 years to the day after his first Wimbledon championship, Becker faced a player much like himself: a great server with an all-around game primarily based around his powerful serve-and-volleys.
Sampras, who had won Wimbledon in 1993 and 1994 along with three other majors by then, firmly established his spot as one of the all-time greats, closing out the match with relative ease (6-7, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2).
While Becker did win one more Grand Slam the following year in Australia over Sampras' close friend, Michael Chang, the sun had begun to set on one of the greatest generations of tennis, while the other was just hitting its stride.
2000 U.S. Open
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The 2000 U.S. Open final pitted the mercurial 20-year-old Marat Safin against the wily veteran Pete Sampras.
Marat Safin, many pundits have claimed, is the one man with enough natural talent to beat Roger Federer even at his best—having proved so later at the 2005 Australian Open.
However, his true debut was half a decade earlier. Dismantling Pete Sampras (6-4, 6-3, 6-3), he not only showed the world what he could do with his physical gifts, but was the first player born in the 1980s to win a Grand Slam. While Andre Agassi, Goran Ivanisevic, Albert Costa and Pete Sampras would combine for five more majors, the writing was on the wall.
Safin, similar to Michael Chang before him, had unlocked the door for his generation of talented peers like Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Roger Federer and countless others from around the world.
Although Safin never reached the meteoric heights many had predicted for him, his victory at the U.S. Open that September as the Millennium Summit, the largest gathering of world leaders ever, came to an end heralded that the rise of a more globalized generation of tennis players was about to begin.
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This tennis match, which will be remembered as one of the greatest ever, needs no more spoken on its behalf.
The hammer of Rafael Nadal pounded the wand of Roger Federer (6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7) and in turn led Nadal to usurp Federer as the world No. 1.
Nadal had already won four French Open titles by this time, but it was not until he won Wimbledon that the beginning of the current "Big Four" era seemed to materialize before our eyes.
Although Novak Djokovic (who had won the Australian Open earlier in the year), Andy Murray (quarterfinalist at the 2008 Wimbledon who fell to Nadal), Nadal and Federer had all faced each other by then, it was clear that we fans were going be treated to high-quality matches and rivalries bigger than the game itself. We have not been disappointed.
2004 may have been a great individual year for the arrival of Roger Federer as he bagged three Slams, but for the quartet as a whole, 2008 was the season, and Wimbledon the tournament, that set the table for the compelling rivalries we see today.
In fact, the U.S. Open that followed Wimbledon that season had each of them in the semifinals for the first time.