Ranking the Best Grass-Court Players in Tennis History

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistJune 16, 2013

Ranking the Best Grass-Court Players in Tennis History

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    Before 1975, when three of the four Grand Slam events were played on grass, proficiency on grass courts was necessary to achieve tennis stardom.

    The U.S. Pro Championships, a major event for professionals before the Open Era began in 1968, was also contested on grass sometimes.

    Today, Wimbledon is the only major tournament played on grass, with the few other grass-court tournaments serving primarily as Wimbledon tuneups.

    In ranking our top 10 grass-court players of all time, we considered how dominant the player was in the major grass-court tournaments of his or her era. We gave more weight to success in the Open Era because the depth of talent was much greater. Nonetheless, only one current player made our list, although a similar list compiled five or 10 years from now might include several of today's stars.

    We start with eight players who barely missed making our top 10. We then list the top 10 in descending order, although we hedged at the outset by having two players tie for the 10th spot.

    We noted three categories for each listed player: Why He or She Is Here, Wimbledon Highlights and Best Asset.

Eight Just Outside the Top 10

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    Venus Williams: With five Wimbledon titles and three runner-up finishes, Williams would probably be next on our list, and a strong case could be made that she belongs in the top 10.

    Serena Williams: A few more productive years would push her into the top 10. With five Wimbledon titles, you could argue she should be there already.

    Ken Rosewall: Rosewall won six Grand Slam events on grass (the first at age 18, the last at age 37), despite being banned from those events as a professional for 11 of his prime years.

    Margaret Court: Court won 19 Grand Slam events on grass at a time when more such opportunities existed and when many top players avoided the Australian Open.

    Jimmy Connors: Connors won four majors on grass, including two Wimbledons.

    Boris Becker: Becker won three Wimbledon titles, including his first at age 17, and was runner-up four times.

    John McEnroe: With a serve-and-volley game perfectly suited to grass, McEnroe won three Wimbledon titles and reached the finals two other times when the presence of Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg made that difficult.

    Roy Emerson: Emerson won 10 Grand Slam titles on grass, but all were before the Open Era, when pros were prevented from playing in those majors.

10. (tie) Bjorn Borg

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    Why He's Here: Borg was the first male since 1906 to win five straight Wimbledon titles. (Roger Federer later matched that feat.) Borg did it when the men's game was filled with stars, as he beat the likes of Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe in the finals.

    Borg was a Wimbledon finalist in 1981, shortly after his 25th birthday, seeking a sixth straight title. He lost to McEnroe and never played at Wimbledon again. 

    Wimbledon Highlights: Borg won the 1975 title one month past his 20th birthday and did not lose a set in the process. He won 41 consecutive matches at Wimbledon, the last being a 1981 semifinal victory over Jimmy Connors after Borg had dropped the first two sets.

    Borg's most memorable match was his 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6 victory over McEnroe in the 1980 finals. It featured a 22-minute fourth-set tiebreaker, and is rated the second-best match in tennis history by both an ESPN.com article and Business Insider.

    Best Asset: His ability and willingness to adapt his game to grass made him a star. Though his basic game as a baseliner did not seem suited to grass, Borg developed a big serve and a decent volley that enabled him to be competitive on grass. His best weapon was his forehand, and he was one the first to impart extreme topspin on the shot. 

10. (tie) Billie Jean King

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    Why She's Here: Billie Jean King won 11 Grand Slam titles on grass and was a runner-up six other times. Although she had more opportunities to win majors on grass than today's players, she also faced stiff competition in her era, including Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong and Chris Evert.

    She won Wimbledon six times and got to the finals three other times.

    Wimbledon Highlights: Her six Wimbledon titles are tied for the fourth most among women since 1915. She got to the semifinals of her final Wimbledon in 1983 when she was a few months shy of her 40th birthday. That was 19 years after she reached the Wimbledon semifinals for the first time.

    After claiming her final Wimbledon title in 1975, she did not compete in the Wimbledon singles event in 1976. She returned from singles "retirement" to play singles at Wimbledon six more times after that, however.

    Best Asset: An excellent serve-and-volley player, King possessed one of the finest backhand volleys in tennis history.

9. Suzanne Lenglen

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    Why She's Here: Suzanne Lenglen never lost a match on the court at Wimbledon. She won six Wimbledon titles from 1919 to 1925 and did not lose more than four games in any of her last five Wimbledon finals.

    She had two official losses at Wimbledon, both by default. The first came in 1924, when she withdrew following her quarterfinal win because of jaundice, according to an item in the Milwaukee Sentinel. The other was a default in the third round in 1926 because she was late for the match, according to an excerpt from the book  Myths and Milestones in the History of Sport.

    Wimbledon Highlights:  Lenglen saved two match points against seven-time champion Dorthea Douglass Chambers to win her first Wimbledon title, 10-8, 4-6, 9-7. It was the first time Lenglen had played on grass, and she served overhand, like the men, instead of underhand, like Chambers, according to a CNN article.

    In the 1922 final, Lenglen beat Molla Mallory in 26 minutes, the shortest Grand Slam final in history, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

    Best Asset: Lenglen combined athleticism, grace and power into a game few women in the era could handle.

    "Her opponents were afraid of her because she was like a lion on the court, it was not usual for a woman to hit the ball so hard," said Patrick Clastres, a sports historian at Sorbonne University in Paris, in a CNN article.

8. Bill Tilden

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    Why He's Here: Bill Tilden won 10 Grand Slam events on grass, including three at Wimbledon and seven at the U.S. Championships. He played at Wimbledon only twice before the age of 34 and won both times. He also won the U.S. Pro Championships on grass in 1931, beating talented grass-court player Vinny Richards in straight sets in the finals when Tilden was 38.

    Wimbledon Highlights: Tilden's final Wimbledon match also garnered him his final Wimbledon title in 1930 at the age of 37. He lost only two sets in that tournament, both to Jean Borotra in the semifinals. Tilden lost the first set to Borotra at love, but, according to an excerpt from the book Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy, Tilden used lobs in the first set to tire Borotra out. Tilden eventually won, 0-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0, 7-5.

    Best Asset: Tilden had virtually every shot available to him, but he was best known for his cannonball serve and outstanding forehand.

    Jack Kramer recalled facing Tilden when Tilden was in his late 40s. “He had a tremendous forehand, even then, and an awfully good serve,” Kramer told the New York Times. “He could do anything he wanted with the ball. He could put it any place he liked.”

7. Maureen Connolly

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    Why She's Here: Maureen Connolly entered nine Grand Slam tournaments played on grass. She won seven of them. After losing in the second round of the U.S, Championships in 1950 at age 15, Connolly never lost another grass-court match in a major, winning seven straight grass-court Grand Slam events.

    She won her first Grand Slam event on grass at the U.S. Championships in 1951 at the age of 16 and won her final one at Wimbledon in 1954. Two weeks after winning the latter, she suffered a horseback-riding accident that crushed her leg and ended her tennis career at age 19, according to her New York Times obituary. She died at the age of 34.

    Wimbledon Highlights: Connolly never lost a match at Wimbledon, going 18-0 the three times she participated. In her final Wimbledon tournament, in 1954, Connolly did not lose a set and lost just 17 games. Only one player got more than five games in a match against her that year. The previous year, she had lost just 19 games and did not lose a set while winning the title.

    Best Asset: Though she was a natural left-hander who played tennis right-handed, Connolly's forehand was rated as the second-best forehand in women's tennis history by World Tennis.

6. Helen Wills Moody

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    Why She's Here: Helen Wills Moody won 15 Grand Slam singles events played on grass, including eight Wimbledon titles and seven U.S. Championships.

    From 1927 until 1938, when she played her final Grand Slam event at Wimbledon, Moody did not lose a single completed match in a Grand Slam event played on grass. Moody's only official loss in the 13 grass-court majors she played in that span came in the final of the 1933 U.S. Championship when she retired in the third set against Helen Hull Jacobs. The back injury that caused her to retire from that match sidelined her for all of 1934.

    Moody also won the 1924 Olympic gold medal in a tournament played on grass.

    Wimbledon Highlights: Starting in 1927, Moody won her final 50 matches she played at Wimbledon, covering eight tournaments. She lost only four sets while winning those eight titles, and she did not lose any sets in a four-tournament span from 1928 to 1932. (She did not play Wimbledon in 1931).

    Her eight Wimbledon singles titles rank second all-time to Martina Navratilova's nine.

    Best Asset: Moody had a complete game, but was best known for her ferocity and lack of expressed emotion on the court, earning her the nickname "Little Miss Poker Face."

5. Rod Laver

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    Why He's Here: Rod Laver is the only player to win all four majors in the same year twice. And both times, three of the four Grand Slam events were played on grass.

    Laver won nine Grand Slam titles on grass despite being robbed of five years of Grand Slam opportunities during his prime because he was a professional before the Open Era. Laver also won the U.S. Pro Championship four times on grass between 1964 and 1968.

    Wimbledon Highlights: Laver participated in Wimbledon four times between 1961 and 1969, and he won the tournament all four of those times. (As a professional, he was ineligible to compete from 1963 through 1967.)  

    Laver dropped a total of one set in the finals of the four Wimbledon tournaments he won.   His 1962 and 1969 Wimbledon victories were part of his Grand Slams those years.

    Best Asset: Laver had a well-rounded game, but his strengths were his speed and toughness in the clutch.

    "Laver's greatest asset," C. M. Jones, editor of Lawn Tennis Magazine, said in a Sports Illustrated article, "is his very, very rapid speed of reaction and movement and his excellent personal attitude toward tennis. When he is in a tough spot, Laver doesn't in any way retreat. He gets bolder and bolder and uses his wide range of shots without fear. He has sheer bravery and a beautiful sense of play."

4. Pete Sampras

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    Why He's Here: Pete Sampras won seven men's singles Wimbledon titles, tied for the most in history. He never lost in a Wimbledon finals and was pushed to a fifth set in only one of them. Sampras had a 57-1 record at Wimbledon in a nine-year span from 1993 until his loss to Roger Federer in 2001.

    The Tennis Channel ranked him as the third-best male player in history in large part because of his success on the grass at Wimbledon, where he captured half of his 14 Grand Slam titles.

    Wimbledon Highlights: Sampras won his first Wimbledon title in 1993 at age 21, three years after he won his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open. Between 1992, when he lost to Goran Ivanisevic in the semifinals, and 2001, when he lost to Federer in the fourth round, Sampras' only loss at Wimbledon was against Richard Krajicek in the 1996 quarterfinals.

    Sampras lost only one set while winning Wimbledon in 1994 and dropped just two sets in 1999.

    Best Asset: Sampras' serve was rated the best in tennis history by Geoff MacDonald of the New York Times. Steve Flink, in his book The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time, rated Sampras' first serve as the best first serve in history and ranked his second serve as the best second serve of all time, according to a World Tennis article.

3. Steffi Graf

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    Why He's Here: Steffi Graf won Wimbledon seven times. Only Martina Navratilova has won more Wimbledon women's singles titles since World War II. Graf had fewer chances than many of her predecessors to win Grand Slam titles on grass, and she did so in era that featured outstanding competition, including Navratilova, Evert and Monica Seles.

    Wimbledon Highlights: Graf won her seven Wimbledon titles in a span of nine years. Three times she beat Navratilova at that event, including the finals in 1988. Navratilova had won six straight Wimbledon titles and led Graf 7-5, 2-0 in that 1988 final. Graf then won 12 of the next 13 games to claim her first Wimbledon title on her way to winning the Grand Slam of tennis that year.

    Best Asset: World Tennis ranked Graf's forehand as the best forehand in women's tennis history. Tennis writer and historian Bud Collins nicknamed her Fraulein Forehand.

2. Roger Federer

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    Why He's Here: Roger Federer has won seven Wimbledon titles, tied for the most in history among the men, and he did it over a 10-year span. Between 2004 and 2008, he won Wimbledon five straight times, matching Bjorn Borg's Open Era record, and won 40 consecutive matches.

    He has reached the Wimbledon finals eight times and won seven of them.

    Currently ranked No. 3 in the world, Federer remains a contender for future Wimbledon titles.

    Wimbledon Highlights: At age 19, Federer ended Pete Sampras' run of four straight Wimbledon championships and seven in eight years by beating Sampras in five sets in the fourth round in 2001. 

    Federer's five-set loss to Rafael Nadal in their 2008 Wimbledon final is "widely believed to be the greatest tennis match ever played," tennis historian Steve Flink was quoted as saying in an SI.com article..

    After failing to get past the quarterfinals in 2010 and 2011, Federer won his seventh Wimbledon title in 2012 at the age of 30.

    Best Asset: Federer's greatest strength is that he has no glaring weakness. An all-court player, Federer can volley proficiently and can serve-and-volley with success when needed.

1. Martina Navratilova

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    Why She's Here: Martina Navratilova won nine Wimbledon singles titles, the most in history by either a man or woman. No one else in the Open Era has won more than seven. The competition Navratilova faced in her era included Chris Evert and Steffi Graf, both of whom are ranked among the top four female players of all time by the Tennis Channel.

    In 2002, in her first tour singles match in eight years, the 45-year-old Navratilova won a first-round match on the grass in Eastbourne, England.

    Wimbledon Highlights: Navratilova got to the Wimbledon finals nine years in a row. She won six consecutive Wimbledon championships from 1982 through 1987 and had a 47-match winning streak at the event from 1982 until 1988.

    She won her first Wimbledon title at age 21 in 1978, beating Evert in the finals. She got to the finals for the last time in 1994 at age 37, losing in three sets to Conchita Martinez.  

    Best Asset: Navratilova had an excellent serve and was one of the best volleyers in women's tennis history. It combined to give her a serve-and-volley game few could handle.