Ranking the 10 Most Unlikely Wimbledon Winners in History

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistJuly 7, 2013

Ranking the 10 Most Unlikely Wimbledon Winners in History

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    Marion Bartoli's victory in the women's singles final at the All England Club raises an obvious question: Was she the most unlikely Wimbledon winner in history?

    Before the tournament began, few would have picked the 15th-seeded Bartoli, who, at 28, had never won a Grand Slam singles event and seemed to be past her prime.

    However, a number of other men and women have defied expectations, logic or past performances to win singles titles at Wimbledon. Sometimes, upsets produced unanticipated winners. Other times, circumstances yielded unlikely champions.

    After taking a look at the paths taken by all the champions, we composed a countdown of the 10 most unlikely Wimbledon winners in history. 

10. Bob Falkenburg, 1948

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    Bob Falkenburg's 1948 Wimbledon triumph barely edged out Michael Stich's 1991 title and Petra Kvitova's 2011 championship for the final spot on our list.

    Falkenburg advanced past the quarterfinals at Wimbledon only once, and that was the year he won it. His Wimbledon victory as a No. 7 seed in 1948 was the only time he got past the semifinals of any Grand Slam event.

    However, it was the way Falkenburg won the final against John Bromwich that earned him a place among the most unlikely champions.

    Bromwich, the 1946 Australian Open champion and the No. 2 seed at Wimbledon in 1948, had three match points against Falkenburg at 5-3 in the fifth set, according to a The New York Times obituary on Bromwich. But Falkenburg fought off all three match points, won four straight games and beat Bromwich 7-5, 0-6, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5.

    Falkenburg's career took another unlikely turn when he passed on a $100,000-a-year professional tennis contract so he could introduce soft ice cream and American fast food in Brazil, according to the Wimbledon website, it became a highly successful business.

9. Arthur Ashe, 1975

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    The fact that Arthur Ashe got to the 1975 Wimbledon final was a mild surprise. That he then beat Jimmy Connors 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 in the final was a shocker.

    Connors was an overwhelming 3-to-20 betting favorite against Ashe, according to an ESPN.com article. In fact, he was a 9-to-10 favorite to win in straight sets.  

    Ashe, then 31, was in the Wimbledon final for the first time, making it as the No. 6 seed following a five-set victory over Tony Roche in the semifinals. The 22-year-old, top-seeded Connors had not lost a set en route to the final and had lost only six games while beating Ken Rosewall in the 1974 Wimbledon final.

    But against Connors, Ashe took the pace off his shots, relying on angles and finesse to frustrate Connors' powerful groundstrokes. Ashe's insightful strategy made it a memorable match and resulted in one of the biggest upsets in a Wimbledon final.

    A 2011 The New York Times article extolled the brilliance of Ashe's strategy, while questioning whether such an approach would work today.

8. Andre Agassi, 1992

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    Andre Agassi would win eight Grand Slam titles, but when he began the 1992 Wimbledon tournament, he had not won any. With a No. 14 ranking at the time and the knowledge that grass was Agassi's worst surface, few figured the 1992 event at the All England club would produce his first major title.

    In his two previous Wimbledons, Agassi had lost in the first round in 1990 and in the quarterfinals (against David Wheaton) in 1991.

    Agassi's 1992 season before Wimbledon had been mediocre. He had lost four matches to players ranked outside the Top 50, and his only good results had come at Atlanta and the French Open on clay, Agassi's best surface.

    He did not play a grass-court warmup event before Wimbledon, where he was seeded 12th.

    Agassi pulled off a shocker in the quarterfinals when he knocked off No. 4-seeded Boris Becker, a three-time Wimbledon champion who had reached the final six of the previous seven years.

    Becker could not believe a baseliner like Agassi could beat him on grass, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer report on the match.

    Agassi then beat two more serve-and-volley masters from the backcourt in the semifinals and final, knocking off John McEnroe and Goran Ivanisevic to take the title at age 22.

7. Sidney Wood, 1931

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    Unlikely circumstances at the 1931 Wimbledon event provided Sidney Wood with his only Grand Slam title.

    Wood had not gone past the third round of his two previous Wimbledon tournaments, and, at age 19, he was not expected to win in 1931 either. He was seeded seventh that year, but with Jean Borotra and Henri Cochet as the top two seeds and Fred Perry lurking as the No. 5 seed, Wood was a long shot at best.

    However, Cochet was upset in the first round by little-known Nigel Sharpe, and Wood took out Perry in the semifinals. In the final, Wood was scheduled to meet the No. 3 seed, Frank Shields, who had upset Borotra in the other semifinals.

    Shields, a finalist at the 1930 U.S. Championships on grass, would have been the favorite against Wood had the match been played.

    But in his book, The Wimbledon Final That Never Was, Wood explains that Shields was ordered by the U.S. Tennis Association not to play the in the final, so Shields could rest his injured knee for an upcoming Davis Cup match.

    It was the first and only time a Wimbledon final was decided by a walkover.

    Wood got to the final of just one more Grand Slam event in his career, losing in the U.S. Championships in 1935. 

6. Marion Bartoli, 2013

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    Marion Bartoli had shown she was capable of winning Wimbledon when she reached the final in 2007.

    However, that was six years earlier, and she had not been to the final of a Grand Slam event since.

    She had lost to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, a qualifier ranked 129th, in the second round of the 2012 Wimbledon, and Bartoli had not done anything in 2013 to suggest she would challenge this year.

    Bartoli had lost in the first round of four of her last seven tournaments leading up to Wimbledon, and she had five losses this year to players ranked 50th or worse. The week before Wimbledon, Bartoli had to withdraw in the second round of the grass-court tuneup at Eastbourne, England, because of a viral infection, according to the Associated Press.

    Her ranking had slipped to 15th, her lowest since March 2011, and, at age 28, Bartoli's career seemed to be on the decline.

    More to the point, Serena Williams had been almost unbeatable in 2013, and she was the heavy favorite to win Wimbledon for the fourth time in five years and the sixth time overall.

    But things worked out perfectly for the 15th-seeded Bartoli, who became the first woman in 37 years to win a Grand Slam singles title without having to face a top-15 seed, according to an ESPN.com story.

    Lisicki had taken out Williams in a major upset, and Bartoli beat the 23rd-seeded Lisicki in straight sets in the final.

    Venus Williams, who was victorious as a No. 23 seed in 2007, is the only woman to win Wimbledon with a lower seed than Bartoli.

5. Jan Kodes, 1973

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    Jan Kodes was a clay-court specialist who lost in the first or second round in 12 of the 15 Wimbledon tournaments he played.

    He got to the semifinals in 1972 and the quarterfinals in 1974, but did not beat a top-10 seed in either.

    Kodes was seeded 15th in the initial Wimbledon seedings for 1973, according to a Sports Illustrated story. However, everything changed a few days before the tournament started.

    The Association of Tennis Professionals, a union of players organized a year earlier, voted to boycott the 1973 Wimbledon.

    The ATP was protesting a decision by Yugoslavian tennis officials and the International Lawn Tennis Federation to ban Nikki Pilic from Wimbledon for failing to play a Davis Cup match for Yugoslavia against New Zealand, according to a Sports Illustrated report..

    Among the 82 pros who withdrew from Wimbledon were 11 of the top 12 seeds, including 1972 champion Stan Smith, as well as No. 3 seed John Newcombe and No. 4 seed Arthur Ashe.

    Ilie Nastase was elevated from the No. 2 seed to the top spot, and Kodes, who was not an ATP member, moved all the way up to the No. 2 seeding.

    Kodes was down two sets to one in three of his matches in the tournament, including the quarterfinals and semifinals against Vijay Amritraj and Roger Taylor. He survived, then won the final in straight sets over Alex Metreveli, who had been elevated to the No. 4 seed after the withdrawals.

4. Venus Williams, 2007

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    You may wonder how a person who had won Wimbledon three times in the previous seven years could be on this list.

    It's because 2007 was a different kind of year for Venus Williams, who had almost dropped off the tennis radar. 

    She had lost in the third round at Wimbledon the previous year, and a left-wrist injury and various other ailments sent her career into a slide. Williams had lost to a qualifier in the second round in Luxembourg in September 2006, and that was her only tournament between the 2006 Wimbledon and a minor event in Memphis in February 2007.

    Williams hadn't beaten a top-12 player in more than a year when the 2007 Wimbledon tournament began. In her two tournaments immediately before Wimbledon, Williams had lost in the third round of the French Open and was beaten in by a player ranked 59th in the second round at Istanbul.

    She was ranked 31st when Wimbledon got under way, and she was seeded as high as 23rd only because of her past success at the All England Club.

    "I was really motivated because no one picked me to win," she said later, according to the Associated Press. "They didn't even say, 'She can't win.' They weren't even talking about me."

    Williams did not start out the tournament like she would win it. She was two points from defeat in her first-round match against 59th-ranked Alla Kudryavtseva, and she trailed 5-3 in third set against 71st-ranked Akiko Morijami in the third round.

    She survived those two, then proceeded to beat No. 2-seeded Maria Sharapova, No. 5-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova and No. 6-seeded Ana Ivanovic, all in straight sets, to get to the final.

    Williams then beat 18th-seeded Marion Bartoli in the final to become the lowest-seeded player in history to win Wimbledon. That historical achievement is aided by the fact that no more than 16 players were seeded before 2001. Nonetheless, winning Wimbledon as the 23rd seed suggests how unlikely Williams' title was.

3. Boris Becker, 1985

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    The numbers speak for Boris Becker's 1985 unlikely accomplishment: He was the first unseeded player to win Wimbledon. He was the first German to win Wimbledon. He is still the youngest male to win Wimbledon, taking the title at age 17.

    Becker had shown promise earlier. He reached the third round at Wimbledon the previous year before being forced to withdraw with an ankle injury, and he won the 1985 grass-court turneup at Queen's Club two weeks before Wimbledon.  

    But Queen's Club was the only 2007 tournament in which Becker reached the final, and he did not have to play John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl or Jimmy Connors in that event.

    McEnroe, Lendl and Connors all rank among the top dozen male players of all time in the Tennis Channel rankings issued in 2012, and they were the top three seeds at Wimbledon in 1985.

    Seven weeks before the 1985 Wimbledon tournament, Becker was ranked 65th in the world. He was still well outside the top 10, at No. 20, when Wimbledon began.

    Hank Pfister, Becker's first-round victim at Wimbledon, was not impressed.

    "I assumed he'd lose in the next round," Pfister told The New York Times years later.

    Becker had the good fortune to avoid meeting McEnroe, Connors and Lendl in the tournament, but he was nearly eliminated in a fourth-round match against 16th-seeded Tim Mayotte. 

    Down two sets to one, Becker injured his ankle and nearly forfeited the match. But, according to the The New York Times story, his coach, Ion Tiriac, persuaded Becker to continue.

    Becker pulled out that match, then beat Henri Leconte, Anders Jarryd and Kevin Curren to take the title.

    He went on to win two more titles at Wimbledon, but he had established his reputation by then.

2. Richard Krajicek, 1996

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    Richard Krajicek had lost in the first round at Wimbledon in both 1994 and 1995, losing to players ranked outside the top 80 both times. 

    Furthermore, he had advanced past the quarterfinals in only one of the 14 tournaments he entered in 1996 leading up to Wimbledon. He had not beaten a top-10 player all year.

    Krajicek was seeded for the 1996 Wimbledon only because Thomas Muster had to drop out with an injury. Because Muster withdrew after the initial seedings had been announced, Krajicek was listed as the No. 17 seed, although only 16 players were placed in the draw as seeds.

    Most accounts of the 1996 Wimbledon referred to Krajicek as an unseeded player.

    But everything fell into place for Krajicek and his huge serve-and-volley game for those two weeks at Wimbledon.

    He pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Wimbledon history when he defeated three-time defending champion and No. 1-seeded Pete Sampras in straight sets in a rain-interrupted quarterfinals. It was Sampras' only loss at Wimbledon during an eight-year run that ended in 2001.

    "He played flat-out better than I did in the past couple of days," Sampras said after the loss to Krajicek, according to the Los Angeles Times. "I have nothing to be ashamed about. I ran into a player who was very hot and played very well."

    No. 2-seeded Boris Becker had retired with an injury in a third-round match, and Krajicek needed only to beat Jason Stoltenberg and MaliVai Washington in the semifinals and final to win the title.

    Krajicek's unlikely run was magnified by the fact that he lost only one set in the tournament and none in his final four matches. It was the only time Krajicek got to the final of a Grand Slam event.

1. Goran Ivanisevic, 2001

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    Goran Ivanisevic was ranked 125th in the world when he won Wimbledon in 2001. That alone makes him one of the most unlikely Wimbledon winners. But there was more to it than that.

    He had failed to win Wimbledon in three previous trips to the final, the most recent of those chances coming in 1998. And in 2001, at age 29, with his ranking plummeting and a shoulder that would require surgery, according to CNNSI.com, his chances for a Wimbledon title seemed nonexistent.

    In his last six tournaments leading up to the 2001 Wimbledon event, Ivanisevic had lost in the first round four times and the second round twice. In the grass-court turneup event at Queen's Club, Ivanisivec had lost in the first round in straight sets to Cristiano Caratti, who was ranked 194th.

    Ivanisevic had to receive a wild-card entry just to get into Wimbledon that year, and Pete Sampras, who was seeking his eighth Wimbledon title in nine years, was the heavy favorite.

    Roger Federer got Sampras out of the way, and the English weather helped Ivanisivec get through his semifinal against Tim Henman. Henman had taken the third set, 6-0, in 15 minutes to lead two sets to one, and Henman held a 2-1 lead in the fourth set when rain halted play for the day. Refreshed the next day, Ivanisevic won in five sets.

    The circus atmosphere in the Monday final against Patrick Rafter produced a classic five-set match. Ivanisevic served for the match at 8-7 of the fifth set, but he double-faulted three times in that game, including twice when he had match points.

    Finally, on his fourth match point, Ivanisevic closed out the match.

    A 2013 CNN article recounting Ivanisevic's unlikely 2001 triumph carried the headline "Ivanisevic's epic Wimbledon win an 'unsolved mystery."