Ranking the 10 Most Dominant Seasons in Tennis History

Jake CurtisFeatured ColumnistJuly 20, 2013

Ranking the 10 Most Dominant Seasons in Tennis History

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    Novak Djokovic had an outstanding year in 2011, winning three of the four Grand Slam events, but was it among the most dominant seasons in tennis history? Was that more dominant than Roger Federer's 2006 accomplishments? 

    It should be understood that the phrase "most dominant" has one subtle but important difference from the word "greatest." Greatness takes into account the caliber of competition; dominance does not. Dominance measures only a player's level of superiority over the field at a given time.

    In compiling our list of the 10 most dominant seasons, we considered two things primarily: a player's record over the course of a calendar year and his or her success in the Grand Slam events that year. Other factors, such as success against other top players of the era, come into play in some cases.

    We decided a given player should be listed only once, which requires the determination of that player's most dominant year.

    We start by noting three stars of the 1920s and 1930s who dominated their era like no other player has since. However, a paucity of statistics for that period and an inability to distinguish one particular year as their most dominant forces us to include them in a separate category.

    That is followed by our top-10 list, which includes players whose dominant seasons occurred after 1935.

     

Bill Tilden (Special Mention)

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    Bill Tilden had a record of 322-8 from 1920 through 1925, according to the American National Biography Online. After winning Wimbledon in 1920, "Tilden did not lose another match of any significance anywhere in the world until until a knee injury cost him a victory six years later," Frank DeFord wrote in a 1975 Sports Illustrated article.

    Trying to single out one particular year is pointless.

    As noted in Bud Collins' Total Tennis, "You can't pick any one match, or even one year, out of Big Bill's extended reign and call it his greatest. His span was too wide."

    He won 57 straight games during one stretch in the summer of 1925, but he was no more dominant that year than he was the previous five.

     

Suzanne Lenglen (Special Mention)

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    Suzanne Lenglen had just one loss from 1919 through 1926. And that single loss was not a completed match, as she retired in the 1921 U.S. Championships because of illness after losing the first set to defending champion Molla Mallory.

    Besides that default, Lenglen did not lose a single set from 1919 until the 1924 Wimbledon tournament, when she survived a three-setter in the quarterfinals, then withdrew before the semifinals. She claimed she forfeited because she was suffering from jaundice, according to an excerpt from A to Z of American Women in Sports by Paul Edelson.

    A 1982 Sports Illustrated article makes the case that 1925 was her greatest year, because she lost only five games while beating seven opponents to win Wimbledon that year and dropped just four games while winning the French Championships.

    Still, to choose one year among eight virtually perfect seasons seems pointless.

     

Helen Wills (Special Mention)

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    Helen Wills dominance began when Suzanne Lenglen's dominance ended.

    Between 1927 and 1933, Wills not only won every match she played, but won every set, according to an excerpt from Paul Fein's Tennis Confidential.

    How do you compare her dominance in 1929, when she lost just 16 games while winning Wimbledon, to that of 1932, when she dropped 13 games while capturing the fifth of her eight Wimbledon titles?

    Wills' only defeat in a Grand Slam event between her victory in the 1924 U.S. Championships and her triumph in her final Wimbledon in 1938 was a loss in the 1933 U.S. Championships finals. Even that loss was not a completed match as she retired in the third set against Helen Jacobs because of a back injury.

     

10. Novak Djokovic, 2011

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    Novak Djokovic won three of the four Grand Slam events in 2011 and posted a 70-6 match record for the year, according to the ATP website.

    In two of those losses, Djokovic retired before the completion of the match because of injuries, defaulting against Andy Murray while trailing 6-4, 3-0 in Cincinnati, and forfeiting to Juan Martin del Potro while trailing 7-6, 3-0 in a Davis Cup match.

    His only defeat in a Grand Slam event that year was a four-set loss to Roger Federer in the French Open semifinals.

    Djokovic beat Murray in straight sets in the finals of the Australian Open, then defeated Rafael Nadal in the finals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

    For the year, Djokovic was 6-0 against Nadal, 2-0 against Murray and 4-1 against Federer.

    "Djokovic is having the greatest year in the history of our sport," John McEnroe declared late in the year, according to the Guardian.

    It might have been just that if Djokovic had not slumped just a bit in the final two months of the year. First he lost to No. 32-ranked Kei Nishikori in Switzerland. Then Djokovic lost his last two matches of 2011, to David Ferrer and Janko Tipsarevic, in the round-robin segment of the ATP World Tour Finals.

    It was not enough to ruin an outstanding year, but it was enough to drop his 2011 season a few pegs on our list of the most dominant seasons.

     

9. Rod Laver, 1969

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    Rod Laver is the only player to complete a Grand Slam twice. Therein lies the conundrum: Was he more dominant when he won all four majors in 1962 or when he did it again in 1969?

    There is little question which season was greater. Laver did not have to face many of the world's top players in 1962, when pros were barred from the Grand Slam events. His achievement in 1969, the second year of the Open Era, was greater because the quality of competition was better.

    But, as noted in our introduction, dominance measures only a player's superiority over the available field.

    Laver's 134-15 record in 1962, when he won 19 tournaments, is not appreciably better than his 106-16 mark in 1969, when he won 17 events. 

    In Grand Slam events, Laver lost 14 sets in 1962 and 17 in 1969, again a negligible difference.

    Laver had a harder time winning Wimbledon in 1969, being pushed to five sets twice while losing only one set in 1962. But his road to the 1962 French title was tougher as he had to go five sets in each of the last three rounds that year while winning the 1969 French Open finals in straight sets over Ken Rosewall.

    With little to separate the two years, we decided, somewhat arbitrarily, that Laver's 1969 feat demonstrated dominance over men's tennis in general, not just over men's amateur tennis, as his 1962 Slam did.

     

8. Roger Federer, 2006

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    Roger Federer's loss in the French Open finals is the only thing that prevented him from completing a Grand Slam in 2006.

    However, his four losses to Rafael Nadal that year prevent him from being placed higher on our list. Federer was 2-4 against Nadal in 2006, and having a losing record against the No. 2 player makes it impossible to claim Federer had the most dominant season in history.

    The rest of Federer's year makes it impossible to eliminate him from the list, though.

    Federer won the Australian Open, and, after losing to clay-court master Nadal 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 in the French Open finals in June, Federer proceeded to win 48 of his remaining 49 matches in 2006. That season-ending six-and-a-half-month span included victories at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and a 2-0 record against Nadal.

    He finished 2006 with a 92-5 record, and the only player to beat Federer in the second half of the year was Andy Murray.

    Winning three of four majors and getting to the finals of the fourth while losing just five matches all year demonstrate dominance regardless of specific head-to-head results.

7. Margaret Court, 1970

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    Margaret Court won 21 tournaments and lost just six matches in 1970, according to a retrospective by Steve Flink on the Tennis Channel website.

    What made her 1970 season more dominant that her 1973 season, when she lost just five matches, was that Court completed a Grand Slam in 1970.

    Court lost no more than four games in any match while winning the 1970 Australian Open. She finished off her Slam by dropping no more than four games in any match of the U.S. Open before losing the second set in the finals against Rosie Casals. Court dominated the final set for a 6-2, 2-6, 6-1 victory.

    Her memorable, 14-12, 11-9 victory over Billie Jean King in the 1970 Wimbledon finals was accomplished despite needing an injection to deaden the pain from a severely sprained ankle, according to Flink's article.

     

6. Jimmy Connors, 1974

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    Jimmy Connors won all three Grand Slam events he was allowed to enter in 1974, and his 93-4 record that year is among the best in the Open Era.

    He won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in 1974. He was particularly dominant in the finals of the latter two, beating Ken Rosewall in both by scores of 6-1, 6-1, 6-4 and 6-1, 6-0, 6-1.

    Connors was deprived of a chance to complete a Grand Slam because he was banned from the French Open for having signed a contract to play World Team Tennis at a conflicting time. Connors tried to enter the French Open that year, but was refused, according to the account on the ATP web page.

    Three bad losses in 1974 prevented Connors from being ranked higher on our list. He was defeated by Onny Parun, who was ranked 29th at the time; Karl Meiler, who was 32nd, and Juan Gisbert, who was 54th.

     

     

5. Don Budge, 1938

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    Don Budge was the first player to complete a Grand Slam, winning all four major tournaments in 1938 and doing it in convincing fashion.

    He lost only seven games while beating John Bromwich in the finals of the 1938 Australian Championships. Budge then took less than an hour to beat Roderich Menzel in the finals of the French Championships, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

    Budge was just as dominant at Wimbledon, blowing through the tournament without the loss of a set and crushing Bunny Austin 6-1, 6-0, 6-3 in the finals.

    Budge did not lose a set in the U.S. Championships until he dropped the second set of an otherwise routine 6-3, 6-8, 6-2, 6-1 victory over Gene Mako in the finals. Budge was so dominant that year that he had to dismiss suggestions that he gave his friend Mako a set, as noted by a New York Times article that cited Bud Collins' Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis.

    Budge also won both his singles matches in the United States' 3-2 victory over Australia in the 1938 Davis Cup finals. 

    He was undefeated for the year until he lost to Adrian Quist late in 1938.

    Budge played a limited schedule in 1938, posting a 44-2 record and winning seven of nine tournaments. That shortened schedule dropped his season a notch or two on our list, but it remains one of the most dominant years in history.

     

4. Maureen Connolly, 1953

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    It's clear Maureen Connolly deserves to be on the list. The chore is determining her most dominant year.

    Her 61-2 record in 1953 is impressive. But she lost only once each in 1952 and 1954 and not at all in 1951.

    Connolly's 1953 season was chosen because that was the year she won all four majors, completing the first Grand Slam by a woman. In her other three years of dominance, Connolly played in no more than two of the four majors.

    Connolly lost just 11 games over five matches while winning the Australian Championships in 1953 and did not drop a set while winning Wimbledon that year. To complete the Grand Slam, she won the U.S. Championships finals in just 43 minutes, according to the New York Times, beating Doris Hart, who had handed Connolly one of her 1953 losses.

    Connolly was just 18 when she completed her Grand Slam. She suffered a career-ending leg injury in a horse-riding accident soon after winning Wimbledon in 1954.

     

     

3. John McEnroe, 1984

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    John McEnroe's loss to Ivan Lendl in the 1984 French Open finals no doubt haunts him. It also may have prevented McEnroe from claiming the most dominant season in the Open Era.

    McEnroe won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1984, and, like many of the top players, he did not play in the 1984 Australian Open, which was a major in name only at the time.

    His performance in the finals at Wimbledon, where he beat Jimmy Connors 6-1, 6-1, 6-2, and the U.S. Open, where he defeated Ivan Lendl 6-3, 6-4, 6-1, were particularly dominant.

    McEnroe had an 82-3 record in 1984. He was 6-0 that year against Connors, who finished 1984 ranked No. 2, and he was 3-0 against Mats Wilander, who wound up No. 4. McEnroe's loss to Henrik Sundstrom in the 1984 Davis Cup was more disappointing than his loss to Vijay Amritraj in a minor tournament. But neither was as memorable or as damaging as his third 1984 defeat, a five-set loss to Lendl in the French Open finals.

    McEnroe won five of his six matches against Lendl in 1984, and it was very nearly 6-0. McEnroe won the first two sets convincingly in the French Open final, overwhelming Lendl with a net-charging style better suited to fast surfaces. After losing the third set, McEnroe held a 4-2 lead in the fourth, but couldn't close it out. Lendl won 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5, putting a blemish on McEnroe's spectacular year.

     

2. Steffi Graf, 1988

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    Steffi Graf's 73-3 match record in 1988 was not her best year in terms of winning percentage. She was 75-2 in 1987 and 86-2 in 1989.

    The difference was Graf's success in the major events in 1988.

    Graf won just one Grand Slam event in 1987, losing in the finals of both Wimbledon and U.S. Open.

    She won three major titles in 1989, but lost in three sets to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in an epic French Open finals. Graf was serving for the match at 5-3 in the third set of that match, and if she had won, her 1989 season might be considered the greatest and most dominant in history. But because she lost 7-6 (8-6), 3-6, 7-5, 1989 does not even rank as Graf's most dominant season.

    In 1988, Graf won all four major events to complete a Grand Slam. She also won an Olympic gold medal that year.

    She went unbeaten through the heart of the 1988 season, beginning after a loss to Gabriela Sabatini in April and continuing until a loss to Pam Shriver in her final event of the year in November. In between she won 46 straight matches as she swept through the French Open, Wimbledon and Olympics with the loss of just two sets.

    Graf beat Natasha Zvereva 6-0, 6-0 in the finals of the French Open and did not drop more than four games in a match at Wimbledon before losing a set to Martina Navratilova in the finals. Graf then quickly dismissed Navratilova 6-2, 6-1 in the next two sets.

     

     

1. Martina Navratilova, 1983

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    A single inexplicable loss created a quandary as to whether Martina Navratilova's 1983 season should be considered the most dominant in history.

    Her 86-1 record that year is the best of the Open Era, a mark that may stand for ages. Navratilova won three Grand Slam events that year, winning Wimbledon and U.S. Open without the loss of a set.

    She did not lose more than five games in any of her final five matches at Wimbledon, beating No. 3-ranked Andrea Jaeger 6-0, 6-3 in the finals. 

    Navratilova was even more dominant in the U.S. Open, losing no more than three games in a match before dropping four in a 6-1, 6-3 victory over Chris Evert in the finals.

    However, one loss causes hesitation. Kathy Horvath beat Navratilova 6-4, 0-6, 6-3 in the fourth round of the French Open. The loss raises the question: How dominant a year can it be if the player loses in the round of 16 of a Grand Slam event to someone ranked 33rd, as Horvath was at the time?

    We rationalize her placement atop the list based on her dominance of the other top players at the time. Navratilova was 6-0 that year against Evert, who was No. 2 for most of 1983, and Evert won more than four games in only one of the six matches. Navratilova was 3-0 without the loss of a set against Jaeger, who was No. 2 for part of 1983.

    Navratilova lost just nine sets in all of 1983, including those two to Horvath. It's enough to suggest it was the most dominant season since 1935.