Ranking the Most Clutch Players in Tennis History
Andy Murray's Wimbledon victory in front of British fans pleading for a home-country champion demonstrated his ability to perform in a pressure situation. But does that place him among the most clutch players in tennis history?
Being a clutch performer means playing at the highest level in the biggest matches when the pressure is greatest.
In rankings the 16 most clutch players we relied heavily on a player's success in Grand Slam events, particularly in five-setters (three-setters for women) in the semifinals and finals. Comebacks in big matches were also considered. In some cases, a single match played a significant role in getting a player on the list. In one instance, an unofficial match was a major factor.
Bill Tilden, Suzanne Lenglen or Helen Wills, three players who ruled their era, are not included because they were so dominant for so long in every match that it was impossible to gauge their worthiness in so-called clutch situations. Also, it was too difficult to rate clutch performances of players like Ken Rosewall and Pancho Gonzales who spent most of their careers playing the pro circuit when pros could not play in the Grand Slam events.
As a result, there is a heavy emphasis on players from the Open Era.
By no means is this a ranking of the greatest players. The player most noticeable by her absence from this list is Martina Navratilova. She is clearly one of the best players in history, in large part because she won so many matches in overwhelming fashion. She was less impressive in tight situations, though. She had just a 6-11 record in Grand Slam tournament finals that went three sets, and lost five times in three sets in Grand Slam semifinals.
16. Jimmy Connors
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Jimmy Connors holds down the final spot, barely edging out Stefan Edberg, who won three five-setters while winning the 1992 U.S. Open.
Connors' reputation as a fighter who was toughest when the chips were down earned him a spot on this list. However, his statistics in tight big matches were not as impressive as you might expect.
He won only eight of the 31 Grand Slam events in which he reached the semifinals. His 15-9 record in five-set matches in Grand Slam events includes a 1-5 mark in semifinals and finals that went the distance.
But four matches showed he could be formidable in the clutch.
He beat Ivan Lendl 6-0 in the fourth and final set to win the 1983 U.S. Open, and he topped Bjorn Borg in four sets in the 1976 U.S. Open on clay after Borg had established his supremacy on the slow stuff by winning two French Open titles.
His 3-6, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4 win over John McEnroe in the 1982 Wimbledon finals demonstrated Connors' ability to beat one of the best grass-court players in history in a tight match.
But Connors' best clutch performance came in a fourth-round match against Mikael Pernfors at Wimbledon in 1987. After losing the first two sets 6-1, 6-1 and trailing 4-1 in the third set and 3-0 in the fourth, Connors rallied for a a five-set victory.
15. John McEnroe
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John McEnroe won seven of the 11 Grand Slam finals in which he participated and had a 13-7 record in five-set matches in majors.
Three matches defined his ability in pressure situations.
The first was the 1980 Wimbledon finals against Bjorn Borg. Although he lost that match 8-6 in the fifth, McEnroe's performance in the dramatic fourth-set tiebreaker proved his ability in the clutch. McEnroe saved seven match points in the fourth set, including five while winning the 34-point tie-breaker 18-16.
He then beat Borg in five sets at the 1980 U.S. Open after Borg had won the third and fourth sets to apply the pressure.
The third defining moment came in the 1984 French Open finals and is the reason McEnroe is not a few spots higher on this list. McEnroe won the first two sets from Ivan Lendl rather comfortably, and, after dropping the third set, McEnroe held a 4-2 lead in the fourth. But McEnroe could not finish it off, missing an easy volley on the final point of his 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5 defeat.
14. Chris Evert
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Nobody was tougher mentally than Chris Evert, who was outstanding on big points in big matches.
Evert first displayed her ability to perform in the clutch as a 16-year-old. She trailed Mary Ann Eisel 6-4, 6-5, with Eisel serving at 40-0 in the second round of the 1971 U.S. Open. Evert fought off the triple match point against her, won the second set in a tiebreaker, then won the third set 6-1.
Evert uncharacteristically displayed nerves in her first Grand Slam title match, when, at age 18, she lost to 30-year-old Margaret Court 6-7, 7-6, 6-4 in the finals of the 1973 French Open.
Evert was never tentative in a major final again, though.
Evert was just 18-16 in the finals of Grand Slam events, going 8-8 in the finals of majors that went three sets. But that is offset by the fact that she was 49-15 in all three-set matches played at Grand Slam events.
An overlooked aspect of Evert's ability to perform under pressure was her late-career resurrection. Marina Navratilova beat Evert 13 consecutive times in the early 1980s, virtually erasing suggestions that it was still a rivalry. But instead of fading into the background, Evert found a way to compete against Navratilova again, winning seven of their next 16 encounters.
Evert had lost 18 of her previous 20 matches against Navratilova when, at age 30, Evert beat Navratilova 6-3, 6-7, 7-5 in the finals of the 1985 French Open. At 5-5 in the third set, Evert rallied from 0-40 down on her serve to take a 6-5 lead, then broke serve to finish off her 28-year-old foe
13. Don Budge
Winning six consecutive Grand Slam events from 1937 through 1938 proved Don Budge's ability to perform in pressure situations.
However, it was his performance in one particular match that earned him a spot on this list.
That match occurred in the 1937 Davis Cup, pitting Budge against Gottfried von Cramm in the fifth and deciding match between the United States and Germany. The Davis Cup was every bit as important as the major tournaments at that time, and a battle between Germany and the U.S. in the years leading up to World War II made the outcome that much more significant.
According to a CNN article, the radio broadcast of the match kept many people home from work, and the New York Stock Exchange was halted as traders stopped to listen.
Budge was the No. 1 player in the world at the time, but von Cramm won the first two sets. Budge rallied to take the next two sets, but von Cramm was on the verge of a monumental victory when he went ahead 4-1 in the fifth. Most of the crowd at the All England Club that day was rooting for von Cramm, according to the CNN article, making Budge's challenge more difficult.
Budge rallied to go ahead in the fifth set, but von Cramm saved five match points before Budge won the final set 8-6 with an amazing passing shot on his sixth match point.
12. Rafael Nadal
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There are two ways to look at Rafael Nadal's inexplicable straight-set loss to Steve Darcis at the 2013 Wimbledon tournament.
One perspective says the loss proves Nadal is vulnerable on grass in major events. The perspective we choose to take, however, suggests that his victory in the French Open a month earlier, when his injured knee was starting to wear down, is even more impressive after seeing his physical limitations at Wimbledon.
Nadal's straight-sets victory over David Ferrer in the 2013 French finals was workmanlike, but his 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7, 9-7 semifinal victory over Novak Djokovic was the epitome of clutch tennis.
But even that could not compare with his 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 victory over Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon finals. Besides being one of the greatest matches ever played, it ended Federer's five-year dominance at Wimbledon and proved Nadal could win a major title on grass.
Nadal has a 16-5 record in five-set matches, most of which took place in Grand Slam events. He is 4-2 in five-setters in the semifinals or finals of major tournaments.
11. Roger Federer
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Roger Federer is ranked as the best player in tennis history by the Tennis Channel. But that's not why he's on this list.
He's here because of his remarkable run of consistency in the most pressure-packed events. Federer got to at least the semifinals of 23 consecutive Grand Slam events. When he finally lost in the quarterfinals of the 2010 French Open, he continued his streak of reaching at least the quarterfinals for another 13 majors. It added up to a streak of 36 straight berths in the quarterfinals or better at Grand Slam events covering a span of nearly nine years.
With the likes of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Pete Sampras, Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi and Andy Murray playing at a high level in that stretch, it is a testament to clutch performance.
Federer's career record of 22-17 in five-set matches is not particularly good, and his 166-89 record in all decisive sets is not as impressive as most players of his caliber. He also let U.S. Open matches against Novak Djokovic slip away in both 2010 and 2011. For those reasons, he is not ranked higher on our list of clutch players.
However, his consistency of success in the biggest tournaments assures him a place.
10. Monica Seles
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Monica Seles presents a dilemma.
Her overall statistics in clutch situation are decent, but perhaps not what you might expect from someone who won nine Grand Slams singles titles.
However, she was never quite the same player after she was stabbed by a fan in April 1993 when she was 19 years old, an incident that sidelined her for more than two years.
Before that fateful day, Seles was as good under pressure as anyone in history.
Until then she had reached the finals of nine Grand Slam tournaments and won eight of them. She had beaten Steffi Graf in three of their four encounters in the finals in majors to that point, and her 6-2, 3-6, 10-8 victory over Graf in the 1992 French Open finals demonstrated her ability to perform under pressure.
Seles was 16-3 in three-set Grand Slam matches before the stabbing, including 7-1 in semifinals and finals.
Those are enough to put Seles on the list, but her overall career numbers in clutch situations push her down several slots.
9. Andy Murray
Winning the 2013 Wimbledon title while burdened by all of Great Britain's hopes demonstrated his ability to succeed despite unimaginable external pressures.
But that was just his latest example of excellence in the clutch.
He is 11-2 in his last 13 five-set matches in Grand Slam events, and that includes wins over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
Six times he has come back to win a Grand Slam match after losing the first two sets. That speaks partly to Murray's stamina, but it's chiefly a result of his toughness under pressure.
He has won just two Grand Slam titles, but he has reached the finals in each of the past four majors in which he has participated and got to the semifinals in eight of his past nine majors.
The fact that he is just 26 and seems to be improving in clutch situations raised him a few notches in the rankings.
8. Novak Djokovic
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Novak Djokovic cemented his place among the great clutch players with his victories over Roger Federer in successive U.S. Opens.
He has other statistics to back up his claim. His 19-7 record in five-set matches is impressive enough, and his 102-42 mark in decisive sets (third sets of best-of-three matches, fifth set of best-of-five matches) represents the second-best winning percentage in that category in the Open Era. Only Bjorn Borg's is better.
Djokovic's 5-2 record in five-set matches in the semifinals and finals of Grand Slam events demonstrates he can perform under pressure. But his victories over Federer in the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Opens are what put him high on the list.
In the 2010 semifinals, Djokovic lost two of the first three sets against Federer and fought off two match points against him in the fifth before winning 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5.
Djokovic's victory over Federer in the 2011 semifinals was even more impressive. Federer won the first two sets, and though Djokovic rallied to take the next two sets, Federer had a 5-2 lead in the fifth. Serving for a spot in the finals at 5-3 in the final set, Federer had a double match point at 40-15. That's when Djokovic unleashed one of the greatest clutch shots in history, smacking a winning crosscourt forehand return on a Federer first serve. Djokovic fought off the next match point as well, and ended up winning the match 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5.
One ESPN.com article on Djokovic carries the headline Novak Djokovic: King of Clutch.
7. Margaret Court
One glaring example of choking under pressure prevents Margaret Court from being ranked higher on this list. And because that lone notable slip occurred during an unofficial match, it's debatable whether it should be considered at all.
However, her 6-2, 6-1 loss to 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in a so-called battle-of-the-sexes match received so much attention, it's impossible to dismiss it entirely. Billie Jean King turned the tables on Riggs a few months later in a match that garnered considerably more publicity, but that did not erase Court's loss.
In official matches, however, Court was outstanding under pressure.
She played in the finals of 29 Grand Slam events and won 24 of them. Nine of those 29 finals went three sets, and Court won eight of them. That does not include her 14-12, 11-9 victory over King in the 1970 Wimbledon finals, often considered one of the greatest matches in Wimbledon history.
King fought off five match points against her that day, but Court did not wilt, finally winning the match on her sixth opportunity. Court persevered despite an ankle injury that required a pain-killing injection before the semifinals and finals, according to an excerpt from Joseph Romanos' book, Great Sporting Rivals.
Court was 30 years old when she beat Chris Evert 6-7, 7-6, 6-4 in the 1973 French Open finals in her only meeting with Evert in the finals of a major.
6. Rod Laver
After losing to Roy Emerson in the 1961 U.S. Championships, Rod Laver got to the finals in the next nine Grand Slam events for which he was eligible. He won eight of them.
Laver had a 29-11 record in five-set matches, and he won both his five-set matches in Grand Slam finals. One resulted in his first Grand Slam title, at the 1960 Australian Championships. Laver had rallied from a 5-2, fifth-set deficit to beat Roy Emerson in the semifinal, then lost the first two sets in the finals to No. 1-ranked Neale Fraser. Laver fought off a match point against him the fourth set and outlasted Fraser for a 5-7, 3-6, 6-3, 8-6, 8-6 victory.
Laver's run to the French Championships title in 1962 was even more impressive. He won five-set matches in each of the final three rounds to capture the title. Marty Mulligan held a match point against Laver in the quarterfinals, but Laver persevered for a 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 10-8, 6-2 victory before beating Fraser 7-5 in the fifth. Laver dropped the first two sets in the finals against Emerson, but again played his best when it mattered most to pull out a 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 9-7, 6-2 win.
Laver faced considerable pressure while completing the final leg of his Grand Slams in 1962 and 1969. But he came through with relative ease both times, beating Emerson in the U.S. Championships in 1962 and Tony Roche in the U.S. Open in 1969.
5. Billie Jean King
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A single victory in what was not even an official match helped put Billie Jean King high on our list of clutch performers.
King always played well in big matches, winning 12 of the 18 Grand Slam singles finals in which she participated. She also showed her mettle in an epic 14-12, 11-9 loss to Margaret Court in the 1970 Wimbledon finals. Playing on weakened knees that would require surgery the next month, King fought off five match points against her before finally succumbing to Court.
However, it was a match against 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in September 1973 that best demonstrated her ability under pressure.
King did not want to play such a match until Riggs beat Margaret Court easily in May 1973.
So King agreed to play the $100,000 winner-take-all match against Riggs, knowing what was at stake for women's tennis.
"I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match," she said, according to an ESPN article. "It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self-esteem."
Despite that pressure and the massive hoopla surrounding the event, King dominated Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
"Most important perhaps for women everywhere, she convinced skeptics that a female athlete can survive pressure-filled situations and that men are as susceptible to nerves as women," Neil Amdur wrote in The New York Times, according to the ESPN article.
4. Henri Cochet
Frenchman Henri Cochet had a knack for slow starts and strong finishes in big matches. That was best demonstrated in the 1927 Wimbledon tournament, although that was not the only time he did so.
As the No. 15 seed in the 1928 French Championships, Cochet lost the first set to both No. 2 seed Frank Hunter and No. 1 seed Rene Lacoste, but rallied to beat both, the latter in the finals.
Cochet lost the first set of the 1930 French Championships to Bill Tilden, but again rallied to win.
In the finals of the 1928 U.S. Championships, Cochet found himself down two sets to one to American Frank Hunter, with the crowd pulling hard for Hunter, according to the Associated Press account. But Cochet overcame Hunter and the crowd for a 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory.
Cochet's greatest clutch performances came in the 1927 Wimbledon tournament. Cochet beat Parker, Tilden and No. 3 seed Jean Borotra in succession after losing the first two sets in each one.
Cochet saved six match points in his victory over Borotra, but his semifinal victory over Tilden was an even better performance under pressure. He rallied from a seemingly insurmountable 6-2, 6-4, 5-1 deficit to beat Tilden, considered the world's best player at the time. Starting in the seventh game of the third set, Cochet won 17 consecutive points, according to a Sports Illustrated article, and won the match 2-6, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3.
Cochet was outstanding in Davis Cup play, where the pressure was just as great as it was in Grand Slam events in that era. He won 10 consecutive Davis Cup challenge round matches from the time France won the Cup from the U.S. in 1927.
3. Steffi Graf
Steffi Graf was ranked as the greatest female player in history by the Tennis Channel, and part of the reason was her ability to perform in the clutch.
She had a 22-9 record in the finals of Grand Slam events, and she was 13-4 in three-set matches in the finals of majors.
Graf was 4-0 against Marina Navratilova in Grand Slam finals that went three sets. That includes the 1989 U.S. Open finals when Navratilova won the first set and was serving at 4-3 in the second. Graf then won 10 of the next 12 games to win 3-6, 7-5, 6-1.
In the 1993 Wimbledon finals, Graf was getting run over by Jana Novotna, who had dominated the second set 6-1 and was serving at 40-30 while leading 4-1 in the third. Graf rallied to win 7-6, 1-6, 6-4.
Graff blew a 4-1 lead in a second-set tiebreaker against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the 1996 French Open finals, but persevered through an epic third set to win 6-3, 6-7, 10-8. Winning after letting an opportunity slip away speaks volumes about a player's ability in the clutch.
2. Bjorn Borg
Steely Bjorn Borg was at his best at the big moments, and the numbers back it up.
He had a 141-16 record in Grand Slam events, and when he was in contention, he generally won. Borg got to the semifinals of 17 Grand Slam events, and won the next two matches in 11 of those tournaments.
Perhaps more significant was his record in deciding sets. His 119-40 mark in matches that were extended to a deciding set is the best in Open Era history, and his 24-6 record in five-setters is even more impressive, since nearly all of those came in Grand Slam events.
The best indicator of Borg's ability under pressure may have been his 5-1 record in Grand Slam finals that went five sets. Two of those deserve special mention. He lost the first two sets of the 1974 French Open finals to Manuel Orantes before winning the next three 6-0, 6-1, 6-1 for his first Grand Slam title.
Borg's 1980 Wimbledon finals against John McEnroe is best remembered for the 18-16, fourth-set tiebreaker won by McEnroe. But Borg recovered from that deflating tiebreaker to win the fifth set 8-6.
His only five-set loss in a Grand Slam final came against McEnroe in the 1980 U.S. Open, and Borg rallied after losing the first two sets to force a fifth set that time.
One other match of note came is the 1981 Wimbledon semifinals, when Borg rallied to beat Jimmy Connors after losing the first two sets 6-0, 6-4.
Only one factor diminishes Borg's ability in the clutch: He went 0-4 in U.S. Open finals. That can be explained by the fact that Borg's game simply wasn't suited to hardcourts, while noting that he was 5-2 in three-set matches at the U.S. Open, including two wins after losing the first two sets.
1. Serena Williams
Serena Williams' powerful game sometimes obscures the fact that she thrives under pressure in big matches.
She has reached the finals of 20 Grand Slam events and won 16 of them. To take that a step further, she has reached the semifinals of 23 major tournaments, and won the next two matches against the best players in the world 16 times.
They have not all been easy.
Williams is 44-16 in three-set matches in majors, but her success in tight, late-round matches is even more impressive.
She is 6-0 in three-set matches in Grand Slam finals, and that does not include a 7-6, 7-6 victory over sister Venus Williams in the 2008 U.S. Open finals. Williams also is 6-1 in three-set Grand Slam semifinal matches, her lone loss coming against Justine Henin in the 2003 French Open.
That makes Williams 12-1 in three-set matches in the semifinals and finals of Grand Slam events. That's the definition of clutch.
One final point. Three times Williams has saved match points to win Grand Slam semifinal matches. She saved one in a 6-7, 7-5, 8-6 Wimbledon victory over Elena Dementieva. She fought off two in a 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 triumph over Kim Clijsters in the 2003 Australian Open. Williams saved three match points in a 2-6, 7-5, 8-6 win over Maria Sharapova in the 2005 Australian Open.