Ranking the Greatest Stars in US Open Tennis History

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistAugust 25, 2013

Ranking the Greatest Stars in US Open Tennis History

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    By strict definition, the first U.S. Open was held in 1968, so a ranking of the greatest U.S. Open stars only includes players who played in the Open Era.

    That excludes such standouts as Bill Tilden and Helen Wills, who won seven U.S. singles titles apiece before pros became eligible to compete. We also left off Rod Laver, who won the U.S. Championship twice but only once in the Open Era.

    The time frame posed a particular problem for two women whose careers bridged the Open and pre-Open eras: Billie Jean King and Margaret Court. Excluding them and their six U.S. Open singles titles seemed a disservice to them and to the article. More to the point, competition did not change for women when the U.S. Championship was opened to pros, because the top female players had remained amateurs in the pre-Open Era. Therefore, they are included.

    U.S. Open stardom is based primarily on success at that tournament. However, other issues, such as overall greatness, fan appeal and distinctive accomplishments, played a role in determining a player's ranking.

    We came up with 13 players who deserve inclusion in a list of the greatest stars in U.S. Open history. From there, we counted down to the greatest star.

13. Arthur Ashe

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    U.S. Open Singles Titles: One (1968)

    Although Arthur Ashe won only one U.S. Open title, he became a star for other reasons.

    Ashe won the first U.S. Open in 1968, which made the accomplishment historic. More significantly, he did it as an amateur in a field that included the top pros at the U.S. Championship for the first time, according to an ESPN.com account.

    His victory also represented the first Grand Slam singles title by an African American man.

    Ultimately, his lasting fame at the tournament is signified by the fact that the finals of the U.S. Open are played at Arthur Ashe Stadium.


12. Kim Clijsters

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    U.S. Open Singles Titles: Three (2005, 2009, 2010)

    Kim Clijsters' final singles match as a pro was played at the 2012 U.S. Open.

    However, her inclusion on this list is based in large part on her historic run to the 2009 title. She had retired from tournament tennis in May 2007 at age 23 after a series of injuries, according to The Associated Press. She returned to singles competition more than two years later after getting married and giving birth to her first child.

    Clijster's first match in her comeback was in August 2009, and she played just seven tournament matches leading up to the U.S. Open.

    She did not have a ranking at the time and gained entry to the U.S. Open as a wild card. Clijsters beat No. 3-ranked Venus Williams in the fourth round and No. 2-ranked Serena Williams in the semifinals on her way to becoming the first unseeded player to win the U.S. Open. She was also the first mother to win a Grand Slam event since Evonne Goolagong Cawley won the 1980 Wimbledon title.

    Clijsters won U.S. Open titles in three consecutive appearances. She did not play the event in 2006, 2007 or 2008.


11. Ivan Lendl

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    U.S. Open Singles Titles: Three (1985, 1986, 1987)

    Consistency earned Ivan Lendl a spot on this list.

    He reached the finals of the U.S. Open eight straight years from 1982 through 1989. That's the longest run of consecutive finals in any Grand Slam event in the Open Era. It is matched all time only by Bill Tilden's eight straight finals in the U.S. Championship from 1918 through 1925.

    Making Lendl's U.S. Open star a little brighter is his work with Andy Murray. Lendl has been Murray's coach since early in 2012, and according to Tennis.com, he is given much of the credit for Murray's first Grand Slam title, which came at the 2012 U.S. Open.


10. Margaret Court

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    U.S. Open Singles Titles: Three (1969, 1970, 1973)

    Margaret Court also won the U.S. Championship in 1962 and 1965, giving her five U.S. titles. Only three women in history, and only one since 1931, have won more.

    She is ranked as the third greatest female player in history by the Tennis Channel, and her victory in the 1970 U.S. Open completed a Grand Slam that year, according to The New York Times. She is one of three players to achieve a calendar-year Grand Slam in the Open Era and one of five players in history to do so.

    Her final U.S. Open title came in 1973 at the age 31—11 years after she won her first U.S. Championship.



9. Martina Navratilova

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    U.S. Open Singles Titles: Four (1983, 1984, 1986, 1987)

    Ranked as the second greatest women's player in history by the Tennis Channel, Martina Navratilova had more success at Wimbledon, where she won nine singles titles, than at the U.S. Open.

    However, her run of success at the U.S. Open in the mid-1980s was among the most impressive in history. She won four titles in a span of five years, and it would have been five in a row were it not for her 7-6, 1-6, 7-6 loss to Hana Mandlikova in the 1985 finals.

    "I can't believe this is the second time I've won more games and lost the match in the final of the U.S. Open," Navratilova said, according to Jim Sarni of the Sun Sentinel. "All losses are bad, but this one is more difficult to take since I was not expected to win in 1981 [when Navratilova lost to Tracy Austin 1-6, 7-6, 7-6 in the finals]."

8. John McEnroe

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    U.S. Open Singles Titles: Four (1979, 1980, 1981, 1984)

    John McEnroe's four U.S. Open titles rank fourth among men in the Open Era. 

    When he won his first U.S. title in 1979 at age 20, he was the youngest to win the tournament since Pancho Gonzales 31 years earlier.

    McEnroe's most impressive U.S. title run was the next year, when he beat Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg in succession to take the 1980 crown.

    In the semifinals, he rallied from a 2-1 deficit in sets to beat Connors 6-4, 5-7, 0-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-3). Less than 24 hours later, he took the court against Borg, who had beaten McEnroe in an epic five-set finals at Wimbledon two months earlier. He beat Borg in five sets this time and beat Borg again in the 1981 U.S. Open finals.

    Although lauded for his tennis excellence, McEnroe became a pop culture icon for his on-court behavior.

    "He came across as a precocious brat," The Washington Post's Barry Lorge wrote (h/t ESPN).

    He was suspended for two months and fined $17,500 for misconduct and verbal abuse during the 1987 U.S. Open, according to Philly.com.

    Whether that behavior contributed to him becoming a "star" is open for interpretation. It certainly made him memorable, though.


7. Billie Jean King

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    U.S. Open Singles Titles: Three (1971, 1972, 1974)

    Billie Jean King also won the U.S. title in 1967, the final year before the Open Era.

    She was a finalist two other times, once in the pre-Open Era (1965, losing to Margaret Court) and once in the Open Era (1968, losing to Virginia Wade in the first U.S. Open).

    Her most memorable U.S. Open victory was her last one. In the 1974 finals, at age 30, she pulled out a 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory over Evonne Goolagong, who was a U.S. Open finalist four consecutive years but never won the event. That was also the final year the U.S. Open was played on grass.

    King was ranked as the fifth greatest female player in history by the Tennis Channel.

    She also gained fame for her outspoken nature and political stances. In a 1967 New York Times article, she was described as "probably amateur tennis’s most colorful and controversial player today." She was 23 at the time.

    She was one of the prime movers in getting equal pay for women at the U.S. Open, according to CNN.

    The most significant symbol of her stardom is that the site of the U.S. Open is named for her: the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.


6. Serena Williams

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    U.S. Open Singles Titles: Four (1999, 2002, 2008, 2012)

    The book is not closed on Serena Williams, who is in position to win her fifth U.S. Open title this year.

    Her longevity as a U.S. Open star is demonstrated by the fact that she won her first U.S. title at age 17 and her most recent at age 30. That 13-year span between her first and last titles is the largest gap between titles in the history of the U.S. Championship, male or female. She could make that a 14-year gap if she wins this year. 

    Williams beat No. 4-seeded Monica Seles, No. 2-seeded Lindsay Davenport and top-seeded Martina Hingis in succession to win her first U.S. crown in 1999. 

    In 2012, she rallied from 3-5 down in the third set to beat top-ranked Victoria Azarenka 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 in the finals. 

    Between her first and last U.S. Open titles, she twice had to miss significant time on the tour because of knee problems. She did not play in either the 2003 or 2010 U.S. Open. 


5. Pete Sampras

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    U.S. Open Singles Titles: Five (1990, 1993, 1995, 1996, 2002)

    Pete Sampras' last U.S. Open title came 12 years after his first. That is the largest gap between U.S. titles for any male player in history and speaks to the longevity of his impact at the event.

    His five U.S. Open titles are tied for the most by a male in the Open Era, and he was the No. 1 seed in only one of those championship years.

    Sampras won his first U.S. Open crown one month after his 19th birthday as the No. 12 seed, beating Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi in succession.

    He won his final U.S. title at the age of 31 as the No. 17 seed. That was his most surprising victory because he had not advanced past the round of 16 in any of his previous nine tournaments heading into the 2002 U.S. Open. He had lost in the second round at Wimbledon and the first round at the French Open that year.

    Fittingly, his four-set victory over Agassi in the 2002 U.S. Open finals was the final match of Sampras' career.

    "To beat a rival like Andre, in a storybook ending, it might be nice to stop," Sampras said, according to The Associated Press.

4. Steffi Graf

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    U.S. Open Singles Titles: Five (1988, 1989, 1993, 1995, 1996)

    Steffi Graf's five U.S. titles are tied for the second most in the Open Era, behind only Chris Evert's six.

    Her first U.S. Open title in 1988 was the most significant because it completed a Grand Slam, making her the fifth and most recent person to win all four majors in the same calendar year. She joined Don Budge, Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court and Rod Laver (who did it twice).

    Graf's victories in the 1988 and 1989 U.S. Opens came during an impressive run in which she won eight of nine Grand Slam singles events.

    She won more titles at Wimbledon (seven) and the French Open (six) than she did at the U.S. Open.

    She was ranked as the best women's player in history by the Tennis Channel.


3. Roger Federer

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    U.S. Open Singles Titles: Five (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008)

    Roger Federer is the only player, male or female, to win five straight U.S. singles titles in the Open Era.

    When he faced No. 6-seeded Juan Martin del Potro in the 2009 U.S. Open finals, the top-seeded Federer was favored to win his sixth straight crown, which would have tied Bill Tilden's all-time record of consecutive U.S. titles.

    Federer seemed to be on his way to victory over del Potro when he won the first set and led 5-4 in the second. But a reversed call on a Hawk-Eye ruling denied Federer a set point and irked him. That seemed to turn the match, according to an account by The Telegraphand del Potro won 3–6, 7–6, 4–6, 7–6, 6–2.

    Federer's star power is confirmed by the fact that the Tennis Channel named him the greatest player in history.

2. Chris Evert

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    U.S. Open Singles Titles: Six (1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1982)

    Chris Evert holds the record for most U.S. titles in the Open Era with six.

    Her run of four straight U.S. crowns from 1975 through 1978 is the longest streak in the Open Era among women, and she tied Molla Mallory (1915-1918) and Helen Jacobs (1932-1935) for the most consecutive U.S. titles in history.

    Evert lost only one set during that four-year streak. In 1976, she lost only 12 games in the entire U.S. Open tournament and dropped no more than four games in any match.

    Indicative of her dominance at the U.S. Open is that she won half of her U.S. titles on clay (1975, 1976, 1977) and half on hard courts (1978, 1980, 1982).

    Longevity of success is her final claim to the No. 2 spot on this list. During a 10-year span from 1975 to 1984, she reached the U.S. Open finals nine times. The only exception was 1981, when the top-seeded Evert lost to Martina Navratilova 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 in the semifinals.


1. Jimmy Connors

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    U.S. Open Singles Titles: Five (1974, 1976, 1978, 1982, 1983)

    Jimmy Connors earns the top spot for three reasons.

    First, his five U.S. titles are tied for the most by a male player in the Open Era.

    Second, he is the only person to win the U.S. Open on three different surfaces, claiming the 1974 title on grass, the 1976 crown on clay and the other three on hard courts.

    Finally, the time span of his excellence and appeal at the U.S. Open is unsurpassed. He made it at least to the semifinals at the U.S. Open 14 times over a span of 18 years from 1974 to 1991.

    He won all three Grand Slam events he entered in 1974, when he won his first U.S. Open. But Connors might be best remembered for reaching the semifinals in 1991 at the age of 39 when he was a crowd favorite.

    On his 39th birthday, Connors trailed Aaron Krickstein 5-2 in the fifth set of his fourth-round match. But he won, as described in a 2003 ESPN.com article:

    But as a packed house on the Stadium Court roared in approval, Connors battled back again. Playing with his customary fire, Connors constantly attacked and it paid off, as he forced a tiebreaker. With his adrenaline, and fists, pumping, Connors won it 7-4. The match took four hours and 41 minutes.

    The U.S. Open has become known for its loud crowds, especially at night, and no one stoked those fans like Connors did.