Last year’s Wimbledon marked the 40th year of “Open Era” tennis at The Championships, culminating with what many consider one of the greatest-ever men’s final matches as Rafael Nadal outlasted Roger Federer in five grueling sets—and nearly five hours—to end the Swiss star’s reign of five straight titles at the sport’s grandest tournament.
It had been four decades since the Grand Slam tournaments abandoned their long-standing rules of amateurism and allowed professionals back in to compete in 1968, the year that two of the biggest names in tennis—Rod Laver and Billie Jean King—claimed the singles titles at Wimbledon.
Winners at this most prestigious of events certainly include some other legends of the game, such as Bjorn Borg, Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf.
But the list of Wimbledon champions over the last 40 years is also comprised of surprise titlists who were not the favorites at the time or considered dominant among peers on the grass courts at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
From unseeded youngsters to baseliners whose game was more suited to clay courts to players considered past their prime, the unlikely winners have added some spice to Wimbledon’s traditional sweetness of strawberries and cream.
In an attempt to revisit some of those memorable moments, the following countdown of “The Ten Most Surprising Wimbledon Champions During the Open Era” highlights some of the unlikely singles winners who thrilled the crowds with surprising runs over a fortnight in London while adding plenty of color to the tournament that requires all-white attire from its participants.
The first name on this list is a familiar one among the game’s greats, yet one who actually avoided taking part in Wimbledon between 1988 and 1990 in part because of its storied traditions and formal dress code.
When Andre Agassi finally made the trek to London in June of 1991, more was made of how the brash, image-conscious American would tone down his attitude and attire to conform to Wimbledon standards, than about his actual performance or results on the court.
The budding young star had made already made Grand Slam finals at the French and U.S. Opens, but wasn’t figured among the favorites at Wimbledon because his game was basically suited to slower surfaces.
To the surprise of many a year later, Agassi made his breakthrough as a Grand Slam champion not in Paris or New York, but on the grass courts of the All England Club.
Displaying a strong service return against some serve-and-volley opponents, Agassi defeated two former Wimbledon champions—Boris Becker and John McEnroe—along the way to winning his initial major in 1992.
His triumph over Goran Ivanisevic in five sets for the 1992 title was Agassi’s only Wimbledon trophy, though he did go on to capture all three of the other Grand Slam titles during an extraordinary career.
The fact that another baseliner did not win Wimbledon for 10 years (until Leyton Hewitt’s victory in 2002) indicates how impressive Agassi’s accomplishment was—for he had not only changed his appearance and outlook but also adapted his playing style to gain an impressive and unlikely victory on the faster grass court surface.
Heading into the 1996 Wimbledon, Richard Krajicek had a game suited for success on the grass at Wimbledon, yet he had never previously progressed beyond the fourth round there, having lost in the first round the two previous years.
Although he possessed a big serve and improving ground strokes, Krajicek wasn’t considered among the Wimbledon favorites that year.
The big Dutchman had just missed out on getting one of the top 16 seeds in the men’s draw, but was given a seed when Thomas Muster pulled out before the tournament began.
Benefiting from the revised draw, Krajicek beat former champion Michael Stich in the fourth round to set up a quarterfinal encounter against Pete Sampras, winner of the three previous Wimbledons and the favorite to lift the trophy again.
But Krajicek shocked the favored American and all of the tennis world by winning in straight sets 7-5, 7-6(3), 6-4 to advance past Sampras.
The 24-year-old serve-and-volleyer then beat Jason Stoltenberg of Australia in the semifinals, before winning the final over American MaliVai Washington in straight sets, 6–3, 6–4, 6–3, to become the first Dutchman to win Wimbledon.
While his final two opponents on Centre Court might not have been huge obstacles, Krajicek’s run in 1996 was highlighted by the huge upset over Sampras in the quarterfinals, making him the only player to beat Pete in a Wimbledon singles match in the eight-year period from 1993 until Sampras' fourth-round loss to Roger Federer in the 2001 tournament.
While Sampras might be considered the greatest men's champion at Wimbledon in the Open Era, that honor falls to Martina Navratilova on the women’s side, as the Czech-turned-American has won nine singles trophies among her 20 Wimbledon titles.
But it’s one of her losses—in the 1994 Wimbledon final—that makes this list, when she was beaten by Conchita Martinez, the only Spanish woman to have captured the singles title at tennis’ premier tournament.
Looking for an amazing tenth title that year, the serve-and-volleyer Navratilova was considered the favorite even at the age of 37, since most of Martinez’ wins came on slower-playing surfaces.
But the 22-year-old Spaniard advanced confidently through the field to meet the left-handed legend in the final. She took the first set in a tight struggle, and was able to hold on against a Navratilova comeback to survive the three-set battle and win 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.
Displaying a calm demeanor throughout the fortnight and against the favorite in the final, Martinez came up with some dazzling passing shots to defeat Martina. As was written in Sports Illustrated in its Wimbledon wrap-up, “Only at the end, after she had flung her racket into the gray English sky and Navratilova had hugged her, did Martínez begin to know what she had done. ‘She was going lower and lower — I was holding her up (as she succumbed to the emotion),’ Navratilova said. ‘I remember how that first one felt. The first one is the best. It's such a pure feeling.’”
Playing on for more than a decade after that upset win, Martinez did reach the final of both the French and Australian Opens later in the 1990s, but the 1994 trophy in surprising fashion at Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam title for Conchita.
Ten years after Martinez’ victory, another upset win in the Ladies Final saw a newcomer burst onto the scene with an impressive tournament run at the All England Club. Seventeen-year-old Maria Sharapova continued the Russian revolution in women’s tennis in the mid-1990s by coming from behind to overcome the favored Serena Williams in the final.
Sharapova had begun the 2004 season ranked 32nd in the world, but captured a grass-court tune-up event and carried on her impressive form during the two weeks at Wimbledon. The attractive Russian made noise in London by grunting her way to victory through successive rounds, displaying a big forehand along the way.
The young Sharapova was not overwhelmed by the occasion in the Saturday final despite being a heavy underdog against Serena, who had been unbeaten at Wimbledon since 2001. She stormed through an easy first set, and then summoned some of her best tennis after being down 2-4 in the second to win 6-1, 6-4 over the American.
“I think my opponents have always considered my forehand to be my weakness. That's what I've found out in matches through my whole career,” the Russian told reporters after the final. “But thanks to those opponents, my forehand's getting a lot better,” she added, referring to the big ground strokes that led to the victory.
While succumbing to some injury problems in recent years, Sharapova has put together similar two-week runs at majors since that time and won two more Grand Slam titles. But she will always be remembered for that first major in 2004 when her Wimbledon title left the Williams family without the prestigious crown for the first time since 1999, as Venus had won in 2000 and 2001 and sister Serena had won the next two years.
Just as Sharapova has broken up the dominance of two top rivals at Wimbledon, so did German Michael Stich by winning the men’s championship in 1991, after a period of years when the annual fortnight in London was dominated by Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg.
The unheralded Stich entered the tournament as a rather inexperienced 22-year-old, but used a blistering serve to successfully maneuver through a rather wet and gray first week. That most nagging and negative of Wimbledon traditions — rain — helped create some mass confusion in the 1991 Wimbledon schedule and within the men’s draw that year, as Stich was among six players in the quarterfinals who had never before advanced that far at this Slam.
Pete Sampras, Goran Ivanisevic, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl were all gone by the fourth round, but Edberg and Becker remained as the two obstacles for Stich to overcome in his quest for the championship trophy.
He defeated then-world number one and defending champion Edberg in the semifinals 4–6, 7–6, 7–6, 7–6, without breaking the Swede’s service once. Then in the final, he beat three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker in straight sets, for his only Grand Slam title.
A winner of only one professional tournament before that Wimbledon, Stich amassed 97 aces during his two weeks in London and defeated the top two grass-court players of the day to win the trophy, dealing compatriot Becker just his third loss in 27 appearances on Centre Court and his first in straight sets.
The entry and occasion at number five on the list is the only one not representing the first or only Wimbledon title for the player being included. Evonne Goolagong Cawley was a six-time Grand Slam winner upon entering Wimbledon in 1980, having won four Australian Opens in her homeland along with two other majors. But her seventh and last Slam victory came as a 29-year-old mother, making her the first mother in 66 years to win the Wimbledon singles title.
Both graceful and gracious on the court, Goolagong had been a four-time finalist at Wimbledon, winning the singles crown nine years earlier in 1971. After losing on Championship Saturday in 1975 and 1976, it seemed her chances at another title at the All England Club were gone.
But she was able to captivate the crowds in London again in 1980, making a spirited run through the draw with wins over Betty Stove, Hana Mandlikova and Wendy Turnbull to reach the semifinals. Once there, she overcame a poor second set to defeat second-seeded Tracy Austin 6-3, 0-6, 6-4 to earn a spot in the final.
Goolagong only needed two sets in the final to take the trophy, beating the third seed Chris Evert 6-1, 7-6. For the Australian with Aborigine heritage, she grew to consider her second triumph at Wimbledon as a more satisfying accomplishment than her first win there.
“It meant so much more,” she later explained in an interview with reporters at wimbledon.org, “because I did it as a mother. I remember a tournament official coming up to me after I won the final over Chris, and saying, ‘Did you know you are the first mother to win Wimbledon since Dorothea Lambert Chambers in 1914.’ So I made it into Trivial Pursuit for that.”
Another Australian put together an impressive run throughout the later rounds of 1987’s Wimbledon to mark another unlikely championship for the underdog at the hallowed ground of world tennis.
Known on the pro tour as a hard-working serve-and-volleyer and for his trademark checkered headband, Pat Cash was never among the highest seeds at the Slams but did fight his way to the second weekend of a number of majors during his career.
He had even helped lead Australia to Davis Cup titles in 1983 and 1984, but nothing compared to the surprising win at Wimbledon. Seeded 11th, he needed just three sets to defeat Mats Wilander in the quarterfinals and crowd favorite Jimmy Connors in the semifinals, to set up a final clash against the world’s number one player, Ivan Lendl.
Cash continued his remarkable run by knocking off Lendl 7-6, 6-2, 7-5, completing a string of matches in which he had beaten three of the game’s best all in straight sets on his way to winning the Wimbledon title.
And while that statistic is a historic one, the way the Australian celebrated after the final victory was just as surprising and memorable. Many tennis fans can recall the way that Cash sealed the win over Lendl by climbing into the stands and up to the player's box at Centre Court, where he celebrated with his family, girlfriend and coach. This impromptu jaunt by the exuberant Australian started a tradition that has been followed by other champions at Wimbledon and other Grand Slam tournaments since his unlikely win.
One decade before Cash’s surprise victory, in Wimbledon’s centenary year of 1997, very few pundits or observers figured Virginia Wade had a chance at capturing the ladies’ singles crown in her home country. But she completed a memorable two weeks at the All England Club during the tourney’s historic year by defeating Betty Stove 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 in the final.
Though she was twice a Wimbledon semifinalist prior to 1977 and had won two Grand Slams, Wade was 31 years old at the time and considered by most to be past her peak and less of a threat than rising stars Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and even Britain's own Sue Barker, who made her own run to the semifinals that year.
Wade has admitted to being helped by compatriot Barker’s performance, which took the pressure off the older player. “Sue was quite a star. I was indebted to her for taking the pressure off me and sharing it,” Wade later told wimbledon.org’s Mike Donovan. “I had always been the one Briton who would possibly win Wimbledon but she came along playing really great tennis to get as far as she did, which was tough to do.”
Able to come from behind after losing the opening set of the final to Stove, Wade considered the semifinal win over defending champion Chris Evert as the high point of that Championships, which saw her lift the trophy in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Year. “I played my best tennis of the tournament — and possibly my career — in that match,” said Wade, who had almost given up up hope of winning Wimbledon.
“It was my 16th attempt. I'd been trying since 1962. I'd virtually given up. On the big occasion you played either above or below yourself, never a normal game,” she added. “You get little bits of inspiration but then other times you don't. But then, suddenly, it happened,” said Wade, who is still — over 30 years later — the last Brit to win either singles crown at Wimbledon.
The first unseeded player to win Wimbledon in the Open Era was also the youngest, a 17-year-old German who boomed his way to glory on the grass in 1985. Boris Becker entered just his second Wimbledon that June, only days after winning his first professional tournament at Queens Club.
With a game built around a powerful serve, big forehand and a penchant for diving for volleys on the green-lawned courts, the young Becker found himself perfectly suited for Wimbledon. Ranked in the 20s by the tourney’s start, the German defeated two seeded players before the quarterfinals, overcoming 7th seed Joakim Nystrom 9-7 in the fifth set and coming back from match-point down against 16th seed Tim Mayotte to also win in five sets.
Becker wouldn’t have to go the full five sets again in that breakthrough Wimbledon, getting past Henri Leconte and Anders Jarryd in four sets each to reach the final, where he faced Kevin Curran, who had beaten top seed John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors on his path to Championship Sunday.
Despite beating the two top Americans, Curran couldn’t handle the game of Becker in the final, with the German proving to be too strong and too quick while winning 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4. The newcomer to Centre Court had made the famed arena his own in 1985, displaying a combination of talent, energy and determination that easily won over approving spectators and viewers.
Boris would become a fixture on Centre Court, retaining the Wimbledon title in 1986, winning again in 1989 and making it into four other finals, but it will be that unlikely victory from “Boom Boom” Becker in 1985 that most tennis fans will remember among the tournament’s most surprising championships.
Even more surprising than a unseeded teenager winning the most storied tennis tournament of them all in his second attempt, was a seemingly washed-up and inconsistent wild card entrant capturing the trophy toward the end of his career.
Goran Ivanisevic’s big-serving game was always a threat at Wimbledon during the 1990s, having reached the final three times that decade. But by 2001, most had viewed the Croat as being past his prime years of threatening for a major title. Yet as a wild card entrant that year, the 125th-ranked, lanky left-hander offered up the most improbable of runs through Wimbledon.
Approaching his 30th birthday and with lingering shoulder problems, Ivanisevic somehow summoned enough resolve to overcome the odds and capture his only Grand Slam title. Along the way, he disposed of such notables as Carlos Moya, American youngster Andy Roddick and Marat Safin.
On the brink of an exit against British favorite Tim Henman in the semifinals, rain came to halt what seemed like a Henman win. But Ivanisevic recovered, and outlasted the Brit to make it into his fourth Wimbledon final.
When rains poured down on Championship Sunday, the final against fellow serve-and-volleyer Patrick Rafter had to be postponed to Monday. On that extra day, playing in front of a significant “walk-up” crowd that only added to the atmosphere, the two battled in a five-set duel before Ivanisevic claimed victory over the two-time U.S. Open champ.
Standing among the crowd after climbing into the stands to share the moment with those who had cheered him on, Ivanisevic stated, “I shall remember this day forever.” It’s a comment that many who viewed his surprising display throughout the 2001 Wimbledon would certainly agree with.