The Best Players Never To Win the US Open

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The Best Players Never To Win the US Open
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

With the US Open fast approaching, it would be interesting to take a look at some of the best players who never managed to lift the trophy at one of the toughest tournaments in the world.

In the opinion of many, fans and experts alike, the US Open is probably the toughest of the Grand Slam tournaments to win.  The surface is unforgiving and the weather can be hot and humid in New York in early September.  The crowd atmosphere is often raucous and many night matches finish in the early hours of the morning.

The most difficult thing for the players can be the schedule, the semifinals of the men's event taking place on the second Saturday and the final on the following day.  Depending on how the semis turn out, one of the finalists can have less than 24 hours to prepare for the final. 

These factors make it a tough tournament to win.


Bjorn Borg

Probably the most famous player never to win the US Open, Bjorn actually got to the final four times, losing to Jimmy Connors in 1976 and 1978, and then John McEnroe in 1980 and 1981.  Bjorn took McEnroe to five sets in 1980, the closest he got to winning the tournament.  It was a pretty good effort to get to four finals, and perhaps unlucky to get two home players there.  Bjorn lost the 1976 final to Jimmy Connors on green clay, and then the others on hard court.

This is speculation, but I've heard that Bjorn was not a big fan of the hard courts or playing under the lights at the US Open.

 

Yvonne Goolagong

Yvonne was a very elegant player who had a great career and is considered one of the great  female Tennis players of the Open era.

Yvonne won Wimbledon twice in 1971 and in 1980 as a mother (a feat since emulated by Kim Clijsters at the US Open last year) and the Australian four times from 1974 to 1977.   Yvonne also won the French Open / Wimbledon double in 1971defeating Helen Gourlay Cawley and Margaret Court respectively.

Yvonne, however, made it to four finals in a row at the US Open from 1973 to 1976 but was not able to win any of them.  In 1973 Yvonne lost to Margaret Court in 3 sets.  In 1974 and 1975 Yvonne lost to Billie Jean King and Chris Evert respectively in 3 sets  in 1976 Yvonne lost to Chris Evert again and this time on green clay quite comprehensively 6-3 6-0.

This puts Yvonne up there with Bjorn Borg as probably the best female player never to win the event.



Jim Courier

Jim won four Grand Slam titles in his career and played in all four Grand Slam finals from 1991 to 1993.  Jim’s best surface was probably hard courts, but he won two titles at the French Open and two titles at the Australian Open on rebound aces.  The slower, high-bouncing rebound ace suited Jim’s game and he defeated Edberg in two finals there in 1992 and 1993, each time in four sets.

Jim lost to Edberg in the 1991 US Open final in straight sets, as Edberg played the best match of his career that day.  Jim also lost to Pete Sampras in the semifinals of the US Open in 1992 and 1995, each time in four sets.   Jim didn’t particularly have any weakness on hard courts, but his biggest downfall was probably his relative lack of movement on the surface even though it was considered a medium-fast surface, certainly not as fast as it is now since Arthur Ashe Stadium Court opened in 1997.

That relative lack of movement meant that Jim was more vulnerable against the very top players.  Jim’s extreme grips also made him more vulnerable as the best players targeted his forehand on return of serve to open up the court often to take advantage of his relative lack of movement.  So in the end, the high-bouncing rebound ace courts suited Jim more than the medium-fast courts of the US Open where kick serves are very effective but the ball shoots through more during rallies.


Jennifer Capriati

Winning the US Open was sort of a holy grail for Jennifer, as it was her hometown tournament in many ways.  Unfortunately for Jennifer, she never got past the semifinals, but those semis were very memorable!

Jennifer lost an incredible semifinal to Monica Seles in 1991 in a third set tiebreak which at that time represented the future of women's tennis, with both players hitting the ball like there was no tomorrow.  Jennifer served for the match twice but still lost.  After an absence of 10 years, Jennifer came back strong in 2001 and appeared in the semifinals again, this time losing a highly-charged match to Venus Williams.

In 2003, Jennifer lost yet another dramatic semifinal to Justine Henin, who seemed absolutely out on her feet in the third set with Jennifer again serving for the match twice and then losing a third set tiebreak.

To cap it all off, Jennifer lost again in 2004, this time to Elena Dementieva in a third set tiebreak.  Jennifer served for the match but couldn’t finish it off.  This match was especially frustrating for Jennifer as Elena was going through one of her can’t serve properly modes, but somehow came out on the other side with a win!

Even though Jennifer never got to a US Open final, her semifinals will be talked about for decades.


Amelie Mauresmo

Amelie had all of the physical attributes to win the US Open.  She was a powerful, athletic player who liked to get forward and had fantastic touch at net and a great one-hand backhand which she could hit down the line to stretch her opponents and take to the net.  Amelie was also an excellent serve-and-volleyer who was successful at Wimbledon; it's a tactic that works well on hard courts too.

Despite all of these attributes, Amelie got to two semifinals, losing to Venus Williams in 2002, and in 2006, losing a bizarre match to Sharapova 0:6, 6:4, 0:6! Amelie didn’t seem to be able to make the transition to be US Open Champion.  One can argue that there were too many obstacles in the way of winning the US Open, mainly Venus and Serena Williams, Henin, Clisjters, and Sharapova. 

Amelie also had technical issues with her forehand.  Due to the extreme grip, Amelie found it difficult to make penetrating drives with her forehand on hard courts, the ball often dropping short and sitting up, making her vulnerable to big-hitting players on hard courts.  In North America, Amelie won the Rogers Cup in Canada a couple of times, where the courts appear slower and higher-bouncing.  Amelie, like Courier, did better on rebound ace, getting to the final of the Australian Open in 1999 and winning in 2006.

Ironically, despite the extreme grip on her forehand, Amelie was an excellent and instinctive volleyer, and was able to change grips with ease to volley—that’s very unusual for players with extreme grips.


Rafael Nadal

We have to qualify Rafael with the word yet, as he has a few more opportunities to win the US Open and could win it this year.

Nadal has had similar problems to Amelie Mauresmo on the really fast hard courts.  Like Mauresmo, Nadal has excelled in Canada where the courts appear slower and higher-bouncing, but has really struggled in two of the fastest courts in the world—Cincinnati and the US Open.

There are a few reasons for this. 

One reason is certainly that Nadal has not gone into the hard court season in good shape over the years after long clay court and grass court seasons in the spring and early summer. 

Another reason is that Nadal was playing too far behind the baseline and his top spin forehands would drop short often, making him vulnerable to attack.  Players like James Blake and Mikael Youzny in previous years were able to drive him back with backhands down the line, stretching him often.  In 2008, Andy Murray really attacked him, and last year, Del Potro gave Nadal as good a beating as he’s ever received.

Due to the quickness of the courts and the light balls, it’s been tough for Nadal to win the US Open because he’s vulnerable to any top player with a big game.


Elena Dementieva

Not only is Elena Dementieva one of the best players never to win the US Open, she’s also one of the best players never to win a major title.

Elena got to the final in 2004, losing to Svetlana Kuznetsova after her amazing semifinal win over Jennifer Capriati, which was mentioned earlier.  Elena got to the semifinal the next year, playing much better, but losing out to Mary Pierce after winning the first set.  Elena would get to semifinal again in 2008, but lost surprisingly tamely to Jelena Jankovic.  It should also be noted that Elena got to the semifinal as an 18-year-old in 2000, losing to Lindsay Davenport.

It's well chronicled how Elena’s serve breaks down technically at the slightest hint of scoreboard pressure, which is such a pity because she has a great game and is extremely athletic.  Elena’s fast flat strokes and taking the ball early are ideal for hard courts.  However, Elena also has issues about when and how often she is prepared to get to net to finish off points, putting herself under unnecessary pressure often in rallies.

But by far, Elena’s biggest problem has been her serve, preventing her from reaching her potential at the US Open.  She’s often beaten the top players in Tier One finals and lead-up tournaments before the majors, only to come up short in the latter stages of major tournaments.

Like Rafael Nadal, Elena Dementieva’s career is not over yet, but her window of opportunity is closing.

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