In the beginning, like most institutions in modern society, the U.S. Open was “open” only to men who competed in singles. The first tournament was held in August of 1881 in Newport, Rhode Island.
Back in those days the tournament used a challenger system, which meant that last year’s champion only had to play in the final match when “challenged” to do so. Quite a benefit for the defending champion, who only had to win one match to retake his trophy. That system lasted through 1911.
The U.S. Open’s playing surface was grass until 1974. Then briefly the Open was played on clay from 1975-1977 before it moved to DecoTurf in 1978.
In 1915 the tournament moved to the West Side Tennis Club located in Forest Hills, New York. Since 1987 the U.S. Open has been held at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, New York.
The earliest long-standing champions of the U.S. Open were Richard Sears who won seven consecutive titles from 1881-1887. Bill Larned won seven titles as well, but not consecutively from 1901-1911. Their trophies were won back in the days of the challenger system.
“Big” Bill Tilden also won seven titles, six consecutively from 1920-1925. Only players from the United States played in the U.S. Open Championships until 1926 when it opened to international competition.
In the modern era Roger Federer holds the record with five consecutive titles from 2004-2008. Pete Sampras is the youngest male to win the U.S. Open at age 19 years and one month.
In the pre-"open" era, Bill Tilden holds the most overall championships with 16 titles––seven singles, five doubles, four mixed doubles [1913-1929]. John McEnroe holds it in the "open" era with eight titles––four singles, four doubles.
Because the rules were not the same for players who played as amateurs and then as professionals, this ranking is divided between the "open" era and the years before 1968. Some players, however span both eras.
John Newcombe—Tied for seventh place
Hailing from the land down under––Sydney Australia to be exact––John Newcombe played tennis from 1964 through 1981.
He won seven grand slam championships. His serve and volley style of play reigned supreme on the grass courts, but never allowed him to win the singles title at Stade Roland Garros. The French was not Newcombe’s cup of tea.
Newcombe is touted to have had the best second serve in the history of the men’s game––at least that was Jack Kramer’s assessment.
Newcombe teamed with Tony Roche to have one of the best men’s doubles teams in the history of the sport. Together they won 12 grand slam doubles titles.
The Aussie Newcombe won the U.S. Open singles championship in 1967 defeating Clark Graebner in straight sets and again in 1973 outlasting Jan Kodes in five sets. Newcombe was the runner-up in 1966 to Fred Stolle, losing in four sets.
Don Budge—Tied for seventh place
Born in 1915, American Don Budge ascended to the No. 1 ranking, holding onto the top spot for five years.
He was the first man in tennis history to win the calendar year grand slam. He completed the sweep in 1938.
Budge won the U.S. Open in 1937 and 1938 and played in the finals in 1936, losing to Fred Perry 2-6, 6-2, 8-6, 1-6, 10-8.
In all he played in the Open five times, winning twice, ending with a winning percentage of 88.46.
Like many of the greats of this era, once Budge turned professional, his participation in the slams ceased.
Roy Emerson—Tied for seventh place
Another of the grand Australian champions, Roy Emerson won 12 grand slam titles and is renowned as one of the greatest ever to play the game of tennis.
He was the first male to have won each grand slam title at least twice. His playing days occurred just prior to the Open Era in men’s tennis.
Emerson took pride in his endurance on the courts, being solidly fit. He was primarily a serve and volley player, although he could adapt his game to well on the clay.
During the 1960s, Emerson won the U.S. Open Championship in 1961 and 1964, defeating Rod Laver and Fred Stolle, respectively. He was the runner up to Rod Laver in 1962.
The Aussies ruled the roost back in those days. Emerson participated in 15 U.S. Open Championships, winning twice ending with a winning percentage of 79.03. He also won four doubles championships in New York during his illustrious tennis career.
Bobby Riggs—Tied for 7th place
You may remember the name of “Bobby Riggs” in connection with his “Battle of the Sexes” match against Billie Jean King back in 1973 when Riggs was 55 years of age. His challenge led to much needed favorable publicity for women’s tennis after Billie Jean King won the match.
Still in the 1930s and 1940s, Bobby Riggs was ranked World No. 1 for three years.
He won the Wimbledon title in 1939 by defeating Elwood Cooke of the United States in five sets––having supposedly bet on himself to capture all three titles at Wimbledon that year. He did!
Riggs appeared in the the U.S. Open finals three consecutive years from 1939-1941. He won the Championship in 1939, defeating Welby Van Horn and in 1941, by defeating Frank Kovacs. Riggs was the runner-up in 1940 to Don McNeil.
This colorful character was a great U.S. Open champion.
Jack Kramer —Tied for seventh place
This man probably did more for modern tennis than anyone living or dead. Kramer fought hard to establish “Open” tennis for amateurs and professionals so that there was only one tour and the best tennis players met and played each other for equal prize money.
It took him until 1968 to usher in the “Open” era in tennis. In the early days, once a player turned professional he could no longer compete at the slams. Very often the best players were absent from those important and historic events.
Kramer also was responsible for founding the ATP.
At 6'2," Kramer brought in the style of play that many modern players adopted––the serve and volley.
His powerful serve and his net play make many regard him as one the best tennis players ever on the men’s side of the game.
Kramer won the U.S. Open Championship in 1946-1947, defeating Tom Brown and Frank Parker, respectively. He was runner up on the grass in New York in 1943 to Joseph Hunt. During World War II, Kramer continued playing while serving in the United States Coast Guard.
Frank Parker—Tied for fourth place
What distinguishes Frank Parker from other Champions besides his multiple appearances and wins at the U.S. Open? He is one of the few men in the history of the game who managed to win both the French Open and the U.S. Open during his career.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Parker won the U.S. Open in 1944 and 1945. He was the runner up in 1942 to Ted Schroeder and in 1947 to Jack Kramer.
He won his U.S. Open Championships while serving as a Sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Force.
His career in tennis was a long one for that era lasting from 1933-1949 and he was known for his remarkable all-court game.
Ken Rosewall—Tied for 4th place
Ken Rosewall was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1934 and began playing tennis in 1949.
He enjoyed a long and distinguished career in tennis despite standing only 5'7." In fact, Rosewall was ranked in the top 20 from 1952 through 1977. He spent several years as the World No. 1 in the early 1960s.
He was a natural left-hander, who learned to play right-handed. His backhand was his chief weapon. His foot speed and his net play made him a dreaded opponent and a frequent winner on tour.
Rosewall won the U.S. Open in 1956 and again in 1970. The long void between victories was due to the fact that Rosewall turned professional in 1957 and could not play in the Open until the “Open” era became a reality in 1968.
The Australian was a runner-up 1955 and 1974. It is pretty obvious that longevity was not a problem for the wiry Rosewall.
In all, Rosewall competed in 12 U.S. Open Championships, winning two of them. His winning percentage stood at 85.07.
Rod Laver—Tied for fourth place
The name that comes up in all tennis “GOAT” discussions is "Rocket" Rod Laver from Australia.
He was the World No. 1 player for seven consecutive years. His record is somewhat obscured by the fact that the talented Aussie spanned both eras, ending in “Open” era, thankfully. That helped him add to his impressive accomplishments in winning slam events, ending with 11 total slam victories.
Laver is the last male player to win the calendar year grand slam and the only one to accomplish it in the modern era. Laver remains the only man in the history of the game to have won two calendar year grand slams. Like Emerson, Laver has won each grand slam title at least twice.
Laver won the U.S. Open in 1962 and 1969, defeating Roy Emerson and Tony Roche, respectively.
The Aussie was the runner-up at the Championships, losing to Neale Frasier in 1960 and Roy Emerson in 1961. In total Laver participated in 12 U.S. Open tournaments with a winning percentage of 81.48.
Fred Perry—third Place
Fred Perry was born in Stockport, Chesire, and played tennis primarily during the 1930s representing the United Kingdom.
Perry was the No. 1 ranked player in the world from 1934 to 1938 turning professional in 1936. During his professional career, Perry won eight slams including three Wimbledon titles, three U.S. Open Championships, plus one Australian Open and one French Open.
He is one of six men in the history of the men’s game who has won all four grand slam championships.
Of course, we all know that Perry was the last Brit to win a slam because that fact is never overlooked when the UK’s Andy Murray enters and progresses through the draw in any slam event. It is part of the annual pressure applied to the lanky Scot.
Perry won the U.S. Open Championship in 1933, 1934, and 1936. In all the Brit played in six U.S. Opens, winning three of them. His winning percentage stood at 89.47.
Perry retired from the game in 1939.
William "Bill" Johnston—second Place
“Little Bill” Johnston was considered the best tennis player from the United States until “Big Bill” Tilden took over that spot and began to defeat Johnston regularly.
Johnston's slight frame and his frail health deceived opponents because Johnston possessed a wicked forehand, which was long considered the best of all time until Pancho Segura introduced the two-handed forehand into the game.
Tilden and Johnston battled it out in six U.S. Open Championships against each other with Tilden winning five of them.
Together they also secured seven consecutive U.S. Davis Cup Championships which remains a record today.
In addition to winning two U.S. Open Championships in 1915 and 1919, Johnston also won the Wimbledon trophy in 1923.
Bill Tilden—first Place in the Pre-Open Era of U.S. Open Champions
This 1920s tennis phenom's life story reads like a Tim Burton script for a cinematic bio starring Johnny Depp––following in the remarkable footsteps of Ed Wood.
Tilden was flamboyant, to say the least. Yet, perhaps, he was also one of the greatest ever to play the game from the United States––maybe from anywhere.
Tilden played in U.S. Open 14 times, winning it seven times. His winning percentage was fixed at 90.79.
Throughout his playing career on the grass at Forest Hills, Tilden won the U.S. Open consecutively for six years from 1920-1925. He won his last Open in 1929 but played his last tournament in 1930 when he ended his amateur career.
Though his life ended without honor and dignity, his tennis career should never be overlooked. He was one of the greatest U.S. Open champions to play the game.
Stefan Edberg—Tied for eighth place in the Open Era
Stefan Edberg overcame his abhorrence of the U.S. Open to finally conquer the courts and the crowds to win the tournament.
Prior to his first win, Edberg felt jinxed by the tournament. He played at the U.S. Open 14 straight years with an overall 78.2 winning percentage (43-12).
In 1991, No. 2 seed Edberg defeated No. 4 seed Jim Courier 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 to finally win this elusive title. It was an impressive win for the Swede, who also thrived on the grass courts.
The following year the Swede defeated Pete Sampras 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2 for his second consecutive U.S. Open Championship.
These were the years when the Swede Edberg enjoyed his greatest victories.
Patrick Rafter—Tied for eighth place in the Open Era
Another Australian finally won the U.S. Open with a patented serve and volley game. It had to do their hearts good—those former Aussie greats.
Patrick Rafter played at the U.S. Open from 1993 through 2001, winning consecutive championships in 1997-1998.
The Aussie owned a 74.1 winning percentage (20-7) at the U.S. Open during those years.
In 1997, Rafter defeated Greg Rusedski of the UK 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 in four sets to capture his first U.S. Open title. It was a highlight in the young Aussie's career.
On his way to that final Rafter had disposed of Andre Agassi and Michael Chang. It was the Aussie’s first grand slam championship. In 1998, the Aussie defeated countryman Mark Philippoussis to win his second consecutive U.S. Open title.
Rafter would not make it to another U.S. Open final.
Bjorn Borg—seventh place in the Open Era
Borg had horrendous luck every time he came to play in New York––the Big Apple.
From wounded thumbs to bad seeding, Borg considered never winning the U.S. Open a matter of bad luck, more than anything else.
Nonetheless, Borg continued to come, always hoping a win at the U.S. Open would usher in an opportunity to capture a calendar year slam.
Borg played in nine U.S. Open tournaments, ending up with a winning percentage of 81.6––making the finals four times.
Borg lost twice to Jimmy Connors in 1976 and 1978 and then twice to John McEnroe 1980 and 1981.
Making the finals, which the Swede did four times, is something few others have accomplished in the modern era.
Andre Agassi—sixth place in the Open Era
Andre Agassi, is the man who exemplified the American fighting spirit––the athlete who refused to quit.
His complicated professional life in tennis mirrors many young men who come to prominence in their sport before they have the maturity to deal with all the fame. Yet, despite his early mistakes, Agassi redeemed himself by reclaiming his sport and fighting to make it better by example.
He appeared at the U.S. Open 21 consecutive years with an 80.6 total winning percentage (79-19). He played his first U.S. Open at age 16 in 1986 and his last in 2006 at age 36. In the end Agassi remained a favorite of the New York crowds, who grew to embrace this champion as Agassi matured.
His first U.S. Open victory came in 1994 as Agassi defeated German Michael Stich 6-1, 7-6, 7-5. Then in 1999, Agassi came out on top against fellow American Todd Martin 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2 in a thrilling five-set match, which Agassi refused to lose.
Agassi lost three times in finals to fellow American Pete Sampras in 1990, 1995, and 2002 when Sampras played his final match at the U.S. Open.
Agassi also lost in his last final appearance against Roger Federer in 2005 when Federer won his second consecutive New York title.
Agassi will always be remembered for his competitive spirit, his brilliant return game, and his aggressive ground strokes.
John McEnroe—fifth place in the Open Era
No one brought more drama to the courts in Flushing Meadows than New Yorker, John McEnroe. His brazen behavior and his hot temper were either adored or abhorred by the fans who watched his meltdowns over line calls and umpire overrules.
McEnroe competed 16 times at the U.S. Open with an 84.6 winning percentage (66-12).
Johnny Mac played his first U.S. Open in 1977 and his last in 1992. He won four championships, three consecutively from 1979-1981 and another in 1984.
In 1979 McEnroe defeated fellow New Yorker and best friend Vitas Gerulaitis in the final 7-5, 6-3, 6-3. It marked McEnroe’s first slam victory at age 20.
In 1980, it would not be quite so easy as McEnroe faced Bjorn Borg in the final enduring five grueling sets before he won 7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4. McEnroe had just lost a five-setter against Borg at Wimbledon and felt he had something to prove.
In 1981 when McEnroe again faced Borg, the match was not nearly so competitive but it turned out to remarkable for another reason. When Borg lost 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 to McEnroe, he walked away from professional tennis.
McEnroe won the battle, forever denying Borg a win at the U.S. Open but the price was steep for the men’s tour as they lost their most popular player at the time.In 1984,
McEnroe returned to Flushing Meadows for his final U.S. Open title––in fact his final slam victory. He defeated Ivan Lendl 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 in the men’s finals.The following year Lendl would defeat McEnroe 7-6, 6-3, 6-4.
The Czech would reign for three years at the U.S. Open. After 1985 McEnroe would never reach another U.S. Open final, playing his last singles match there in 1992.
Johnny Mac will always be remembered as one of the most colorful and explosive American players, who loved the rowdy crowds in New York.
Ivan Lendl––fourth place in the Open Era
Ivan Lendl not only appeared in eight U.S. Open finals, he appeared in eight consecutive finals, winning three times successively in the middle of his run.
Lendl earned an 84.9 (73-13) winning percentage at the U.S. Open. From 1982 through 1989, Lendl appeared on the final day, determined to win another championship. From 1985-1987, Lendl did just that.
In 1985 Lendl defeated John McEnroe in the final 7-6, 6-3, 6-4. It was the beginning of the end for McEnroe after reaching his peak in 1984.
Lendl was just coming into his period of dominance on the men’s tour. In 1986 Lendl defeated the "Cat," Miloslav Mecir––a man nobody wished to face during the eighties. Lendl, however, won easily that day 6-4, 6-2, 6-0 seeming to prove that Mecir often faded in the big moments.
However, 1987 would prove to be Lendl’s last win in New York as he defeated the Swede Mats Wilander, who would take away Lendl’s crown and also his No. 1 ranking a year later. The four-set match lasted over four hours with Lendl finally wrestling it away from Wilander 6-7, 6-0, 7-6, 6-4.
All told, Lendl competed in 16 U.S. Open tournaments, making the finals in half of them. It is a remarkable record for the Czech, making him one of the greatest U.S. Open champions.
Roger Federer––third place in the Open Era
To say that Roger Federer has competed well on the DecoTurf surface covering Arthur Ashe Stadium, is an understatement of immense proportions.
Federer has won five of the last six finals there, losing only last year in five sets to Argentine Juan Martin del Potro.
To date, Roger Federer is the only active player on our list of champions of the U.S. Open. Like Sampras and Connors, the Swiss has won five single’s championships, but Federer’s were consecutive wins. It is worth noting that Federer is the only man in the modern era to accomplish this feat.
Federer to date has played in 10 U.S. Open tournaments with a 91.2 winning percentage (52-5)––the highest on record.
Federer won his first U.S. Open in 2004 against Lleyton Hewitt 6-0,7-6, 6-0. It was an impressive outing and first victory in New York for the No. 1 seed.
In 2005 the Swiss overcame Andre Agassi, and in 2006 he defeated American Andy Roddick. In 2007 he met and triumphed over Novak Djokovic of Serbia, and in 2008 he faced Scot Andy Murray, defeating him in straight sets.
As Federer gets ready to begin his 11th U.S. Open, his ranking in this list could very well change with another win or two added to his impressive total. The future for Federer in terms of the U.S. Open is not yet written.
Jimmy Connors––second place in the Open Era
Jimmy Connors was a man driven to win at all odds. He pumped himself up by imagining that everything and everybody was against him. That mindset helped Connors to become a force in tennis for many, many years.
Connors won five of his seven final appearances at the U.S. Open with an 85.2 total winning percentage (98-17).
He is the only male in the history of the Open to have won the title on three different surfaces––on grass, clay, and hard courts.
He won his first title in 1974 and his last in 1983. Connors played in 22 U.S. Opens starting in 1970 and he played his last in 1992 as he turned 40.
Jimbo loved playing in New York where he enjoyed his greatest success on tour even though at times he resented the lack of respect he detected from the American press when his career seemed down and out to them.
In 1974, Connors won three of the four majors, electing not to play at the French. It was his first U.S. Open final and he smoked Ken Rosewall 6-1, 6-0, 6-1.
His next two wins in 1976 on clay and 1978 on hard courts came against another Connors arch-rival, Bjorn Borg. The next time the two met in 1978, Borg suffered from a blistered thumb and could not play very well as Connors won fairly easily 6-4, 6-2, 6-2.
Connors went on to win another two finals against another No. 1 player, Ivan Lendl in 1982 and 1983, both four-setters. Lendl was beginning his climb to world prominence in the early eighties.
Jimbo also lost two finals at the U.S. Open against Michael Orantes of Spain in 1975 and against Guillermo Vilas of Argentina in 1977.
Connors will always have a place in the hearts of Americans as one of their greatest players.
Pete Sampras––first place in the Open Era
Although most fans associate the Sampras aura with Wimbledon, his success at the U.S. Open remains truly remarkable. His appearance in eight finals is a record that will be hard to match, although Federer is still active and within two of reaching that mark.
In the Open era Sampras, with five championships, remains tied with Jimmy Connors and Roger Federer for the most victories at the U.S. Open, where Sampras holds an 88.75 winning percentage (71-9).
Sampras played at the U.S. Open 14 times, beginning in 1988, missing only one appearance in 1999 due to injury.
Sampras won his first title at age 19 and his last at age 31, both at the U.S. Open. In 1990, Sampras captured his first win over Andre Agassi in straight sets 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. Pistol Pete won his second U.S. Open title in 1993 over France’s Cedric Pioline, seeded 15th. Sampras won back-to-back championships in 1995-1996 defeating fellow American Andre Agassi.
In 1996 Sampras defeated Michael Chang 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 to pick up his fourth U.S. Open title. The next title would not happen for six long years and would mark Sampras' fifth and final U.S. Open title in 2002. Standing across the net was the man he had beaten twice before for the title, Agassi.
The two Americans fought hard for four sets with Sampras coming out on top. After the 2002 U.S. Open concluded, Sampras decided to call it a career after winning his 14th major.
To date, Sampras holds the mantle in the eyes of most tennis authorities as the best so far to play the game of tennis at the U.S. Open on the center court at the Billie Jean National Tennis Center.