The 10 Greatest Wimbledon Finals of All Time

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistJuly 3, 2013

The 10 Greatest Wimbledon Finals of All Time

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    The 89 years between Suzanne Lenglen's classic 1919 victory and Rafael Nadal's riveting 2008 triumph provide reams of material to debate which 10 Wimbledon finals were the greatest of all time.

    Greatness, by our definition, results from a combination of excitement, tennis excellence, tight competition and memorable moments. All four were present in many title matches of the world's most prestigious tennis event,Wimbledon. However, 10 finals stand above the rest.

    While ranking the greatest finals in Wimbledon history, we decided not to include any player in more than one match. That limits the inclusion of Nadal and Roger Federer to only their best Wimbledon finals, a difficult choice indeed.

    Perhaps this year's men's or women's finals will produce a legendary match. For now, our countdown of the top 10 Wimbledon finals is as follows.

10. Steffi Graf over Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 1995

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    An epic and pivotal 32-point game in the third set enabled the 1995 women's final to edge out Martina Navratilova's 1978 three-set victory over Chris Evert for the final spot on our list.

    Although the rivalry between Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario never quite reached the level of Evert-Navratilova, Graf and Vicario were the preeminent players in 1995. They had already exchanged the world No. 1 ranking six times that year before meeting in their classic Wimbledon final.

    The New York Times' report of the match called it "an outstanding final that deserves to be remembered as much for the superior quality of play as for the daring and stamina of its contestants,"

    The most riveting part of the match came in the third set, with Vicario serving at 5-5.  The 11th game lasted 20 minutes and included 13 deuces. Vicario had eight game points and Graf six.

    Graf eventually broke serve on the 32nd point of the game, then held serve to complete a 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 victory. 

9. Bill Tilden over Brian Norton, 1921

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    Bill Tilden's comeback under difficult circumstances in his 1921 challenge-round match against Brian I.C. Norton earns it a spot on the list.

    Tilden was the defending champion, so, according to the rules of the day, he merely had to beat the winner of the all-comers tournament to retain his title.

    Fans had begun lining up at 4 a.m. for a seat to the title match, according to a Sports Illustrated article, and Tilden was a heavy favorite.

    Norton stunned them by winning the first two sets. The Sports Illustrated article suggested that rumors began flying that Tilden had deliberately given away the first two sets because he had made a bet that he could beat Norton after being down two sets.

    In fact, few knew of Tilden's physical problems. Three weeks earlier, he had come down with a high fever and a severe case of boils, causing his doctor to tell him he could not play tennis. Tilden played the Wimbledon challenge-round match despite those warnings and rallied to take the next two sets easily.

    Norton had a match point at 5-4 in the fifth. Tilden saved it by hitting a shot that landed on the line, although he was already approaching the net to shake hands, thinking the ball would be out. Tilden saved another match point one point later and eventually won 4-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-0, 7-5.

8. Arthur Ashe over Jimmy Connors, 1975

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    Arthur Ashe's 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 victory over Jimmy Connors in the 1975 final may not have been the best finals in terms of tennis excellence. But it was intriguing enough for other reasons to deserve a spot in our top 10.

    From a personal perspective, it resonated because they were not friends. Two weeks earlier, Connors had announced a $5 million libel suit against Ashe for Ashe's criticism of Connors' refusal to join the U.S. Davis Cup team, according to

    However, the most enduring aspect of the match was the surprising outcome and the clever strategy Ashe used to achieve it.

    Connors was an overwhelming 3-to-20 betting favorite, according to the article. In fact, he was a 9-to-10 favorite to win in straight sets. 

    Ashe, then 31, was in the Wimbledon final for the first time, making it as the No. 6 seed following a five-set victory over Tony Roche in the semifinals. The 22-year-old, top-seeded Connors had not lost a set en route to the final and had lost only six games while beating Ken Rosewall in the 1974 Wimbledon final.

    But against Connors, Ashe took the pace off his shots, relying on angles and finesse to frustrate Connors' powerful groundstrokes. Ashe's insightful strategy alone made it one of the great Wimbledon finals.

    A 2011 New York Times article extolled the brilliance of Ashe's strategy, while wondering whether such an approach would work today.

7. Helen Wills Moody over Helen Jacobs, 1935

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    Helen Wills Moody and Helen Jacobs were rivals much like Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were.

    Wills and Jacobs both grew up in Berkeley, California. Both went to the University of California at Berkeley. They even had the same coach, Pop Fuller, according to a Los Angeles Times obituary on Jacobs.  Jacobs' family moved into a house in Berkeley that had been vacated by Wills family.

    They met in the finals of seven Grand Slam events. Jacobs' only victory in those seven matches came when Wills retired from the 1933 U.S. Championships title match because of a back injury, with Jacobs leading 3-0 in the third set. Wills was so upset by the criticism she received that she never played the U.S. Championships again.

    Wills won all four of their encounters in the finals at Wimbledon, but Jacobs nearly pulled off the upset in 1935. It was Wills' first Grand Slam tournament since her controversial default in the U.S. Championships two years earlier.

    Jacobs, then 26 years old, held a match point in the third set, and when Wills sent up a weak lob, Jacobs needed only to hit an easy winner to take her first Wimbledon title.

    But, according to Bud Collins in that Los Angeles Times article, a gust of wind blew the ball as Jacobs was about to hit her match-ending smash. Jacobs ended up on her knees on the follow through as she tried to track the wayward ball. She ended up tapping it harmlessly into the net.

    Wills, 29, went on to win 6-3, 3-6, 7-5.

6. Venus Williams over Lindsay Davenport, 2005

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    Venus Williams' 4-6, 7-6, 9-7 victory over Lindsay Davenport in the 2005 final lasted two hours, 45 minutes, making it the longest women's final in Wimbledon history.

    However, it wasn't just the match's length that made it great.

    Davenport was the No. 1-ranked player in the world at the time, and Williams, despite having won Wimbledon in 2000 and 2001, had slipped all the way to No. 16. She was seeded No. 14 for Wimbledon and became the lowest-seeded female player to win it.

    Davenport let a 4-2, 40-15 lead slip away in the third set of the taut match, and she had to leave the court soon thereafter because of a back injury. Not long after Davenport returned, she had a match point at 4-5 on Williams' serve. Williams saved it with a blistering backhand down the line and went on to win.

5. Suzanne Lenglen over Dorthea Lambert Chambers, 1919

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    Suzanne Lenglen was just 20 years old and playing in her first grass-court event in 1919 when she took on Dorthea Lambert Chambers, who was 40 years old and had won seven straight Wimbledon titles.

    At the time, the defending champion (Chambers) was automatically placed into the championship match against the winner of the main draw (Lenglen). 

    The king and queen of England were part of the huge crowd for this much-anticipated title match between the staid defending champ and the brazen, young, short-skirted French challenger, according to Sports Illustrated. 

    Chambers was on the verge of winning the taut match when she had a double match point at 6-5, 40-15 in the third set. Lenglen staved off the first match point by hitting a lucky volley off the wood, then hit a backhand winner to save the second, according to the Oxford Dictionary.

    Lenglen eventually won 10-8, 4-6, 9-7, beginning a run of five straight Wimbledon championships and a total of six.

4. Margaret Court over Billie Jean King, 1970

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    It took Margaret Court seven match points to finish off the longest women's Wimbledon final in history in terms of games played. And it lasted only two sets.

    Her 14-12, 11-9 victory over Billie Jean King in that 1970 final had all the elements needed for an unforgettable sporting event.

    Both players competed with injuries. Court played with an ankle problem that required an injection of pain killers, and King had a knee ailment that would need surgery a few weeks later, according to excerpts from the book Great Sporting Rivals.

    But that did not prevent them from playing extraordinary, compelling tennis.  King saved the first match point against her at 6-7 of the second set, and, at 9-10, she saved two more match points after trailing 15-40.

    On her seventh match point, Court finally won the title in the match's 46th game. No other Wimbledon women's final before or since has lasted more than 44 games.

    Court  went on to win the U.S. Open to complete a Grand Slam in 1970.

3. Goran Ivanisevic over Patrick Rafter, 2001

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    The wild atmosphere for the 2001 final was as significant as the riveting five-set match.

    Unseeded Goran Ivanisevic, who that year would become the first wild-card entry to win Wimbledon, had been the crowd favorite all week. But a large contingent of Aussie fans was on hand to support Patrick Rafter. And they were loud.

    The BBC called it "the most raucous crowd a Wimbledon final has ever seen," and a Sports Illustrated article described the scene as follows:

    Centre Court had never seen anything like it at a final. Instead of rows of middle-aged men and women politely clapping, there was a sea of silly hats, inflatable kangaroos and young people out to enjoy themselves. Chanting started well before the match, setting the tone for an occasion that was more Wembley than Wimbledon.

    Because rain had delayed the finals until Monday,10,000 tickets were handed out on a first come, first served basis. A line of sleeping bags three miles long waited Monday morning to get a seat.  It led to a different kind of Wimbledon crowd.

    The match see-sawed one way, then the other, as the two serve-and-volley players traded winners and streaks.

    Rafter saved three match points in the 16th game of the final set before Ivanisevic capitalized on the fourth, winning 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7.

    "So many Australian fans, Croatians. I mean, it was like a football match," Ivanisevic said after the match, according to the Sports Illustrated article.

    Atmosphere plays an important role in making a sporting event great, and the atmosphere for the 2001 finals was unmatched.

2. Bjorn Borg over John McEnroe, 1980

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    The 22-minute, 34-point, fourth-set tiebreaker in the 1980 finals between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg trumps all challengers in terms of entertainment value.

    That tie-breaker alone guarantees the contest a lofty spot among the best Wimbledon finals ever. But was it the greatest match in a Wimbledon finals? It's a tough call, because other matches had more sustained tennis excellence than Borg's 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6 victory over McEnroe.

    Long-time New York Times tennis writer Neil Amdur was enthralled by Rafael Nadal's 2008 victory over Roger Federer.

    "But," he wrote in the New York Times in 2011, "after watching chunks of the 3:53 McEnroe-Borg final at an HBO screening, I am tempted again to reaffirm its place as the sport's single most compelling piece of court magic."

    The match had plenty of intrigue simply because of the contrasting styles and personas of the world's top two players. However, the match hit a new level in the seemingly endless tiebreaker.

    McEnroe, who had survived a double match point against him earlier in the fourth set, fought off five more match points in the tiebreaker. Borg, meanwhile, survived six set points against him in the tiebreaker, which included five side changes.

    Finally, on McEnroe's seventh set point, Borg netted a volley, ending a tiebreaker that had lasted only five minutes less than the entire first set.

    "The drama of the 18-16 fourth set tie breaker in McEnroe-Borg was like a riveting, unscripted theatrical experience," Amdur wrote.

    Borg's resilience in winning the fifth set 8-6 added to the match's lore, but did not match the compelling tiebreaker as a memorable experience.

1. Rafael Nadal over Roger Federer, 2008

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    Roger Federer's 2007 five-set victory over Rafael Nadal probably would be on this list if we allowed players to be included twice in our top 10.

    But their 2008 matchup was even better. Events coalesced on July 6, 2008, to create, in many minds, the greatest match ever played anywhere.

    Nadal and Federer had already developed an appealing rivalry, and Federer had dominated Wimbledon, having won the previous five Wimbledon titles in a row, His epic five-set victory over Nadal in the 2007 final heightened the anticipation for their 2008 meeting.

    They responded with four hours and 48 minutes of classic tennis, the longest final in Wimbledon history. Adding to the splendor of Nadal's 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (6-8), 9-7 victory was that it ended at 9:16 p.m., in a shroud of darkness.

    "Last year's emotional tussle immediately took its place among the best Wimbledon finals, but this five-set classic - played on a rainy, gusty day - was better yet," the New York Times reported.

    Federer fought off two match points against him in the fourth set, and the match was twice interrupted by rain. But the caliber of the tennis never waned. Federer finished the match with 89 winners, and he still lost.

    "This is the greatest match I've ever seen," John McEnroe said, according to The Telegraph.

    It is the sustained excellence of play over the entire five sets that earned this match the nod over the 1980 McEnroe-Borg classic as the greatest Wimbledon finals in history.