Ranking the 10 Greatest American Men's Tennis Players in History

Jeffrey Ruth@@ruthjeffreyaFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2013

Ranking the 10 Greatest American Men's Tennis Players in History

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    It's not easy to pick the greatest American men's tennis players, let alone rank them.

    There are just so many to choose from.

    From the advent of the sport to just recently, Americans could be found at the very top. Unfortunately, it is not just Monte Burke of Forbes that is pining for the past, given the recent dearth of homegrown champions.

    The past players' records and longevity have set high standards for others to admire and strive for. With the U.S. Open just on the horizon, it's time to take a look back—even as fans begin to look ahead to the next great American player.

    So, what constitutes greatness? It is a complex algorithm of rankings, Grand Slam tournament victories and consecutive results. Some of the players possess one of these more than the others, and a few of them hold varying degrees of all qualities.

    For the purposes of ranking this group, a nod is given not only to numbers of Grand Slam championships, but also to being more versatile when claiming these victories. In other words, it is worth more to have won four Slams in total at two events than to have won four at only one venue.

    With that in mind, here are the greatest American men's tennis players.

No. 10 Bill Johnston

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    It is easy to consider Bill Johnston when thinking about great American tennis. He stood with the flag year after year.

    According to his profile for the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Johnston played for the United States Davis Cup team that won seven consecutive championships. This patriotic play, however, doesn't tell the story of greatness for the diminutive "Little Bill."

    He won the United States National Championships in 1915 and 1919, then claimed a Wimbledon title in 1923. Even the famed Bill Tilden fell to Johnston in the 1919 U.S. final, adding even stronger support to Johnston's claim for a place on this list.

    Finalizing out his spot as one of America's best is his ranking as the top player in the world, for a time.

    In addition to all this, even Johnston's character is tops, as the USTA annually awards the William M. Johnston award for sportsmanlike traits and manners.

    All-in-all, Johnston is a great player to start the discussion of America's best men's tennis players of all time.

No. 9: Frank Parker

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    During his time at the top, Frank Parker won four Grand Slam titles, two each at Roland Garros and in the United States.

    Two victories on clay and two on grass at this level is more than enough to nominate Parker for the shortlist of the best American players.

    An interesting side note to his results is the fact that his U.S. national titles were won while he was serving the U.S. Army Air Forces as a sergeant. What could be more impressive than winning those tournaments in 1944 and 1945 while World War II was raging?

    Richard Goldstein of the New York Times related in an obituary of Parker how, in 1945, he actually caught a 9,000-mile bomber ride home to defend his U.S. title!

    He also played on the American Davis Cup team in 1937, 1939, 1946 and 1948.

    All of this adds up to a No. 9 placement in the greatest American men's tennis players.

No. 8: Jim Courier

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    Like Parker, Jim Courier won four Slam titles at two venues.

    However, in addition to Courier's wins at Australia and France, he also reached finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Therefore he ranks higher.

    Championship tennis followed Courier when he pursued team events, too. He not only participated on six Davis Cup teams, but played on the championship-winning teams of 1992 and 1995. Seeing him surrounded by the stars and stripes only seems to make sense when trying to make a list of America's greatest.

    A final item of mention on Courier's playing dossier is his year-end ranking of No. 1 in the world for 1992. A wonderful side note exists to this achievement.

    Courier said of getting to No. 1: "I just wanted to get there for one week, just to say I'd been to the top of the mountain."

No. 7: Tony Trabert

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    Tony Trabert claimed five Grand Slam titles, including two French, a Wimbledon, and two U.S. successes, during a relatively short career.

    In 1955, Trabert nearly pulled off the calendar-year Slam, missing out only in Australia.

    Though that feat would have moved Trabert well up the list of greatest American men's tennis players, he still qualifies for No. 7.

    He has even served as the president of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, according to Melissa Segura of SI.com.

No. 6: John McEnroe

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    John McEnroe was a star from the moment he emerged into the professional ranks.

    He would end his career holding seven Grand Slam titles, and would have moved up higher in the ranks of America's greatest had he held on to his lead in the 1984 French Open final.

    The fact that McEnroe played during the era of greats Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors only reinforces how amazing it was that he was able to hold so many Slam trophies. Perhaps because of this, Sports Illustrated declared him the ninth-best men's tennis player of all time, of any country.

    This earns him the spot of No. 6 among American men's players. There is just stronger competition ahead of him.

No. 5: Bill Tilden

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    Tilden upped the ante when it came to making this list.

    He won 10 Grand Slam championships, including seven U.S. national titles. He was also on the United States Davis Cup team that won seven consecutive championships.

    Tilden's biography for the International Tennis Hall of Fame includes this amazing tidbit: all of the above came during a 10-year period. When it comes to describing this accomplishment, the bio has it right by noting he "reigned supreme over the world of tennis in the 1920s."

    ESPN.com notes that in 1950 the Associated Press voted him the greatest tennis player of the first half of the 20th century. He remains the No. 5 player on the list of American greats, however.

    The AP at the time couldn't have foreseen some of the players who would arrive in time for the rest of the 20th century.

No. 4: Jimmy Connors

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    If sheer emotional value attached to a player's name and matches were the determining factor in this list, Connors may very well have been at the top.

    His fight to win, every time he stepped on the court, resulted in an amazing 109 tournament victories. Eight of those were Slam titles, only missing out on the French Open, like McEnroe. Sadly for Connors, though, he wasn't allowed to play in Paris during his best year of 1974. He just may have won the calendar-year Grand Slam.

    However, what is especially notable is that Connors is the only player to have won the U.S. title on all three of its surfaces, grass, clay and hard.

    In addition to all this, he was the world's top-ranked player for five straight years, from 1974-1978.

    Not bad for being the No. 4 American men's player of all time.

No. 3: Andre Agassi

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    Like Connors, Andre Agassi won eight Slam titles. Unlike Connors, Agassi managed to win all four of the majors at least once.

    The career Grand Slam is more than enough to take him way up on this list. In fact, Matt Wilansky of ESPN once postulated that this accomplishment may just rival—or overcome—Pete Sampras' mark of 14 Slam titles.

    Then add to that an Olympic gold medal.

    And 101 weeks spent as the world's No. 1 player.

    The list seems to go on and on. It is no underestimation to claim that Agassi is "one of the greatest athletes of the sport," as the International Tennis Hall of Fame's website states.

    Yet even with all of the accolades, there are two American players that are even greater.

No. 2: Don Budge

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    Fans of Agassi may point out that Don Budge won fewer Grand Slam titles than him, but there is something very special about Budge's achievement.

    In 1938, he won all four major championships, completing the calendar-year Slam.

    In addition, all of his Slam victories came in a two-year period. He absolutely dominated world tennis—not just American tennis—during that time. It is easy to make the argument that Budge could be the best American men's tennis player of all time.

    It would have been even easier to believe that, had Budge played longer. His short career was absolutely stellar, and it is not difficult to assume that he would have won many, many more Grand Slam titles.

    Maybe even as many as the No. 1 on this list.

No. 1: Pete Sampras

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    The image of Pete Sampras standing before American flags with the U.S. Open trophy in his hands is iconic—and telling.

    He is the greatest American men's tennis player there ever was.

    His 14 Grand Slam titles are as many as Don Budge and Andre Agassi won put together. Therefore, it trumps even Budge's calendar-year Slam. While never winning the French Open, the sheer volume of success at the highest levels of tennis must be acknowledged.

    Sampras also spent six consecutive years at the pinnacle of world tennis as the No. 1 player. What could possibly add to all of this?

    He departed on a high note, winning his very last match. It was his fifth U.S. Open title and, according to Jim Courier, "a perfect punctuation point on his career."


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