Ranking the Greatest Champions in Wimbledon History

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistJuly 1, 2015

Ranking the Greatest Champions in Wimbledon History

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    Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rod Laver
    Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rod LaverPool/Getty Images

    Roger Federer is shooting for his eighth Wimbledon title this year. Serena Williams is going for her sixth. With those credentials, they belong in the discussion regarding the greatest Wimbledon champions. But does either rank at the very top?

    In our ranking of the greatest champions in Wimbledon history, we considered only players who won Wimbledon titles in the Open Era (since 1968). However, we included two players who won Wimbledon titles in both the pre-Open Era and the Open Era.

    This excludes pre-Open Era stars such as Helen Wills (eight Wimbledon singles titles), Suzanne Lenglen (who never lost a completed Wimbledon singles match) and Bill Tilden (who won his last Wimbledon title at age 37).

    The rankings are based primarily on the number of Wimbledon singles titles won, although consideration also was given to the quality of the opposition, the dominance the player demonstrated at Wimbledon and the player's overall fame as measured by the Tennis Channel's 2012 rankings of the 100 greatest players of all time. In some cases, factors that made a player's accomplishment special were included in the evaluation.

    We pared the candidates down to a dozen then ranked the 12 greatest champions in Wimbledon history.

12. Chris Evert

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    Wimbledon titles: Three (1974, 1976, 1981)

    Chris Evert was almost unbeatable on clay during her prime years, but she had the misfortune of playing in an era occupied by perhaps the best women's grass-court player in history, Martina Navratilova. Evert reached the Wimbledon final 10 times but won only three titles, losing to Navratilova all five times the two met in the tournament's climax.

    However, Evert did beat Navratilova in the 1976 semifinals before taking out Evonne Goolagong Cawley in the final for her second Wimbledon crown. Evert was only 21 at the time, but she would win Wimbledon on just one more occasion.

    Evert's run through the 1981 tournament was by far her most impressive. She did not lose a set during the tournament and lost no more than four games in any of her final four matches. She took apart Hana Mandlikova 6-2, 6-2 in the final. Mandlikova had already done Evert a favor by beating Navratilova in the semifinals.

    Although grass was Evert's least favorite surface, she was able to challenge for the title virtually every year, and she was clearly among tennis' all-time greats. She was placed No. 9 on the Tennis Channel's rankings of the top 100 players in history.

11. Boris Becker

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    DAVE CAULKIN/Associated Press

    Wimbledon titles: Three (1985, 1986, 1989)

    Boris Becker won two Wimbledon titles before he reached his 19th birthday, suggesting he might rule the All England Club like nobody in history. His powerful serve, excellent volley and ability to dive and bounce around the grass court made it appear he would dominate Wimbledon for years to come.

    He won his third Wimbledon title in 1989, still at the tender age of 21, but never won it again.

    Becker's most dramatic Wimbledon title was his first, when, at age 17, he became the youngest male to win Wimbledon and the first unseeded player to do it. He did it with a flamboyant style that made him a spectator's delight.

    His second and third Wimbledon titles were more impressive from a tennis standpoint. Becker knocked off No. 1-seeded Ivan Lendl in straight sets in the 1986 final and defeated No. 1-seeded Lendl and No. 2-seeded Stefan Edberg in his final two matches in 1989, the latter in straight sets.

    Becker's flair was nearly as important as his results in earning him a spot on this list.

10. John McEnroe

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    Wimbledon titles: Three (1981, 1983, 1984)

    Considering the way John McEnroe dominated the 1984 Wimbledon tournament at the age of 25, it's hard to believe he never won the event again. In fact, McEnroe never won any Grand Slam tournament after the age of 25 even though he had one of the most dominating seasons in men's tennis history in 1984.

    McEnroe's epic five-set loss to Bjorn Borg in the 1980 final simply set the stage for his victory over Borg in the 1981 final at the age of 22.  

    After losing to Jimmy Connors in the 1982 Wimbledon final, McEnroe responded with magnificent performances the next two years. He lost only one set in his run through the 1983 Wimbledon, beating overmatched Chris Lewis in the final 6-2, 6-2, 6-2. The next year he again lost only one set on his way to the title, thrashing Connors 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 in the final in perhaps the most impressive exhibition of grass-court tennis in history.

    ''That's the best I've ever played,'' said McEnroe after that match, according to the New York Times.

    McEnroe would win the U.S. Open later that year, giving him two titles and a runner-up finish in the three majors he played during that season. But he would never win another Grand Slam singles title, getting to the final of only one more, the 1987 U.S. Open.

9. Venus Williams

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    Wimbledon titles: Five (2000, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2008)

    Venus Williams' five Wimbledon women's singles titles are tied for the third most in the Open Era, behind only Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf.

    Williams made a habit of playing her best tennis at the All England Club. She was not the top seed in any of her five Wimbledon title runs and was among the top four seeds in only one.

    Williams knocked off the Nos. 1 and 2 players in the world en route to her first title, beating Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport in 2000. However, Williams' championship mettle was best displayed while winning her third and fourth Wimbledon crowns.

    She had lost in the fourth round of the Australian Open and the third round of the French Open when she entered the 2005 Wimbledon event ranked No. 16 and seeded 14th. Williams proceeded to roll through Wimbledon, beating No. 2-ranked Maria Sharapova in the semifinals and No. 1 Davenport in the final.

    In 2007, after two-injury plagued seasons, Williams came into Wimbledon ranked 31st and seeded No. 23. She struggled in the tournament's first week against little-known opponents. But she dominated in the second week, winning her final four matches in straight sets—three of which were against players ranked in the top six. Williams became the lowest seeded player to win a Wimbledon title.

    Five of Williams' seven Grand Slam titles were achieved at Wimbledon. Although she was not as proficient as sister Serena on all surfaces, Venus Williams was and is capable of beating anyone on the grass at Wimbledon.

8. Rod Laver

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    Wimbledon titles: Four (1961, 1962, 1968, 1969)

    There is no telling how many Wimbledons Rod Laver would have won if pros had been allowed to play the tournament in the mid-1960s.

    Laver won four consecutive Wimbledons in which he participated. He won the event during his final two years as an amateur then captured the first two Wimbledons in the Open Era, in 1968 and 1969. His best years, between 1963 and 1967, were spent dominating the pro circuit, a period that covered five Wimbledons he was excluded from playing.

    His 1968 title run was historically important because it was the first Open Wimbledon, as Laver knocked off Arthur Ashe and Tony Roche in the final two matches without the loss of a set.

    His 1962 and 1969 Wimbledon crowns were particularly significant because they were part of his Grand Slam years. He is still the only person to sweep all four major tournaments in the same calendar year twice. In 1969, Laver had to get past Stan Smith, Cliff Drysdale, Ashe and John Newcombe to claim his final Wimbledon title at the age of 30.

    By virtually any measure, Laver ranks as one of tennis' all-time greats. He is No. 2 in the Tennis Channel's 2012 rankings of the top 100 players in history.

7. Bjorn Borg

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    Associated Press

    Wimbledon singles titles: Five (1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980)

    Bjorn Borg won five straight Wimbledon titles, a men's record for consecutive crowns at the All England Club, later matched by Roger Federer. (The record does not include consecutive titles won before 1923, when the defending champion had to win only one match to claim the title.)

    Borg was a mediocre grass-court player when he first played Wimbledon but developed his game to excel on the fast surface. At a time when serve-and-volley players ruled on grass, Borg proved you could win at Wimbledon with outstanding groundstrokes and a serviceable serve and volley.

    He had already won two French Opens by the time he won his first Wimbledon title in 1976, a month past his 20th birthday. Interestingly, that first Wimbledon crown came just a few weeks after his most disappointing French Open performance, when he lost in the quarterfinals.

    Borg won his first Wimbledon title in 1976 without the loss of a set, and no man has done that since. The next year he had to win three five-set matches to take the title, including a marathon victory over Jimmy Connors in the final.

    However, his most memorable Wimbledon title was his last one, in 1980. His riveting 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6 victory over John McEnroe was remarkable not only for the level of play, but for Borg's ability to rebound from the epic 18-16 tiebreaker loss in the fourth set to capture the deciding set. 

6. Billie Jean King

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    Wimbledon titles: Six (1966, 1967, 1968, 1972, 1973, 1975)

    Two of Billie Jean King's six Wimbledon titles came in the pre-Open Era. However, that is less of a factor in women's tennis because there was no pro circuit for women before 1968. All the best women's players were amateurs before tennis became open to the pros.

    King played her best tennis on the grass at Wimbledon. Half of her Grand Slam singles titles were achieved at Wimbledon, and 11 of her 12 major crowns were captured on grass. King's serve-and-volley game was perfectly suited to the fast grass surface.

    King was 22 when she defeated Margaret Court (then Margaret Smith) and Maria Bueno in consecutive matches to win her first Wimbledon title in 1966, and she lost only one set while capturing the Wimbledon crown the next two years as well.

    King beat Chris Evert and Evonne Goolagong Cawley in succession to win the 1972 title and beat the same two in consecutive matches to win Wimbledon the next year.

    However, her defining Wimbledon was in 1975, when King was 31 years old. She trailed Evert 3-0, 40-15 on Evert's serve in the third set before rallying to win that semifinal match, then she dominated Goolagong 6-0, 6-1 in the most lopsided Wimbledon final ever.

    King had proclaimed earlier that the 1975 Wimbledon would be her last major singles tournament, and she did not play singles in any of the next eight majors. However, she would play Wimbledon singles six more times after that, getting as far as the semifinals in her last appearance in 1983 at the age of 39.

5. Serena Williams

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    Wimbledon titles: Five (2002, 2003, 2009, 2010, 2012)

    The final chapter of Serena Williams' story has yet to be written, and she could rise several spots in the ranking of Wimbledon champions before she is through.

    Her five Wimbledon titles over a span of 10 years speak to her longevity and her ability to maintain a high level of play over an extended period. She won her first Wimbledon crown at the age of 20 and her fifth at the age of 30. At age 33, she came into this year's Wimbledon as the favorite to win her sixth Wimbledon crown. If Williams wins it, she would become the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam singles title, being several days older than Martina Navratilova was when she won the 1990 Wimbledon crown.

    A Wimbledon victory would give Williams the first three legs of a calendar-year Grand Slam that she could complete with a win at the U.S. Open. Winning Wimbledon would also give Williams her 21st Grand Slam singles title, leaving her one behind Steffi Graf (the Open Era record-holder) and three behind Margaret Court (who owns the all-time mark).

    Williams has been particularly effective in Grand Slam finals, owning a 20-4 record in title matches, including 5-2 at Wimbledon.

    Williams has given no hints that a decline is imminent. She is still ranked No. 1 by a wide margin, and there is reason to believe she will be the Wimbledon favorite in 2016 and 2017 if she chooses to continue playing.

4. Steffi Graf

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    DAVE CAULKIN/Associated Press

    Wimbledon titles: Seven (1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996)

    Steffi Graf's seven Wimbledon singles championships are the second most among women in the Open Era (behind Martina Navratilova's nine) and the third most overall (also behind Helen Wills' eight).

    Graf's first Wimbledon title, achieved three weeks after her 19th birthday, was the most significant because it was part of Graf's calendar-year Grand Slam in 1988. No one has won all four majors in the same year since.

    In 1988 and 1989, Graf had to beat Martina Navratilova, perhaps the best grass-court player of all time, in the final to claim the titles.

    Graf's most impressive performance came at the 1992 Wimbledon, when she beat No. 3-ranked Gabriela Sabatini 6-3, 6-3 in the semifinals and dominated No. 1-ranked Monica Seles 6-2, 6-1 in the final. Seles had won the first two majors of 1992 but was no match for Graf at the All England Club that day.

    "I think I am playing here the best tennis of my career," Graf said after the match, according to the New York Times.

    Her Wimbledon victories in 1995 and 1996 came during years she won all three Grand Slam events in which she participated. (She forfeited opportunities to complete Grand Slams those years by not playing in the first major of the year, the Australian Open.)

    Graf played in the Wimbledon final nine times, winning all but two. She lost in her first Wimbledon final to Navratilova when Graf was 18 years old, and a 30-year-old Graf was beaten by Lindsay Davenport in the final of her last appearance in a Grand Slam singles event in 1999.

3. Pete Sampras

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    JYTTE NIELSEN/Associated Press

    Wimbledon titles: Seven (1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000)

    Pete Sampras was not the all-court player that Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are today. Sampras never made it to the final of the French Open. However, his big serve-and-volley game was effective on hard courts and perfect for grass.

    Pete Sampras won seven Wimbledon titles in a span of eight years, his only failure in that stretch being a quarterfinal loss to Richard Krajicek in 1996.

    Sampras won his first Wimbledon title in 1993 by beating Andre Agassi, Boris Becker and Jim Courier in succession. All three victims were ranked No. 1 at one time, and each won at least four Grand Slam singles titles.

    That led Sampras on a streak of 25 consecutive match wins at the All England Club that ended with the loss to Krajicek. Sampras then won 32 straight Wimbledon matches before he lost to Roger Federer in the round of 16 in 2001.

    Between his 1992 semifinal loss to Goran Ivanisevic and his fourth-round loss to Federer in 2001, Sampras won 56 of 57 matches at Wimbledon. Perhaps more indicative of Sampras' championship quality is the fact that he never lost a Wimbledon final, going 7-0 in title-deciding matches.

2. Roger Federer

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    ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS/Associated Press

    Wimbledon titles: Seven (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012)

    Roger Federer's seven men's Wimbledon singles titles are tied for the most in history, and he was named the greatest player ever in the Tennis Channel's 2012 rankings of the greatest players in history. Those two facts alone earn him a place at or near the top of our rankings of the greatest Wimbledon champions.

    Federer virtually owned the All England Club through the 2000s, winning five straight Wimbledon crowns from 2003 through 2007, tying a men's record for consecutive titles set by Bjorn Borg.

    His five-year run began after an embarrassing loss, as the No. 7-seeded Federer was beaten in straight sets in the first round of the 2002 Wimbledon by qualifier Mario Ancic, who was ranked No. 154 in the world.

    However, Federer did not lose at the All England Club again until Rafael Nadal defeated him in their epic, five-set 2008 final. That 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 loss ended Federer's 40-match winning streak at Wimbledon and his 65-match winning streak on grass.

    Federer's all-court skills—which combined powerful groundstrokes off both wings with excellent net play, a consistent serve and deft touch—made him almost unbeatable on grass for nearly a decade.

    His Wimbledon dominance began in 2003, when he ran through his final four opponents without the loss of a set. Federer knocked off Andy Roddick in the final the next two years, and the only set Federer lost in the 2006 Wimbledon was a third-set tiebreaker against Nadal in the final.

    Federer beat Nadal again in the 2007 final before Nadal turned the tables in 2008, ending the streak.

    Federer's most impressive Wimbledon performance may have been the one that produced his most recent Wimbledon title, as Federer beat Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in the final two rounds to win the 2012 tournament.

1. Martina Navratilova

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    Wimbledon singles titles: Nine (1978, 1979, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1990)

    Martina Navratilova won more Wimbledon singles crowns than any person in history, Open Era or pre-Open Era, men or women. To put Navratilova's accomplishment in perspective, she claimed as many Wimbledon singles titles as John McEnroe, Rafael Nadal, Jimmy Connors and Novak Djokovic combined.

    Navratilova won her first Wimbledon singles title as a 21-year-old Czech and her last one as a 33-year-old American. In between, her groundbreaking announcement in 1981 in which she came out as lesbian became a factor in social change.

    She won 18 Grand Slam singles titles but no more than four at any major other than Wimbledon, where she was close to unbeatable for more than a decade.

    Navratilova was raised on slow clay courts in Czechoslovakia yet became perhaps the best women's grass-court player ever. She dominated during a period that featured some of the best women's players in history, winning six Wimbledon titles in a row from 1982 through 1987.

    She beat Chris Evert, Tracy Austin and Evonne Goolagong to win her first Wimbledon title and defeated both Austin and Evert to win her second. Navratilova did not lose more than four games in any of her final four Wimbledon matches in 1983 and breezed to the 1984 and 1986 titles without the loss of a set.

    Navratilova beat Evert and Steffi Graf in succession to capture the 1987 crown, and her closest match on her way to the 1990 title was a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Gabriela Sabatini in the semifinals.

    To add some icing on her Wimbledon championship cake, Navratilova won seven women's doubles titles and four mixed doubles crowns at the All England Club.