Rod Laver, Roger Federer and the Top 13 Tennis Seasons of the Open Era

JA AllenSenior Writer IDecember 26, 2011

Rod Laver, Roger Federer and the Top 13 Tennis Seasons of the Open Era

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    So who was the best? Djokovic, Federer, McEnroe or Laver? Who compiled the “best” year ever?

    It is hard to pin down near-perfection—judging inches and angles.

    There has been much discussion of late concerning which player's season was the “best” in the modern era of tennis after the playing field leveled.

    Men on tour began playing in the same arena once there were no longer amateurs and professionals in men’s tennis. 

    That all began in 1968.

    By 1969, the tour enjoyed a whole year of competition and beginning in 1970, the men agreed to play an ATP Championship at the conclusion of the calendar year.

    That began the formality of gathering meaningful statistics, matching records year by year.

    Today, winning majors is, by most standards, the most important nugget in men’s tennis—that and being ranked No. 1.

    Also important, however, is winning the year-end championship, which is deemed almost as daunting as capturing a slam trophy, because competition is limited to the top eight players in that particular calendar year.

    For this listing, the player had to have a top ranking with a winning percentage of over 90 percent—or at least three majors and a winning percentage over 85. 

    Only two on the list dipped below 90 percent but all are worthy of inclusion in a discussion of the best season ever in men's tennis.

12. (tie) Ivan Lendl 1982

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    Lendl went 106-9 for a 92.17 winning percentage, while also winning the year-end championship.

    Starting his fifth year as a pro, Lendl seemed primed to begin winning the major tournaments. His power game utilizing heavy topspin was paying big dividends as Lendl shot up the rankings ladder.

    In 1982, Lendl lost in the fourth round of the French Open to Mats Wilander, who went on to win his first major at age 17. At the 1982 US Open, Lendl made it to the finals but lost to American Jimmy Connors. The Czech did not compete at the Australian Open or at Wimbledon.

    It was a grueling schedule playing 115 matches in all parts of the world. Lendl won 15 titles, appearing in 20 finals. He never lost before the fourth round.

    His losses were to Yannick Noah in La Quinta, California in February, to Guillermo Vilas in Monte Carlo in April, losing again to Vilas at Madrid later that month. After losing to Wilander at the French Open in May, in July Lendl suffered another defeat to Yannick Noah in France on clay.

    Later that month, Lendl lost to Mel Purcell of the United States in Boston. Prior to the US Open, Lendl was defeated by Vitas Gerulaitis in the final at Montreal before losing to Connors at the Open in New York City.

    Finally, Lendl lost to Wilander again in October during the Barcelona quarterfinals.

    Much was expected of Lendl throughout his career. So far he had reached a major final in 1981 and again in 1982.

    Critics felt he should have won a slam title by this time. But none could argue with his unassailable winning percentage in 1982.

12. (tie) Rafael Nadal 2010

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    Nadal went 71-10 with an 87.7 winning percentage, plus winning three grand slam titles.

    After beginning 2010 dealing with injuries and setbacks, Rafael Nadal watched as his nemesis Roger Federer won his 16th grand slam title.

    In 2009, Nadal had lost his hard-fought hold on the No. 1 ranking to Federer after the Majorcan lost in the fourth round of the French Open and the Swiss went on to win the title at Roland Garros.

    Nadal hung on, however, and came back strong, starting with the 2010 clay court season in Monte Carlo to win the next three majors—the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open in 2010 to give the Majorcan one of his best years ever. 

    The beginning and the end of 2010 were not especially good, but from April through September, Nadal could not be denied, as he fought to regain his French Open title and the No. 1 ranking. 

    He ended the year with both intact. In the process Nadal captured his first US Open crown, giving the man from Majorca a career grand slam, since he had won each of the majors at least once. 

    Even though his winning percentage did not not reach 90 percent, it was an amazing season for Nadal.

11. Ivan Lendl 1985

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    Lendl went 84-7 with a 92.3 winning percentage, winning one grand slam title and the year-end championship.

    After finally winning his first major championship at the 1984 French Open, Ivan Lendl had the monkey off of his back, proving that he could, indeed, win the Big One.

    His comeback against John McEnroe after being down 0-2 in the 1984 final at Stade Roland Garros made believers of not only the crowds, but of Lendl himself.

    Now, the Czech knew he could win. In 1985, he began to build on the dominance he would enjoy throughout the 1980s.

    In 1985, Lendl made the semifinals of the Australian Open, losing to Stefan Edberg. He advanced to the finals of the French Open, where the Czech lost to Mats Wilander. Henri Leconte defeated Lendl in the fourth round of Wimbledon.

    But Lendl won his first US Open in 1985, defeating John McEnroe. McEnroe would never make a major final again.

    In total, Lendl won 11 titles in 1985 while losing seven matches during the entire year. Besides the losses at three majors, Lendl lost to John McEnroe in the finals in Montreal, as well as the finals of a tournament held in Stratton Mountain, Vermont. 

    Earlier in April, Lendl had lost to McEnroe In Inglewood on carpet. In January, Lendl lost to Stefan Edberg in Delray Beach.

    Lendl ended the year ranked No. 1 for the first time.

10. Roger Federer, 2005

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    Federer went 81-4 with a winning percentage of 95.29, winning two grand slam titles.

    Despite winning only two grand slam titles in 2005, Roger Federer compiled the best winning percentage of his career, losing only four times during 2005.

    His first loss came to the enigmatic Russian Marat Safin in the semifinals of the Australian Open in a thrilling five-set match (7-5, 4-6, 7-5, 6-7, 7-9). Seeded No. 4, Safin would go on to win the Australian Open that year. 

    Federer’s next loss came during the Monte Carlo quarterfinals, where the Swiss lost to up-and-coming Richard Gasquet of France, 7-6, 2-6, 6-7. After missing most of the season because of chicken pox, Gasquet made the Monte Carlo field by qualifying.

    Another loss on clay came at the hands of Rafael Nadal, seeded No. 4,  playing in his first tournament at Stade Roland Garros. Nadal defeated Federer in the semifinals of the French Open, 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6. Nadal, of course, went on to win his first French Open title in 2005—on his first try.

    Federer would not lose again until the final match of the year against his old nemesis, Argentine David Nalbandian, seeded No. 8. Up until that last match, Federer was aiming to equal the 82-3 mark set by John McEnroe back in 1984.

    But Nalbandian threw a wrench into the works by upsetting Federer during the Tennis Masters Cup final, 7-6, 7-6, 2-6, 1-6, 6-7.  The loss also ended Federer’s 25-match winning streak.

    Federer lost primarily to top-ranked players when he did lose. The world No. 1 won the title at Wimbledon, defeating Andy Roddick.

    The Swiss followed that by winning the US Open over American favorite Andre Agassi. Federer also won four Masters Series titles as part of his 11 calendar titles.

    Federer dominated the men’s tour in 2005 and ended the year, again, ranked No. 1.

9. Bjorn Borg 1980

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    Borg went 70-6 with a winning percentage of 92.11, winning two grand slam titles and a year-end championship.

    1980 marked the last full year Borg would be on tour—although no one knew it yet.

    Coming off his best year yet in 1979, Borg must have sensed the beginning of the end as his encounters with a young John McEnroe began to eat into his self-confidence.

    Still, Borg moved through 1980 losing only six matches all year. His first did not come until Borg lost to Guillermo Vilas at the Nations Cup in Germany in May, ending a 26-match winning streak.

    After winning that heart-stopping final at Wimbledon in 1980 over McEnroe, Borg lost (retired) in the final at Montreal to Ivan Lendl. Then, of course, Borg lost to McEnroe in the finals of the 1980 US Open. 

    In Basel in October, the Swede fell again to Ivan Lendl in the finals in five tough sets. Later that same month, Bill Scanlon of the United States upset Borg in the Tokyo quarterfinals.

    Borg finished the year by winning the Masters in New York City. Overall, Borg won the French Open and Wimbledon again—his fifth championship title for both. 

    The Swede ended the year ranked World No. 1 again.

8. Ivan Lendl 1986

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    Lendl went 74-6 with a winning percentage of 92.5, winning two grand slam titles and the year-end championship.

    Ivan Lendl began 1986 by winning his first 29 matches. Then he lost to Boris Becker on indoor carpet in Chicago, 6-7, 3-6, in March.

    Following that defeat, Lendl lost to Yannick Noah, 3-6, 5-7, in Forest Hills on outdoor clay in May of 1986.

    After seven tries, Lendl made it to the Wimbledon finals in 1986, where he met and was defeated by Boris Becker. 

    Becker went on to win his second consecutive gentlemen’s singles title at the All-England Club in 1986. Later that summer, Lendl lost to big-serving Kevin Curren 6-7, 6-7 in Montreal.

    The Czech found himself facing Boris Becker again in the Sydney indoor finals in October. Once again, Lendl could not overcome the German, losing 6-3, 6-7, 2-6, 0-6. 

    The following week in Tokyo Lendl lost to Swede Stefan Edberg, 5-7, 1-6.

    But Lendl got his revenge by defeating Becker in the ATP finals held in Madison Square Garden in New York City. After winning 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, Lendl again ended the year ranked World No. 1.

    In 1986 Lendl won the French Open and the US Open, making the finals at Wimbledon.

    The Australian Open, however, was not held in 1986, so Lendl had no opportunity to compete there. Lendl won nine titles in total in 1986. 

7. Bjorn Borg 1979

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    Borg went 84-6 with a winning percentage of 93.33, winning two grand slam titles and the year-end championship.

    Most people associate the great Bjorn Borg with his Wimbledon final match in 1980 or with his crushing loss of the title in 1981, yet the Swede’s greatest and most dominating season came in 1979. 

    During 1979, Borg won Wimbledon and the French Open for the fourth time. The Swede also managed to capture the year-end championship title for the first time, ending the year ranked world No. 1.  

    Even though Borg did not win the US Open that year—nor did he ever win the title at Flushing Meadows regardless of the surface—he still managed to beat Jimmy Connors all six times they met.

    However, Borg had six losses to: (1) Bruce Manson of the USA at Rancho Mirage in California in February, 7-6, 5-7, 2-6. The tournament was held outdoors on hard courts.

    (2) Borg lost to John McEnroe during the semifinals in New Orleans on indoor carpet, 7-5, 1-6, 6-7, in March of 1979.

    (3) Again in March in Milan, Borg fell to Aussie John Alexander in the quarterfinals, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6.

    (4) In May, Borg lost again to McEnroe in Dallas during the WCT finals, 5-7, 6-4, 2-6, 6-7.

    (5) After leading Eliot Teltscher in the first set during the third round in Hamburg, Borg had to retire from the match.

    (6) But the only loss that really hurt Borg was in his 1979 US Open quarterfinal match with the big-serving American Roscoe Tanner. Borg went down to defeat, 2-6, 6-4, 2-6, 6-7, to his utter dismay. Tanner really hit the mark that day.

    Borg’s most dominant year was 1979 when the Swede took the No. 1 ranking from the man who had caused Borg so much trouble throughout his career, Jimmy Connors.

6. John McEnroe 1984

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    McEnroe went 82-3 with a winning percentage of 96.47, winning two grand slam titles and the year-end championship.

    John McEnroe, the slayer of the blond Swede, Bjorn Borg, waited until 1984 to reach his peak.

    In 1981 the fiery American ousted Borg at Wimbledon and then again at the US Open. The magnificent Borg walked away from tennis in the waning light of Flushing Meadows in 1981, never to reign again in the sport he helped to popularize on the world stage.

    In 1984, McEnroe put all the pieces of his brilliant game together to create a masterpiece. With a few strokes here and there, it could have been a perfect season or at least equal to Martina Navratilova’s 86-1 season in 1983—one year earlier.

    McEnroe won Wimbledon and the US Open in 1984. Sadly, he was within inches of winning the 1984 French Open. The American, however, lost the match in an epic meltdown against one of his detested rivals, Ivan Lendl. McEnroe won the first two sets and seemed well on his way to his first French Open crown.

    On the way to the winner’s circle, however, McEnroe grew distracted by a cameraman, allowing Lendl to stave off defeat. Once the Czech captured the third set, the match momentum settled in Lendl’s favor as the Czech realized he could win. Lendl went on to win that match—winning his first slam title ever.

    Meanwhile, McEnroe suffered his first defeat of the season.

    McEnroe’s second loss of 1984 was one of those bizarre, unexplainable upsets that happen because tennis players are human. The American was in Cincinnati playing at what was then called the “ATP Championships.” His first-round opponent at this tournament was Indian Vijay Amritraj and McEnroe lost. Amritraj went on to the second round—but was soon sailing home.

    Finally, McEnroe lost to Henrik Sundstrom in a Davis Cup final against Sweden. The surface of choice against the Americans was clay, which proved to be the deciding factor because Sweden won—even with McEnroe and Jimmy Connors playing.

    In all, McEnroe compiled an 82-3 record with an 96.47 winning percentage, which no one has since surpassed. The American won his first 42 matches in 1984. He took home 13 tournament titles plus the year-end championship. He won two slam titles. 

    In those years, most pros did not compete at the Australian Open. Since McEnroe lost the French Open and could not win a calendar year Grand Slam. The American did not travel down under to compete.

    Even with that, the great McEnroe put together the best winning percentage the game has known—to date.

5. Novak Djokovic 2011

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    Djokovic went 70-6, compiling a 92.11 winning percentage and capturing three grand slam titles.

    Tied with Bjorn Borg with a season-ending record of 70-6, Novak Djokovic enjoyed a remarkable 2011 season in men’s tennis. The Serb won three grand slam titles at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open.

    In his assault on the majors, Djokovic defeated World No. 4 Andy Murray to win the Australian Open, lost to World No. 3 Roger Federer during the French Open semifinals, defeated Rafael Nadal to win at Wimbledon and the US Open.

    During the year, Federer lost his No. 2 ranking to Djokovic in April—then Nadal lost his No. 1 ranking to the Serb during Wimbledon. 

    Djokovic won 10 tournaments in 2011, including three slams and five masters 1000 championships. In the process, the new World No. 1 defeated the next best player, Nadal, in six finals.

    Djokovic remained undefeated in 2011 until the Serb met Roger Federer in the semifinals. The loss ended many possibilities for Djokovic. First, it brought an end to the Serb’s perfect 43-match winning streak and his dreams of a calendar year slam.

    Djokovic, however, bounced back to win his first Wimbledon title and the No. 1 ranking at the All-England Club.

    The new World No. 1 lost to Andy Murray in the finals at Cincinnati in August just prior to the US Open, but again rebounded to win the 2011 US Open over Rafael Nadal. During the Open, though, Djokovic injured his back and this injury would dampen his results for the rest of the year.

    In Serbia’s Davis Cup Tie with Argentina, Djokovic, injured, went down to defeat to Juan Martin del Potro, having to retire in their round-robin match. It was a match many felt Djokovic should never have attempted.

    After skipping the China Open and Shanghai, Djokovic came back in time to play in Basel at the Swiss Indoors where he lost to Kei Nishikori in the semifinals. In Paris, Djokovic again had to withdraw, allowing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a walkover to the semifinals.

    In the World Tour finals in London, Djokovic lost twice in his round-robin encounters with David Ferrer and Janko Tipsarevic. 

    Even so, Djokovic ended the year ranked World No. 1, breaking the stranglehold on the top spot so long occupied by Federer and Nadal. Many anticipate that Djokovic will resume his stellar play once the new year rolls around. 

4. Jimmy Connors 1974

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    Connors went 93-4 with a winning percentage of 95.8, winning three grand slam titles.

    Jimmy Connors had one thing on his mind throughout his career—winning. He would do anything it took to win and often used the occasion to run over people.

    Sometimes, in order to pump himself up, pumping up the crowd, Jimbo made his matches personal. Whatever he did—it worked.

    A brash Connors helped the common man—the hard-working Joe occupying Main Street—to feel tennis was open to everyone and was not just the province of the elite country club set.

    At age 21, Connors recorded the best season of his career in 1974 by winning three majors—Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open—mainly at the expense of aging an Ken Rosewall.

    Some call it the best season ever in men’s tennis. It certainly deserves a place near the top. Sadly, because of tennis politics, Connors was denied entrance into the 1974 French Open, which meant that the red-hot American may have won his own career grand slam that year.

    But, like many twists and turns in the life, now we will never know. Once departed, you cannot go home again.

    Still, 1974 saw the arrogant young Connors winning 93 of 97 matches—15 tournament titles, including three grand slams.

    One of Connors' four losses came at the hands of Karl Meiler in Omaha, NE. The German defeated the American 6-3, 1-6, 6-1 in January of 1974. In June of 1974, Connors lost to Stan Smith in the quarterfinals of Nottingham, 6-4, 4-6, 0-6.

    Later on that summer, Connors lost in the third round of Montreal to Spaniard Juan Gisbert, Sr., 6-7, 2-6. In September Connors lost to Onny Parun of New Zealand, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, in San Francisco on indoor carpet. Those were his official losses in 1974.

    The rest of his season was all glory.

3. Roger Federer 2004

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    Federer went 74-6 with a winning percentage of 92.5, winning three slam titles and the year-end championship.

    Tied with Ivan Lendl with a 92.5 winning percentage, Roger Federer began his dominance of the men’s tour in 2004.

    The Swiss won three of the four grand slams, missing only the title at Stade Roland Garros. By the time the dust settled on this season, Federer held four career grand slam titles, having won his first Wimbledon title in 2003.

    He won 11 tournaments in 2004 and ended the year world-ranked No. 1. The Swiss also captured the year-end championship—the Tennis Master’s Cup.

    Remarkably, in 2004, Federer never lost to anyone who was not ranked in the ATP top 10 and he never lost a final that year. In the process, Federer won three ATP Masters Series events.

    Federer’s six losses came at the hands of Tim Henman during the quarterfinals at Rotterdam, followed by a loss to teenager Rafael Nadal during the third round of the Masters in Miami.

    In Rome, Federer lost to Albert Costa in the second round. At the French Open, Federer went down to defeat to Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil in the third round. The next loss came when Dominik Hrbaty of Slovakia defeated Federer in the first round in Cincinnati.

    Federer’s most disappointing loss came when he lost to Tomas Berdych at the Athens Summer Olympics in the second round.

    2004 was the beginning of a four and a half-year run standing at world No. 1.

    It also marked the beginning of Federer’s rivalry with Rafael Nadal, who prophetically won their first encounter.

2. Roger Federer 2006

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    Federer went 92-5 with a winning percentage of 94.85, winning three grand slam titles and the year-end championship.

    Even though Federer’s winning percentage dipped a bit from 2005, 2006 could generally be considered a better year, even though the Swiss lost one more match.

    Actually, he won 11 more times than in 2005. What is more, Federer won three of the four grand slam titles—while making all four finals.

    The Swiss also won one more calendar year title—12 in 2006.  Plus, he won the year-end championship title for the third time in his career. 

    So who did the Swiss Maestro lose to in 2006? Mainly Rafael Nadal.

    His first loss to Nadal came on the hard courts of Dubai, where the Swiss lost 6-2, 4-6, 4-6. That was very unexpected, although Nadal had defeated Federer on hard courts before. 

    The next loss came to Nadal on the clay courts of Monte Carlo, 2-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-7. Then Nadal defeated Federer in one of their greatest clay-court encounters ever on the grounds of the Rome Masters, 7-6, 6-7, 4-6, 6-2, 6-7.

    Finally, Nadal defeated the No. 1 seed Roger Federer in the French Open final, 6-1, 1-6, 4-6, 6-7.

    A pattern seemed to be developing in their matches.

    Federer’s next loss came at the hands of a young Andy Murray in Cincinnati, 5-7, 4-6, just prior to the US Open.

    Federer did not lose again in 2006 and ended another dominating year ranked World No. 1. 

1. Rod Laver 1969

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    Laver went 106-16, compiling an 86.9 winning percentage and winning four grand slam titles (no year-end championship held).

    Rod Laver was 31 years old in 1969 when he won his second calendar year grand slam. True, Laver’s winning level dipped below the requisite 90 percent, but what he accomplished cannot be measured by numbers alone. Laver won 18 titles that year, three of them on his favorite grass surface and one on clay.

    Over 40 years ago, tennis was a different game, but the objective was still the same. Laver, who had been denied entrance into grand slam tournaments as a pro could once again trod the courts at the four majors. In 1969 he made up for lost time.

    He won the 1969 Australian Open by first defeating fellow Aussie Tony Roche in the semifinals when the temperature soared to 105 degrees. The two battled for nine hours with Laver finally winning out, 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3. Laver then went on to win the final over Andres Gimeno of Spain, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5.

    Laver won the 1969 French Open over Ken Rosewall, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, expecting a much more difficult match.  Stuttering a bit in the second round against another Australian, Dick Crealy—Laver came back from two sets down to advance.

    He did the same thing at Wimbledon, having a scare in the second round at the hands of Premjit Lall, who won the first two sets, but Laver battled back and won. He met John Newcombe in the final, winning 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4.

    Tony Roche, who often seemed to cause Laver untold problems on the tennis court, dogged him throughout 1969 and was the man Laver would ultimately face in the finals of the US Open that year.

    A win in New York would give Laver another calendar year slam. Roche had already beaten Laver three times in 1969. Fittingly, Roche would be the obstacle Laver would have to overcome for the grand slam victory.

    But it was the weather that finally dictated play. After waiting two days for a break in the rain, the two men did battle for the 1969 US Open Championship on a rain-soaked, soggy grass court in Forest Hills. Laver lost the first set 9-7.

    Changing to shoes with short spikes, Laver was able to move around the court better and establish better footing than Roche.  Enduring two rain delays, Laver moved ahead and won the match, 7-9, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2.

    It was a monumental moment that only a few recognized in 1969. Its importance has grown in stature throughout the years—especially since no man since 1969 has been able to duplicate the feat.