The Most Dominant Grand Slam Performance of the Open Era
May 24, 2012 · Print This Article
The winner of the upcoming Roland Garros event is by no means certain.
Six-time champion Rafael Nadal appears to have the slight edge in his quest to add a record seventh title, but world No. 1 Novak Djokovic will be highly motivated: A win here would give him all four majors at just 25 years of age, as well as four Slams in a row. Coming up just behind them is No. 3 Roger Federer, who has beaten both players in the past year and who can never be discounted entirely, having won 16 majors already.
But Roland Garros is always a special event, and has frequently been the arena for the most comprehensive displays of tennis mastery in the Open Era. Since the majors began accepting pros in the late ’60s, the RG is the place where a dominant player has been most likely to crush all opposition, sometimes without losing a set.
So here are the five (plus one) most dominant Grand Slam performances of the pro era, highlighting the most special two-week performances in men’s tennis history.
Honorable Mention: John McEnroe – 1984 Wimbledon
Paul McNamee won 23 doubles titles between 1979 and 1986. His singles career, while less accomplished, did include two singles titles and a career-high ranking of No. 24.
We can add one other notable achievement to that list: Taking a set from John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1984.
Maybe Mac was still smarting from letting Ivan Lendl escape a two-set deficit in the Roland Garros final a couple of weeks earlier. Maybe, despite playing the Queen’s Club warm-up, the tempestuous American was still adjusting to the grass after the clay season.
Whatever the reason, it was a display of vulnerability that wouldn’t be seen again: Only Rodney Harmon in round two would get as many as five games off him in a set, and only Pat Cash in the semis would push him to a tiebreak. The cherry on top of this treat was the final, though, when McEnroe faced Jimmy Connors.
Connors had beaten him in the Wimbledon final just two years earlier, and though now in his early 30s had proven his tenacity and returning prowess yet again by outlasting Lendl in the semis. So, aware of his resolve, having lost to him in a five-set battle of nerves in ’82, McEnroe seemingly elected to finish this match before resolve could even become a factor.
Final score: 6-1, 6-1, 6-2.
Committing no unforced errors in the first two sets and only two in the third, Johnny Mac humbled Connors on the game’s biggest stage, never dropping serve and shredding Jimbo with his forehand returns. After the disappointment of Paris, McEnroe reminded the rest of the tour that Lendl’s comeback had been a surprise, and he would lose just twice more the rest of the year.
McEnroe is just one of a number of champions who have won majors in the Open Era having dropped just one set. But for the sheer distance McEnroe put between himself and his competition by the end of the event, his 1984 Wimbledon result stands apart.
5. Rafael Nadal – 2010 Roland Garros
2010 had already been a special year for Rafael Nadal even before the Roland Garros had started. He had already prevailed in Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid in the lead-up, making him the first player to ever sweep the clay season’s Master’s Series events.
But he’d dominated the 2009 clay season as well, winning Monte Carlo and Rome, only to be stunned by Robin Soderling in Paris, leaving his Master’s shields haul a footnote.
Fittingly, in the 2010 final, Nadal faced Soderling yet again, just two rounds after the big Swede had dismissed Roger Federer, the Swiss’ first loss before the semis of a major in six years. Few doubted that Nadal was capable of winning, but he’d appeared slightly hesitant in previous rounds, allowing competition like Nicolas Almagro and Jurgen Meltzer to hang around, when he would have ground them into the clay in previous years. Had his confidence sustained a fatal blow in the previous year’s event?
When Nadal broke to take the first set, then nabbed two more breaks to close out the second, the answer was in: the Spaniard had been saving his best for this stage. It’s possible that, after an injury plagued season the year before, he hadn’t wanted to run down every ball in the prior rounds. Or maybe he just required the inspiration that seeing his tormentor on the other side of the net would provide.
But soon Nadal was proving to the hardest hitter in the game that he could hit almost as big, and his movement was so extraordinary it appeared he could run 100 yards in the time it took Soderling to complete his forehand backswing.
He also demonstrated to the rest of the field that, whatever his reasons, he hadn’t played up to his capabilities in previous rounds – and they still hadn’t been able to win a set from him.
It sparked the most successful run of Nadal’s career, as he captured the year’s final three majors, completing a career Grand Slam. Still, it wasn’t his most dominant major performance … but more on that later.
4. Roger Federer – 2007 Australian Open
There are two great lessons in the modern game: 1) movement beats power, and 2) avoid giving Roger Federer motivation to play better.
Andy Roddick was probably well-aware of the first principle at the start of the 2007 season, having lost to the fleet-footed Federer 12 out of 13 times by that point, his cannon serve failing to overcome the Great Swiss’ greater all-around game. Still, thanks to his off-court work with new coach Jimmy Connors, and a victory over Federer in a warm-up exo, Roddick said that he felt the margin between the two was narrowing.
For much of the event that appeared possible, as Federer was winning, but not dominating the likes of Tommy Robredo and a still very green Novak Djokovic. Roddick, for his part, went into their semi having routed compatriot Mardy Fish. Federer was the favorite going in, but their semi showdown had the makings of a classic.
And it was, but not in the sense that Iron Butterfly’s 17-minute song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is a classic; more like in the way the Circle Jerks’ 15-minute album Group Sex is.
From 4-all in the first sense, Federer broke Roddick, held to finish the set, then completed a 10-game tear that left Roddick launching profanities at errors, miming a gun pressed to his own head and accidentally throwing rackets at support staff.
The 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 win left little doubt about the outcome of the final against Fernando Gonzalez, which Federer also won in straight sets. It proved that the gap had not narrowed between the Swiss and his contemporaries, as he had become the first player in 26 and a half years to win a major without dropping a set.
Speaking of which …
3. Bjorn Borg – 1980 Roland Garros
Unlike in our previous entries, no one match defines Borg’s 1980 RG run. Borg had already won the event four times, so his victory was rarely in doubt, and only twice in the event did he surrender as much as four games in a set.
Still, it’s worth acknowledging some of his competition: In round two there was Andres Gomez of Ecuador, who would win the event a full decade later, a delightful story of a veteran capping a solid career with a big win.
Borg allowed him five games.
In the semis was Harold Solomon, the event’s ’76 finalist, and later the guru who helped Jim Courier and Jennifer Capriati win Slams, including in Paris.
Borg allowed him four games.
His final round opponent, Vitas Gerulaitis, is often remembered as a guy who did not live up to his potential, winning just one major and who was dominated by his contemporaries Borg and Connors.
Still, give him credit: He won an entire seven games in that final, including one of the two 6-4 sets mentioned earlier.
Borg had his shortcomings, most of which would be revealed to the world after his tennis career ended. On clay in the late-’70s and early ’80s, though, he was perfection, setting a standard that wouldn’t be matched for nearly three decades.
2. Bjorn Borg – 1978 Roland Garros
But perhaps the most complementary thing one could say about Borg’s 1980 performance at the RG is that it nearly matched his 1978 result.
In ’78 he lost a total of 36 games in seven matches, two less than in 1980 and still an Open Era record. Two of his opponents won just one game in three sets, and his toughest match of the tournament came against Roscoe Tanner. Tanner, the biggest server in the world, managed 12 games total, but this probably wasn’t because Tanner was the second-best clay courter in the world; it probably had more to do with Tanner being the only player to offer the game’s greatest baseliner any contrast in style.
The second-best clay court player in the world was almost certainly Guillermo Vilas, and prior to that year’s RG final he looked to have a case as dirtballer numero uno. In the previous season Vilas had won the RG, won the US Open (then on clay) and racked up a 57-match winning streak on the surface, which would until a kid named Rafa broke it in 2006.
But in ’78 Borg quickly demonstrated that he owned the dirt, and that Vilas was fortunate that the ice cold Swede had skipped the RG in the previous year. In those days the game was played with wooden rackets, making baseline winners much harder to hit, meaning most points ended with an error, a volley/overhead winner or a deft passing shot/lob.
Borg’s dominance on the surface in those days is therefore easy to explain: with his speed, rock-solid groundstrokes and consistency, no one could hit a ball by him in those days, he rarely missed and attacking the net against him on clay was tennis’ version of Pickett’s Charge. Numerous points played that day probably had as many strokes as Borg would probably hit in all Wimbledon that year.
Vilas was the second-best clay court player in the world, but on a day when he and Borg played a serious of marathon-length points, he finished second on the vast majority of them.
1. Rafael Nadal – 2008 Roland Garros
It wasn’t just the fact that Rafael Nadal won every match in straight sets at the 2008 RG; it was also the matter of who he was beating.
Sure, he surrendered an entire 42 games, a good number more than Borg in ’78 and ’80, and on an entire two occasions he lost more than four games in a set.
It’s just that the player he beat in the final is the best of the Open Era, the winner of the next year’s RG. The guy Nadal beat the semis would later win five Slams (and counting). But for two weeks in Paris, neither of them belonged on the same court as the Spaniard.
Rafael Nadal actually went into the 2008 clay season on a mini-slump, not winning any titles since the 2007 RG.. He reasserted himself on the dirt, but had only edged Federer in Monte Carlo and Hamburg, done the unthinkable and lost in Rome, and couldn’t stifle rumors about the condition of his taped knees.
But there’s something about playing best-of-five set matches on the dirt of Paris that allows certain players to stand out, as four of these five selections have taken place in Paris (Ilie Nastase also won the event in 1973 without losing a set).
Perhaps it’s because it’s the surface that rewards the narrowest skill set of power, consistency and stamina, and most quickly punishes those who are deficient in those categories. Nadal, who had been consistently reaching the semis and finals of hard court events since the prior fall without winning them, was gradually growing into a more complete player, but his speed and the spin of his groundstrokes were always what set him apart.
They, and he, never looked better than they did for those two weeks. Our first hint as to his form arrived in the fourth round when he dispatched fellow hard-hitting Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, dropping only three games. Verdasco, then as now, was known for his inconsistency, so the result could be downplayed.
It grew harder to do so when Nadal dispatched another dangerous countryman, Nicolas Almago, losing the same amount of games. In the semis came Novak Djokovic, who had been the game’s best player in the first five months of the year, winning the AO, Indian Wells and Rome.
The Spaniard swept him aside 6-4, 6-2, 7-6, paving the way for the final with Federer. It was their third RG final in a row, with Federer having gone into the previous two with a very real chance. After the previous three rounds, though, Nadal went into the 2008 final the overwhelming favorite.
Still, his 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 win was a surprise, and his comprehensive dominance during the event is even more stunning in retrospect. The great Swiss had not been force-fed a bagel since 1999, and hasn’t been again since. Federer had clearly dominated the game since 2004, and while a loss like this heralded a relative decline, he still won the US Open later that year. What’s more, when Nadal finally stumbled in Paris in 2009, Federer was there to take advantage.
For Djokovic, who had played so well since the start of the year, the beating he sustained in the semis was one he wouldn’t recover from for more than two years. When he finally did, he spent most of 2011 making us wonder how he’d ever been beaten.
As for Nadal, 2008 in Paris marked a turning point: It was his fourth RG crown, but he’d not yet won a Slam on another surface. The confidence from this event would carry over, though, to a Wimbledon title weeks later, the year-end No. 1 ranking, and the AO in 2009.
He’s since won all four majors, has 10 in total and looks to add to it in Paris over the next two weeks. With a win he’d set a new RG record, the latest summit in a career full of peaks.
In terms of total domination, though, that fortnight in 2008 looms largest, both for him and for any other man in the Open Era.