The Top Grass Court Players of the Open Era
July 9, 2012 · Print This Article
As long as tennis is played, there will be grass courts, and those who specialize in them. Yes, the surface no longer plays faster than all others, and racket technology has made serving big and charging the net less effective there, but its unusual footing and unpredictable bounces make it a unique discipline even now.
In the Open Era, since the game’s four majors became the metric by which tennis greatness was defined, a few players stand above the rest. This week we count down 10-6, with an honorable mention thrown in. Can you guess those in this section?
Honorable Mention: Goran Ivanisevic
One Wimbledon title
Four Wimbledon finals
Goran Ivanisevic’s run in 2001, in which he won his only Wimbledon title despite being unseeded and having not reached so much as a tour final since 1998, wasn’t just a miraculous, feel-good story. Without that one title, much of his achievements on the surface would have felt like promise not met, and the massive serving that intimidated even Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi would have not received its just reward.
He’d already been to three Wimbledon finals, with only Agassi and Sampras, the most accomplished all-surface players of his era, denying him the championship. But in 2001, thanks to a wildcard from tournament organizers, seven rounds of inspired play and a little luck, the player who helped make ‘90s grass court tennis what it was enters the record books not as a disappointment, but as one of the most accomplished grass court players of his era.
10: Arthur Ashe
One Wimbledon, one Australian Open title, one US Open title
Arthur Ashe is best known for fighting apartheid and for changing how AIDS was perceived even as it claimed his life. Many still call him the greatest ambassador the sport ever had.
If there’s any downside to his advocacy work, it’s that it gets more attention than his numerous merits as a player. Going into the 1975 Wimbledon final, he’d already won a couple of grass court majors in New York and Australia, but was considered a heavy underdog against the proto-power baseliner Jimmy Connors, winner of three major titles the previous year. However, the thoughtful Ashe played the quintessential tactical match, employing service placement, chipped returns and off-speed groundstrokes to drive his younger, stronger opponent mad.
Though Connors would spend the next two decades building his reputation as an all-time great and tireless competitor, Ashe shattered his image of invincibility, while furthering his own as a champion. In doing so, he achieved a broader platform for his later fights against racism and fear of HIV/AIDS.
9: Stefan Edberg
Two Wimbledon titles, once a Wimbledon runner up
Two Australian Open titles
Whenever tennis watchers say they miss serve-and-volley tennis, what they really mean is that they miss Stefan Edberg.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s the game was starting to bifurcate along power lines, as hard and clay courts were being taken over by overpowering baseliners and grass courts by towering servers. Edberg had neither of these weapons, but still found great success in disarming both styles with his swift feet and great hands. While his high-kicking serve and elegant backhand helped put him in contention, it was his swarming of the net that made his rivalry with Boris Becker at Wimbledon in the late-’80s and early ’90s great viewing.
His early Australian Open successes made him an accomplished grass court player, but it was his those three Wimbledon finals that made him a legend. One of those watching the Becker-Edberg trilogy on Centre Court was Roger Federer. That Edberg won two of the three finals against Boom Boom during that stretch showed that feel and movement could overcome size and power, a lesson the Great Swiss would apply decades later.
8: Rafael Nadal
Two Wimbledon titles, three times a runner up
When he followed up his first Roland Garros title in 2005 by falling to Gilles Muller in round two of Wimbledon, few could have imagined the journey Rafael Nadal would tread across England’s lawns over the next few years. In fact, few would have guessed that only one year later the Spaniard with the loopy groundstrokes, iffy serve and deep court positioning could make the necessary adjustments to reach his first Wimbledon final.
His exemplary athletic ability certainly helped, but it was his careful planning that made his three consecutive finals appearances possible, and his incomparable heart that made his victory in 2008 the greatest match in the Open Era.
He’s added an additional title and runner up appearance since then, emerging from the shadow of the Great Swiss and carving his own legacy on Wimbledon’s list of champions.
Not bad for a clay court player.
7: Jimmy Connors
Two Wimbledon titles, four times a runner up
One US Open title on grass (five on all surfaces)
One Australian Open title
Arthur Ashe’s 1975 triumph wouldn’t have meant nearly as much without Jimmy Connors’ 1974 season, one of the great performances in the history of men’s tennis.
At the game’s three grass court majors Connors prevailed that year, and it was perhaps nothing more than bureaucratic feuding that kept Jimbo from matching Rod Laver’s 1969 calendar-year Grand Slam. We’ll never know for sure, but we do know how he dominated the events he did play.
And no one knows that like Ken Rosewall. Already a legend of the game, a former No. 1 with eight major titles to his credit, Rosewall added to his stature by reaching the finals of that year’s Wimbledon and US Open despite turning 40 later that year. In those finals, though, Rosewall had no answer for Connors’ crushing returns and underrated net play, winning just six games in England and only two in New York.
Connors reign would be short-lived, though, as Ashe disrupted it the following year, and starting in 1976 Jimbo would be overmatched on the lawns of London by Bjorn Borg: Though he won his share against the Cyborg Swede, particularly in at the US Open, Borg defeated him three times at Wimbledon’s latter rounds.
Of course today Connors is better known today for his undying hunger, and not his early dominance, and he demonstrated this in 1982. Eight years after his first title there, Connors outlasted John McEnroe, the man who’d finally beaten Borg the year before, in five sets.
It was a longer journey than expected, but in retrospect, the one that feels most appropriate for Jimbo. As he would later say: “(T)here’s always somebody out there who’s willing to push it that extra inch, or mile, and that was me. I didn’t care if it took me 30 minutes or five hours. If you beat me, you had to be the best, or the best you had that day.”
And hunger is essential on the one surface that some creatures consider food.
6: Rod Laver
Two Wimbledons, one Australian Open title, and one US Open title (as a pro)
Two Wimbledons, two Australian Championships, and one US Championship (as an amateur)
Some questions can never be answered, and that’s especially true when comparing the pre-Open Era greats with those who came later. It makes the career of Rocket Rod Laver especially hard to analyze, as the Grand Slam-centric Open Era started in 1968, about three years after his status as the game’s top player started and at least two before he was dethroned.
Sticking to the criteria of measuring the players strictly by their Open Era achievements, though, Laver still put up some remarkable numbers. In 1969 he swept the game’s major titles when three of the four were played on grass. Given that he’d also won Wimbledon the year before, and would win 77 titles after 1968, many of which came on lawns, his status as one of the Open Era greats is assured.
When lumped together with his pre-Open Era achievements, including another calendar-year Slam as an amateur in 1962 and 200 singles titles, there are many who consider Laver the greatest of all time.
That’s debatable, but his position as a universally admired player and person is beyond questioning, as is his impeccable grass court acumen.
Coming soon: The top five grass court players in the Open Era. Can you guess them?