Who are the 10 greatest tennis players of open era?

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As Rafael Nadal strives to become only the third man ever – and first since 1969 – to hold all four grand slam trophies at once at this month’s Australian Open, tennis writer Darren Walton ranks the greatest players of the open era (1968-2011) from 10 down to one:

10. STEFAN EDBERG: – Unlike the small army of Swedes who stampeded the ATP Tour following the baseline footsteps of the trailblazing Bjorn Borg, Edberg was a graceful serve-volleyer who came within one tantalising set of achieving the career grand slam. Despite losing the 1989 French Open final in five sets to 17-year-old Michael Chang, Edberg remains the only player ever to claim a junior grand slam, having swept the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US under-18 championships in 1983, the unique feat serving as the appetiser to a stellar pro career.

He wound up a decade later with six grand slam crowns from 11 finals, three Davis Cup trophies and 72 weeks’ service as world No.1. He is one of only eight men to have held the year-end top ranking for consecutive seasons. A model sportsman and unflappable performer, his one-time record 53 straight major appearances is testimony to the fire that burned within. In retirement, Edberg carries that same ruthless competitive streak into national-level squash tournaments and he is also said to be nigh unbeatable in “rackleton” – a multi-sport event featuring tennis, squash, badminton and table tennis.

9. JOHN MCENROE: The Superbrat will forever be remembered for his wild, unrestrained outbursts and signature “you cannot be serious” ranting at umpires, but tennis purists prefer to marvel at his mastery with the racquet. With a mixture of junk, touch and grace and in possession of a unique and deceptive back-to-his opponent serve, McEnroe snared seven grand slam titles from 11 finals, had 14 stints totalling 170 weeks atop the rankings and halted Bjorn Borg’s record five-year Wimbledon reign in one of the greatest matches of all-time in 1981. The German-born firebrand also enjoyed the most dominant season of the 43-year professional era in 1984, winning 82 of 85 matches, a record that only Roger Federer (81-4 in 2005) has ever come close to matching. But to sporting neutrals McEnroe’s volcanic temper overshadowed his winning ways and, among the more notable of his tantrums, he was fined $US7500 and banned for three weeks for demanding an umpire in Stockholm to “answer the question, jerk” and ejected from the 1990 Australian Open for swearing at the umpire, supervisor and tournament referee. For all that, he’s now regarded as the premier TV commentator and analyst in the game.

8. JIMMY CONNORS: Arguably the greatest competitor of all-time, unquestionably the most enduring, James Scott Connors enjoyed an extraordinary career spanning three decades. Among his catalogue of highlights and achievements, he won eight majors from 14 finals, won more titles (109) and matches (1242) than any man in the modern era – at a staggering 82.4 per cent strike rate – and was world No.1 on nine different occasions for some 268 weeks, including five straight years from 1974-78. He spent a dozen years ensconced in the world’s top three and was a fixture in the top 10 for a phenomenal 16 consecutive seasons (1973-88). Connors was also the first man to win grand slam titles on three different surfaces – clay (when the US Open was contested on dirt in 1976), grass and hard courts. He finally signed off after the most emotion-charged encore in tennis history, a pulsating four-hour comeback victory over Aaron Krickstein in the 1991 US Open quarter-finals on his 39th birthday. The maverick American made almost as many headlines off the court, briefly engaged to Chris Evert before settling with playboy model Patti McGuire, with whom he had two children.

7. IVAN LENDL: He had less friends in the locker-room than major titles, but Ivan The Terrible – as he was often labelled – was one hell of a tennis player, as evidenced by his winning record over fellow greats John McEnroe (21-15), Jimmy Connors (22-13), Mats Wilander (15-7) and Boris Becker (11-10). All up, he made 19 grand slam final appearances – less than only Roger Federer (22) – including eight straight at Flushing Meadows. A modern-day pioneer of the baseline power game, the Czech-born court bully, who won eight majors incidentally, occupied top spot in the rankings for 270 weeks, behind only Pete Sampras (286) and Federer (285) and is in an elite group of only eight men to have contested all four grand slam finals. Having won three of the four, super-fit Lendl’s obsession became triumphing at Wimbledon and he even skipped Paris a couple of times in desperate pursuit of his holy grail. Alas, he never broke through. But with 94 career titles – second to Connors – and as the only man ever to have won at least 90 matches in three consecutive years (1980-82), Lendl’s place in tennis history is secure. Upon retirement, he took up golf but never quite made it professionally despite reaching a scratch handicap.

6. ANDRE AGASSI: Surely the most successful pigeon-toed athlete of all-time. Undoubtedly the highest earner in tennis, with his and wife Steffi Graf’s wealth estimated to be near enough to a billion dollars. Known on tour as The Punisher for his brutal groundstrokes, Agassi was the first man (and one of only two along with Rafael Nadal) to achieve the career “golden slam” – winning all four majors plus an Olympic gold medal. The eight-times major champion and 15-times finalist swears his infamous mullet wig cost him at least one more slam – when he feared the shocking hairpiece would fall off in the 1990 French Open final against Andres Gomez – and one wonders how many more he missed out on while plunging to No.141 in the world while married to Brooke Shields and fraternising with Barbra Streisand in the mid-1990s. Amazingly, Agassi recovered to reach four straight grand slam finals in 1999-2000 – one of the rarest feats in tennis – and add four more majors to his collection to take his tally to 101 weeks atop the rankings. Oh, and can anyone else say they beat Pete Sampras 14 times, or boast of 30 grand slam singles trophies in the family household?

***5. ROD LAVER: The Rockhampton Rocket was 30 and in the twilight of his celebrated career when he entered the professional ranks yet remains the only man in the 43-year open era to have pulled off the calendar-year slam with victories at the 1969 Australian, French and US Open championships plus Wimbledon. He also achieved the slam as an amateur in 1962 and Lord only knows how many more majors he would have amassed if not banned from the pro tour between 1963 and 67. As it was, he piled up 11, including five in the open era. And the five-year exile couldn’t stop Laver becoming the first player ever to earn $US1 million in prize money. He didn’t need a wheelbarrow for his cash, though. Laver’s left (hitting) forearm, measuring an abnormal 30cm, was the same size as world heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano’s so when he unleashed one of his famous whip-like backhands, it often didn’t make it back over the net.

4. RAFAEL NADAL: At just 24, the modest Majorcan has already achieved feats most players dream of. His numbers are staggering. Success at last year’s US Open gave Nadal the full grand slam set – the second-youngest of only seven men in history to complete the sweep – and he will arrive at this month’s Australian Open hoping to join Laver and 1930s great Don Budge as only the third man ever to hold all four major trophies at once. Barely halfway into his career, Nadal sits fourth on the all-time grand slam leaderboard with nine majors. The all-court master is nigh unbeatable on clay, his lone defeat in six French Open campaigns coming while troubled by a knee injury. But confirming his all-court prowess, apart from Bjorn Borg, Nadal is the only man in the open era to have achieved the French Open-Wimbledon double more than once (2008 and 2010). And only Federer has conquered Nadal at The All England Club since 2005. Throw in two Davis Cups, an Olympic gold medal, a record 18 Masters Series titles and 70 weeks as world No.1 and an enviable 14-8 winning record over Federer and Nadal has done it all. The single-minded Spaniard may well have raised eyebrows with his lunch snubbing of the Queen at Wimbledon last year, but there is no doubting his own place in tennis royalty.

3. BJORN BORG: Tragically for tennis lovers, the ice-cool Swede was on display for an all-too-brief 10-year-career. But before retiring at just 25, Borg accrued 11 grand slam titles – the third-most in the modern era behind only Federer (16) and Sampras (14) – from 27 entered at a wondrous 41 per cent strike rate. All up, he won 89.2 per cent of his grand-slam singles matches. Both are men’s open-era records that have stood for 30 years. Borg’s adaption from clay to grass is also legendary, with the baseline master completing the French Open-Wimbledon double a record three straight times (1976-78). Had he bothered playing the Australian Open more than once, during a time when mostly locals and lesser lights reigned Down Under, it’s likely Borg would have challenged Federer’s sweet 16 majors. And despite jostling with fellow legends John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, Borg spent 109 weeks atop the rankings. And with 33 consecutive singles victories from 1973-80, Borg is also arguably the greatest-ever Davis Cup performer. On and off the court, the Scandinavian heart-throb transcended the sport like no other. He was the first tennis player ever feted like a rock star and to have women throw him their underwear.

2. PETE SAMPRAS: In a tremendous display of longevity, Pistol Pete won the first of his 14 slams at only 19 and last at 32, both in New York. Sampras rode his clutch serve and killer forehand to an unmatched seven Wimbledon crowns plus five US Open titles and two Australian Open triumphs, owned the top ranking for a record 286 weeks in total – one more week than Federer – and finished top dog for an unrivalled six consecutive years from 1993 to `98. He lost only four grand slam finals out of 18 and eclipses Federer for several big records. Alas, the American cannot be considered the greatest because of his dismal claycourt record. Sampras never made one final at Roland Garros, only ever reached the last four once in 12 attempts and averaged less than two wins a visit to the French capital. Sadly for Sampras, about 80 of his trophies and other priceless memorabilia were stolen this year – but he stopped the search for the Musketeers’ Cup long before that.

1. ROGER FEDERER: The Swiss master ended all arguments when he completed the career grand slam at the 2009 French Open. The once-in-a-lifetime talent owns a mountain of mind-boggling records – including 16 major trophies and 237 consecutive weeks as world No.1. He is the only man ever to contest all four grand slam finals in three different years and is the only player in history to win two different grand slam events for five consecutive years (Wimbledon 2003-07 and US Open 2004-08). Few could have imagined the mighty career ahead when, as a 19-year-old, Federer broke the Wimbledon domination of seven-times champion Sampras in 2001. At his most dominant, the freakish Federer reached 10 consecutive grand slam finals and a surely never-to-be-repeated 18 out of 19 (from 2005 to 2010), 22 in total and an almost incomprehensible 23 successive grand slam semi-finals and won 22 tour finals on the trot. If not for Nadal, the 29-year-old probably would have collected four more titles in Paris and three of his six other major final defeats were in five sets. In total, Federer has accounted for a dozen different rivals in grand slam finals. His crazy stats aside, the 29-year-old has achieved all he has with unrivalled on-court elegance, wielding his racquet like a stylish wand in a manner that may never be seen again. In truth, he could probably beat most social players with a frying pan. The undisputed tennis king.

(*** While Rod Laver won a total of 11 grand slam titles throughout his career, only his achievements from his professional career were considered for this exercise.)

BY THE NUMBERS – HOW THE GREATEST TENNIS PLAYERS OF THE PROFESSIONAL ERA (1968-2011) STACK UP:-

1.ROGER FEDERER (Switzerland)

Pro career: 1998-

Career win-loss record: 746-174 (81%)

Grand slam win-loss record: 208-31 (87%)

Career finals win-loss record: 66-28

Grand slam finals win-loss record: 16-6

Australian Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 54-7 (4-1)

French Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 43-11 (1-3)

Wimbledon win-loss record and (record in finals): 55-6 (6-1)

US Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 56-7 (5-1)

Weeks at No.1: 285

2.PETE SAMPRAS (USA)

Pro career: 1988-2002

Career win-loss record: 762-222 (77%)

Grand slam win-loss record: 203-38 (84%)

Career finals win-loss record: 64-24

Grand slam finals win-loss record: 14-4

Australian Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 45-9 (2-1)

French Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 24-13 (0-0)

Wimbledon win-loss record and (record in finals): 63-7 (7-0)

US Open win-loss record and record in finals: 71-9 (5-3)

Weeks at No.1: 286

3.BJORN BORG (Sweden)

Pro career: 1972-82

Career win-loss record: 608-127 (83%)

Grand slam win-loss record: 141-17 (89%)

Career finals win-loss record: 63-26

Grand slam finals win-loss record: 11-5

Australian Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 1-1 (0-0)

French Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 49-2 (6-0)

Wimbledon win-loss record and (record in finals): 51-4 (5-1)

US Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 40-10 (0-4)

Weeks at No.1: 109

4.RAFAEL NADAL (Spain)

Pro career: 2001-

Career win-loss record: 475-101 (82%)

Grand slam win-loss record: 120-17 (88%)

Career finals win-loss record: 43-13

Grand slam finals win-loss record: 9-2

Australian Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 25-5 (1-0)

French Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 38-1 (5-0)

Wimbledon win-loss record and (record in finals): 29-4 (2-2)

US Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 28-7 (1-0)

Weeks at No.1: 70

**5.ROD LAVER (Australia)

Pro career: 1968-77

Career win-loss record: 413-107 (79%)

Grand slam win-loss record: 60-10 (86%)

Career finals win-loss record: 47-23

Grand slam finals win-loss record: 5-1

Australian Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 6-1 (1-0)

French Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 13-1 (1-1)

Wimbledon win-loss record and (record in finals): 22-3 (2-0)

US Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 19-5 (1-0)

Weeks at No.1: none (only contested three grand slam events after advent of rankings in 1973)

6.ANDRE AGASSI (USA)

Pro career: 1986-2006

Career win-loss record: 870-274 (76%)

Grand slam win-loss record: 224-53 (81%)

Career finals win-loss record: 60-30

Grand slam finals win-loss record: 8-7

Australian Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 48-5 (4-0)

French Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 51-16 (1-2)

Wimbledon win-loss record and (record in finals): 46-13 (1-1)

US Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 79-19 (2-4)

Weeks at No.1: 101

7.IVAN LENDL (Czech Republic/USA)

Pro career: 1978-1994

Career win-loss record: 1071-239 (82%)

Grand slam win-loss record: 222-49 (82%)

Career finals win-loss record: 94-52

Grand slam finals win-loss record: 8-11

Australian Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 48-10 (2-2)

French Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 53-12 (3-2)

Wimbledon win-loss record and (record in finals): 48-14 (0-2)

US Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 73-13 (3-5)

Weeks at No.1: 270

8.JIMMY CONNORS (USA)

Pro career: 1970-1992

Career win-loss record: 1242-277 (82%)

Grand slam win-loss record: 232-49 (83%)

Career finals win-loss record: 109-54

Grand slam finals win-loss record: 8-7

Australian Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 10-1 (1-1)

French Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 40-13 (0-0)

Wimbledon win-loss record and (record in finals): 84-18 (2-4)

US Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 98-17 (5-2)

Weeks at No.1: 268

9.JOHN MCENROE (USA)

Pro career: 1977-1992

Career win-loss record: 875-198 (82%)

Grand slam win-loss record: 167-38 (81%)

Career finals win-loss record: 77-31

Grand slam finals win-loss record: 7-4

Australian Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 18-5 (0-0)

French Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 25-10 (0-1)

Wimbledon win-loss record and (record in finals): 59-11 (3-2)

US Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 65-12 (4-1)

Weeks at No.1: 170

10.STEFAN EDBERG (Sweden)

Pro career: 1983-1996

Career win-loss record: 806-270 (75%)

Grand slam win-loss record: 177-47 (79%)

Career finals win-loss record: 41-36

Grand slam finals win-loss record: 6-5

Australian Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 55-10 (2-3)

French Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 30-13 (0-1)

Wimbledon win-loss record and (record in finals): 49-12 (2-1)

US Open win-loss record and (record in finals): 43-12 (2-0)

Weeks at No.1: 72

(** While Rod Laver won a total of 11 grand slam titles throughout his career, only his achievements from his professional career were considered for this exercise.

(*** Statistics up to date as at January 7, 2011).

© AAP 2014