=== Who's the best racket man? ===
By Scott Riley
PHILADELPHIA (Sports Network) - Who's the best tennis player over
the last 27 years? I'll try to break it down from 1973 -- the year
world rankings came into play.
Sure, Pete Sampras is the all-time leader with 13 Grand Slam
titles, but of the five greats about to be analyzed, three possess
more championship trophies, two have reached more Slam finals, two
have spent more consecutive weeks atop the world rankings, and one
(Bjorn Borg) has secured more major titles on natural surfaces than
the hard-hitting American.
Sampras, of course, is fresh off his record-setting victory at
Wimbledon -- the sport's most-prestigious tournament. He probably can
lay claim to best-ever grass-court player, although Borg should have
something to say about that (six straight Wimbledon finals, five
The dominant American has had to beat the likes of Andre Agassi,
Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Patrick Rafter, hard-serving Goran
Ivanisevic [twice], and Cedric Pioline at Wimbledon -- none of whom
make my top-5 list over the last 27-plus seasons. Borg, on the other
hand, with his devastating topspin shots and thundering serve topped
such luminaries as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors (twice) on the
ancient turf that is Wimbledon. The steely Swede also dusted the
flashy Ilie Nastase and the heavy-serving Roscoe Tanner for two of the
I'm not trying to take away from what Sampras has done, just
pointing out what the underappreciated Borg accomplished.
Pistol Pete recently hoisted his fourth consecutive Wimbledon
championship trophy -- and seventh overall, which is tops in the Open
era. Only Willie Renshaw captured as much Wimbledon hardware on the
men's side, but his plaudits came back in the '80s...the 1880s.
Sampras, a remarkable 7-0 in Wimbledon finals, also owns four
U.S. Open crowns and a pair of Australian Open titles.
He has not come close to winning it all, however, at the clay-
court Grand Slam tourney -- the French Open -- where Pete has advanced
to only one semifinal in 11 trips to Roland Garros.
Sampras has, however, gone 13-2 in his career Grand Slam finals;
spent a record 276 weeks as the number-one player in the world,
including 102- and 82-week runs in succession; and won 65 titles,
which places him fourth all-time in that category.
The aforementioned Borg did some things on the tennis court that
Sampras has yet to accomplish, despite Pete playing four more years on
the pro circuit.
The great Borg is the only man to rattle off five straight
Wimbledon titles, excluding Laurie Doherty, who turned the trick five
years in a row from 1902-06, and Renshaw, who dominated when the game
was glorified badminton. The amazing Swede also landed in more Grand
Slam finals than Pete (to this point), as Borg posted a solid 11-5
mark in such career title matches.
And Borg is the king of natural-surface Slam wins, having claimed
an unprecedented six French Open titles in as many finals appearances
in an eight-year span on the Parisian red clay, to go along with the
five grass-court (Wimbledon) crowns. The long-haired Swede also
managed to reach a quartet of U.S. Open finals -- losing twice to
McEnroe and two other times to Connors, his chief rivals at the time
for world tennis supremacy.
Borg, however, did not spend half as much time as world number-
one, where he reigned for 109 weeks -- 167 fewer than Sampras to this
point. Borg also owns three fewer career titles than Pete, who
appears to have plenty of tennis left in his just-about-29-year-old
Unlike Sampras, Borg did, however, play in the greatest match of
all-time, outlasting McEnroe in the marathon five-set 1980 Wimbledon
final. The famous victory gave Borg a fifth straight title at the
storied All-England Club. Johnny Mac would end Borg's Wimbledon run
in four sets of championship match tennis the following year -- the
somber Swede's final one on the circuit.
And Borg squeezed all of his achievements into a self-shortened
Moving on, it seems like nobody ever wants to talk about Ivan
Lendl's incredible run in the 1980s.
All the Czech native did was spend 270 weeks (2nd all-time) atop
the world rankings, including 157 straight weeks (2nd all-time) there.
Lendl advanced to a male-record 19 Grand Slam finals -- winning
eight. Only Connors has captured more singles titles in men's history,
with Lendl notching 94 championships in 146 finals.
The obvious thing that haunts Lendl is the fact that he never won
it all at historic Wimbledon, losing in the 1986 (Boris Becker) and
1987 (Pat Cash) finals. The former star once said that he would trade
in all of his titles for one Wimbledon championship.
The great Lendl powered his way into eight straight U.S. Open
finals at one point (1982-89) -- winning three of them. He also won
two Aussie Open titles and three French Open crowns.
Lendl's biggest rival -- McEnroe -- also has something to say
about his place in the game's chronicles.
Mac captured seven titles in 11 career Grand Slam finals; spent
170 weeks as the world number-one star; and posted 77 singles
championships in 108 title tilts.
"Superbrat" took home three Wimbledon championships and four U.S.
Open titles. He also reached one French Open final (lost to Lendl in
1984) -- unlike Sampras and Connors -- but never advanced beyond the
semis at the Australian Open, an event he skipped 11 times in 16
years. Borg also avoided the Aussie tournament, making the trip one
time in his nine seasons. And Connors appeared in only two Australian
Opens during his illustrious career -- winning one and finishing as
the runner-up in the other.
Another one of Mac's arch-rivals -- Connors -- was as brilliant a
performer to ever take the court.
Connors, who seemingly played forever in a career that spanned 23
workmanlike seasons, spent a still-record 160 consecutive weeks as the
top-ranked player on the planet, and had another run of 84 weeks (4th
best) atop the list.
The blue-collar lefty recorded five U.S. Open championships among
his eight Grand Slam titles. And, at 268 weeks, only Sampras and
Lendl have spent more time as number-one.
Did I mention that Connors, a 15-time Grand Slam finalist, is the
all-time record-holder with 109 titles.
So who is number-one since 1973?
I'll give it to Sampras -- just barely over Borg -- on grass;
Borg's my selection on dirt; take your pick between Sampras, McEnroe,
Connors and Lendl on hardcourts; and overall, when push comes to shove
and everything's laying on the line, this writer has to go with...a
dead heat between the machine-like Sampras and equally-robotic Borg.
It's too tough to call.
Did I overlook Andre Agassi in this five-man equation? After
all, the current world number-one star is one of only five men to
attain the career Grand Slam, joining Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver
and Roy Emerson. Sampras, Borg, Lendl, McEnroe and Connors cannot lay
claim to that honor. But, in my opinion, those five gentlemen have
achieved more on tennis courts the world over.
08/07 10:55:16 ET