Tennis Extras
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                   === Who's the best racket man? ===
 
 By Scott Riley
 Tennis Editor
 
 
      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
 straight wins).
 
      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
 titles.
 
      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
 body.
 
      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
 nine-year career.
 
      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