Commentary

Greatest ever? We have a surprise

Maybe the debate needs to go beyond Federer and Sampras

Updated: June 11, 2009, 1:28 PM ET
By David Schoenfield | Page 2

FedererPatrick Novarik/AFP/Getty ImagesRoger Federer has matched Pete Sampras with 14 Grand Slam titles.

Somewhere an old-time tennis fan is worked up over this whole Roger Federer versus Pete Sampras debate: "Let me tell you, neither of those guys compares to Don Budge!" the fan is screaming. "Let's see them hit the ball with one of them tiny wood rackets they had to play with. It took real skill in those days! And they didn't have them pretty girls handing them towels between every point, either! They had to wipe their sweat with their own shirtsleeves!"

Sorry, Don Budge fans, but we're going to leave your guy out of this debate for now.

Who is the greatest player? Now that Federer has tied Sampras for most Grand Slam titles at 14, the argument seems to settle around those two (sometimes Rod Laver, as well).

But winning Grand Slam titles is just one facet of the debate. Jimmy Connors, for example, played the Australian Open only twice, reaching the final both times. What about winning on different surfaces? What about career longevity? What about caliber of competition? What about being linked with Barbra Streisand, Brooke Shields and Steffi Graf?

So in true Page 2 fashion, we've devised a points system to calculate all this. We'll look at 11 of the best players of the Open era (since 1968), those with at least six Grand Slam titles. We're going to leave Laver out of the debate for now because his career is a little more difficult to evaluate; he won six majors as an amateur before turning pro in 1963, then added five more once professionals were allowed to compete. He might be the best player ever; we won't disagree, but it is fair to say that modern tennis really began in 1968.

For now, on to our scoring system. Here's how it works:

• Five points for each Grand Slam singles championship;
• Three points for each finals win over one of the other 10 players on our list;
• Two points for each loss in a Grand Slam championship;
• One point for each semifinals loss in a Grand Slam event;
• One point for every 10 career matches won in Grand Slam tournaments;
• One point for each separate year a player reached at least the semifinals of a Grand Slam event;
• Five points for finishing the year ranked as the No. 1 player in the world; four points for being No. 2; three points for being No. 3;
• 15 points for completing the career Grand Slam

Andre Agassi

Titles: 8 (Australian Open 4, U.S. Open 2, Wimbledon, French) (40 points)
Record in finals: 8-7 (14 points)
Semifinals losses: 11 (11 points)
Grand Slam W-L: 224-53 (22 points)
Players defeated in finals: Pete Sampras, Goran Ivanisevic, Michael Stich, Andrei Medvedev, Todd Martin, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Arnaud Clement, Rainer Schuttler (3 points)
Years reaching finals or semifinals: 15 (15 points)
Year-end rankings: 3, 2, 2, 1, 3, 2 (23 points)
Career Grand Slam? Yes (15 points)
Random note: 1-4 against Sampras in Grand Slam finals; beat Sampras in the 1995 Australian.

TOTAL POINTS: 143

Boris Becker

Titles: 6 (Wimbledon 3, Australian 2, U.S. Open) (30 points)
Record in finals: 6-4 (8 points)
Semifinals losses: 8 (8 points)
Grand Slam W-L: 163-40 (16 points)
Players defeated in finals: Ivan Lendl (3), Kevin Curren, Stefan Edberg, Michael Chang (12 points)
Years reaching finals or semifinals: 11 (11 points)
Year-end rankings: 2, 2, 2, 3, 3 (18 points)
Career Grand Slam? No
Random note: Reached the French semis three times, but never the final.

TOTAL POINTS: 103

Bjorn Borg

Titles: 11 (French 6, Wimbledon 5) (55 points)
Record in finals: 11-5 (10 points)
Semifinals losses: 1 (1 point)
Grand Slam W-L: 141-16 (14 points)
Players defeated in finals: Jimmy Connors (2), Guillermo Vilas (2), John McEnroe, Manuel Orantes, Ilie Nastase, Victor Pecci, Roscoe Tanner, Vitas Gerulaitis, Ivan Lendl (12 points)
Years reaching finals or semifinals: 8 (8 points)
Year-end rankings: 3, 3, 2, 3, 2, 1, 1 (27 points)
Career Grand Slam? No
Random note: Entered Australian Open only once in career; from 1978 to '81, made the finals in 11 of 12 majors he entered.

TOTAL POINTS: 127

[+] EnlargeJimmy Connors
John Kelly/Getty ImagesJimmy Connors won eight Grand Slam titles despite rarely venturing to the Australian Open.

Jimmy Connors

Titles: 8 (U.S. Open 5, Wimbledon 2, Australian Open) (40 points)
Record in finals: 8-7 (14 points)
Semifinals losses: 16 (16 points)
Grand Slam W-L: 233-49 (23 points)
Players defeated in finals: Bjorn Borg (2), Ivan Lendl (2), Ken Rosewall (2), John McEnroe, Phil Dent (15 points)
Years reaching finals or semifinals: 14 (14 points)
Year-end rankings: 3, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 3, 3, 2, 3, 2 (49 points)
Career Grand Slam? No
Random note: Won 1976 U.S. Open on clay; reached semis of French Open four times, but never the final.

TOTAL POINTS: 171

Stefan Edberg

Titles: 6 (Wimbledon 2, U.S. Open 2, Australian 2) (30 points)
Record in finals: 6-5 (10 points)
Semifinals losses: 8 (8 points)
Grand Slam W-L: 178-47 (17 points)
Players defeated in finals: Boris Becker (2), Mats Wilander, Pat Cash, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras (12 points)
Years reaching finals or semifinals: 10 (10 points)
Year-end rankings: 2, 3, 1, 1, 2 (21 points)
Career Grand Slam? No
Random note: Five-set loss to Michael Chang in 1989 French Open prevented career Grand Slam.

TOTAL POINTS: 108

Roger Federer

Titles: 14 (Wimbledon 5, U.S. Open 5, Australian 3, French) (70 points)
Record in finals: 14-5 (10 points)
Semifinals losses: 3 (3 points)
Grand Slam W-L: 175-25 (17 points)
Players defeated in finals: Andy Roddick (3), Rafael Nadal (2), Andre Agassi, Marat Safin, Mark Philippoussis, Lleyton Hewitt, Marcos Baghdatis, Fernando Gonzalez, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Robin Soderling (9 points)
Years reaching finals or semifinals: 7 (7 points)
Year-end rankings: 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2 (28 points)
Career Grand Slam? Yes (15 points)
Random note: 2-5 against Nadal in finals; 12-0 against everybody else.

TOTAL POINTS: 159

[+] EnlargeIvan Lendl
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesIvan Lendl never gets much credit for being a dominant force in the '80s.

Ivan Lendl

Titles: 8 (U.S. Open 3, French 3, Australian 2) (40 points)
Record in finals: 8-11 (22 points)
Semifinals losses: 9 (9 points)
Grand Slam W-L: 222-49 (22 points)
Players defeated in finals: John McEnroe (2), Mats Wilander (2), Miloslav Mecir (2), Stefan Edberg, Mikael Pernfors (15 points)
Years reaching finals or semifinals: 11 (11 points)
Year-end rankings: 2, 3, 2, 3, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 3 (41 points)
Career Grand Slam? No
Random note: 2-1 vs. McEnroe in finals, but 0-3 vs. Boris Becker, 2-3 vs. Wilander, 0-2 vs. Jimmy Connors and 0-1 vs. Borg

TOTAL POINTS: 160

John McEnroe

Titles: 7 (U.S. Open 4, Wimbledon 3) (35 points)
Record in finals: 7-4 (8 points)
Semifinals losses: 8 (8 points)
Grand Slam W-L: 167-38 (16 points)
Players defeated in finals: Bjorn Borg (3), Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Vitas Gerulaitis, Chris Lewis (15 points)
Years reaching finals or semifinals: 12 (12 points)
Year-end rankings: 3, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2 (31 points)
Career Grand Slam? No
Random note: Competed in Australian Open five times, never reaching the finals; reached French final once.

TOTAL POINTS: 125

Rafael Nadal

Titles: 6 (French 4, Wimbledon, Australian) (30 points)
Record in finals: 6-2 (4 points)
Semifinals losses: 2 (2 points)
Grand Slam W-L: 90-15 (9 points)
Players defeated in finals: Roger Federer (5), Mariano Puerta (15 points)
Years reaching finals or semifinals: 5 (5 points)
Year-end rankings: 2, 2, 2, 1 (17 points)
Career Grand Slam? No
Random note: Has reached the semis of the U.S. Open once so far.

TOTAL POINTS: 82

Pete Sampras

Titles: 14 (Wimbledon 7, U.S. Open 5, Australian 2) (70 points)
Record in finals: 14-4 (8 points)
Semifinals losses: 5 (5 points)
Grand Slam W-L: 203-38 (20 points)
Players defeated in finals: Andre Agassi (4), Goran Ivanisevic (2), Cedric Pioline (2), Jim Courier, Todd Martin, Boris Becker, Michael Chang, Carlos Moya, Patrick Rafter (15 points)
Years reaching finals or semifinals: 12 (12 points)
Year-end rankings: 3, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 3, 3 (39 points)
Career Grand Slam? No
Random note: Reached the semifinals of the French Open just once.

TOTAL POINTS: 169

Mats Wilander

Titles: 7 (French 3, Australian 3, U.S. Open) (35 points)
Record in finals: 7-4 (8 points)
Semifinals losses: 3 (3 points)
Grand Slam W-L: 144-37 (14 points)
Players defeated in finals: Ivan Lendl (3), Guillermo Vilas, Kevin Curren, Pat Cash, Henri Leconte (9 points)
Years reaching finals or semifinals: 7 (7 points)
Year-end rankings: 3, 3, 3, 1 (14 points)
Career Grand Slam? No
Random note: Won all but Wimbledon in 1988, when he lost in the quarterfinals to Miloslav Mecir.

TOTAL POINTS: 90

Final rankings

1. Jimmy Connors, 171 points.
2. Pete Sampras, 169
3. Ivan Lendl, 160
4. Roger Federer, 159
5. Andre Agassi, 143
6. Bjorn Borg, 127
7. John McEnroe, 125
8. Boris Becker, 103
9. Stefan Edberg, 102
10. Mats Wilander, 90
11. Rafael Nadal, 82

Jimmy Connors?!?! Indeed … and why not? Sure, he won "only" eight majors, but consider:

A. His amazing run of excellence and durability, including being ranked in the top three in the world for 12 consecutive years and reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open at age 39;

B. He has won more Grand Slam matches (233) than anybody else despite competing in the Australian Open only twice;

C. Although he never won the French Open, he did win the U.S. Open in 1976 when it was held on clay;

D. He beat great players such as Borg, McEnroe and Lendl in finals;

E. Think about all the players he had to compete against at their peaks: in the '70s, against John Newcombe (five career Grand Slam titles), Guillermo Vilas (four GS titles) and Roscoe Tanner (one title); in the late '70s and early '80s, Borg and McEnroe; in the '80s, Lendl, Edberg, Wilander and Becker.

Here's one stat that says something about Connors: From 1973 Wimbledon through the 1985 U.S. Open, he played in 35 majors and reached the quarterfinals in 34 of them (and the semifinals in 28 of them). The guy always came to play, and he was among the best in the world for 15 years. Yes, Sampras has more titles, but it's hard to say he matched Connors' consistency, and he clearly didn't match Connors' record on clay. And although one of the judgments against Federer's case has been a lack of star opposition, you can make the same case against Sampras: His early rivals included past-their-prime guys such as Edberg and Becker; Agassi, the guy who should have been his chief rival, took a midcareer sabbatical, got fat, battled injuries and started dating movie stars; his other chief rival should have been Jim Courier, who won four Grand Slam titles but flamed out at age 24. Late in his career, Sampras battled the likes of Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt, neither of whom became a consistent winner. So if you're going to use that argument against Federer, you have to use it against Sampras, as well.

Certainly, under our fun little points system here, Federer eventually will pass Connors. His peak excellence is unsurpassed, and he'll accumulate career "value," as well. He has a rival in Nadal, and up-and-coming talent such as Andy Murray that should make for tough competition.

But until then, let's at least acknowledge that Connors deserves to be in the debate.

Plus, he deserves extra credit for marrying a Playboy bunny.

David Schoenfield | email

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