How do you measure the greatness of a tennis player? Who is the greatest? How would two greats stack up against each other? How would you compare the greatness of players across generations?

These are all intriguing questions, and as in any sport, the greatness of various players is a hotly, and very commonly, debated topic. This is part of the allure of sports too. Sure, it’s great to just watch, play and/or enjoy the game. But it’s the truly great players that really capture our imagination, that stoke a fire deep within us, that fill us with the passion and desire to watch them succeed. They are the ones that make the sport what it is, they are the ones that bring the crowds to the stadiums, and they are the ones that inspire the next generation of players to take up the game. This is why sports fans are so passionate about their favourite teams and players. And the players themselves care too, if you have any doubt. They spend their entire professional lives trying to be the best they possibly can, and when the opportunity comes to prove to the whole world that one is indeed the best, they will give everything to grab that opportunity.

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So how do you measure the greatness of a tennis player? What should be the criterion? Roger Federer has won just about everything and owns most of the records in the book. But Rod Laver won the calendar Grand Slam. Jimmy Connors has won more titles than any other male tennis player. Where do Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic stand in the debate? As indeed, where do the likes of Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras? Remember the famed Becker/Edberg rivalry? Well, who was better? And who was the best?

Well, we’ve tried to come up with a scientific method to rank the greatest men’s singles tennis players in the Open Era. To do this, we’ve basically used numbers, lots of them. Hopefully, numbers don’t lie, especially if you take enough of them. Every match, every title, every victory and every defeat of a player’s professional career has been taken into account. Obviously, finals are more important than first-round matches and Grand Slams titles are more important than ATP – 250 titles. We’ve taken into account everything that a player has done throughout his career, and generated an index rating. The higher the index rating, the greater is the player.

First, we came up with some criterion that the indexing system should clearly reflect – the measures of greatness, if you will.

Grand Slam performances – All debates regarding tennis greatness always seem to spend quite some time on this one point. Of course, the 4 majors are by far the most important events in the tennis calendar. They are called the majors for a reason. These tournaments need to be given their due weightage, and we have done precisely that. It’s not just about winning them either. Reaching a Grand Slam final, or semi-final is also a very notable achievement, and has to be given due recognition.

Level reached during career peak – This has to be one of the most important criterions. Federer at his peak Vs. Sampras at his peak – who would win? Of course, there is no deterministic way to answer that question, but the level reached by a player at his absolute peak has to be a very important factor. At a great player’s peak, he would win a lot of matches and titles, and that clearly is being taken into consideration. But those numbers could also be achieved over a very long period of time, without necessarily having a dominant period in there. But Federer’s period of unprecedented dominance in the 2000s, 10 consecutive slam finals and 23 consecutive semis, Djokovic’s 4 consecutive major victories, the 150+ consecutive weeks as World No. 1 by Federer, Lendl and Connor – such numbers which show exactly how good a player was at their absolute prime need to be considered. To do this, the best consecutive streaks in various departments by players have been taken into consideration. This includes a player’s most consecutive weeks at No. 1, major victories, major finals and semis. Only the player’s best streak is considered, since we are only trying to gauge the player’s very best level. So, Federer’s streak of 8 consecutive major finals from the 2008 French Open to the 2010 Australian Open is not considered as it’s his second best finals streak, even if it is the second best streak all time.

Domination – You can only beat what’s put in front of you, right? That’s one of the things that makes comparing players across generations so difficult. But if you are to be in the discussion for being the best of all time, you have to first be the best of your time! Federer, Sampras, Lendl, Connors and now Djokovic have all managed to be World No. 1 for over 200 weeks, with Federer amassing 302, of which an astounding 237 were consecutive. There’s no doubt about it – at his best, he was the best, he set the benchmark. And just like Federer, Sampras was the one setting the bar in the 90s, and he’s 2nd on the list with 286 weeks at No. 1.

This point goes hand in hand with the previous one. If a player, at his peak, manages to remain dominant, consistent and fit over a period of time, and a range of surfaces, he needs to be rewarded by the indexing system.

Titles and Match Wins – Every match and every title over a player’s career should have some value. Federer, Sampras and Nadal may have won more slams, but Connors and Lendl have won the most titles overall. Connors and Lendl are also 1st and 3rd on the list of most match wins with Federer slotting in at No. 2. These titles and match wins also need to be taken into consideration when accounting for a player’s greatness. Also, winning 100 matches out of 110 is obviously more impressive than winning 100 out of 150. So, every loss also needs to be factored in.

As already mentioned, the Grand Slam events have been given significantly higher weightage than the other tournaments. The year-end masters has also been given extra weightage, albeit not as much as the majors, as it is the next most important event in the tennis calendar. The Masters 1000 tournaments have not been given any special weightage however, as it’s only recently that they’ve grown in significance, and really can’t be used as a yardstick for judging players from a few generations back.

Longevity – Longevity is a very important measure of the legacy of a player. One great season is not going to make you an all-time great. You need to come back and do it again, and again, and again. Bjorn Borg’s mental burnout is clearly not going to help him here. And it’s not just about being there and continuing to play and making up the numbers. You need to keep your level up.

So, how do we measure longevity? Simple, if a player is there at the top for a really long time, his numbers are definitely going to reflect that – more majors, more titles, match wins, more finals, semis, perhaps even more time spent at No. 1. Connors, Lendl and Federer have all kept winning tennis tournaments well into their 30s, and that’s why today they hold 106, 94 and 90 titles respectively.

Ability across surfaces – This is one of the most hotly debated points when it comes to tennis greatness. Tennis is a game that is played on a variety of surfaces, each with its own characteristics and each requiring its own specific skillset. Throughout tennis history there have been players who have been specialists on certain surfaces. There have been far fewer players who have actually managed to conquer all surfaces. Sampras absolutely dominated the faster courts of Wimbledon and US Open, winning 7 and 5 respectively, but a 1996 semi-final loss was his best showing at the French. Gustavo Kuerten won 3 slams, all of them at the French. Nadal has won an incredible 9 French Open titles, while he has won only 5 of all the other 3 slams combined. However, he is one of only 5 players in the Open Era to win all 4 slams at least once. No one has won all 4 majors twice in the Open era. Even Federer, who has won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open at least 5 times, has managed to win the French just once, losing in the finals on 4 separate occasions, all 4 times to Nadal. There are many great players who have just not managed to conquer 1 of the 4 slams, very often the French or Wimbledon. Players who manage to conquer multiple surfaces are clearly very special players, and the indexing system needs to take that into account – players who have won all 4 majors, or 3 of the 4 or 2 of the 4 majors are awarded points, and they are awarded points for achieving it multiple times as well! The year-end has for the last several years been held on indoor courts (carpet was used before 1997), and its inclusion in the points system also gives a weightage to a player’s indoor prowess.

With all these criteria in mind, we came up with the following points scheme to generate the index score:

Grand Slam Tournaments :

Champion – 1000
Runners-up – 600
Semi-final loss – 300

Streaks:*

Champion – 250
Finals – 150
Semi-finals – 75
Year-end Masters:

Champion – 600
Runners-up – 300

Rankings:

Each week spent at No. 1 not part of the player’s best streak – 20
Each week spent at No. 1 part of the player’s best streak – 30

Titles and match wins:

Champion – 50
Runners-up – 20
1 Match win – 4
1 Match loss – -1

All surface points:**

4-surface points – 500 × (number of titles at least successful major)
3-surface points – 300 × (number of titles at third most successful major)
2-surface points – 100 × (number of titles at second most successful major)

*Only the best streak of a player’s career is counted.
**As an example, Pete Sampras won 2 Australian Opens, 0 French Opens, 7 Wimbledons and 5 US Opens. So he would get 0 4-surface points, 300 × 2 = 600 3-surface points, and 100 × 5 = 500 2-surface points.

(Click here for the latest updated list)

 

No. Name Grand Slam Titles(Finals) Weeks At No. 1(Best Streak) Career Titles(Finals) Index Score
1 Roger Federer 18 (28) 302 (237) 90 (138) 54151
2 Ivan Lendl 8 (19) 270 (157) 94 (146) 38440
3 Novak Djokovic 12 (21) 223 (122) 67 (96) 38320
4 Jimmy Connors 8 (15) 268 (160) 109 (164) 34850
5 Pete Sampras 14 (18) 286 (102) 64 (88) 34111
6 Rafael Nadal 14 (21) 141 (57) 69 (102) 31767
7 Andre Agassi 8 (15) 101 (52) 60 (90) 27661
8 John McEnroe 7 (11) 170 (58) 77 (109) 25455
9 Bjorn Borg 11 (16) 109 (46) 64 (89) 25334
10 Boris Becker 6 (10) 12 (3) 49 (77) 21573

 

 

So let’s look at the list – the 10 greatest tennis players of all time:

1. Roger Federer

It’s no surprise Roger Federer’s up there at No. 1. With the most number of major titles, finals and semi-finals, weeks at No. 1 and year-end championships, second highest number of match wins and 3rd on the list of overall titles, Federer is statistically a monster. He’s won everything there is to win over his illustrious career, and he’s at the top of our list with quite some margin to spare. At his absolute peak from 2004-2007, we witnessed a period of domination unmatched in tennis history. And at the age of 35, he’s still going strong.

2. Ivan Lendl

This just goes to show what a great player Ivan Lendl was. Some people might be surprised to find him at No. 2. But they shouldn’t be. He had a very long and very successful career, including 270 weeks as world No. 1. He held the record for most major finals with 19, before Federer surpassed it in 2009, unfortunately winning only 8 however. A Wimbledon title is the only thing missing from an otherwise glitteringly complete career.

3. Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic comes in just marginally behind Lendl, but with him still fit and playing at the top level, you would expect him to soon rise to no. 2. From his remarkable 2011 season, onwards, he has shown amazing consistency and has been a fixture in the final rounds of slams. He sits 4th in the list of major titles with 12, and joint 2nd for both the number of finals and semi-finals(21 and 31 respectively). His best finals and semi-finals streaks also come 2nd only to Federer. He has won all 4 majors at least once as well as the year-end multiple times, proving himself adept in all conditions. He has been World No. 1 for a very impressive 223 weeks, recently losing the mantle to Andy Murray.

4. Jimmy Connors

When it comes to longevity, no one can beat Jimmy Connors. With a record 109 titles, 1256 match wins and 16 year-end top-10 finishes, Connors is No. 4 on our list. At his peak, he held the No. 1 ranking for a then-record 160 consecutive weeks. He remained a force to be reckoned with for much longer. He won 8 Grand Slam singles titles with 3 coming in his stellar 1974 season. His 31 major semi-finals and 41 major quarter-finals stood as all-time records until both were eventually surpassed by Roger Federer. Ultimately, it’s his longevity and incredible aggregate numbers that help him come ahead of players with more major titles on our list.

5. Pete Sampras

Pete Sampras was the man to beat in the 1990s. He quit the game with 14 Grand Slams and 286 weeks at No. 1, both of which were all-time records before being broken by Federer. He finished year-end No. 1 for 6 consecutive years from 1993 to 1998, a record which still stands today. On faster courts, he had no equal, and boasts 7 Wimbledon and 5 US Open titles. Probably the one thing which prevents him from being even higher on this list is his rather poor record on clay. At Roland Garros, his best showing was a solitary semi-final appearance in 1996. This also prevented him from getting any real streaks going. He’s also won the year-end Championships 5 times, joint second behind Federer’s 6.

6. Rafael Nadal

The king of clay, Rafael Nadal is at No. 6. With 9 Roland Garros titles and overall 49 clay court titles, few would question his bid to be called the greatest clay-court player of all time. He’s no slouch on other surfaces either, and is one of only 5 players to have won all the 4 slams. His 14 major titles and 21 major finals are both joint 2nd all time. He has been a losing semi-finalist on only 3 occasions though, and his career has had its fair share of both outstanding performances and shock early round losses. The fact that he has spent large parts of his career being the world No. 2 behind Federer and later on, Djokovic, and his lack of a year-end championship, played in indoor conditions, have probably kept him from ranking even higher on our list. However, his career is still far from over, and he might very well climb a few more spots before he calls it a day.

7. Andre Agassi

After winning the 1999 French Open, Andre Agassi became the first player since Rod Laver to win the Career Grand Slam. Having also won an Olympic Gold medal and a year-end title, he was the first men’s player to win the Career Golden Slam (Career Grand Slam + Olympic Gold), and the only men’s player to win the Career Super Slam (Career Golden Slam + year-end title). Many people consider Agassi to be the greatest returner in the history of the game. He reached the World No. 1 ranking for the first time in 1995 but was troubled by personal issues during the mid-to-late 1990s and sank to World No. 141 in 1997, prompting many to believe that his career was over. He returned to World No. 1 in 1999 and enjoyed the most successful run of his career over the next four years, including the 2003 Australian Open title at the age of 32.

8. John McEnroe

The elegant leftie, John McEnroe comes in at No. 8. Known for his artistic shot making, silky volleying skills, as well as confrontational on-court behaviour, McEnroe notched up 3 Wimbledon and 4 US Open titles over the course of his career. In the year 1984, in which he won Wimbledon, US Open and the year-end, and finished runners-up at the French Open, he ended with an 82-3 win-loss record. To this day, it remains the best single season win rate in the Open Era. He was also world No. 1 for 170 weeks. Although not relevant for our rankings, his doubles exploits have also led many to consider him as a candidate for the greatest male doubles player ever.

9. Bjorn Borg

If you compare Bjorn Borg at his absolute peak with the peak of other greats, he would probably rank quite a bit higher than 9. But an early burnout and retirement at 26 did not help his cause. Having won a then-record 6 French Open titles, and 5 consecutive Wimbledon titles, very few players ever, if any, could claim to have dominated both clay and grass as much as he had. He also finished as the runners-up at the US Open on 4 occasions. He still holds the record for the highest match winning percentage at Grand Slams with an 89.81 % win rate. Of course, that is probably helped a great deal by the fact that he did not play a whole lot beyond his prime.

10. Boris Becker

Rounding out our top 10 is Boris Becker, who narrowly edges out his great rival Stefan Edberg. With his big booming serve and robust playing style, Becker roared to fame by winning Wimbledon in 1985, in the process becoming the youngest ever Grand Slam champion (a record later broken by Michael Chang). Becker was at his best on faster courts, especially the hallowed lawns of SW19 where he picked up 3 of his 6 major titles. Becker also won the year-end championships 5 times, and was world No. 1 for a short period, 12 weeks in total.

 

Interesting notes:
  • Among active players, current world No. 1 Andy Murray is in 12th position, with an index score of 17416 at the time of writing of this article. If he keeps his level of performance up for some time, and possibly adds to his slam tally, he stands a really good chance of breaking into the top 10 by the time his career is over.
  • The great Rod Laver’s career took place partially during the Open Era, and partially before the Open Era. Based on his Open Era performances, he has achieved an index score of 14848.

Comments

  1. I liked the analysis overall, but giving equal points for a 250, 500 & 1000. This threw me off. It does affect the credibility of the article.

    1. This 250,500,1000 categorization has only been present since 2009. The Masters tournaments have only been properly classified since 1996. And even then it was just a little over a decade back that they were made compulsory events. So we can’t really compare players from previous generation on the basis of these.

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