Numerous great players played in the days before tennis’s Open era, many of whom are unknown by modern sports fans. Among them, chronologically, are:
- “Big Bill” Tilden – winner of 21 amateur Grand Slam titles, 7 consecutive Davis Cups, 4 professional Grand Slam titles, the professional doubles title at age 52; was for 7 years the World No. 1 player
- Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet, René Lacoste – the three best of the “Four Musketeers”, won 46 amateur Grand Slam titles amongst them, 6 consecutive Davis Cups, 1 professional Grand Slam title; one was for 5 years the World No. 1 player
- Ellsworth Vines – winner of 6 amateur Grand Slam titles, 4 professional Grand Slam titles; was world #1 professional player, 1933-1937; had a tremendous flat, hard service; was for 3 years the World No. 1 player
- Fred Perry – won 13 amateur Grand Slam titles including 3 consecutive Wimbledons; was the first to win 4 consecutive Grand Slam titles; won 2 professional Grand Slam titles; was for 4 consecutive years the World No. 1 player
- Don Budge – winner of 14 amateur Grand Slam titles; was the first to win 4 Grand Slam titles in a single year, 4 professional Grand Slam titles; is widely viewed as having had the best backhand of all time before Rosewall; was for 6 consecutive years the World No. 1 player
- Bobby Riggs – winner of 6 amateur Grand Slam titles, 4 professional Grand Slam titles and 7 times a finalist; was world #1 professional player 1946-1947 and for those 2 years the World No. 1 player
- Jack Kramer – won 10 amateur Grand Slam titles and 2 professional Grand Slam titles; was the first great player to play serve-volley on all serves; beat Gonzales badly in the 1949-1950 tour; was for 5 years the World No. 1 player
- Pancho Segura – winner of 3 professional Grand Slam titles, including 2 victories over Gonzales, and 7 times a finalist; was for 1 year the World No. 1 player; Kramer called Segura’s two-handed forehand “the single best shot ever produced in tennis.”
- Frank Sedgman – won 22 amateur Grand Slam titles, 3 professional Grand Slam titles and 4 times a finalist; winner of 3 consecutive Davis Cups
- Pancho Gonzales – winner of 4 amateur Grand Slam titles, 12 professional Grand Slam titles and 6 times a finalist; world #1 amateur in 1949; was still world #6 player in 1969 and #9 American in 1972 at 44; was for 8 consecutive years the World No. 1 player, an unequalled 9 times overall
- Ken Rosewall – won 18 Grand Slam titles, first 11 as an amateur, then 7 in the Open era, plus another 18 professional Grand Slam titles and was 5 times a finalist; winner of 3 consecutive Davis Cups; was for 2 years the World No. 1 player
- Lew Hoad – won 11 amateur Grand Slam titles and 7 times a finalist in the professional Grand Slam; Gonzales said of him: “I think his game was the best game ever. Better than mine.”
Other fine players of the pre-Open era include Maurice McLoughlin, “Little Bill” Johnston, Vinnie Richards, Jack Crawford, Gottfried von Cramm, Ted Schroeder, Vic Seixas, and Tony Trabert.
Among women the top two pre-Open era players are considered to be Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills Moody. Maureen Connolly was the first female player to win a Grand Slam in 1953. Doris Hart was the first player to win all 12 possible singles, doubles and mixed doubles Grand Slam titles
Among the greatest male players of the Open era, with the number of career Grand Slam singles titles in parenthesis, are: Pete Sampras (14), Rod Laver (11), Björn Borg (11), Jimmy Connors (8), Ivan Lendl (8), Andre Agassi (8), John Newcombe (7), Roger Federer (7), John McEnroe (7), Mats Wilander (7), Boris Becker (6), Stefan Edberg (6), Jim Courier (4), Guillermo Vilas (4), Arthur Ashe (3), Gustavo Kuerten(3), Stan Smith (2), Lleyton Hewitt (2), Yevgeny Kafelnikov (2), Patrick Rafter (2), Marat Safin (2), and Rafael Nadal (2).
The greatest women players, again with the number of career Grand Slam singles titles in parenthsis for each, are: Margaret Smith Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), Chris Evert (18), Martina Navrátilová (18), Billie Jean King (12), Monica Seles (9), Serena Williams (7), Maria Bueno (7), Evonne Goolagong (7), Martina Hingis (5), Venus Williams (5), Justine Henin-Hardenne (5), Hana Mandlíková (4), Arantxa Sánchez Vicario (4),Lindsay Davenport (3), Jennifer Capriati (3), and Mary Pierce (2)
Suzanne Lenglen and Bill Tilden
The Greatest Player of All Time
Until the mid-1950s, Bill Tilden was generally considered the greatest player ever, his only rivals being Vines, Budge, and Kramer. For much of the 1950s and 1960s, many thought Gonzales had claimed that title. Since then, first Laver, then more recently Borg, McEnroe, and Sampras, were widely regarded by many of their contemporaries as the greatest ever. Roger Federer is now considered by many observers to have the most “complete” game in modern tennis, with the potential to challenge the achievements of these past greats. Even among experts, however, no consensus exists as to who has been the greatest of all. Kramer, for instance, still believes that Budge was the best ever on a consistent basis, while Vines was the best at the top of his game. Segura opts for Gonzales, and Gonzales himself considered Hoad, at the height of his game, to be the best.
It frequently appears to be the case when trying to decide who is the best of all time that comptemporaries over-value the worth of great players of their own time. Each time that a great new player such as Tilden, Vines, Budge, Kramer, or Gonzales came on the scene and dominated it for several years, many observers at that time would then declare him to be the best of all time. A clear example of this occurred in early 1986 when Inside Tennis, a magazine edited in Northern California, devoted parts of four issues to a lengthy article called “Tournament of the Century”, an imaginary tournament to determine the greatest of all time. They asked 37 tennis notables such as Kramer, Budge, Perry, and Riggs and observers such as Bud Collins to list the 10 greatest players in order. This was probably as prestigious and knowledgeable a group of tennis experts as has ever been assembled. Nevertheless, there appears to be a clear predilection for choosing their near-contemporaries as the best player ever.
Twenty-five players in all were named by the 37 experts in their lists of the 10 best. The magazine then ranked them in descending order by total number of points assigned. The top eight players in overall points, with their number of first-place votes, were:
- Rod Laver (9),
- John McEnroe (3),
- Don Budge (4),
- Jack Kramer (5),
- Bjorn Borg (6),
- Pancho Gonzales (1),
- Bill Tilden (6), and
- Lew Hoad (1).
Sculpture depicting Rod Laver outside the Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne.
McEnroe was still an active player and Laver, Borg, and Gonzales had only recently retired. In the imaginary tournament Laver beat McEnroe in the finals in 5 sets.
Among the women, Lenglen and Wills Moody vie for the distinction of greatest of all time, along with several modern players: Court, Navratilova, Evert, Graf, and Seles.
The Great Doubles Players
Doubles is no longer as important to spectator tennis as it was in the first half of the 20th Century, when its attraction, particularly in Davis Cup rounds, was nearly equal to that of singles. George Lott, who himself won 5 U.S. doubles titles as well as 2 at Wimbledon, wrote an article in the May, 1973, issue of Tennis Magazine in which he ranked the great doubles teams and the great players. The teams, in descending order, were:
- John Newcombe and Tony Roche
- R. Norris Williams and Vinnie Richards
- Bill Talbert and Gardnar Mulloy
- Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor
- Adrian Quist and John Bromwich
- Roy Emerson and Rod Laver
- Bill Tilden and Vinnie Richards
- Jacques Brugnon and Henri Cochet
- Wilmer Allison and John Van Ryn
- Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall
John Newcombe and Tony Roche
Other great teams would include George Lott and Les Stoefen, Bob Lutz and Stan Smith, John McEnroe and Peter Fleming, and The Woodies (Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde).
Lott also wrote: “It is frequently said that a doubles team is as good as its weakest link…. I believe a really great doubles player can solidify that weak link.” His list of the greatest doubles players is:
- John Bromwich, Jack Kramer, and Don Budge, tied for 1st
- Frank Sedgman, Adrian Quist, and Roy Emerson tied for 4th
- Vinnie Richards
- Jacques Brugnon
- Marty Riessen, Bill Talbert, and Gardnar Mulloy tied for 10th
Bromwich as a junior in the 1930s