Who is the Greatest Tennis Player in History?
Richard J. Garfunkel
July 6, 2009
Recently many of us witnessed all, or parts of the great Wimbledon Men’s Final, between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick. Of course the debate over who is best in the history of the game will never end or be decided. Bill Tilden, Donald Budge, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Rod Laver, Pete Sampras and maybe Bjorn Borg have been considered, at one time or another, the best in history. But each era is different and new equipment, every generation or so, changes the game. I never particularly thought that Sampras had the total game of many of his more modern predecessors. It seemed he had one of the worst records of any number one player in history when it came to winning non-Grand Slam events. With regards to his career, I do not have access to his statistics regarding when he exited tour events. But he was ranked number one for six straight years and Tennis Magazine named him the greatest player from 1965-2005. He did win 64 ATP Singles titles, which is 4th on the all-time list. Because of the importance of the Grand Slam events, his place as number one player in history seems to have been eclipsed by Federer, who is quite healthy, and says he has the desire to continue to play. His form is smooth, he has the right demeanor and he is able to keep his great success in proportion. Federer accomplished his 15 Grand Slam titles in four years less time, and at a younger age than Sampras. Of course, he may have been helped considerably by the injury to his great nemesis and rival Rafael Nadel. Injuries are part of the game, it will be interesting to see if Nadel’s are chronic and his future is now limited. Ironically, Steffi Graf benefitted greatly by the knifing of Monica Seles, who when it happened Monica, she was at the peak of her game. Seles had won 10 Grand Slams in four years and her winning percentage was 83% compared to Sampras’s 77%. Graf, who won 22 Grand Slam titles, and had a lifetime winning percentage of 88%, was defeated by Seles in the Australia Open in 1993. After Seles was stabbed in Hamburg by a crazy Graf supporter, she missed two years of play, was never really the same, and Graf won the three remaining titles in 1993 and seven more over the next number of years.
As to the longest match in Wimbledon history, that belongs to Pancho Gonzales and Charlie Pasarell. I can recall it to this day, and I was surprised that no one mentioned it during the long final set between Federer and Roddick. Gonzalez, who was on the less regarded professional tour from 1949 through 1967, missed many, many opportunities to win Grand Slam events. He certainly was the dominant pro player for eight consecutive years and he was still a potent force at Wimbledon at age 41.
As to Rod Laver, he swept all of the Grand Slam events in 1962 as an amateur and in 1969 a year after the Grand Slam events became open to professionals. Laver won a total of eleven Grand Slam titles and for sure would have won many more. His life-time winning percentage in ATP Open era events was 80%. When he returned to Wimbledon in 1968 he easily defeated both Arthur Ashe, the defending champion in the semi-finals, and Tony Roche in the finals, both in straight sets.
One of the greatest matches ever played
In 1969, however, it was Gonzales's turn to prevail in the longest match ever played till that time, one so long and arduous that it resulted in the advent of tie break scoring. As a 41-year-old at Wimbledon, Gonzales met the fine young amateur Charlie Pasarell, a Puerto Rican younger than Gonzales by 16 years who revered his opponent.
Pasarell won a titanic first set, 24-22, then with daylight fading, the 41-year-old Gonzalez argued that the match should be suspended. The referee didn't relent and thus the petulant Gonzalez virtually threw the second set, losing it 6-1. At the break, the referee agreed the players should stop. Gonzalez was booed as he walked off Centre Court.
The next day, the serves, the volleys and all the prowess that made Gonzales a fiery competitor surfaced with trademark vengeance. Pasarell, seeking to exploit Gonzalez's advanced years, tried to aim soft service returns at Gonzalez's feet and tire him with frequent lobs. Barked Gonzalez on a changeover, “Charlie, I know what you're doing — and it's not working!” Gonzalez rebounded to win three straight sets, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. In the fifth set, Gonzales won all seven match points that Pasarell had against him, twice coming back from 0-40 deficits, to walk off the court from the 5-hour, 12-minute epic.
The final score was an improbable 22-24, 1–6, 16-14, 6–3, 11-9. Gonzales went on to the fourth round of the championship, where he was beaten in four sets by Arthur Ashe. The match with Pasarell, however, is still remembered as one of the highlights in the history of tennis and has been called one of “The Ten Greatest Matches of the Open Era” in the November/December 2003 issue of TENNIS magazine.] But it was not this match alone which gave Gonzales the reputation, among the top players, of being the greatest long-match player in the history of the game.