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The Greatest U.S. Open Tennis Champions of the Modern Era

Posted on July 22, 2010 by JA Allen

The United States Open has hosted some of the greatest matches in tennis history.

In a another month we will be heavily invested in the last grand slam tournament of the season, the 2010 U.S Open to be held in Queens, New York, at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Last year’s winner of the U.S. Open men’s trophy, Juan Martin del Potro will not be on hand to defend his championship.  The Argentine has been sidelined most of 2010 after surgery for a wrist injury.

The question remains whether Roger Federer will reestablish his dominance in the event or if a new champion will crowned as the next U.S. Open winner.

Some believe Federer’s era has past. But most have adopted a “wait and see” attitude.  Time will tell whether the Swiss continues to add to his impressive record at the U.S. Open, moving him up the ladder on the list of greatest champions.

An examination of  the top U.S. Open champions since 1968 should focus on both the number of finals won plus the total number of final appearances.  If those totals are equal then consider the total winning percentages of the respective players.

Of all the tennis professionals who have participated in the modern era at the U.S. Open, the number of men who have multiple wins is few.  It is a very difficult accomplishment––making it to the final of a major and then winning the tournament––most of all, doing it more than once.  The following men are great champions.

(9) Patrick Rafter: 2 U.S. Open Finals, 2 wins

Patrick Rafter from Australia won the U.S. Open in 1997-1998

Rafter played at the U.S. Open from 1993 through 2001, winning consecutive championships in 1997-1998.   The Aussie owned a 74.1 winning percentage (20-7) at the Open during those years.

In 1997 Rafter defeated Greg Rusedski of the UK 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 to capture his first U.S. Open title. It was a highlight in the young Aussie’s career.

In 1998 the Aussie defeated countryman Mark Philippoussis to win his second consecutive U.S. Open title.  After 1998, Rafter would never make it to another U.S. Open final.

(8) Stefan Edberg: 2 U.S Open Finals, 2 Wins

Sweden's Stefan Edberg won the U.S. Open title in 1991-1992.

Stephan Edberg played in U.S. Open 14 straight years with an overall 78.2 winning percentage (43-12).

In 1991 No. 2 seed Stefan Edberg defeated No. 4 seed Jim Courier 6-2, 6-4, 6-0. It was an impressive win for the Swede who also thrived on the grass courts.

The following year the Swede defeated Pete Sampras 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2 for the U.S. Open Championship.

These were the years when the Swede Edberg had his greatest victories.

(7) Bjorn Borg:  4 U.S. Open Finals, 0 wins

Bjorn Borg made four U.S. Open finals in 1976, 1978, 1980, and 1981.

The enigmatic Swede Bjorn Borg played in nine U.S. Open tournaments, ending up with a winning percentage of 81.6.  He made the finals four times.

Borg lost twice to Jimmy Connors in 1976 on clay and 1978 on hard courts.

Then Borg lost twice to John McEnroe in 1980 and 1981, taking McEnroe to five sets in 1980.

The Swede, however,  did make the finals four times and that is something few others have accomplished in the modern era.

(6) Andre Agassi:  Six U.S. Open Finals, Two Wins

American Andre Agassi won the U.S. Open in 1994 and again in 1999.

Agassi appeared at the U.S. Open 21 consecutive years with an 80.6 total winning percentage (79-19).  He played his first U.S. Open at age 16 in 1986 and his last in 2006 at age 36.

He remained a favorite of the New York crowds who grew to embrace this champion as Agassi matured.

His first U.S. Open victory came in 1994 as Agassi defeated German Michael Stich 6-1, 7-6, 7-5.  Then in 1999 Agassi came out on top against fellow American Todd Martin 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2 in a thrilling five set match which Agassi refused to lose.

Agassi lost three times in finals to fellow American Pete Sampras in 1990, 1995 and 2002 when Sampras played his final match at the U.S. Open.  Agassi also lost in his last final appearance against Roger Federer in 2005––Federer’s second consecutive New York title.

Agassi will always be remembered for his competitive spirit, his brilliant return game and his aggressive ground strokes.

(5) John McEnroe: Five U.S. Open Finals, 4 Wins

American John McEnroe won four titles, from 1979-1981 and again in 1984.

John McEnroe also competed 16 times at the U.S. Open with an 84.6 winning percentage (66-12).  Johnny Mac played his first U.S. Open in 1977 and his last in 1992.  McEnroe won four championships, three consecutively from 1979-1981 and another in 1984.

In 1979 McEnroe defeated fellow New Yorker and best friend Vitas Gerulaitis in the final 7-5, 6-3, 6-3.  It marked McEnroe’s first slam victory at age 20.

In 1980, it would not be quite so easy as McEnroe faced Bjorn Borg in the final enduring five grueling sets before he won 7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4.  McEnroe having just lost a five-setter against Borg at Wimbledon, felt that winning in New York evened out their rivalry.

In 1981 when McEnroe again faced Borg, the match was not nearly so competitive but it turned out to remarkable for another reason.

When Borg lost 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 to McEnroe, he walked away from professional tennis.  McEnroe won the battle, forever denying Borg a win at the U.S. Open but the price was steep for the men’s tour as they lost their most popular player at the time.

In 1984, McEnroe returned to Flushing Meadows for his final U.S. Open title––in fact his final slam victory as he defeated Ivan Lendl 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 in the men’s finals.

The following year Lendl would defeat McEnroe 7-6, 6-3, 6-4.  The Czech would reign for three years at the U.S. Open.

After 1985 McEnroe would never reach another U.S. Open final, playing his last singles match there in 1992.

Johnny Mac will always be remembered as one of the most colorful and explosive American players who loved the crowds in New York.

(4) Ivan Lendl: Eight U.S. Open finals, Three wins

Czech Ivan Lendl won the U.S. Open three consecutive years from 1985-1987.

Ivan Lendl not only appeared in eight U.S. Open finals, he appeared in eight consecutive finals, winning three times successively in the middle of his run.  Lendl earned an 84.9 winning percentage at the U.S. Open (73-13).

From 1982 through 1989, Lendl appeared on the final day, determined to win another championship.  From 1985-1987, Lendl did just that.

In 1985 Lendl defeated John McEnroe in the final 7-6, 6-3, 6-4.  It was the beginning of the end for McEnroe after reaching his peak in 1984.  Lendl was just coming into his period of dominance on the men’s tour.

In 1986 Lendl defeated the “Cat,” Miloslav Mecir––a man nobody wished to face during the eighties.  Lendl, however, won easily that day 6-4, 6-2, 6-0 seeming to prove that Mecir often faded in the big moments.

1987 would prove to be Lendl’s last win in New York as he defeated the Swede Mats Wilander who would take away Lendl’s crown and also his number one ranking one year later.  The four-set match lasted over four hours with Lendl finally wrestling it away from Wilander 6-7, 6-0, 7-6, 6-4.

All told, Lendl competed in 16 U.S. Open tournaments, making the finals in half of them.  It is a remarkable record for the Czech, making him one of the greatest.

(3) Roger Federer: Six U.S. Open Finals, Five Wins

Roger Federer won his fifth consecutive championship at the U. S. Open in 2008.

Roger Federer is the only active player on our list of greatest champions of the U.S. Open.

Like Sampras and Connors, Federer has also won five championships, but his were consecutive wins and even though that does not count in our statistical comparison here, it is worth noting that Federer is the only man in the modern era to accomplish this feat.

Federer to date has played in ten U.S. Open finals with a 91.2 winning percentage (52-5).  In 2009, Federer suffered his first defeat at the U.S. Open since 2003––losing to the Argentine Juan Martin del Potro in the finals.

Federer won his first U.S. Open in 2004 against Lleyton Hewitt 6-0, 7-6, 6-0. It was an impressive outing and first victory in New York for the No. 1 seed.  In 2005 the Swiss defeated Andre Agassi 6-3, 2-6, 7-6, 6-1 to take his second U.S. Open Title.

In 2006 Federer met the American Andy Roddick in the final.  It was a hard-fought contest but Federer ruled 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1.  Federer’s movement on the hard courts was more than Roddick could counter.

In 2007 found himself in a sticky match against newcomer Novak Djokovic and even though Federer won 7-6, 7-6, 6-4––it was never easy.  In 2008, Andy Murray would find himself in his first major against Federer.  The Scot lost 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 as the moment proved too much for Murray.

As Federer gets ready in about a month’s time to start his eleventh U.S. Open, his ranking in this list could very well change with another win or two added to his impressive total.  The future for Federer in terms of the U.S. Open is not yet written.

(2) Jimmy Connors: Seven U.S. Open Finals, Five Wins

American James Scott Connors won the U.S. Open Championship 5 times in his long and storied career.

Jimmy Connors won five of his seven final appearances at the U.S. Open with an 85.2 winning percentage (98-17).  He is the only male in the history of the Open to have won the title on three different surfaces––on grass, clay and hard courts.  He won his first title in 1974 and his last in 1983.

Connors played in 22 U.S. Opens starting in 1970 and he played his last 1992 as he turned 40.  Jimbo loved playing in New York where he enjoyed his greatest success on tour even though at times he resented the lack of respect he detected from the American press when his career seemed down and out to them.

In 1974, Connors won three of the four majors, electing not to play at the French.  It was his first U.S. Open final and he smoked Ken Rosewall 6-1, 6-0, 6-1.

His next two wins in 1976 on clay and 1978 on hard courts came against another Connors arch-rival, Bjorn Borg.  In 1976 Connors saved four set points in a third set tiebreak as each held one set to go up two sets to one.  This tiebreak gave Connors the needed impetus to go on and win the match 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4.

The next time the two met in 1978, Borg suffered from a blistered thumb and could not play very well as Connors won fairly easily 6-4, 6-2, 6-2.

Connors went on to win another two finals against another No. 1 player, Ivan Lendl in 1982 and 1983, both four-setters.  Lendl was beginning his climb to world prominence in the early eighties.

Jimbo also lost two finals at the U.S. Open against Michael Orantes of Spain in 1975 and against Guillermo Vilas of Argentina in 1977.

Connors will always have a place in the hearts of Americans as one of their greatest champions.

(1) Pete Sampras:  Eight U.S. Open finals, Five Wins

American Pete Sampras won five titles in eight final appearances at the U.S. Open.

In the modern era Pete Sampras with five championships remains tied with Jimmy Connors and Roger Federer for the most victories at the U.S. Open where Sampras holds an 88.75 winning percentage (71-9).

Pete Sampras played at the U.S. Open 14 times, beginning in 1988, missing only one appearance in 1999 due to injury.

Sampras won his first title at age 19 and his last at age 31, both at the U.S. Open. The American continued to add to the total of his slam victories first in Louis Armstrong Stadium and later in Arthur Ashe.  Pistol Pete quickly became a staple in the event after winning that first title in 1990.

In 1990 Sampras won his first title over Andre Agassi in straight sets 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.  Pistol Pete had arrived and he made himself at home in New York.  He won his second U.S. Open title in 1993 over France’s Cedric Pioline, seeded 15 for the Open.  Pioline went down in straight sets to Sampras 4-6, 4-6, 3-6, after defeating the No. 1 seed Jim Courier in the semifinals.

Pistol Pete won back to back championships in 1995-1996 defeating fellow American Andre Agassi in 1995 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5.  Agassi was far more competitive in this match than in their first meeting in 1990.  In 1996 Sampras defeated Michael Chang 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 to pick up his fourth U.S. Open title.

The next title would not arrive for six long years and would mark his fifth and final U.S. Open title in 2002 against the man he had beaten twice before for the title, Agassi.  The two Americans fought hard for four sets with Sampras coming out on top and deciding to call it a career after winning his fourteenth major.

While he won five finals, Sampras also lost in three––to Stefan Edberg in 1991 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2.  The next final he entered but did not win was in 2000 against the youngster Marat Safin 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.  The following year Sampras lost to another up-and-comer Lleyton Hewitt 7-6, 6-1, 6-1.

To date Sampras holds the mantle in the eyes of most tennis authorities as the best so far to play the game of tennis on center court at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

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