Like traveling by boat, “Call of Duty” games worth buying, and Tom Cruise’s acting career, the art of grass court tennis has faded into scarcity. The surface that once occupied three of the four Grand Slam tournaments has been somewhat relegated by both the increased popularity of hard courts compounded with adjustments to remaining grass courts that have made the surface and its play less unique.
Grass tennis is no longer an extended arc of the sport’s calendar, but rather more like a special mid-season musical episode that inevitably is replayed quite often when a show eventually gets serialized. There’s a certain special sensation and soul to tennis played on grass that makes it almost seem more than coincidental that the surface is the sport’s only playing field that is actually alive.
But when something becomes less plentiful, a common side effect is that it becomes even more attractive. Add to that the fact that the only major still using a living surface is Wimbledon, widely considered the most hallowed and revered tournament in the world, and we arrive at the reality of the beauty of this time of year. With red clay in the past, we’ve reached that special time of the season and it seems appropriate to reflect on the recent history of the unique surface and its greatest Open Era champions.
It is widely accepted that the Serb is at his best on hard courts and it may in fact be true that grass is his weakest surface, but it’s easy to forget how impressive his grass court resume actually is. Djokovic has lifted the trophy at Wimbledon on three occasions and from 2010 through 2015 he never lost at the tournament before the semifinals. The twelve-time Grand Slam champion has an overall record of 54-9 at the All-England Club.
While Nadal enjoyed a truly spectacular run of success at the All-England Club from 2006 through 2011 during which he never lost a match before the final, his recent history at the tournament keeps him from seriously contending for a spot on this list. Overall, the King of Clay successfully translated his game to what has generally been the fastest surface in the sport to the tune of two championships in 2008 and 2010 and three other appearances in the final in 2006, 2007 and 2011. Nadal did not play due to injury in 2009.
Likely the first man to be knocked off of our list, Becker burst onto the scene by winning Wimbledon in 1985 as an unranked 17-year-old. He followed that up with another win the following year and eventually claimed a third championship in 1989. In addition to his impressive trio of titles, the German also reached four other finals at the All-England Club and overall finished with a 71-12 career record at the tournament. Overall, Becker won seven career titles on grass.
Another what-if for The Rocket, as he surely would be on this list and perhaps even at the top of it had his prime not lasted only into the first two years of the Open Era. When Laver achieved his second calendar Grand Slam at the beginning of the Open Era, three of the four majors were still played on grass and overall the Australian legend won four majors on grass after being allowed to participate in them once again. Following his triumph on the lawns of the U.S. Open in ’69, he never again advanced past the quarterfinals of a major.
The Top 5:
5. Stefan Edberg
Like their classic five-set clash in the 1990 final of Wimbledon, which Edberg claimed, this spot on the list was really a toss-up between Edberg and Becker. Edberg won Wimbledon twice with his first championship coming in 1988. In that match, the Swede dethroned Becker, a two-time champion, in four sets. The pair renewed their rivalry the next year when Becker got revenge in the final in straight sets.
Overall, Becker’s three Wimbledon championships to Edberg’s two makes the German’s absence from the list seem inappropriate; however, what pushes Edberg over the top is his pair of titles at the Australian Open, which was still played on grass at that point. Overall, the Swede tallied four major titles on grass and five titles on the surface overall. Edberg finished his career with a career grass record of 99-12.
4. John McEnroe
With a serve-and-volley game as classic as Wimbledon itself and the hands of a magician, McEnroe’s place on this list is owed in large part to how perfectly old-school grass tennis lended itself to his talents. But the American, known more for his on-court outbursts and current-day commentating, also has one of the most impressive resumes for grass tennis in the Open Era. McEnroe won three titles at the All-England Club in 1981, 1983, and 1984 and had a similar stretch to the aforementioned Nadal from 1980 through ’84 during which he never lost before the final.
For as good as the Edberg-Becker rivalry at Wimbledon was, it is arguably only the third-best rivalry in the tournament’s prestigious history. McEnroe-Borg must surely be considered even more memorable with their pair of duels in the 1980 and ’81 finals serving as the capstone. For many, the ’80 final is one of Wimbledon’s greatest matches ever with the fourth set having been decided by a nail-biting 18-16 tiebreak. Although McEnroe never again reached the final at Wimbledon after 1984, in total he tallied an impressive 119-20 record on grass.
3. Bjorn Borg
If we take what Rafael Nadal has achieved on grass, remove the last five years, and then make it all noticeably better, we get Bjorn Borg. To the naked eye, very few signs would have pointed to Borg being a dominant grass court player. As a baseliner who excelled even more on the red clay at the French Open, the Swede’s ability to translate his game to grass, particularly during a time when the courts were faster than today, was utterly impressive.
Borg set a record that stood alone for nearly three decades by winning five straight titles at Wimbledon from 1976 through 1980. He also made six straight finals with McEnroe stopping his attempt for a sixth triumph in the 1981 final.
The Swede never played at Wimbledon again following that loss and overall his career record at the All-England Club is a stunning 51-4. When it comes to Borg, it’s also worth noting, although admittedly speculative, that he could have potentially still held the record for most major wins on grass – the Swede played on the lawns of the Australian Open only once during his career and retired at the age of 26.
2. Pete Sampras
And we arrive at a similar coin-flip of a choice as the Edberg-Becker fiasco presented us with. By the time Sampras came around, Wimbledon was the only major to still use grass and until 2012, Sampras solely held the record for the most titles at the tournament in the Open Era with seven.
The King of Swing went on an incredible tear across the lawns of the All-England Club starting 1993 and lasting until after the turn of the millennium. Sampras tallied all seven of his titles during that stretch and lost only once.
Sampras’ powerful serve and exquisite volleys made lawn tennis a perfect fit for him, although his achievements on hard courts are also plentiful. In total, the American won 10 grass court titles and ended his career with a 101-20 record on the surface and a 63-7 mark at Wimbledon.
1. Roger Federer
The man considered by many to be the greatest tennis player of all-time is also indeed the best male grass court player in the Open Era. Federer’s resume on grass has the depth and highlights to rival and even eclipse just about anyone else since 1968. The Swiss equaled Sampras’ record of seven titles at Wimbledon with his triumph in 2012 and has reached 10 finals at the tournament overall.
Federer produced a run of dominance at Wimbledon from 2003 through 2009 that very similarly resembles the aforementioned stretches of both Borg and Sampras. He equaled Borg’s record of five consecutive wins in 2007 and, like Borg, fell at the sixth hurdle to his greatest rival the next year. Between 2003 and 2008, Federer won a record 65 consecutive matches on grass.
Federer has played a number of memorable matches at Wimbledon during his career including five-set wins over Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick in the 2007 and 2009 finals respectively, but he also lost what is widely considered the greatest match in the history of the sport to Nadal in the 2008 final.
Much like Nadal’s game on clay, Federer’s style and grass go together like movies and popcorn. The lower bounce of grass helps him utilize his slice backhand and also makes it easier for him to hit over the ball on that side. Faster conditions generally favor more offensive players and allowed the Swiss to dominate with his serve and forehand and Federer also remains one of the better net players on the tour although approaching the net is certainly not as common on the surface as it once was.
Like Sampras, the Swiss has played in an era during which grass is only used at one major tournament. Still, Federer has extended his dominance on the surface to smaller events, particularly the Gerry Weber Open in Halle which he has won eight times. Overall, the Swiss has a career grass record of 152-24 and is 84-11 at Wimbledon.