It was then that tennis really became more of a mainstream sport than a sport for the privileged, especially here in the United States. With the likes of Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Chris Evert, and others, there were plenty of personalities to fuel the rivalries that took place on and off the court.
Since that time, many great players have come and gone. Because it is difficult to compare players of different eras in any sport due to technology changes and higher fitness standards, selecting the greatest player can be a difficult and subjective task.
Most fans can agree that we are currently witnessing 3 of the greatest ever in Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. Despite the challenge, my list of the ten greatest male tennis players of the Open Era – 1968 to present.
Top 10 Greatest Men’s Tennis Players of All Time
10. Andre Agassi
Born: April 29, 1970
Las Vegas, Nevada
Resides: Las Vegas, Nevada
Turned pro: 1986
Career prize money: $31,152,975
61 career titles
8 Grand Slam Singles Titles: 4 Australian, 1 French, 2 US Open, 1 Wimbledon
Olympic Gold Medalist 1996
Inducted into Tennis Hall of Fame: 2011
Who can forget the young, brash, long-haired Andre Agassi when he first arrived on the tennis scene in the late 1980s? At first, I have to admit that I was put off by his seemingly “rock star” looks and attitude. But something happened along the way, and by the time he finished his 20-year career, I was not only a fan, but I had also come to respect him as a great player and spokesman for the game. With those killer groundstrokes and returns of serve, no top-10 list would be complete without Andre Agassi.
Off the court, Agassi has proven to be a champion as well. There may be no athlete out there who does more for their community than Agassi and his wife, tennis legend Steffi Graf.
9. John McEnroe
Born: February 16, 1959
Wiesbaden, West Germany
Resides: New York City
Turned pro: 1978
Career prize money: $12,547,797
105 career titles
7 Grand Slam Singles Titles: 3 Wimbledon, 4 US Open
Inducted into Tennis Hall of Fame: 1999
John McEnroe: What do we do about Johnny Mac? Well, for starters, we include him on our list of all-time greats. There may have been no one better when it came to hard courts, fast surfaces, and creative shot-making.
His fiery attitude and occasional bad-boy behaviour made tennis fans either hate him or love him. Underneath was a highly competitive athlete who hated to lose and sometimes let his emotions get the best of him.
Who can forget his epic battles with rival Jimmy Connors and his five-set loss to Bjorn Borg in the 1980 Wimbledon final, one of the greatest matches in Wimbledon history?
8. Jimmy Connors
Born: September 2, 1952
East St. Louis, Illinois
Resides: Santa Barbara, CA
Turned pro: 1972
Career prize money: $8,641,040
147 career titles
8 Grand Slam Singles Titles: 1 Australian, 2 Wimbledon, 5 US Open
Inducted into Tennis Hall of Fame: 1998
No one dominated tennis more during the mid-1970s than Jimmy Connors. In 1974 alone, Connors had a staggering 99-4 record and won the three Grand Slam tournaments that he entered. Connors was banned from playing in the French Open in 1974 due to his association with World Team Tennis, and this prevented him from a possible Grand Slam sweep. Despite peaking in the 1970s, Connors had a long and impressive tennis career, retiring in 1996. Connors still holds the record for ATP tour titles with 109.
7. Ivan Lendl
Born: March 7, 1960
Resides: Goshen, Connecticut
Turned pro: 1978
Career prize money: $21,262,417
144 career titles
8 Grand Slam Singles Titles: 2 Australian, 3 French, 3 US Open
Inducted into Tennis Hall of Fame: 2001
The quiet and stoic Czech with the big serve was the most dominant player of the 1980s. Lendl wore down his opponents with his powerful groundstrokes, topspin forehand, and an incredible level of conditioning. He was the world’s top-ranked player for four years and held the number one ranking globally for 270 weeks, a record in that day. In contrast to many of his more outspoken peers, Lendl was known for letting his game do his talking.
6. Bjorn Borg
Born: June 6, 1956
Sodertalje, Stockholm County, Sweden
Resides: Stockholm, Sweden
Turned pro: 1973
Career prize money: $3,655,751
101 career titles
11 Grand Slam Singles Titles: 6 French, 5 Wimbledon
Inducted into Tennis Hall of Fame: 1987
What was not to love about the long-haired, blonde Swede with the killer ground game? With ice water in his veins, the quiet Borg dominated tennis in the late 1970s and had some memorable matches with the likes of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Borg dominated Wimbledon, winning the title five consecutive years from 1976 to 1980.
Despite his relatively brief career (he retired in 1983 at the age of 26), Borg won 11 Grand Slam titles, all at Wimbledon and the French Open. Borg was the first player of the modern era to win more than 10 majors. In my book Bjorn Borg could have been a top-five all-time had he continued to play and not retired while seemingly in the prime of his career.
5. Pete Sampras
Born: August 12, 1971
Resides: Lake Sherwood, California
Turned pro: 1988
Career prize money: $43,280,489
64 career titles
14 Grand Slam Singles Titles: 2 Australian, 7 Wimbledon, 5 US Open
Inducted into Tennis Hall of Fame: 2007
Pete’s place in tennis history is difficult to judge as he only won three of the four Grand Slam events over the course of his career. Clearly more comfortable on hard courts and grass, how do we decide when they dominate on one surface and struggle on another. When Pete retired in 2002, he was considered the best player of all time, although some would dispute this. He was number one in the world rankings for six consecutive years, and his 14 Grand Slam titles was a record at the time. Who can forget his epic battles with Andre Agassi that made the 1990s a great decade for tennis? Pete went out on top when he won the 2002 US Open, his last Grand Slam tournament. But, without a French Open title, or even a final, how do we decide where he belongs in the list of best. For now, I think he comes in at the number five spot.
4. Rod Laver
Born: August 8, 1938
Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia
Resides: Carlsbad, California
Turned pro: 1962
Career prize money: $1,565,413
200 career titles
11 Grand Slam Singles Titles: 3 Australian, 2 French, 2 US Open, 4 Wimbledon
9 Pro Slam Singles Titles: 3 US Pro, 4 Wembley Pro, 1 French Pro, 1 Wimbledon Pro
Inducted into Tennis Hall of Fame: 1981
It’s difficult to assess how Rod Laver would have fared against the players of today, but I suspect the redheaded Aussie would have done just fine. It’s hard to argue with the “Rockets” record. He was ranked number one in the world for seven straight years (1964 – 1970) and had more career titles (200) than anyone in the game’s history.
He is the only player to have twice won the Grand Slam, doing it once as an amateur in 1962 and again as a pro in 1969. If Laver was not excluded from the Grand Slam tournaments during a five-year period in the mid-1960s, who knows how many he would have won. During this time period, the pre-open era, the Grand Slam tournaments were for amateurs only. The “open era” in tennis did not begin until 1968 when professionals were finally allowed to compete in the Grand Slam events. Given that Laver was ranked number one globally during this five-year period, it’s likely he would have won many more Grand Slam titles.
3. Rafael Nadal
Born: June 3, 1986
Manacor, Majorca, Balearic Islands, Spain
Resides: Manacor, Majorca, Balearic Islands, Spain
Turned pro: 2001
Career prize money: $124,480,032
88 career titles
20 Grand Slam Singles Titles: 1 Australian, 13 French, 4 US Open, 2 Wimbledon
2008 Olympic Gold Medalist – Beijing Summer Olympics
Were it not for the recurring tendinitis in his knees and wrist injuries, Rafael Nadal may well have a few more Grand Slam titles to his already impressive resume. At 35 years of age, the fiery Spaniard, known as Rafa and “The King of Clay,” has 20 Grand Slam titles and certainly has the potential to pass Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Rafael is regarded as the greatest clay-court player of all time, although fans of Bjorn Borg may dispute this claim. His record 13th French Open title in 2020, in dominating fashion, certainly makes it difficult to imagine anyone being better on clay.
While it is difficult to draw comparisons of players from different generations, I think Nadal has proven that he deserves to be considered among the best to grace the courts. His 2020 French Open title gives Rafa 20 Grand Slams Championships and ties him with Roger Federer and now Novak Djokovic for most Grand Slams of all time. This will only heighten the debate as to who is the true GOAT.
2. Roger Federer
Born: August 8, 1981
Resides: Bottmingen, Switzerland
Turned pro: 1998
Career prize money: $130,230,769
103 career titles
20 Grand Slam Singles Titles: 6 Australian, 1 French, 5 US Open, 8 Wimbledon
For many years it was easy to select Roger Federer as the greatest of all time. His 20 Grand Slam titles and 310 weeks ranked number one speak for themselves, and even at the age of 39, he is still winning and competing at the highest levels. From 2004 to 2008, Federer went 237 consecutive weeks being ranked number one globally, a record that may never be surpassed. Even though younger players are now finding a way to beat him, his consistently high level of play over his twenty-year career is a testament to his conditioning and ability.
Winning the 2018 Australian Open after his outstanding 2017 season that saw him win Wimbledon and the Australian Open prove without a doubt that Roger Federer was the greatest of all-time as of 2018. But, with Nadal and Djokovic adding to their Grand Slam count, it may be impossible to declare a GOAT until all three have finished their careers. His dramatic 5-set loss to Novak Djokovic at the 2019 Wimbledon Championship proves that he can still compete with anyone. Roger certainly had his chances to secure Grand Slam number 21, a loss that will haunt him with limited opportunities remaining, but he is setting a new level for excellence at an age when most players have long since retired.
Injuries sidelined Roger for 2020 and the early 2021 season. Fans will be anxiously watching his return, especially at Wimbledon, his favourite surface. For now, Roger dips to number 2 all-time, but never count him out.
1. Novak Djokovic
Born: May 22, 1987
Born in Belgrade, Serbia
Resides: Monte Carlo, Monaco
Turned pro: 2003
Career prize money: $152,173,433
85 career titles
20 Grand Slam Singles Titles: 9 Australian, 6 Wimbledon, 3 US Open, 2 French Open
At 34 years of age and in the late prime years of his career, Djokovic is clearly the best player in the world at the moment and has the potential to win many more Grand Slam titles. With 20 Grand Slam titles already under his belt and now tied with Nadal and Federer, he certainly has the potential to surpass them. And with a record 329 weeks and counting ranked number 1, it’s hard not to give Djokovic serious consideration as the greatest of all time.
With his 2016 French Open title, Djokovic became the eight-man to secure a career in Grand Slam. His dominating start to the 2021 season with wins at the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon makes it clear that Djokovic is the best player in the world at the moment. Beating Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals of the 2021 French Open makes a clear statement that he can beat Rafa on his best surface. Djokovic dominated the 2021 Wimbledon Championship losing just 2 sets on his way to beating Italy’s Matteo Berrettini in 4 sets.
With his record of winning multiple Grand Slams titles on all surfaces and his advantage in head-to-head matches against Federer and Nadal, Novak Djokovic has earned the title of greatest of all time. The only question remaining is if Djokovic can achieve the coveted Golden Slam by adding an Olympic Gold Medal and the US Open title. Stay tuned.