Revolving around rankings and percentages, tennis exists as a statistician’s dream sport. Aces, double-faults, first- and second-serve speed, unforced errors and challenges both successful and incorrect are gathered and calculated to tell the story of a US Open match. A player may win the battle for total points in a given contest, but that very well may be merely indicative of playing more points than necessary – a superior indicator, for instance, would be the amount of break points won.
Better yet, trends often indicate future performance: If Novak Djokovic wins 25 first-serve return points each match, as he did in his 2011 US Open run, chances are great that he’ll repeat in Flushing Meadows this years. A great trend for Djokovic, for sure – yet was it an all-time feat?
For this version of “Top Five Factors,” decades of Open history were viewed by the numbers in an attempt isolate the true superlative marks, determining which will most likely never happen again. Some might relate to a single outstanding match performance, or a remarkable record within the confines of a single year. Still others are founded on career achievement, a tribute to longevity and the ability to play at a high level over a sustained period of time.
There are a few notable exceptions, and for some, they’ll constitute omissions. Jimmy Connors winning the US Open on grass, then clay, then on the hard court in the 1970s is kept off to the side because, really, how likely is it that we will ever see such a major event switch surfaces that many times, if at all, again? On the other hand, Martina Navratilova sweeping the Triple Crown of singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles in 1987 probably won’t ever be accomplished again, but that is based largely on the elite players often skipping doubles play at Grand Slams. Yet it still could be accomplished, as there are players who do participate in all three competitions each year. Not to mention, all it takes an attitude shift or newfound incentive to see the very best in the world back in the doubles draws.
Also eliminated from consideration are any records set exclusively before the Open Era play began in 1968, assuring that the achievements include all of the best players in the world without the “what if?” scenario of excluding professionals. Apologies to “Big” Bill Tilden’s 16 total titles and Helen Wills’ 50-2 career singles record, career marks set before the Second World War.
The decision process was perhaps as challenging as the feats themselves, yet USOpen.org has narrowed the awesome achievements to the very best five, in reverse order:
5) Jimmy Connors’s 18 straight Opens as a seeded player
So much needed to break right for “Jimbo” to stay among the game’s best for nearly two decades: He showed promise at a very early age by winning the NCAA title at UCLA, surging to a No. 15 seed at the 1972 US Open just shy of his 20th birthday. Secondly, his game translated to all surfaces, as evidenced by the aforementioned Open wins on grass, clay and hard courts as the tournament transferred from Forest Hills to its current site in Flushing Meadows. Lastly, he avoided the major injuries that can cut down many of the great players (see: Rafael Nadal, Kim Clijsters, etc.), playing year in and year out at Wimbledon and in New York. (Connors often chose to skip Melbourne, as did many players of his day, playing in just two Australian Opens, while a World TeamTennis contract and a heated feud with the ATP kept Connors away from Roland Garros during five years of his prime between 1974 and 1978.)
Most of all, Connors was an otherworldly talent, with 1,217 career ATP wins and 1,479 matches played – both no. 1 all-time. Ivan Lendl ranks a distant second (1,071 wins in 1,310 contests) in both regards, and fittingly, ranks second to Connors with 14 straight seeded years. Connors also gets bonus points for emerging at a time where there were only 16 seeded players in the singles draw, compared to double that amount today.
If anyone can eclipse Connors it will likely be fellow five-time Open champion Roger Federer, who has been seeded each year since 2001 and will be at the top of the draw once again for the 12th straight Open. A longshot candidate would be 2003 Open champion Andy Roddick, also with a dozen years as a seeded player starting with 2001. Roddick, however, has seen an uptick in injuries as he’s moved into toward his 30s and his wife, actress Brooklyn Decker, has also hinted at her husband’s retirement within the next two years to pursue a radio career. That the 31-year-old Federer, far ahead of the pack with 17 Grand Slam titles to his name, would opt to keep playing into his late-30s and perhaps even his 40s, like Connors, is not a given – but it could happen if Federer stays hungry and healthy, which is entirely possible.
4) 1987: Lendl defeats Barry Moir, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0, en route to his third-straight US Open title
Since 1925, no man in the history of the American Slam had done what Lendl did to the South African Moir in the first round of the 1987 US Open, nor has it been executed since: The triple bagel. Fitting, given the Czech’s no-nonsense attitude both on and off the court (a fitness nut, Lendl adhered to a Spartan diet in his mid-1980s heyday and was meticulous in switching and maintaining equipment during a tournament) that he would be the one to claim the victory. Moir, a former Top 100 player, actually experienced some success at the Open, bookending his ignominious defeat by reaching the third round in 1986 and the second round in 1988. Coincidentally, the first of Moir’s three career main draw victories came against Sweden’s Stefan Eriksson, who lost the only triple bagel match in the history of Wimbledon the same summer as Moir’s downfall – 1987 – to Stefan Edberg.
With 73 career wins in 15 years, Lendl’s methodical dismantling of the US Open field is well-documented. Yet this may have been the three-time champion’s most relentless – if not ruthless – performance in Queens. From 1982 to 1989, Lendl reached an Open Era-best eight consecutive men’s singles finals, a testament to Lendl’s iconic drive.
3) Martina Navratilova wins the “Triple Crown” – women’s singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles championships – at the 1987 US Open
This year marks the silver anniversary of Navratilova’s 1987 Open heroics – a singles win over Steffi Graf and doubles triumphs alongside Pam Shriver and Emilio Sanchez – and by the time it hits gold and diamond, there is very little evidence to suggest anyone will be matching the trifecta.
While it has been done just two other times in Flushing Meadows – once by Billie Jean King in 1967, once by Margaret Court in 1970 – Navratilova may never be topped simply because of the shift in player perspective in the Slams. Simply put, the biggest names nowadays largely play their tennis as singles only to preserve energy and focus, and those who do make the foray into doubles rarely also play mixed doubles. Case in point: Roger Federer hasn’t played in a US Open doubles match since 2002. Rafael Nadal? Not since 2004, a semifinal appearance with fellow Spaniard Tommy Robredo. Neither has ever played in a mixed doubles draw as a professional in a Grand Slam. The same goes for 2011 singles winner Djokovic and 2012 London gold medalist Andy Murray, who have taken the isolation concept a step further by never appearing at a Grand Slam in doubles competition of any kind.
As far as the women, who are always the more likely candidates in that they don’t have to potentially endure four- and five-set affairs as a single, defending women’s singles champ Samantha Stosur won an Open women’s doubles title in 2005 and has two Grand Slam mixed titles (2005 Australian Open, 2008 Wimbledon) also to her credit, yet she’s only attempted all three draws once in Queens – four years ago, in 2008, before she established herself as a singles contender – and certainly won’t now at age 28. Serena Williams has had tremendous success in pairing up with sister Venus through the years and in the late 1990s claimed a US Open mixed doubles title with Max Mirnyi, but she has never been involved in all three draws since her Open debut in 1997.
For the few who do attempt the quest, its more about a playful desire to compete in as much tennis as possible and pad their purse with a few more dollars before leaving New York. It takes a special player to take on such a schedule, and Navratilova fit that description. If any one player ever does get close to the Triple Crown, they likely will never get close to Navratilova’s 16 combined Open titles, six more than Court’s 10 for the most in the Open Era.
2) Chris Evert – 16 straight semifinal-or-better appearances, 1971 to 1986
Like her former fiancé, Connors, Evert’s extended run in US Open competition lends itself to an even more amazing achievement that will be eclipsed only when cyborgs are permitted to enter the player field: 16 straight Open semifinals, a run that started as a pixyish, precocious 16-year-old challenger to Billie Jean King’s domain in 1971 and progressed to ruling New York in the late 1970s and remaining a title contender into the late 1980s. The result was an Open Era-record 101 US Open singles victories in hand and a run of dominance that transcended Flushing Meadows. In fact, between her 1971 breakthrough to Wimbledon in 1983, Evert reached at least the semifinals in each of the 34 Grand Slam singles events she played.
In all, Evert would appear in nine US Open finals and win six of them. From the final of the 1975 US Open to the round of 16 in 1979, Evert won 46 straight sets, a startling achievement in its own right. Without a hint of hyperbole, she’s either the greatest women’s champion of the Open Era or at least second to whomever you put ahead of her, whether you’re arguing for Navratilova, King or Steffi Graf, because of her unerring consistency.
1) Federer wins 40 consecutive US Open matches, 2004 to 2009
Evert’s longest consecutive match winning streak in Flushing Meadows was 31, nine victories shy of “The Maestro’s” unparalleled 40 consecutive matches won at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Or, viewed through a different lens, a 2,202-day renaissance bookended by losses to two Argentines: A round of 16 defeat to David Nalbandian in 2003 all the way to the men’s final in 2009, a five-set marathon with Juan Martin del Potro, with an Open Era-best five consecutive men’s singles titles in between.
In the 40 matches won, mostly as the no. 1 seed, Federer bested 32 different opponents – 23 times ranked – and four former or future US Open winners (Lleyton Hewitt, Agassi, Roddick and Djokovic). He faced a deciding fifth set only twice – once against Agassi in the 2004 quarterfinals, the other time in the 2008 round of 16 against Russian Igor Andreev. Even more remarkable is that he owns *two* such streaks, also with a 40-matches-undefeated string at Wimbledon from 2003 and 2008, the only player in the Open Era who can make such claim. Lendl (27 consecutive US Open wins) and John McEnroe (26) aren’t even within shouting distance to the widely heralded “King of Queens.” Another wow-worthy stat: Federer’s a perfect 19-0 in night matches inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, saving his best efforts for prime time.
Federer’s dominance in the men’s game – particularly as at least two Hall-of-Fame, in-their-prime talents in Nadal and Djokovic attempt to thwart him at almost every major – puts him at the very top of the list. And with a freshly minted Wimbledon trophy on his mantle and a world No. 1 ranking recaptured, Federer is as worthy a contender as any in the 2012 field. If accomplished, and a sixth career US Open crown is won to break a tie with both Connors and Pete Sampras, Federer would further solidify the claims of his many fervent supporters that he indeed is the greatest of all time.
- Pete Sampras defeats Andre Agassi, 6-7(7), 7-6(2), 7-6(2), 7-6(5), 2001 men’s singles quarterfinals
A match made more memorable by the fact that neither player managed to break the other’s serve in four thrilling sets. It’s quite probable that this may not occur again for decades, if not longer.
- Ken Rosewall, 1956 & 1970 US Open men’s singles titles, 14-year gap between titles
The legendary Aussie was one of the professional stars to benefit from the advent of the Open Era, first winning the U.S. Championships as a 21-year-old amateur in 1956 and once again as a 35-year-old in 1970, with more than a decade of tournaments missed in between because of Rosewall’s status as a professional. Fourteen years spanning two title wins with no titles in between will likely never be broken, but because Rosewall was banned from playing between 1957 and 1967, it misses the cut.
- Serena Williams rifles 70 aces, 1999 US Open
A fun bit of history, as the little Williams sister became a big hit as a teenager with her first Open singles title in 1999, averaging a whopping 10 aces per match. Since 1998, only 20 players have hit 10 aces or more in a match at the US Open, totaling 38 occurrences. The next-highest tournament total since aces became an official stat in 1991 is Serena again during her 2002 run (65). 2004 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova’s 57 aces is the best non-Williams tally.
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