It seems like a concensus is emerging among many tennis pundits that
Pete Sampras is the greatest player of the Open Era. I'd like to take
issue with that, and argue in favor of Jimmy Connors. Note that i'm NOT
arguing that Connors was a better player than Sampras, in the sense that
if they met, say, 20 times at each of their peaks that Connors would
have won 12 and Sampras 8 or something. I don't know who would have won
more if they met at their peaks. I'm sure each would win some of the
time! This assessment of who was the 'greatest' is based on my
interpretation of their accomplishments. Obviously, Pete is at a
disadvantage here because i'm comparing Connors' entire career with
Sampras very much incomplete career. But since many commentators are
saying that Sampras has *already* achieved more than any other Open Era
player, the comparison seems fair. Anyway...
My argument is based on 2 factors. One is the pro titles each has won,
the other their skill on various surfaces. IMO, both factors are the
most relevant ones in assessing a pro tennis player (i explain why), and
i think both favor Connors.
First, Connors won a *lot* more pro titles. If Sampras wins today in
Canada, he'd have won 56 pro titles. That's roughly half the number of
titles Connors won - 109. IMO, this comparison alone should clearly make
Connors the best ever, because the fundamental point of being a pro
tennis player is to win pro tennis tournaments. Surprisingly, it's not.
The reason, of course, is because *nowadays* the only kind of title that
seems to count (in terms of assessing a player's legacy) is the Grand
Slam title. And in that category, Sampras leads Connors 11-8.
I emphasize "nowadays" because i think this has changed over the years.
Before 1990 or so, Grand Slam titles weren't revered as much as they are
now. Sure, winning them *was* the ultimate achievement in tennis, but
not nearly to the extent that it is considered to be so today. Back in
the 1970's and 1980's, winning *any* kind of tournament was considered
important. Why? Because that's how you made money, and back then tennis
players had to work hard to make serious money. Since the late 1980's,
any champion player can make several million dollars a year just on
appearance fees and endor***ts alone, so the first-place prize money
offered by non-Slam tournaments isn't a big motivation anymore. But it
wasn't until 1988 or so - after he'd made many millions- that Ivan Lendl
started saying stuff like "all i play for is the Grand Slams nowadays,
it's how your legacy is assessed", etc. Before then, he concentrated on
winning any tournament he could. Sampras, otoh, has had the luxury of
focusing on Slams, because thanks to endor***ts and much higher prize
money he became a multi-millionaire within a year or two of his 1990
breakthrough at the US Open. IOW's, this focus on Grand Slams is a
"luxury" that Sampras has that Connors couldn't afford...
The point is, the "big lie" these days is that pro tennis is first and
foremost about winning Grand Slams. It's not. It's about winning money.
Remember, Sampras's icon Rod Laver (considered today to be the paragon
of tennis purity - i'm praying for his recovery, BTW) skipped the 4
Grand Slam events for *7 years* because he decided he'd rather *make
money* playing pro tournaments than rack up those supposedely
all-inportant Grand Slam titles as an amateur. And even Sampras has
admitted that the *biggest thrill* he got from winning the 1990 Open was
*not* that he had captured a coveted Grand Slam, it was that thanks to
the winner's check he finally knew what it felt like to have *real
money* in his bank account! If, back in the 1970's, the tournaments
Connors won had paid out the kind of prize money that they do today,
he'd be far ahead of Sampras on the all-time money list. Overall, his
record of 8 GS's/109 overall titles swamps Sampras's record of 11 slams
and 56 overall titles...
Now, let's look at surfaces. IMO, you have to, because the surface
matters so much. For example, in 1983, John Macenroe was Number 1 in the
World on Grass, and no one else was even in the Top 5 by comparison. He
was that ***. But on clay? No way. So let's compare Sampras and
Connors on the 4 major surfaces that pro tennis is played on- grass,
concrete, clay, and indoors:
Grass: Sampras, with 5 Wimbledon titles, is clearly one of the very
greatest players ever on grass. But Connors was a great grass court
player as well. He won 2 Wimbledon titles, and the Australian and US
Opens when they were played on grass. Overall, while Sampras' grass
record is slightly more impressive, there's no doubt that *both* he and
Connors were grass-court champions. Both could be considered "#1 level"
grass court players.
Concrete: Again, both players are/were champs on this surface. 6 of
Sampras' Grand Slam titles (4 US, 2 Australian) were won on concrete,
and he's won numerous lesser titles on the surface as well. Connors won
3 Grand Slam titles (all US Opens) on concrete, and more than 30 other
tournaments on that surface as well. Clearly, both players are "#1
Clay: Here's the biggest difference between the players. In a word,
Connors was a champion on clay courts, while Sampras is not. Sampras has
won a few minor clay court titles, and one decent one - the 1994 Italian
Open. Overall, i'd consider him to be a Top 20 player on clay. But
Connors was a clay-court master. He won the US Open on clay in 1976, and
he won the US Clay Court championships - a big tournament in the 1970's
- a record 8 times. True, Connors never won the French Open, but that
was because he never played it in his prime. He almost certainly would
have won it in 1974 if he had played that year. Overall, Connors was
(IMO) a "#1 calibre" player on clay...
Indoors: Again, both players have won numerous titles indoors. Sampras
has won 3 or 4 ATP championships on the indoor surface, and Connors won
WTC and Masters events indoors when they were he equivalent of today's
ATP event. Both can be considered "#1 calibre" champs on this surface.
Overall, Sampras has proven himself a champ on 3 of the 4 major
surfaces. But he hasn't proven himself on clay, and *not* just because
he hasn't won the French Open. It's because he's won very few clay
tournaments of any kind. Connors, OTOH, is the *only* player of the Open
Era who can truly be called a Champion on all 4 surfaces (Lendl, IMO,
just misses on grass). Advantage Connors.
Using these criteria, here's how i would rate the players of the Open
1) Connors - most titles, champ on all 4 surfaces
2) Lendl - second most titles, close to being a champ on all 4 surfaces
(would be if had Wimbledon title)
3) Borg - 11 Slams, over 65 pro titles, only "weakness" was concrete
4) Macenroe - Edge over Sampras based on his 20 more overall titles.
Like Sampras, not a champ on clay
5) Sampras - just behind Mac because IMO his 3 more Slam titles don't
outweigh the 20 more other titles won by Mac. Like Mac, his achilles
heel has been clay
6) Becker, Wilander, and Edberg - all basically the same in terms of
Slams and overall titles, each was weak on one surface...