It was the traditional surface for lawn tennis, but grass no longer has the same space in the calendar and courts around the world. With the grasscourt season reduced to about a month – just two weeks before Wimbledon till 2014 – and only a handful of competitions, the surface and the specialists are both limited.
Originally, three of the four Grand Slams were held on grass, but the US Open changed its surface from grass to clay in 1975 and then to hard court in 1978 while the Australian Open changed to hard court in 1988.
Yet, grass occupies a special place in tennis, success on it is often associated with bigger things and Wimbledon is still considered the most prestigious event to win. Many of the skills needed to excel on grass are of a vintage nature: a zinging serve, soft touch at the net, ability to serve and volley.
While it has increasingly become a more level field in the modern game, the fast-moving surface does reward attacking tennis and a smoother style of play. Wimbledon even has a separate formula to seed players based on grass-court form to distinguish performances on the surface.
With no grass season this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, we look back at the champions who thrived on grass, in a week we would have normally been watching Wimbledon. In the third part of this series, here are the five top grass court players in Open era men’s tennis, in no particular order.
Long before the Big Three and winning singles Major titles in double digits were commonplace, Pete Sampras was the most successful male player with 14 Grand Slam titles, seven of which came at Wimbledon.
Grass was the tall American’s most favoured surface as his sharp serve, still considered among the best in men’s tennis, and his superlative skills at the net made his game near flawless. The serve and volley routine he employed definitely made for highlight reels.
While Roger Federer and Sampras are often listed among the strongest players on grass, there are several factors that distinguish the American.
Sampras never lost in a Wimbledon final and was pushed to a fifth set in only one of them (against Goran Ivanisevic in 1998). He finished his career with a 90% (63–7) record a SW19, dominating proceedings between 1993 and 2000 when he lost just one of 54 matches across eight appearances (he lost in the quarter-final to eventual champion Richard Krajicek in 1996). He would not lose another match there till 2001, where he fell to Federer.
Overall, he has a 101-20 record on grass with 10 titles (two Queen’s, one Manchester) and only three losses in ATP grass finals.
The only male player to win over a 100 matches at Wimbledon, Federer is the undisputed leader of stats when it comes to the grass court. Due to his incredible longevity and consistency, the 38-year-old’s records seem untouchable. And by virtue of being a player from an earlier generation, his proficiency on grass is very much classic. A statistical analysis on the ATP site shows that he leads in terms of titles, matches, sets, games, and points on grass. The numbers speak for themselves.
Federer lost his first ATP match on grass as an 18-year-old. But since then, he has gone on to win 187 matches, losing just 27 on the surface. Federer lifted his first grass-court trophy in Halle in 2003, and just weeks later won Wimbledon and started a remarkable streak that saw him win five straight titles at SW19.
He has a 101–13 record at Wimbledon with eight titles from 12 finals. His last title in 2017 saw him break the tie with Sampras and William Renshaw and become only the second man since Bjorn Borg in 1976 to win the title without dropping a set.
He also holds an Open era record of 19 titles on grass. In fact, Federer has won as many titles in Halle alone (10) as Sampras won on grass in his career, including Wimbledon.
Federer didn’t lose a match on grass court from the start of 2003 Halle until his loss against Rafael Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final. He has also won a record 34 straight sets on grass twice, once in 2005-06 and then in 2017-18.
Bjorn Borg has the unique distinction of featuring prominently on the list of great players on clay as well as grass. With six French Open titles and five consecutive Wimbledon titles in the 1970s, it’s hard to say which was his most favoured surface.
While the Swede never lost a single French Open final, he lost his sixth straight Wimbledon final to arch-rival John McEnroe in 1981 and didn’t play there again. At the same time, his titles in London came against some of the most adept grass court players including Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase and McEnroe. Remember, Borg retired at just 26.
A base-liner who played a topspin-heavy game, Borg adapted his game admirably for grass and he developed a serve that is often considered a very underrated weapon. Although he had a short career, his evolution on grass was tremendous.
One of Borg’s career highlight was perhaps among the best finals played at Wimbledon: a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6 victory over McEnroe in 1980 that had a 22-minute fourth-set tiebreaker. Apart from his clay-court streaks, he also won 41 consecutive matches at Wimbledon till 1981, a streak later broken by Federer. He finished with a 67-13 record on grass.
The youngest Wimbledon male champion at 17, Boris Becker won three titles and finished with four runner-up plates and a solid 71-12 record at the grass-court Major.
Wimbledon, where he won half of his six Grand Slam titles, was always a bit of a mixed luck for the German. He played the Championships for 15 years and reached the final on seven occasions. After breaking through as an unseeded champion in 1985, an 18-year-old Becker defended his title by beating Ivan Lendl in the final. He won his third title against Stefan Edberg, another grass court star and a fierce rival who beat him for both his Wimbledon trophies. But he also lost a final to Michael Stich and then to Sampras in 1995, a decade after his first title.
The German finished with a 116-25 record and his haul of seven grass court titles (five runner-up) also includes four singles titles at Queen’s.
The leader of longevity on the ATP Tour, Jimmy Connors had the most number of grass court wins before Federer surpassed him in 2019.
In his 20 Wimbledon outings, he had a record of 84-18 with two titles from six finals. He also won the Wimbledon doubles title in 1973 with Nastase. But Connors also played and won the other Grand Slams on grass. The American won the Australian Open and the US Open in 1974 when both were played on grass courts, along with Wimbledon. He reached nine Grand Slam finals on grass and his losses came against the likes of Borg, McEnroe and Arther Ashe.
His grass court record of 185-38 puts him in second spot in the list of overall wins. Of his record 109 ATP titles, nine came on grass with trophies at Queen’s Club in 1972, 1982 and 1983, Manchester in 1974, Nottingham 1976, and Birmingham 1978.
John McEnroe: three Wimbledon, eight grass titles and an overall record of 121-20.
Novak Djokovic: five Wimbledon, six grass titles and an overall record of 95-18.