Thursday, May 11, 2017

Backspin Court of Appeals: The Best Player Never to Be #1 (Part 1)

Hello, Backspin readers. Galileo here.

Occasionally we like to throw out some features. Well, here is a new one, which we will be testing out. Here is how it works: this BACKSPINNER will pick a topic, and outline a number of candidates. Todd will then choose which one he thinks, using the carefully detailed arguments, from myself, and from his own knowledge. Alternatively he can say everything I have suggested is rubbish and he has a much better idea of who that award should be given to. He can comment on any one of the players selected, take down my argument in whichever way he sees fit or agree.

This time: the best player never to be #1.

Now, for each case I am not arguing the negative. I am trying to sell them emotionally, with numbers or any way I can. If Todd wants to shoot them down in flames, he can. After my nominations, he will outline his thoughts, where he might be leaning and then, at the bottom, he will present his final rankings.

1. Must have won a slam and been to two finals
2. Must have been Top Four for at least a week
3. Open era players only
4. Five nominees for both the ATP and WTA tour
5. At least 400 career wins

For no reason whatsoever, we will go with the men first this time. The women’s post will be along later. They are separate topics and should be seen as such.


These nominations are done roughly chronologically. But it just so happens that the Argentine is the favourite. Lots of the players on this list were hampered by an inability to win against the best in their eras. Strangely, this really isn’t the case with Vilas. He has a win-loss of 5-18 against Bjorn Borg. Doesn’t sound great, but Borg led Jimmy Connors 15-8. Vilas was 4-5 against the American. Against John McEnroe, who was 7-7 with Borg, he managed a 6-5 mark.

Vilas managed a 929–286 (76.4%) mark during his career along with 62 titles. He is fourth all time on the wins and matches played list and is the only player in the top ten wins who was not world number one. His 58 wins at the French are third all-time behind Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. At the time of writing, he has the most match wins on clay at slam level with 75, just three ahead of Rafa. That is because the U.S. Open was played on the dirt. Out of every five clay slam matches he played, he won five. He won a title every year for eleven seasons.

He also played lovely tennis.

He had a glorious five-year window where he won four slams. In 1977, he won 46 matches in a row. That is a [disputed] record. He won 134 matches and 16 titles. You could not do that these days. Now, 49 of his 62 titles did come on one surface, and you know which one, but that again is a longtime record, held jointly with Nadal, or at least it was until Rafa finally broke it during this spring's clay court circuit.

Forget all those numbers, however. He was a truly beautiful player, with wonderful strokes. He was charismatic, beloved and known as "the bull of the Pampas."

In 1977, he won two slams. He was the best player in the world. He even beat Connors, the official number one, in the U.S. Open final. He should have been ranked in that spot, not the American. Even in hindsight, the ATP will not place him at number one. He had one of the best seasons the ATP has ever seen. It should have been enough. Will it be enough for you to choose the eight time winner of Buenos Aires and eight-time slam finalist?

Some players never quite achieve their potential. The year he won his lone slam, in fact at the very same event, Vilas played his final slam match. How’s that for a nice lead?

Chang has a super record on the tour and a longevity none of the other candidates had. His record of 662–312 is particularly impressive because, unlike the other candidates, he could actually play on multiple surfaces. He made four slam finals in which he went 1-3. But he also made 58 finals, winning 34, including seven Masters titles out of nine finals. The stats match up with the best in the world. How was Thomas Muster ranked number one and he was not?

First ranked in the top ten after his slam win in Paris in 1989, he did not attain the ranking of number two until 1996. For a decade, from ’88 to ’98, he was a top 30 player. He built his entire game and career around consistency. He was the prototype for the Djokovic, the Nadal, the Wozniacki. Chang helped create a new brand of tennis. He also won 40 per cent of his matches against Sampras, a very impressive stat. He also led the head-to-head with Goran Ivanisevic 6-5, and Petr Korda 6-3.

So, if you like sensible tennis, clever tactics and playing the percentages, look no further. He competed in slams from 1987 to 2003. His first title was in 1988 and his last came in 2000. He has also been the most successful coach of all the players on this list, having helped Kei Nishikori with his career. His best rivalry was with Stefan Edberg, which the Swede led 12-9. Their match at the 1992 U.S. Open, the battle of the gentleman, is one of the best of all time.

This is one of the people responsible for the rise of Asian tennis. He was polite, a family man and never had a cross word. He was a beacon, a shining example. He was an innovator. Compare him with Yevgeny Kafelnikov and he looks even better. But the moment he is most famous for? It is this point from his 1989 Roland Garros triumph.

Michael Chang Underhand Serve vs Ivan Lendl (French Open 1989) [HD] from Hykha on Vimeo.

To sum up his most famous victory - “The small mosquito,” wrote L’Equipe, “stung the man who scares young children.”


His dominance at one event was finally rewarded. Like Jana Novotna, Petra Kvitova and Richard Krajicek, his pet tournament was Wimbledon. He reached four Wimbledon finals - in 1992, ’94,’98 and, most famous of all, in 2001. Goran went five sets thrice at Wimbledon, but could only win one.

His total wins of 599 is the most Goran Ivanisevic stat there could be.

Truthfully, I do not expect you to pick the giant and rather surly Croat, but he would have been a fiery and entertaining number one. He holds the aces record, has won titles across four surfaces and was a presence on the tour for 14 years. He won his first slam match in 1988 and his last in 2004. He won titles from 1990-2001, but retired at the relatively early age of 33. Injuries, particularly to the shoulder, curtailed what should have been a glittering career. Fittingly, he played his last match on Centre Court against Lleyton Hewitt. He took part in one of the best Wimbledon semi-finals ever; in 1998 he edged Krajicek 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-7[5], 15-13. In the final he went five against Pete Sampras, too. His most famous match in Britain is the semi-final at Wimbledon where he defeated Tim Henman in five. If it hadn’t rained he would have lost and that is why the roof was built.

His serve is one of the biggest weapons in the history of tennis. Sampras said, “He was the one guy that could hit me off the court.” He still holds the record for most aces.

To end on a high, he is the only player to ever win Wimbledon as a wild card. We know that, but did you know he is the only player to win Wimbledon who’s name goes consonant vowel, consonant vowel to the end?

If you are after the big weapon, the huge cannon, Goran is your man.

A wild card here. He was ranked number two in the world and he did win 410 matches. Strangely, he retired the year after his best season. He got involved with steroids and finished his career in disgrace. Korda was similar to Tomas Berdych in that he could always rise up and win a slam, he could always threaten the big guns. But he did not have the consistency. He had weapons but lacked accuracy.

He was a solid doubles and singles player. In 1996, he and Edberg won the Australian Open title. He beat Marcelos Rios for the loss of just six games in the Australian Open final in 1998. It was one of the most surprising slam finals of all time. The next year Rios didn’t even enter due to injury. Korda went out in the third round to Todd Martin. Utterly inconsistent at slam level and with only ten tour titles, he deserves to be on here because he did have some remarkable results. He made finals across four surfaces and was relevant for a decade but retired at the ages of 30. He did not win another title after his Melbourne success.

The only one who could still be.

Now, I won’t sell you on stats here. No, I’ll appeal to the side of you that loves good tennis. Sure, Vilas and Chang had consistency. Goran had fire and Korda has the underdog, oh, yeah, he was a tennis player, factor. But Wawrinka has his own pet event, Chennai, a slam he is remarkably consistent at, the Australian, and a backhand that is better than Australia Day fireworks above the Yarra.

I think it is not a stretch to say that of all the players on here not one has a better shot than Wawrinka’s backhand. You could argue Ivanisevic’s serve is. But Wawrinka’s backhand can do so many different things so well. His backhand has the "whippiness" of Richard Gasquet’s, with the steel that Tommy Haas had. He can slice it and dice it. The forehand and serve that complement it aren’t exactly chopped liver, either. This is a complete ground game of the kind that, arguably, several number ones did not have. Carlos Moya, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andy Murray did and do not have the complete ground game Wawrinka does. Have you seen Moya’s backhand? Ferrero had one big weapon. Murray struggled to attack on the forehand wing, and his second serve needs an upgrade.

Wawrinka is not consistent. He is the lowest ranked of the five up for the award - he only ever reached number three, while they all got to number two. But maybe it isn’t about consistency. Would you rather have Rios’ career or Wawrinka’s? Heck, what about Andres Gomez and his slam. Better than Rios’ career? The main stat you need to know. 3-0. His record in slam finals. The players who won their first three slam finals were Borg, Connors and Edberg. None of them won their fourth final. Federer won six finals to open, but lost number seven. So, that’s the company he is in at slam level.

And besides, he could always hold his own, better maybe than anyone on the list. So if you want to choose a world beater, which after all is said and done is the point of the number one, look no further.


You know, I'm really disappointed that the rules couldn't have been constructed in order to include Slobodan Zivojinovic. I protest! (Just kidding.)

Hmmm, based on the evidence, it's pretty clear who the frontrunner is to top this particular list, doesn't it? Although there are a few additions to the nomination list I'll propose in a moment.

As far as the five names Galileo submitted for consideration...

Vilas: Until Rafa came along, pretty much all the greatest clay court records were attached to two names: Evert and Vilas. Just this season, Vilas' name has once again come into heavy use with Nadal taking down one of the few clay records (most ATP titles on the surface) he didn't already own. Hey, it *only* took almost three decades for that particular mark to fall. Vilas was before my time, but his reputation allows him to be listed amongst the sport's "immortal souls." While he's most known for his dominance on one surface, the Argentine is really the only player in this group of five whose name you could rightly use in a sentence along with the word "legend" and feel no itchy tinglings of doubt on the back of the neck while you did it. That's an important distinction, especially considering he never officially held the top ranking.

Here's a Sports Illustrated article about the "Renaissance man" in his prime in 1978.

Chang: Unlike Vilas, I am very familiar with Chang's career. While he accomplished many great things, I guess I'm guilty of always overlooking him as far as being "great" because he was, quite frankly, not even in the Top 3 players from his own country during the prime of his career. Sampras and Andre Agassi (of course) were both well above Chang in the pecking order, and I think Jim Courier's career ranks ahead of his, as well. You could even make a case for the likes of Todd Martin (two slam finals, two Wimbledon semis, #4 ranking) quite possibly being a "better" player in the era, too. By the end of Chang's career, Andy Roddick was the superior U.S. player in relation to him. So, even with all his accomplishments and that one, very early, crazy title run in Paris, can he really be legitimately considered "the best" to never reach #1 when he was never really at any time in his career considered to be the best player from his own nation, and often felt like as afterthought in an era that also included the likes of Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg? Maybe, but not in my book. Much like a player such as Martina Hingis on the WTA tour, the advent of the power game really kept the physically smaller Chang from consistently evening up against the other top players of the time, so much so that he even chose to change his racket (going with a longer version) at one point in an attempt to add reach and power, as well as pop to his serve. It worked, but it also felt like a step away from the grinding/scrambling game style and mindset that defined his career. While it's impossible to not respect what Chang did, I think he was fortunate to get as close to #1 as he did, and I'd end the discussion there.

Ivanisevic: Goran feels more like a one surface specialist than anything else. If he hadn't finally won Wimbledon, he's almost surely be the best player (best grasscourter, at least, as Lendl probably would corner the overall market) never to have won *there.* He was certainly the most entertaining player never to have reached #1, both on court and off.

Korda: an underrated player, for sure. But his one slam win sort of felt like more of a flukey result than even Chang's win at Roland Garros. His steroids suspension left a cloud over his career, too, especially since he retired rather than fight it and/or any lingering damage it would have on the memory of his career, or stage a comeback in its aftermath. Of course, he'll always be remembered for his "Woodstock haircut" (the bird from the Peanuts comics) and scissors kick celebration, and now for his TWO golf-playing daughters.

Wawrinka: I always thought that Hana Mandlikova (who I'm sure Galileo will include on his women's nomination list) and her feat of winning three-quarters of a Career Slam (missing only Wimbledon, where she reached two finals) while playing in the thick of the Navratilova/Evert era was possibly the most underappreciated feats in tennis history. But Wawrinka is pretty close to equaling or surpassing what she did. The Swiss, helped by a longer career arc that saw him win his first slam just two months shy of his 29th birthday, has managed to win three of the four slams in a slam era dominated by the Big Two (Roger & Rafa), Big Three (w/ Djokovic) and "Big Four" (w/ Murray, too). If he could win Wimbledon to achieve a Career Slam with those four as his generational peers it might just be the most impressive feat in the history of tennis, this side of Evert's 125-match winning streak on clay or, take your pick from any number of big-number marks. He's reached the SW19 QF twice, in 2014 and '15. If he were to get the crown at the AELTC, but not reach #1 in the process, the quality of the argument to put him atop this list would be very, very strong.

All right, that takes care fo Galileo's original nomination list.

But I wanted to throw out a few more names to be included, even if just for posterity's sake. I won't include Ken Rosewall here, though, because the prime of his tennis career came before the Open era, during which he was possibly the "unofficial" #1 player. But it is worth noting that when he did eventually play on the ATP tour in the 1970s he reached the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals at age 39, then two more slam semis at age 41 and 42, respectively. I suspect his and Roger Federer's names might be bandied about together later this summer.

Here are my potential additional nominations:

Stan Smith: won two slams, and reached another final. Officially, he only reached #3 in the rankings, but likely would have been the year-end #1 in 1972. Unfortunately, the ATP weekly rankings didn't begin until 1973. Since Smith WOULD have been #1, I'm not going to include him on my list.

But I *am* including...

Arthur Ashe: reached as high as #2 in the weekly rankings (1975), won the Australian, Wimbledon and U.S. titles, and reached four other slam finals (two in the Open era, two before). If there had been weekly rankings, he might have reached #1 before the Open era began, but since the majority of his best results came after 1968 I want to add him to the list.

Another that I *really* want to include, as long as Galileo agrees to an "injury waiver" to get him there, is...

Pat Cash: the Aussie meets all the stated criteria for inclusion except for the 400-win minimum. He only recorded around 250 victories in his injury-plagued career, but when he was on he was one of the more awesome sights on the courts. To me, when I think of the highest-level of serve-and-volley tennis in the last great era of the style, right alongside the likes of Sampras, Becker and Edberg, I think of Cash. His aggressive serve-and-volley style was a powerful one, but wasn't without it's brilliant touch, as well.

These are some great highlights from the QF of Cash's great Wimbledon run in 1987 (the aforementioned Zivojinovic is in the video package, too):

When healthy, Cash was great, especially on grass. He reached the Australian Open final in 1987, the last played there on grass, and only lost after a five-set battle vs. Edberg. Later that summer, his incredible run at Wimbledon produced his one slam singles crown, but also left us with a slew of other significant moments. Cash's checkered headband became (and still is) his signature look, and one year earlier he started what now is the regular practice of players throwing their headbands and wristbands to fans in the stands after the match. After he defeated Ivan Lendl to win the men's title on Centre Court, he was the first player to climb through the stands to celebrate with his friends, family and coaches. It quickly became commonplace, and now it's done by pretty much every singles champion at every major event when the final has been completed.

But he wasn't just a grass court monster. In 1988, Cash also reached the first hard court Australian Open final, losing that one in another five-set, four and a half hour marathon to Mats Wilander.

A top junior, Cash won both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open boys titles in 1982. Two years later, at 17, he reached the Wimbledon and U.S. Open semis. Cash eventually reached #4 in the rankings in 1988. But, ultimately, his body let him down. Maybe one of if not the best athlete of his tennis generation, he was felled by an emergency appendectomy (1986, though he reached the Wimbledon QF soon afterward, and a year later won the title), an Achilles (1989, and lingering thereafter), back and knee injuries.

Cash made his slam debut at the AO in 1981 at age 16, and played his last at Wimbledon in 1997 at 32. During the stretch of 61 majors between those two tournaments, he played in 32 slam main draws, but missed 29. His best consecutive run of appearances came in 1983-84, when he played in all four slams in both seasons, the only back-to-back seasons he ever did it (in fact, he only played in the MD of all four in one other year -- 1987, naturally).

He can't rightly be listed at the top of the list of best non-#1's, but I think he at least deserves a mention.

I did try to stick to the Open Era as a general rule. Rosewall had a fantastic career but was one of the players who suffered the mess that the Open Era caused. It didn't seem to come at a good time for anyone. It was too late for most of Laver's ilk. Rosewall's 6-1, 6-0, 6-1 loss to Connors in the '74 U.S. Open final felt like the end of an era. It is similar for Smith. The rankings were a mess until technology got caught up. It took them how many years to realize Evonne Goolagong, with her 18 slam finals, was a former number one?

I missed Arthur Ashe. I had to compile this list within the Open Era parameters. Otherwise, you open a whole can of worms. Ashe did win three slams - '68 U.S., '70 AO & '75 Wimbledon - and played a unique brand of tennis. He was also a pioneer of black tennis like the aforementioned Goolagong was for Aboriginal sport in Australia. This BACKSPINNER readily admits he dropped the ball here. He should have been in instead of Korda. His run to the 1975 Wimbledon Championships aged 32 is one of this sport's finest moments. And something else. He and Vilas were tied 5-5 in their head to head, playing five times in 1974 and for the last time in 1979.

Cash had a very good career at the slams though his 6-5 record in actual ATP finals is poor. If not for injury he could have really achieved magnificent things. I can't put him in my top three but he has a better claim than some of the others on the list. He should have won the Australian Open, too. Had he been able to edge Edberg he would be a lock for this list. I would have found a way. Some players just have bad luck.

1. Vilas
2. Ashe
3. Cash
4. Wawrinka (subject to change)
5. Chang
6. Ivanisevic
7. Korda

1. Vilas
2. Ashe
3. Wawrinka
4. Cash
5. Chang
6. Ivanisevic
7. Korda


1. Vilas (2 pts)
2. Ashe (4)
3t. Wawrinka (7)
3t. Cash (7)
5. Chang (10)
6. Ivanisevic (12)
7. Korda (14)

Thanks all.

To be continued (w/ the women)...

Read more!


Blogger colt13 said...

Good stuff!

I would put Vilas #1 myself, but my #2 doesn't meet your criteria, although from the same place. Del Potro. Not just a slam winner, but Olympic finalist and ATP finalist. And did get to #4.

Thu May 11, 09:20:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Ah, good one. Neither one of us thought to mention him, but when he won that U.S. Open it surely looked like he was going to be a major player in this recent era. At least he's turned out to be quite likely one of the more beloved players, and not just in Argentina, in recent years (if not the last couple decades).

Fri May 12, 11:09:00 AM EDT  
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Fri Jun 07, 05:34:00 AM EDT  

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