By Thaddeus McCarthy
This week I will be discussing who was the greatest men’s closer in the Open-Era. This is the person who, when the chips were down, would rise to the occasion. When victory was in sight, they would nail down the big serve or hit a punishing return winner. As the criteria for this argument I will consider the importance of the occasions they repeatedly closed out, the quality of opposition they were facing, and how consistent they were.
First off, I will discuss who I believe to be the greatest big-match player of all-time, and throughout the rest of this piece I will look at whether there was anyone better than him. This player was none other than Pete Sampras. Why do I think he was the ultimate closer of them all? Well for starters he won 14 of the 18 Grand Slam finals he played. He won 73% of the ATP tournament finals he played, and it was in the biggest matches where he was at his best. It is worth pointing out here that two of his Slam final losses were at the 2000 and 2001 US Opens, where Sampras was on his final stretch, and so was not at his peak.
One of the biggest matches of Sampras’s career was against Andre Agassi at the 1995 US Open. Agassi was No. 1 at the time, and was on a 26-match winning streak. Sampras dually beat him in four sets, and so ended the streak. Another match of note was the final of the year-end tournament against Boris Becker in 1996. After losing the fourth set tiebreaker 13-11, many in the crowd would have assumed that Boris had all the momentum going into the fifth set. It must have been to their surprise then that Sampras won that set 6-4, and once again took the year-end no. 1 ranking. At Hanover in 1999 when Agassi was having his glorious renascence, Sampras beat him in the year-end final in straights.
In contrast let’s look at Federer, who comes in with a 17 and 7 Slam final record, and a 67% ATP Tournament final record. These are respectable numbers no doubt, but not Sampras like. Some of Federer’s biggest matches, like Rome 06 and Wimbledon 08, he lost to Nadal in five. Against Safin at the Aussie 05 he had a match point in the fourth set tiebreak and yet lost in five. Two of Federer’s biggest five set victories were against Nadal at Miami 05 and against Andy Roddick at Wimbledon 09. Nadal would have had to be considered young and green in 05 though, at the tender age of 19. And Roddick, as we all know would frequently seize up, and choke against Federer. Two examples in that match where Roddick choked were in the second set tiebreak, on set point, when he had an easy overhead and buggered it up. There was also the final point of the match where Roddick limply hit the ball off the frame and out of the court.
Rafael Nadal is frequently counted as one of the most mentally tough players of history. And his record against Federer definitely supports him in this regard. At Rome 06 and Wimbledon 08 it would have to be said that it was Nadal’s superior play that won those matches, rather than Fed’s choking. Back in the 2011-2012 period though, it has to be remembered that he lost 7 consecutive matches to Novak Djokovic. Again though, it was probably superior play from Djokovic that won those matches rather than poor Nadal play. Nadal is 13 and 6 in Slam finals and has tournament final win rate of 70%. Respectable numbers, but again, not Sampras like.
You would think that Djokovic would have the numbers to equal Sampras as a clutch player, but this is not the case. With only a 50% Slam final win rate, and a 67% overall final win percentage he is nowhere near Sampras. But it has to be remembered that Djokovic only became great at the end of 2010, when he switched his diet and became machine-like. So the numbers with him are skewed towards his (relatively mediocre) earlier career. The 2011 US Open semi-final clash with Federer is perhaps the best example of his clutch ability, as he was down two sets and survived two match points in the fifth set before prevailing.
How about past champions such as Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Rod Laver? Ivan Lendl, while undoubtedly great has the unfortunate record of being runner-up in 11 Slam finals, and the winner of only 8. John McEnroe had the best season win percentage in 1984, but lost that year’s French final to Lendl after being up by two sets. His record after that year does not do his career much good either, as he won no more Slam finals, and would lose repeatedly to Lendl. Jimmy Connors is famous for winning 109 tournaments, but he did lose 54. It was shown often that when McEnroe, Lendl, and Borg were at their best, they were superior to Connors. Bjorn Borg is an interesting one as his numbers are boosted because he retired at 25, before the inevitable declining years. He was 11 and 5 in Slam finals, and has the unfortunate distinction of losing 4 US Opens (finals). He did win that famous match to McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon final though, so definitely had his moments.
Laver was 30 by the time the Open era began, but won his Slam in the following year (1969). The way he was able to keep himself going throughout that season was enviable, and there were many clutch moments. His most famous match of the year was against Tony Roche in the semi-finals of the Australian Open. After being up two sets, the match became levelled with Roche winning the next two. With all the momentum going Roche’s way in the final set, Laver bucked the trend by winning 6-3. In the second round of the French, Laver found himself behind by two sets to Dick Crealy, before winning in five. The best example that year of Laver clutching it out, was against Tony Roche in the US final at Forest Hills. In this match it was surely prime time for choking, as everything (his Grand Slam) rested on it. When Roche won the first set, 9-7, the pressure on Laver must have been intense. And yet, he won the next three, and won the first (and so far only) open era mens calendar-year Grand Slam. After this year though, similar to Mcenroe after 1984, Laver saw his level of play decline.
So… for having memorable clutch moments right throughout his career, and a sustained level of play from the moment he entered the professional scene to when he left, the title of the greatest open-era clutch player has to be given to Sampras. There have been certain periods when players have matched the Sampras clutch ability; like Laver in 1969, McEnroe in 1984 and Djokovic in 2011, but none of these have been able to maintain that level of play and closing ability throughout their careers.