You do not hear the words “dog days” associated with professional tennis that often. It is a term that major league baseball seems to have a patent on. As the calendar gets set to leap into the fall season tomorrow and now almost two weeks removed from the US Open championship at Flushing Meadow, New York, it always seems that this could be the time of year where tennis can lull. Sure, tournaments are on the agenda. The ATP men’s schedule has landed in St. Petersburg, Russia for this last week of summer. Meanwhile, the WTA women’s tour has started their Asian swing with the ladies entertaining the fine folks in Guangzhou, China. The official end of the tennis season takes place in London, England at the Barclay’s World Tour Finals in November. We have almost two months of tennis left to follow before that but let us move out of the present for the time being and take a leap back with a favorite activity that tennis aficionados love to do: Make favorites and rankings lists.
A Step Back in Time
Let us face the fact that this is a right-hander’s world. Estimations are that 85 percent of us are of the non-southpaw variety. Today’s list will concentrate on the other 15 percent, the wacky lefties. Throughout tennis circles it has always been considered an advantage to play from the other side than most. We generally assume this is because right-handed players have less chance to play against left-handers, thus their games are somewhat mysterious or unknown. That part certainly rings true but then there is the whole other gamut of different spins and the way the ball comes off the racquet. Left-handers’ spins look like they are coming from another hemisphere. Professional tennis has seen more than its fair share of all time legend players coming from the off wing. For argument’s sake, let me rank the all time five greatest left-handed tennis players, male and female included. And even better, I will not be afraid to rank them in order. If we are going to choose to do this endeavor, let’s go all in, Texas hold‘em style.
The Czech Turned American
No. 1 on the list is who many consider the greatest female player who ever played, and that is Martina Navratilova. After bursting onto the scene in 1975 with a game that many on the women’s side had not seen before, the Czechoslovakia native crafted a certain type of attacking style that has all but disappeared in today’s current game, including the men’s game. Navratilova won her first Grand Slam at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon in 1978 and would go on to a record nine championships on those hallowed grounds. At 5 foot 8 she was of the perfect size to dominate the women’s game and her muscular build and stamina would be unmatched until age finally started to show, but that was not until past her 32nd birthday. She would retire as the all time leader in Grand Slam singles titles, male or female, with 18, which has since been surpassed twice. Both Steffi Graf and Serena Williams currently sit atop the list at 22.
The First True Legend of Men’s Tennis
No. 2 is Australia’s Rod Laver. It seems like if you ask any player who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, the one player they all admired without hesitation is the ultimate gentleman of the sport, Laver. Placing Laver at the second position on any list is never an easy one but Navratilova trumps him by a hair in a photo finish. Quite petite at 5 foot 8 (even that may be a little generous), Laver was a player who used an attacking style to smother opponents into submission. For such a small-statured athlete, other players had trouble lobbing the hard charger from Rockhampton, Queensland. Laver would win 11 Grand Slam titles between 1962 and 1969 and his balance of play equally on all court surfaces was a marvel for all to witness. Four Wimbledon championship trophies, three Australian Open victories, and a pair of French and US Open titles round out this unquestioned Hall of Famer’s stunning resume.
The Spaniard Who Dominated Clay Like No Other
In the third position on our humble ranking list is Rafael Nadal. The nine-time French Open king of clay may still add to his status but even without doing so, he has cemented his legacy as one of the all time legends and without doubt, the best clay court player the world has known. Now thirty years old, the Spaniard from Majorca possesses a hard and heavy game that punished opponents for so many years but lately has taken its toll physically on the 6 foot 1, 190 pounder. He may add more to the record books but as it stands now he is sitting at 14 Grand Slam titles, has a winning record against the great Roger Federer, and is known as the hardest working player in the sport. He practically willed himself to victories on court surfaces like the Wimbledon grass, which he won twice, in 2008 and 2010. Nadal’s training and relentlessness are world renowned as are the hard practices that his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, put Rafael through.
The Brat from Queens
Laying claim to the fourth position on our lefty charts is the incomparable John McEnroe. Mac, as he is affectionately known, burst onto the scene in 1978 as a 19 year-old college player out of the University of Stanford. He would reach the semifinals at Wimbledon, a precursor of three championships he would win there between 1981 and 1984. The elegance and touch of the 5 foot 11 small-framed American is what set him apart from his rivals, and to this day, is highly regarded as the greatest volleyer in tennis history. McEnroe would finish up with seven Grand Slam championships, split fairly evenly between England and Flushing, four US titles and three Wimbledon trophies. He did make a French Open final at Roland Garros in 1984 but lost. With his style of play, the fact that he made it that far on the dirt clay surface of Paris remains astonishing. Also not to be dismissed was the doubles talent that McEnroe possessed with long time partner, Peter Fleming. He was both the number one singles and doubles player at the same time for a number of years. This is a feat that would be unattainable in the current game of today.
Jimbo Could Play a Crowd Like A Musician Plays an Instrument
At the No. 5 position is the one and only James Scott Connors, or Jimmy. Connors started his career as a villain in 1972 and 24 years later, at the ripe old age of 44, walked away from a legendary run as a saint. Connors was an oddity in many ways. Yes, he played left-handed but besides that there was more peculiar fodder. He was the first true user of the baseball style two-handed backhand. You see that shot all the time now but Connors crafted it and players that followed into the 1990s, such as Jim Courier, credited him as the man who created the shot. Connors was also coached well into his professional days by his mother, Gloria who moved from the St. Louis area to Southern California so that her son could get the competition that he so desperately needed to patent his game into greatness. The 5 foot 10 juggernaut, a native of Illinois, would win his first of eight Grand Slam titles down under at the Australian Open in 1974. His legend will always be most remembered at Flushing. Connors would go on to win five US Open titles over a nine year period between 1974 and 1983. His ability to turn back father time earned him the adulation of tennis fans worldwide when he reached the semifinals at the 1991 US Open. He was 39 years old at the time.