Rankings of Greats by tennis experts

Discussion in 'Former Pro Player Talk' started by pc1, Oct 22, 2010.

  1. krosero

    krosero Legend

    Dec 3, 2006
    I'm not sure if Tilden's personal rankings of ATG's have been listed yet. They are not easy to summarize, because they changed so much over the years.

    In January 1934, just before starting his first pro tour with Vines, Tilden gave these as his Top 10 of all time, ranked in order:

    1. Henri Cochet
    2. Norman Brookes
    3. Rene Lacoste
    4. Hans Nusslein
    5. Bill Johnston
    6. Vincent Richards
    7. R. N. Williams
    8. Jean Borotra
    9. Bruce Barnes
    10. Karel Kozeluh

    Tilden had played Vines a few times as amateurs but he was still holding off on giving a full opinion. He had not been terribly impressed with Vines yet; I believe he had even picked Bunny Austin to beat Vines in the '32 Wimbledon final.

    But soon enough Tilden changed his mind. In January '35 he placed Vines at the top of his list:

    Detroit, Jan. 22 (AP)—Big Bill Tilden, 42 years “young” and still knowing a trick or two about tennis, today described Ellsworth Vines as the “greatest player in the world today and probably the greatest player the game has ever seen.”

    “There isn’t a player in the game today that can touch Vines and without a doubt he’s the greatest player in the world today. It’s impossible to really compare a player of today with one of yesterday, because the game progresses and the greatest player of today should be the greatest the game ever has seen.

    “I dislike trying to compare Vines with Cochet or stating that Lenglen was better than Wills—and I think she was—but I do think that in all probability there never was a player better than Elly.”

    After Vines, Tilden listed the following players as the best he has ever met: Henri Cochet, Bill Johnston, Hans Nusslein, Karl Kozeluh, Norman Brookes, Gottfried von Cramm, R. Norris Williams, Jean Borotra and Rene La Coste. He made it plain that he was not listing them in the order of their ability.​

    Tilden had a very poor opinion of Fred Perry -- whom he had never played as amateurs -- due to Fred's unconventional strokes. When Perry signed a pro contract in late '36, Tilden predicted that both Vines and Nusslein would destroy Perry and that Fred "will only be amongst the first five or six players in professional tennis circles."

    But again Tilden was willing to change his mind on hard evidence. In early '37 he played 7 matches against Perry, winning 3. Meanwhile Perry nearly won the world championship series with Vines (32-29), and Tilden admitted in one of his newspaper articles that Perry was doing much better than he had thought possible.

    In June '38 Tilden published a new book, Aces, Places and Faults, in which he said that finally playing Perry himself in those 7 matches had changed his opinion. He wrote:

    Nusslein, with Vines and Perry, must rank as one of the three greatest players in the world. In my opinion, all three are slightly above either Budge or von Cramm. ​

    Tilden added that over 365 days (what he called the best "average standard"), the greatest were Nusslein, Perry and Lacoste, in that order.

    He listed these as his Top Ten overall (in alphabetical order):

    von Cramm

    He listed only those whom he had played. Budge was one of the few top names he had never met. So Tilden would not rank him, but he did say this about where Budge's level of play had stood a year earlier, at the time of the Davis Cup classic against von Cramm:

    I believe at that moment Vines, Perry and Nusslein could all have beaten Budge, but time may soon change that.​

    In May 1939, at Wembley, Tilden faced Budge for the first time, and lost 6-2, 6-2.

    Irish Times reported:

    “Do you think that Budge is better than Fred Perry?” Tilden was asked. “I don’t think; I know he is,” he replied. “I played well enough to be satisfied with my own form, but he was just perfect.”​

    On that European tour, Tilden took 2 out of 10 meetings with Budge. Upon return to America, Tilden told the press that Budge was the best player he ever faced.

    In February 1945:

    “For 365 days out of the year, Don Budge,” he replied. “He was superior to Ellsworth Vines and demonstrated it. Vines could attain a higher peak, but not often. Sustained quality is greatness. When Vines was bad he was awful. Even when he was off, Budge was great. The test of a champion is the ability to prevail when he is not right.”​

    In 1950, three years before his death, Tilden was overwhelmingly voted as the best player of the first half of the century; and he gave his own rankings.

    Tilden got 310 votes out of the 391. Rated far back, in order, were Jack Kramer, Don Budge, Mrs. Helen Wills Moody Roark and Suzanne Lenglen.

    Tilden’s nominees—behind Tilden—included Frenchmen Henri Cochet and Rene Lacoste, Little Bill Johnston, Budge, Fred Perry—he mentioned Francis T. Hunter and Vinnie Richards—and Ellsworth Vines. He flatly refused to pick one over the other; all, he said, were so tightly grouped, separation was impossible.

    The older stars came first. Then—whether by afterthought or intention, who can say?—came Kramer, Bobby Riggs and then unstinted but delayed praise for Ted Schroeder, Pancho Gonzales and others of the more modern era.​

    I've always found Tilden's writings about other ATG's among the most intelligent and interesting. Like anyone else, he had his biases; he was opinionated, but also flexible, and willing to change his mind upon evidence. He tended to start off skeptical about any new sensation, but over time, and particularly after testing a new player oncourt himself, he could be persuaded to change his mind -- and he was always willing to be completely up front about this.
    PDJ, NatF and pc1 like this.
  2. pc1

    pc1 Legend

    Jul 18, 2008
    Yes Tilden did seem very impartial as imo was Vines. Even as late as 1969 Tilden was voted by a panel of experts as the greatest of all time. Not an unreasonable choice and frankly even now imo not an unreasonable choice. Even more than his great tennis skills I am perhaps more impressed by Tilden understanding and willingness to learn and adapt to the game. I have to say that's it is quite impressive that Tilden did fairly well in his forties against a Budge at his peak.
  3. krosero

    krosero Legend

    Dec 3, 2006
    Yeah those two wins over Budge in '39 were impressive, especially the win at Southport. That was almost surely the last win he had over Budge in a best of five. The last time he beat Vines in a best of five was probably the win in Tokyo in '36 (also on clay, also in straights, just like the Southport win over Budge). Last time I know of that he beat Perry in a best of five was in a new winter tour I've found, at Del Monte, CA (4 sets, Dec. 30, 1939). I'm not sure when the last time was he beat Nusslein in a best of five, or even what might have been his last win over Hans in any match, do you know?
  4. krosero

    krosero Legend

    Dec 3, 2006
    For the women, Tilden consistently named Lenglen, Marble and Moody, in that order. This was a little different from his rankings for the men, I think.

    In the articles above he says that "the game progresses and the greatest player of today should be the greatest the game ever has seen." And he did think that Marble was better than Moody; but he made an exception for Lenglen, keeping her at the top.

    In forming his opinions about the men, Tilden's own matches against a given player were key. He did hit with Lenglen in the 20s. The closest he got to testing Marble oncourt was the '41 tour, in mixed doubles.

    May 14, 1941 AP article by Dillon Graham:


    After several months of barnstorming with Budge, Marble and Hardwick, Tall Willyum Tilden is prepared to give expert opinion about the all-time ranking of La Marble, Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills Moody Roark.

    Tilden has played with and against Alice Marble in doubles and has watched her nightly duels with Mary Hardwick.

    Here’s his rating:

    1. Suzanne
    2. Alice
    3. Helen

    “Great players, all of them,” he said. “But I think that, at her best, Alice would have beaten Helen and that Suzanne would have beaten Alice.

    “Suzanne would have beaten Alice because she wouldn’t have permitted her to go to the net.”​

    In '44 Tilden again picked Lenglen, while a number of others went with May Sutton Bundy.

    May 24, 1944 edition of LA Times (“Sports Parade,” by Braven Dyer):

    Big Bill Tilden names Donald Budge as the greatest male tennis player of all time and strings with Suzanne Lenglen as tops among the women.

    We had been discussing the highly successful 58th annual Southern California championships now under way at the Los Angeles Tennis Club when conversation veered into other channels.

    There were 15 of us at the round table and Tilden himself was voted the greatest player in net history, even though the real experts such as Joe Bixler, Perry Jones and Mel Gallagher gave the nod to Budge.

    They picked Don because they said he consistently hit the ball so hard and so far out of his foe’s reach that no man who ever lived could conquer him.


    Those of us who named Big Bill just pointed to the record and let it go at that. Inasmuch as there was such a wide difference in their ages when they met as professionals this was no basis for comparing the two.

    Tilden selected Maurice McLoughlin as the player who had done most to popularize the game.

    “Maury was the first to capture the fancy of Mr. and Mrs. Public and as such deserves first ranking in this division,” was Bill’s comment.

    Although Tilden named Jean Borotra as the most spectacular player he ever saw, he picked the other Frenchman, Henri Cochet, as the one he preferred to watch in action above all others.


    Perhaps this latter selection came about because Tilden regards Cochet as the player with the most resourceful and versatile game. After all, Big Bill was not above learning a trick or two from anybody he met and he must have respected Cochet highly because Henri beat him in the national championships of 1928.

    On the question of the game’s hardest hitter Tilden voted instantly for Ellsworth Vines, naming him top man both with the serve and forehand.

    Among great tennis players Vines always receives recognition. They say that Elly, at his peak, might have beaten any man that ever lived, including Tilden. Vines possessed, on certain days, a hurricane style which surpassed anything anybody else ever offered.

    In Tilden’s opinion, Budge possesses the best backhand and Borotra the best overhead smash. The volleying of Vincent Richards got Bill’s vote and for the drop shot he named either Cochet or George Lott.


    There were few of us who sided with Big Bill’s pick of Lenglen as the greatest feminine player of all time. The vote was rather overwhelmingly in favor of May Sutton Bundy, who won a score of titles, raised a large family, and then returned to the court for more triumphs. Oddly, Alice Marble drew just one vote.

    Nearly everybody agreed that Tilden was the smartest player of all time but there were a few votes for the Australian star, Norman Brookes, and this is the man named by Big Bill for that honor. What he lacked in ability Brookes made up with his think tank.

    When naming the world’s greatest athletes it is pretty difficult to go back of the record, at the same time keeping in mind the colorful play of the leaders. That’s why Tilden outranks them all in my book.

    He won the national championship 10 times. While in his prime he was the dominating figure in international competition. He had a mastery of all the strokes which enabled him to toy with most of his opponents.​

    In the 1950 interview excerpted above (the half-century poll), Tilden again named the women in that order:

    The great women players? He gave them in rapid one-two-three order—Lenglen, Alice Marble and Helen Wills Roark. Fourth, down a marked step, came Helen Hull Jacobs. After that the drop was much greater….

    Following is the result of the Associated Press poll:

    Players Votes

    1—Bill Tilden........................................ 310

    2—Jack Kramer.................................... 32

    3—Donald Budge................................. 31

    4—Helen Wills Moody Roark................. 12

    5—Suzanne Lenglen............................. 2

    One vote each: Little Bill Johnston, Fred Perry, Ellsworth Vines and Mrs. Molla Bjurstedt Mallory.​
  5. George K

    George K New User

    Sep 19, 2015

    To try to equate the career records of Gonzales, Rosewall and Laver with the open era. I suggest doing the following:

    1) Ignore each player's amateur record, however good it might have been since the amateur tournaments from 1949 to 1967 were the equivalent of the "minors".

    2) Add their "Big 3" pro slam totals (from 1950 to 67) and add their total of their winning the 4th most prestigious pro tournament, which varied from year to year

    You get the following results:

    16 Gonzales: ....... 8 US Pro, 4 Wembley Pro, 3 Tournament of Champions, the 1954 Madison Square Garden Pro, as no Wembley, French Pro that year. Additionally, there was only one pro tournament in 1955, the US Pro, which Gonzales won, but he was deprived of the chance of winning three more that year. This affects his career totals negatively.

    19 Rosewall: 2 US Pro, 5 Wembley Pro, 8 French Pro (4 on clay, 4 on wood), 1 US Open, 1 French Open, 2 Australian Open. Not all opens are equal of course. The 1972 Australian Open was really the "Which Australians Are Home For Christmas Tournament" ...... hardly a grand slam field!

    18 Laver: 3 US Pro, 4 Wembley Pro, one French Pro, 4 Australian Pro, 2 Wimbledon, one US Open, one French Open, one Australian Open and the 1968 Pacific Southwest as the "4th most important tournament of 1968, since the 1968 Australian wasn't open.

    And of course Laver is the only player to win an open calendar year grand slam (is there any other kind?) .... those other slams aren't really slams just pale imitations ...... especially the "male players wearing Teddy Tinling dresses" grand slam (that is a "slam" variation isn't it?)

    Pro slams involved fields of 16 players which was the equivalent of playing the last 4 rounds of Open Majors. That meant 4 instead of 7 matches to win the tournament, favouring older players. On the other hand, in pro tournaments, there would be no first, second or third round upsets to thin out the field for the round of 16. The world's 16 best pros all played in the round of 16.

    All of a sudden Gonzales, Rosewall and Laver don't look too shabby next to Federer 17, Sampras 14 and Nadal 14 predominantly on clay.
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2015
    pat200 likes this.
  6. NatF

    NatF G.O.A.T.

    May 10, 2012
    Not a bad system but even amongst these tournaments there are some which don't fit the bill of majors. Some of those US Pro's from the early 60's had poor draws and only 3 rounds IIRC- they're not the equivalent of a major tournament today in no shape or form. Then there are tournaments like Dunlop and the WCT which were majors for their day.

    I personally wouldn't bother trying to attach actual numbers and compare the major counts of those players. I would instead look at their records and say all were dominant in the majors and roughly equivalent with the top major winners of modern tennis. I would separate them mostly by considering their time as the best player in the world - a metric which is much easier to compare.
    pc1 likes this.
  7. George K

    George K New User

    Sep 19, 2015

    Obviously the best comparison is to gage who was the world's number one and for how long. I was trying to counter the postings of guys who have no idea, who just look at how many "Big Four" titles the guy won and think Emerson 12, WOW! .... Gonzales 2, What's he ever done?
  8. NatF

    NatF G.O.A.T.

    May 10, 2012
    You think of the tennis channel guru's who came up with the top 100 list in 2012? ;)
  9. pc1

    pc1 Legend

    Jul 18, 2008

    If we look at that perhaps Pancho Gonzalez is easily tops in that area.

    However looking at a counter argument, a guy like Jimmy Connors had some fantastic years like 1978 in which I believe he would have been number one in most years yet he was number two to Borg. Connors was 84-7 (92.31%) and won 14 tournaments including the US Open and four Masters Level Tournaments. Another player like Sampras in I believe 1998 had a 61-17 record (78.21%), won only four tournaments and one major in Wimbledon. Sampras won zero Masters Level Tournaments. Yet Sampras was number one in the world and Connors number two. However Sampras did what was needed so he deserves credit for being number one that year.

Share This Page