Champion of champions

Pistol Pete… Sampras with the Wimbledon trophy in 1998. The American’s reign over the Wimbledon courts was ever so strong. In all, he won 63 out of 70 matches there during his career that brought him seven titles.-PICS: GETTY IMAGES

In its long history, Wimbledon has hosted some of the greatest players to pick up a tennis racquet. Priyansh picks his best five male and female players.

The pre-eminence of Wimbledon as the most glorious title that can be won by a tennis player is widely accepted. While such a high standing of the Championship could be attributed to a mawkish sentiment, it has certainly produced contests worthy of its reputation over 138 editions. Many a charm emanates from the verdant courts, with tradition and an aggressive brand of tennis that Wimbledon encourages thrown in.

In its long history, the tournament has also hosted some of the greatest to pick up a tennis racquet. This writer was given an onerous task of choosing the five best male and female players to grace the SW19 courts. To make the choice simpler, legends before 1922 were not considered, as in the years past the defending champion was given a walkover to the final. This meant that great players like William Renshaw, Dorothea Lambert Chambers and Blanche Bingley don’t find a place in this list.

Nevertheless, this remains a collection of champions that left an indelible mark on the sport. The writer, though, is aware that such lists always invite hand-wringing and impassioned debates. Here’s a spoiler that will ignite outrage in some quarters — John McEnroe and Venus Williams miss out!

GENTLEMEN’S SINGLES Pete Sampras

If you are looking for a quiz question, this might be it: From 1993 to 2000, Pete Sampras lost just one match at SW19. Who defeated him?

The answer is Richard Krajicek, the eventual champion in 1996.

That blemish aside, Sampras’ reign over the Wimbledon courts was ever so strong. In all, he won 63 out of 70 matches there during his career that brought him seven titles.

Known as ‘Pistol Pete’ for his bullet serve, Sampras was the last great serve and volley practitioner. Not surprisingly, the fast courts at Wimbledon suited his style and aided in his domination.

Roger Federer

Sampras’ 31-match winning streak was snapped by a 19-year-old Swiss boy in 2001. However, little did anyone know that Roger Federer would go on to match the American’s seven Wimbledon titles.

The Swiss was a finalist even last year as he has adapted his game to tennis’ evolution like nobody else. Having arrived on the scene as a serve and volley player, Federer changed his game to suit the changes in court and ball conditions. A shift towards a baseline-oriented approach did not affect his efficiency as he ruled Wimbledon in style.

Bjorn Borg

With only four losses in 55 matches, Bjorn Borg confounded expectations at Wimbledon. Three of his five titles at SW19 arrived weeks after he had won at the slowest courts of them all, Roland Garros in Paris.

Borg’s adaptability was a hallmark of greatness. Despite having established himself as a baseline player on the pro circuit, Borg modified his game to suit the needs of grass courts. His consistent stroke-play from the back of the court was boosted by a deceptively good serve and strong volleys. Due to his remarkable fitness, Borg moved well throughout and outlasted his opponents.

Rod Laver

When one assesses Rod Laver’s career, it’s difficult to escape the question — What could have been?

The Australian didn’t participate in a single Slam from 1963-67 as professional players were barred from entering the tournaments.

Players such as Rod Laver (above, left), Bjorn Borg (centre) and Boris Becker have left an indelible mark on the hallowed turf of Wimbledon. Laver's razor-sharp reflexes, Borg's adaptability and Becker's ebullient serve and volley style are all part of the folklore.-

Yet, Laver finished his career with five Open era titles and six before 1968. Out of those 11, four were Wimbledon trophies — separated equally between the amateur and pro eras.

The left-handed genius was renowned for his springy movement and razor-sharp reflexes. This gave him an advantage on the faster courts and his flashy strokeplay made him popular among the fans.

Boris Becker

Despite winning the Wimbledon thrice, there is a sense that Boris Becker should have won more. After winning the hallowed tournament as a 17-year-old — the youngest ever male Grand Slam champion — the German failed to reach the semi-finals only twice in the next decade.

The grass courts at SW19 were a second home to Martina Navratilove (in pic). Five of her nine titles were secured by defeating Chris Evert in the final. In addition to her singles success, Navratilova won the doubles title seven times too.-

Nicknamed ‘Boom Boom’, Becker was a crowd favourite thanks to his ebullient serve and volley style. During his time on the pro circuit, the diving volley almost became synonymous with his name.

A strong forehand and heavy serve furthered his aggressive brand of tennis.

His exuberance marked him out from his peers and Becker remained a crowd favourite throughout his time at Wimbledon.

LADIES’ SINGLES Martina Navratilova

No player — amateur or professional — has won more singles titles than Martina Navratilova (nine). From 1978 to 1990, only twice did she not make the final. The Czech-American’s attacking style of play was complemented by her athletic prowess. Such was Navratilova’s excellence in all matters fitness that she even participated in the 2004 Wimbledon singles tournament as a 47-year-old.

The grass courts at SW19 were a second home to her. Five of her nine titles were secured by defeating Chris Evert in the final. In addition to her singles success, Navratilova won the doubles title seven times too.

Helen Wills Moody

Only once in 64 outings did Helen Wills Moody lose a match at Wimbledon. Although the official record states that she lost another encounter in the first round of the 1926 tournament, it was essentially a default due to archaic rules. Moody had undergone appendectomy during the French Open and despite informing the Wimbledon organisers a week before the tournament that she couldn’t make it, her first round opponent was given a walkover.

SW19, THEIR SECOND HOME. Steffi Graf (left), Billie Jean King (centre) and Serena Williams.-

Nevertheless, Moody’s record remains the gold standard for excellence. Her consistency was attributed to a well-rounded game that fired on all cylinders mostly. Moody’s concentration powers were considered legendary too.

Steffi Graf

Here is another helping for quiz buffs. From 1991 to ’97, Steffi Graf lost just one match at Wimbledon. Who beat her? Lori McNeil, in the first round of the 1994 tournament.

Otherwise, Graf had a decorated relationship with SW19. Out of her 22 Slam titles, seven were won at Wimbledon (the most she won at any Slam). Graf was among the fastest servers of her time and her forehand was renowned for its effectiveness and power.

With a fully-rounded game that suited every surface, Graf was able to adapt comfortably. Her first two Wimbledon titles were acquired after defeating another SW19 great in the final — Navratilova.

Billie Jean King

Like Laver, Billie Jean King won Wimbledon in both the amateur and Open eras. From 1963 to ’75, only once did she not feature in at least the semi-finals. Six times, she lifted the Venus Rosewater Dish. Four of those triumphs arrived in the professional era.

Due to her path-breaking contribution to women’s tennis, it is often forgotten that King was an excellent player who was known for her powerful game. The American was also a fast mover, often rushing to the net to win points. She never let her off-field work affect her tennis prowess and eventually finished with eight Open era Slam titles.

Serena Williams

A five-time winner and who is to say she won’t add a sixth title to her already massive collection this year? Serena Williams has become a byword for excellence in the 21st century and she brought some of her best tennis to the grass courts of Wimbledon.

She has also participated in two other finals there and in combination with her sister Venus, who has won the same number of titles, dominated the tournament like only a few others have. Serena is an enforcer — she wears her opponents down with power and her unique determination. 17 years after her first appearance, she remains a strong contender at Wimbledon.