Tennis' U.S. Open, which starts Tuesday at Louis Armstrong Stadium in Flushing Meadow, N.Y., will be just as much a celebration as it is a competition. This summer marks the 100th anniversary of American competitive tennis.
One hundred years ago this month at The Casino in Newport, R.I., Richard Sears won the first U.S. Lawn Tennis Association's men's singles title.
And so, on the occasion of this anniversary, I'd like to offer an opinion on who might be the best American player of the first 100 years.
My picks are based on major titles won, major titles won on different surfaces, longevity at the top, head-to-head competition, opinions of sportswriters and past champions, and past U.S. rankings. Alongside my selections are the rankings of Alex McNab of Tennis magazine and Allison Danzig, retired tennis writer for the New York Times. The number in parentheses represents the year the player first won the U.S. national title.
Ashe list: Men -- (1) Bill Tilden (1920); (2) Donald Budge (1937); (3) Jack Kramer (1946); (4) Pancho Gonzales (1948); (5) John McEnroe (1979); (6) Jimmy Connors (1974); (7) Bobby Riggs (1939); (8) Tony Trabert (1953); (9) Ellsworth Vines (1931); (10) three-way tie: Frank Parker (1944), Richard Sears (1881) and William Larned (1901).
Women -- (1) Billie Jean King (1967); (2) Chris Evert Lloyd (1975); (3) Helen Wills (1923); (4) Maureen Connolly (1951); (5) Alice Marble (1936); (6) Helen Jacobs (1932); (7) Althea Gibson (1957); (8) Louise Brough (1947); (9) Margaret Osborne (1948); (10) tie: Pauline Betz Addie (1942) and Molla Mallory (1920).
McNab list: Men -- (1) Tilden; (2) Budge; (3) Kramer; (4) Connors; (5) Gonzales; (6) Vines; (7) Riggs; (8) Trabert; (9) Larned; (10) Sears.
Women -- (1) Wills; (2) Connolly; (3) Evert; (4) King; (5) Marble; (6) Mallory; (7) Hazel Wightman (1909); (8) Jacobs; (9) Osborne; (10) Brough.
Danzig list: Men -- (1) Tilden; (2) Budge; (3) Kramer; (4) Vines; (5) Gonzales; (6) McEnroe; (7) William Johnston (1915); (8) Connors; (9) Ashe; (10) tie: Riggs and Larned.
Women -- (1) Wills; (2) Connolly; (3) King; (4) Marble; (5) Jacobs; (6) Betz; (7) Osborne; (8) Brough; (9) Gibson; (10); three-way tie: Evert, Sarah Palfrey (1941) and Mallory.
Everyone agreed that Tilden and Budge were 1-2. So many tennis historians concur with this opinion that there is now no serious argument about the top two.
Gonzales is ranked no lower than fifth by any of us, but Kramer has to come before him on my list because Kramer won more of their head-to-head duels.
Even at age 23, John McEnroe is No. 5 on my list. He is the most talented player I've ever seen. Even as his Davis Cup captain, sitting courtside during his matches, I'm amazed at what he can do with a tennis ball. He already has won two U.S. Opens, one Wimbledon and one Masters in the midst of the toughest and most competitive group of players ever. Even though he hasn't yet proven himself on clay, he's still right up there.
Connors is right behind at No. 6. He has won too many titles to be left out -- three U.S. Opens, one Wimbledon, one Australian, four U.S. clay courts, and five indoor titles. If he had won the French, I'd have put him No. 5.
Riggs, whom I rank No. 7, generally is thought to be the most underrated of the great American players. The one and only time Riggs played at Wimbledon, he won the singles, doubles and mixed titles.
I left myself out because, though I've won three Grand Slam events, I never won the French. I have one clay court, one hard court and one U.S. amateur title.
None of us could agree on the women's rankings. I had trouble listing them because I've only seen five of those I ranked play. And the women's draws before the Open era were so much weaker. I relied more heavily on U.S.T.A. national rankings and to a lesser extent on personal opinions.
King is at the top of my list, followed by Evert and Wills. With the possible exception of Martina Navratilova and Hana Mandlikova, King is the most gifted athlete among the women players. My top three have won 16 U.S. national titles, 17 Wimbledons, eight French and six U.S. clay court titles. I cannot separate them with any purposefulness. Tougher competition today leads me to put Wills No. 3.
Connolly, Marble and Jacobs are Nos. 4, 5 and 6 in my estimation. Connolly won three U.S., three Wimbledons, two French and one Australian. In 1953 she won the Grand Slam (the four majors in the same year) -- the only American woman ever to do so. Marble won four U.S. and one Wimbledon but unfortunately peaked during World War II, when play was stopped for five years. Jacobs was ranked No. 1 four times and won four U.S. national titles, one Wimbledon and was in the U.S. top 10 13 times.
Of all the ranked players, McEnroe and Evert have the best chances to move up. If McEnroe ever wins the French and continues to win other major titles, he could supplant Gonzales. He possibly could supplant Kramer seven or eight years from now but he'd have to win the Grand Slam to do it. Likewise, if Evert wins more major titles, she could one day be No. 1 on my list.