Looking back over the Grand Slam statistics since the advent of Open Tennis 45 years ago, most of those who would have been expected to have won a Grand Slam singles did so. It is hard to detect anyone unfairly deprived of such kudos. Many very good players have, indeed, failed at this final hurdle, but few who failed in that effort could say that their careers inevitably entitled them to a Grand Slam. Many were just unlucky or simply confronted with the powerful talent of better players at the time.
Grand Slams are notoriously tough to win. Those who do manage to win them have a knack of repeating the feat, often many times over – another factor that may explain why those in the ‘second division’ are deprived of the honour.
Many great doubles players over the years who managed to secure Grand Slam doubles titles never managed to win one at singles. One can think of Brian Gottfried and Raul Ramirez, Peter McNamara and Paul McNamee, Case and Masters, Peter Fleming and the current-day Bryan brothers – but they tended to focus on doubles as a special art form, realising they were unlikely to be real contenders for singles crowns.
Let’s look, however, at those singles players who came close. There is a long list of players who appeared in one Grand Slam final, a single high point after which their subsequent careers were unexceptional. There are a wider group whose talent and determination definitely put them in the frame for a Grand Slam and who were always in there with a fighting chance. Among these has to be the great Dutchman of the 1960’s-70’s, Tom Okker.
Okker appeared in one Grand Slam final, the US Open final of 1968 in which he was beaten by Arthur Ashe in five tight sets. He had reached the rank of World No. 3 in 1969 and had been in the World Top 10 for seven consecutive years. Over the course of his career, he won 31 singles titles, an impressive haul which any Grand Slam winner would be proud of. The competition he faced at the height of his career included the likes of John Newcombe, Tony Roche, Emerson, Stan Smith and Ilie Nastase, whose domination of the Grand Slams deprived many other players of high calibre from gaining the main prizes. Added to his US Open final appearance in 1968, he was a semi-finalist in the finals of each of the other three Grand Slams on one occasion each, suggesting that he was always there or thereabouts. A modest and popular member of the tour, many would recall with affection a player who didn’t quite make it to the very top despite his talent and longevity.
In the 1970’s-80’s era, two players, one an American and the other a Frenchman had, it was generally agreed, the capacity to win a Grand Slam, but never quite made it. Henri Leconte managed to appear in one final, the French Open of 1986 and the semis of Wimbledon in the same year. He reached two other French semis and achieved his highest world ranking of No. 5 in 1988. He also starred at doubles in partnership with fellow Frenchman, Yannick Noah who, in combination with, he managed to secure his one and only Grand Slam doubles.
South African, who played at his best in the 1980’s, could also regard himself as unlucky never to have won a Grand Slam singles event. He reached the final of the Australian in 1984 and Wimbledon in 1985 and won one doubles and two mixed Grand Slams. His highest world ranking was No. 5. His appearance in the 1985 Wimbledon final was marked by having beaten Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in earlier rounds only to be beaten by the emerging supremo, Boris Becker, in the final – as impressive a route to the final of a Grand Slam as ever achieved.
The Slovak, Miloslav Mecir who had two appearances in Grand Slam finals, one WCT Finals win, one Olympics Gold (Seoul 1988) and was also World No. 4 at his peak, was also an unfortunate faller at the Grand Slam hurdle in that era.
Nearer the present, players of the calibre of Tommy Haas and Mark Phillipousis never achieved the feat. Tommy Haas achieved a World ranking of No. 2 in 2002, had 13 career singles titles and semi-final appearances at the Australian and at Wimbledon, yet never won a Grand Slam. Phillipousis who had two Grand Slam final appearances (Wimbledon and the US Open) promised much but never quite reached his potential after a fragmented and sketchy career.
The Chilean Marcelo Rios who reached World No. 1 in March 1998 (lasting at the spot for 6 weeks) and was a losing finalist in the Australian Open of that year, promised much too but never reached his own potential. After the 1998 Australian final, his Grand Slam performances were generally mediocre.
Even more recently, there is a host of players at the top not yet to have won a Grand Slam singles. Robin Soderling has been in two finals (both at the French Open) and has been as high as No. 4 in the world rankings. He, along with others of the current crop of Ferrer, Tsonga, Isner, Nalbandian and Tomic, all have in them the capacity to reach the goal, but much will depend on the longevity of Messrs. Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray. Djokovic and Murray, both being only 25 years of age, will continue to exert a firm grip on the Grand Slams in the near-term, thus presenting a major challenge for this group as they aspire to one of the great goals of any professional player.
Every player who has won a Grand Slam singles knows of the transformative effect on their career of such a feat – many never look back. A player enters an exclusive club by winning a Grand Slam with an impact not only on how he is regarded by his fellow players and the wider public, but also on his own self-image. Rankings matter but Grand Slams are the icing on the cake.