How to count “Slams”

Roger Federer hitting a forehand during the 2008 US Open

Just one year ago it seemed a foregone conclusion that Roger Federer would break–no, smash–Pete Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slam titles.  Now, with the Swiss stalled at 12 and rival Rafael Nadal taking over as the top-ranked tennis player in the world, that future appears somewhat less than certain.  Many commentators have claimed that surpassing Sampras’s mark is one of the two main obstacles standing in Federer’s way toward becoming the mythical “GOAT” or “Greatest Of All Time” (the other, of course, being victory on the clay courts of Roland Garros).  I have always argued that Sampras’s 14 Slams do not represent a useful historical benchmark for assessing greatness, so I would like to take a few moments to make that case here, and to suggest what a more appropriate measure would be.

Anyone attempting to compare players’ achievements over time must contend with the fact that for about 40 years, from the late 1920s to the late 1960s, many of the best players in the world were banned from competition in the Grand Slam tournaments.  Prior to the dawn of the Open Era in 1968, the so-called “Slams” were exclusively amateur affairs, and they stubbornly remained so even as the rest of the tennis world moved increasingly toward professionalism.  In 1927 Vinnie Richards became the first prominent male star to turn pro, and after that nearly every great champion of the game would follow suit: Bill Tilden, Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry, and Don Budge in the 1930s; Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer, Pancho Segura, and Pancho Gonzales in the 1940s; Frank Sedgman, Tony Trabert, Lew Hoad, and Ken Rosewall in the 1950s; Rod Laver and many others in the 1960s.  Clearly, in evaluating these four decades of tennis history, the amateur Slam titles cannot be used as the sole standard of achievement, when so many all-time greats were on the separate pro circuit.

Fortunately, three major professional tournaments gradually acquired the status of pro “Slams”: the United States Pro Championships, the French Pro Championships, and Wembley in London.  In terms of both location and prestige these three events more or less mirrored the better-known US, French, and Wimbledon tournaments on the amateur side.  It is crucial, then, that any Slam count include the results of these pro events alongside the amateur titles; from 1939 onward they usually had significantly better draws.  Note that while there were a number of pro tournaments held in Australia prior to 1968, none acquired a high level of consistency, tradition, or recognition, and they are not regularly numbered among the pro Slams.

Rod Laver Arena at Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open

This brings me to my second point.  Although there can be little doubt that the Australian Open has increased in stature in recent decades, to the point that it now rivals the major French, Wimbledon, and US events in prestige, it simply was not considered a top-tier tournament before the mid-1980s.  It had smaller draws, and the best players in the world routinely skipped it in order to focus on Davis Cup and the Masters (both of which were far more prestigious at the time) or just to take some time off: Connors, Borg, and McEnroe all passed on it in their primes.  Therefore, while Australian titles may be useful for comparing the accomplishments of the most recent first-class players (Lendl, Wilander, Becker, Edberg, Agassi, Sampras, and Federer), they cannot be used to realistically rate or rank the champions of earlier eras, nor to compare today’s stars with past greats.

The only meaningful shorthand Slam title count, then, would need to incorporate the major amateur, professional, and open championships of Great Britain, France, and the United States.  In Great Britain’s case, that means Wimbledon (1877-1938), Wembley (1939-1966), the singular Wimbledon Pro (1967), and again Wimbledon in the Open Era (1968-present).  For the United States, one needs to look at the US Amateur (1881-1938), the US Pro (1939-1967), and the US Open (1968-present).  France’s story is more complicated.  One must begin with the World Clay Court Championships, the first major tournament held in continental Europe and ancestor of Roland Garros (1912-1923); followed by the French Amateur, after it was opened to international competition in the mid-1920s (1925-1938); then the French Pro (1939-1967); and at last the French Open (1968-present).  I have chosen 1939 as the “cutoff” between the amateur and professional eras, because Don Budge turned pro in that year.  Since Ellsworth Vines and Fred Perry were already on the pro circuit, 1939 marks the first time when all the top players in the world were professionals, which remained true until tennis opened up in 1968.

Ken (“Muscles”) Rosewall: the true all-time leader in Slam titles

Finally, here is what the true list of Slam winners should look like: Ken Rosewall (17); Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver, and Pete Sampras (12); Bjorn Borg and Bill Tilden (11); Don Budge and Roger Federer (9); Fred Perry and Henri Cochet (8).  To be clear, this list does not represent my definitive GOAT ranking; one needs to take into account other factors in addition to the total number of Slams these players have won.  Still, it should be an important part of any such conversation.

For further reading, I highly recommend Joe McCauley’s important book The History of Professional Tennis (2001), which is only available online.

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23 Responses to “How to count “Slams””

  1. Why is Sampras on 12? Is that a typo?

  2. britbox,

    For the purpose of comparing players across different eras, I choose to focus on the British, American, and French titles, because all three have stood as significant events with some consistency since at least 1912. By contrast, the Australian Open was not firmly established as a top-tier event until 1983, and a “major” Australian pro tournament did not even exist before 1969. This is not to demean the importance of Sampras’s (or any other recent player’s) Australian championships; it is only to try to create a level playing field for comparing players over time.

    Brett

  3. I follow you – Appreciate it’s difficult to factor in as you would then be counting 4 slam opportunities for some players and 3 for others. Nevertheless, it’s still a quarter of a century where you are ignoring a “valid” slam which in the modern era would be regarded pretty much as an equal. I’d prefer it if you took the 4th most prestigious (or best attended by the best players) tourney pre-1984 in place of the AO.

  4. One more question… What is your criteria for defining which tournamount is counted as the slam (ie Wimbledon or Wembley) and which years one takes precedence over the other. I assume you are only counting one of them for any given year?

  5. Good point. My count includes the amateur as well as the pro Slams when both were played in a given year. I would prefer to do as you say, picking just one or the other, and I have seen several attempts to do just that, but none of them have been wholly satisfactory. I will reiterate that my intent here is not to come up with a definitive GOAT list–only to determine which players have won the most “major” amateur, pro, and open titles. This way at least we have all the data on the table. (I think it is safe to say that by any such equation, Rosewall is the all-time leader.)

  6. I agree with Rosewall as the overall leader, but still think that IF you are counting the amateur slams during the amateur/pro era (in effect you are therefore counting 2 x 3 slams per year = 6 slams without a full field in any of them) then the AO post 1983/1984 ish has more validity than any of them. This is based on the fact it is AS prestigious from that point and also has a full field.

    Good read and no perfect solution.

  7. You’ve convinced me that I shouldn’t be counting simultaneous amateur and pro Slams. I’ve edited the post to reflect a stricter and, hopefully, more agreeable three-Slam system. I’m still not counting the Australian Open, though, in an effort to maintain consistency over time. It simply doesn’t have a correlate for most of tennis history.

    Thanks very much for your input!

  8. Charles Friesen Says:

    Wonderful article! Excellent thinking and I really like the clarity you bring to the topic!

    As I’ve ruminated on this during the last hour or so, I have become concerned about how the elimination of the Aus Open (AO) from the count affects modern players. I think there is much value in your conclusion that the AO, while technically a part of the Grand Slam was really not a very significant tournament for much of its history. Kriek’s 2 victories there in 1981-82 really don’t count for much given the depth of the field against which he played. Any current Master’s series event should be considered more significant since virtually all the top players are at each one.

    However there are a few factors leading me to think the AO should be included in current GS title counts. First, in 1983, for whatever reason, almost all of the major players began consistently attending the AO. Secondly, the winning of a major title before the open era was signficantly less difficult than it is now because there simply wasn’t the depth of field, evidenced by the sheer number of players (there are perhaps tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of professional players today, compared to perhaps a few hundred before the Open Era) that exist in the modern game. The winning of Wimbledon before 1939 or even the US Pro Chps (1939-1968) did not require facing 7 players of the caliber that top modern pros face. It is much more difficult to win a major now than during the pre-Open era, or even the first part of the Open era. Therefore recognizing a 4th major starting in 1983 may not be unreasonable.

    It would be hard to say that Andre Agassi’s 8 GS titles, including 4 AOs is not a significant accomplishment–I don’t think crediting him with only 4 GS titles is fair. Winning the AO at the times he did is much more significant than many (if not all) of the major titles attributed to players playing before 1968. Further, when the AO switched to hardcourts in 1988(?) it became a much more international tournament that favours (or neutralizes) the strengths of virtually all the top players. Therefore winning the AO requires a well-rounded player and not just a grass-court specialist.

    Therefore, while it may not appear immediately equitable to players from the past, I think the Australian Open should be included in the major count from 1983 onward. If that seems an arbitrary date, it might be included from the start of the Open era, or from its switch to hardcourts.

    thots on this?

    Cheers!
    Charles

  9. Charles Friesen Says:

    to boil that down a bit…
    compare recognizing 3 majors in an era of a few hundred international players, to recoqnizing 4 majors in an era of several thousand international players. If anything, 4 majors under-represents the current era…

  10. hi. my advice would be to simply drop all amateur slams post-1939 and only count pro slams as well as open era slams. as britbox recommended, keep the open-era AO’s but add a fourth major pro; one that was consistently attended by each player during his reign (since over the span of 8 decades it would be impossible to find one single major tournament that was available to all these candidates). also, why not add davis cup, it has been around for a very long time and is a very prestigous tournament; of course, after it went truly international. and it’s not like federer, becker or sampras ignored it. to truly decide who is the GOAT we might need to take into account total singles titles won (again no amateur titles allowed), winning percentage in majors and career winning percentage. but then, how do we add all these things up?

  11. Chaog,

    Im glad to have found your blog !
    I will be looking it over more in the future, reads great so far.
    Your posts are awesome and always enjoy reading your posting on the TW boards.
    Really enjoy the GOAT discussions and Im a big believer in separating theses discussions into pre, post, and possibly transitional open tennis. Some of my major picks would include PRE: Bill Tilden, Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry, Donald Budge,Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Frank Sedgman, Transitional: Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewal, Rod Laver, Post: Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Agassi, Sampras, and Federer.

    Cheers,
    Joe

  12. Oops, how could I leave off one of my fav’s of all time … Bjorn Borg

  13. Tim Martin Says:

    2 Points
    1/
    My view is that one should go through history and find the 4 most prestigious and difficult to win tournaments a year. You would have to go through year by year checking the history for the depth of the fields for each of the tournaments under consideration. Forinstance, 1973 Wimbledon could not be regarded as a Grand Slam as most of the top players didn’t play in it. Another example, 1971 & 1972 it could be argued very strongly that the WCT finals with Laver and Rosewall was a superior achievement to winning the French Open. One last example, in 1959 the Pro tournament of Champions in Forest Hills (Hoad beat Gonzales) was probably more difficult to win than the US Pro.

    2/
    1939 Starting point for the Pro championships seems arbitary. I would put Tilden at 14 majors since he won the US Pro Tiwce and the French Pro once in the 1930’s.

    3/ Totally agree with you about counting the World Hardcourt Championship as equivalent to winning the French Open. (Hence Tilden can include a French win because he won the tournament in 1921).

  14. Thanks for this great site chaog.
    Greetings from another TT user.

  15. Michael Alden Says:

    I definitely think your opinions give food for thought. The problem however with those pro tournaments is that their draws were small, certainly not the equivalent of a grand slam with 128 players and having to win 7 matches. Even though they had the best players, how big were the fields? Can you really count it as a major with only 3 or 4 rounds of play?

  16. Michael Alden Says:

    Another point to bring up with regards to the Australian Open. I would count it starting with the move to Flinders Park in 1987. I think that is when it truly became a major on par with the other 3 majors. Prior to that, it was just not on the same level. I mean, they were paying appearance money to get people down there.

    One other item. If you look at some of the early 70s majors, some of them were contested without the WCT pros, such as 1971 Forest Hills and 1972 Wimbledon. So even in the Open era, several events would be questionable to include.

  17. Time to update the stats: Federer has added two more titles (US Open 2008, French Open 2009).

    But, I disagree with not counting the AO: consider that in 1938, Don Budge was considered to have won the “Grand Slam”. In 1962, Rod Laver won the “Grand Slam.” Players knew for decades which FOUR tournaments counted towards winning the “Grand Slam.” So, no excuses!

    • That’s right: Federer is now at 11, tied with Borg and Tilden.

      Your point is well taken re: the Australian Championships. They have been recognized as a necessary leg of the “Grand Slam” since that concept was invented in 1933. However, there is no denying that in and of itself, the event was not regarded on the same level as the other majors until at least 1983. Players like Connors, Borg, and McEnroe surely would have competed there in the late 1970s/early 1980s if they were in a position to go for the Slam (it was held last, not first, in those days), but those are exceptional circumstances which never actually occurred. My point, here, was only to say that in terms of defining a relatively simple class of tournaments whose results can be used to compare players’ achievements across different eras, the Australian Championships cannot realistically be included alongside the major French, British, and U.S. titles.

  18. A great article. Definitely gets one thinking of the difficulties of comparing tennis greats across time.

    I see the reasoning behind the rankings that has been proposed here, however besides the various valid comments made which makes this a difficult proportion there is one additional point though that needs to be taken into account.

    For many years some of the Grand Slam tournaments were played on the same surface, i.e. Grass. Only in the modern era has there been three different surfaces (i.e. Grass, Clay and Hard) represented in the Slams. Even after removing the AO this would still be a factor as the US Open used to be played on Grass till 1975 and then Clay till 1978.

    Hence, it could be argued that winners of all three majors (French, Wimbledon and US Open) since then could be considered to have a more complete game compared to winners of all three before 1978 or winners of only two of the three.

    To the credit of the author, he does mention that there are many other factors that need to be taken into account. However, I believe that this does plays a considerable role in the argument.

  19. Please add the last French Open won by Federer (now with 12). In the analysis it would be great consider the different surfaces. The 12 G.S. of Federer are in three different surfaces (clay, grass and hard). Rosewall (grass and clay) Laver (grass and clay) and Sampras (grass and hard).

  20. Just a quick update, as I have been away from this for a while. On the basis of conversations with some others who do research into early tennis history, I am considering adding the South of France Championships as a legitimate “major” event for the years prior to the first World Clay Court Championships in 1912. This is very exciting to me, as it would basically complete the system, enabling us to compare players with a consistent rubric going all the way back to the true beginning of international tennis competition, c. 1900. I may create a new article with these new results, and also incorporating Federer’s most recent wins. This could also form the basis of a genuine “GOAT” ranking from me, but more on that later…

    Thanks, everyone, for your very thoughtful comments!

  21. Hello Brett,

    What a lovely site you got here going! I read the articles with much interest!
    Keep the stories going!
    Do you know my project http://www.tennisarchives.com? I hope you will take a look and let me know what you think.

    Kindest regards
    Alex

  22. What happened to you Brett? I used to remember you being a valued member of various tennis forums and this blog was great… Moved onto pastures new??

    If you fancy diving back in, join our site at tennisfrontier dot com. We have some good bloggers and a good board.

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