Who is the best active ATP player never to win a singles title? Ricky Dimon of Tennistalk.com and Lindsay Gibbs of The Changeover and author of Titanic: The Tennis Story join Courtney to discuss the topic.
Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining me this week, Ricky and Lindsay. The distinction of being the best player without an ATP title used to fall squarely on the tattooed shoulders of Janko Tipsarevic, who worked his way into the top 20 without a tournament victory before breaking through at the Malaysian Open in October 2011. There’s no such egregious example right now, as every top-25 player has at least one title. Which is a good thing, given how up in arms people seem to get about Slam-less/title-less labels and whatnot.
Ricky Dimon: The best player without a title is also the one whose trials, tribulations and heartbreak have been the most well-documented. It is, of course, none other than Julien Benneteau. The Frenchman has climbed as high as No. 26 and, at 31 years old, he is still playing some of the best tennis of his career, earning him a solid No 31 in this week’s rankings. Despite a consistent 11-year career that features more than 200 singles victories, eight singles finals (including one last week, at Rotterdam, the Netherlands) and six doubles titles, Benneteau hasn’t bagged a singles title. And no, that is not a misprint. Eight singles finals. Zero titles. I’d like to think it’s the curse of the squirrel that ran across his court at the U.S. Open (a la the Chicago Cubs and the black cat), but Benneteau had already lost six of his final appearances before last summer. Who knows what it is, because this guy is way too good — and way too deserving — to retire without a winner’s trophy.
Lindsay Gibbs: You’re going to get no argument from me on Benneteau. I talked to him in 2011 and he was already waxing poetic about his losses in finals and inability to win a title at the time, and since then he’s doubled his finalist appearances and still come up empty. Very rare to have a guy beat Roger Federer twice (and take him to five sets at Wimbledon) and never win an ATP 250.
I think that looking at the record of his compatriot and frequent doubles partner, Michael Llodra, really puts things into perspective. Llodra has only 174 wins (Benneteau has 202), his career-high ranking is only five places higher, he’s been around the tour for just as long and he has never made a Grand Slam quarterfinal. And yet, Llodra has five singles titles — including, just to rub it in, one in a final over Benneteau.
Nguyen: Yes, he’s beaten Federer twice, but can we really say his win over the Swiss last week in Rotterdam was particularly impressive? Federer was below average in that match. On the other hand, Benneteau was masterful in defeating Federer at the 2009 Paris Masters, where the quick indoor court amplified his aggressive serve-and-volley game.
Notwithstanding that win over Federer, I’ve never been that enamored of Benneteau’s game. For all the talk of his 0-8 record in finals, he’s reached the quarterfinals of a major only once, at the 2006 French Open. That was seven (seven!) years ago. That paucity of Slam results severely undercuts his case, especially when he’s at least six years older than any other title-less player in the top 50.
As for the other Slam-less names in the top 50, I’m not sold on the talent of 22-year-old Jerzy Janowicz (No. 26) or 23-year-old Benoit Paire (No. 39). They’re flashy and I like to follow their results, but I’m on the fence as to whether they’ll break through. As for 21-year-old Grigor Dimitrov (No. 34) and 22-year-old David Goffin (No. 49), they’re still growing into their games and they have time on their side. Those two guys just haven’t had enough bites at the apple. Dimitrov just made his first final earlier this year, in Brisbane, Australia, where he lost to Andy Murray in straight sets.
Which is why I’m going with the Inimitable Italian, Fabio Fognini, or “IIFF,” as I like to call him. Just kidding. I never call him that.
The 25-year-old, who is ranked No. 44, has a Slam quarterfinal under his belt (2011 French Open( and two appearances in ATP finals, losing to Gilles Simon 6-3, 6-3 in Bucharest, Romania, last year and Martin Klizan 6-2, 6-3 in St. Petersburg, Russia, last year. He’s always someone to watch at ATP 250 clay tournaments, of which there are many. He’s a tremendous ball striker and shot maker who has the talent to pick up an ATP 250 if he really wanted to. Of course, the question that always follows Fabio is precisely that: Does he really want to?
One name that hasn’t come up, which is somewhat surprising given how much attention he gets from the American media: Ryan Harrison. Are y’all giving him a pass due to his age (the 69th-ranked Harrison turns 21 in May) and inexperience? Or is it a comment on his quality?
Dimon: Harrison’s age (not his inexperience, as it seems like he has already been around forever, MUCH longer than guys like Janowicz, Goffin and Paire) is a big reason for a lack of titles. The real reason why he wasn’t mentioned, though, is that the expectations have evaporated. The hype peaked when Harrison was 16 and 17, just like it did for fellow American Donald Young. Not at 20. By no means is it time to wave the white flag above Harrison, but it’s also quite clear that he does not have a Slam-winning kind of game like Milos Raonic and Dimitrov. With time, Harrison is going to win titles. He’s just not going win huge ones.
One more thing about Benneteau: His most impressive feat is leading Federer two sets to love in the third round of Wimbledon last year. Let’s be honest, Federer could not care less about Rotterdam or even about Paris. Benneteau’s winning two sets at Wimbledon is far more shocking than taking advantage of a relatively disinterested Federer at non-Slams.
One last point: I wouldn’t equate Grand Slam success to a likelihood — or lack thereof — of winning a small tournament. For example, Ernests Gulbis (of past French Open and U.S. Open fame) is entirely bored at anything that isn’t a headline-making event. I give him as much of a chance against someone like Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon (Gulbis beat him there in straight sets last summer) as against Michal Przysiezny at the Bergamo Challenger (lost to him there earlier this month). The case of Gilles Muller is a similar one, and he is actually a better example because the 29-year-old from Luxembourg — a former U.S. Open quarterfinalist who has been ranked as high as No. 42 — has zero titles and Gulbis has managed to vulture two 250-point trophies during his mercurial career.
Gibbs: I didn’t mention Harrison because I believe that he’s fallen a step behind the rest of his peer group in the past six months or so. There’s still a lot to like about Harrison, and he will definitely be in the conversations of “next big things” again, but right now he’s certainly not on the same tier and therefore not relevant to this discussion.
The interesting thing is how drastically different the conversation of “best player to never win a title” is to the conversation of factors in Grand Slams or leaders of the game. The reason being, there are so many events that it’s rare to find a player who’s been in the top 50 or with about 100 wins without a title. That’s what makes a player like Benneteau such an anomaly. To have the talent and the consistency to muster 200 wins on all different surfaces and make it to eight finals without even getting a single title is just crazy. I mean, Pablo Andujar has 60 wins and two titles; Thomaz Bellucci has 114 wins and three titles; and the craziest example is Sergiy Stakhovsky who has 100 wins and four titles. These aren’t players who are thought to be a huge threat to the top players or Grand Slam semifinalists, but they’ve still come away with hardware. Somehow Benneteau hasn’t been able to make that step. (Personally, I blame Jarkko Nieminen; Benneteau is inexplicably 0-6 against him and faced him in his sixth ATP final, last year in Sydney.)
So as much as I look at the potential of the youngsters, the flare of Fognini or even another talented floater like Denis Istomin or Muller, at the end of the day it just all comes back to Benneteau and that 0-8 record.
Dimon: Lindsay makes an interesting point about Benneteau and surfaces. The fact that he is capable on all three makes his title drought more surprising but also is part of the explanation. While Benneteau has a decent chance everywhere he plays, he doesn’t have a great chance anywhere. Ask three tennis fans what Benneteau’s favorite surface is and you might get three different answers. Ask 500 tennis fans what Andujar’s favorite surface is and you will get the same answer from all 500. Andujar will struggle to beat players ranked well outside the top 100 on hard or grass, but he is inevitably going to bag an occasional title at one of the myriad clay events. It’s the same reason why Stakhovsky — who is entirely inferior to Benneteau — has won three titles on either indoor hard or grass (although I have no idea how he won the 2010 Pilot Pen in New Haven, Conn., on an outdoor hard court).
Another Benneteau-esque example is Gael Monfils. How Monfils has only four titles (all of the 250 variety) is hard to figure, but the fact that he isn’t a specialist on any surface is a contributing factor. Benneteau and Monfils are far better than Fogini, but I would have to guess that Fognini wins his first title before Benneteau wins his first and Monfils wins his fifth. The clay-loving Italian will undoubtedly stumble upon some title in the Bucharests, Casablancas and Stuttgarts of the world. Benneteau doesn’t have a Bucharest.
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