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Best male players without a Slam title

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David Nalbandian

David Nalbandian made the semifinals or better at five Grand Slam tournaments. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Best player to never win a Grand Slam tournament. It’s one of the greatest backhanded compliments in tennis. It’s also a title that’s been bestowed on several players, because, as with most of the hottest tennis debates, there’s no definitive measure available to put the issue to rest. Does one go by major final appearances? The complete body of work? What about the players who had the game to compete with the best but fell short because of injuries or underachievement? And what about those who were just cursed with being born in the wrong era and kept running up against legends deep in Slams?

Here’s a look at 10 men frequently mentioned over the years as candidates to be the best player without a Slam in the Open era. (Apologies to Magnus Norman, Thomas Enqvist and 1970s stars Tom Okker and Brian Gottfried, among others, who also are in the conversation.) The list, in no particular order, begins with David Nalbandian, who announced his retirement this week.

David Nalbandian
Career-high No. 3, 11 ATP titles, 2002 Wimbledon finalist, four-time Slam semifinalist

Nalbandian, who never quite fulfilled his potential, wasn’t a consistent factor at Slams. In 13 years, he made the fourth round four times, the quarterfinals five times, the semifinals four times and the finals once. But his case for this list goes beyond those numbers.

Nalbandian is one of the few players who could take Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal down a notch. In 2007, he won back-to-back Masters 1000 events in Madrid and Paris, beating both Federer and Nadal at each tournament. Perhaps his best victory came at the 2005 Masters Cup (now the ATP World Tour Finals), where he rallied from two sets down to stun Federer 6-7 (4), 6-7 (11), 6-2, 6-1, 7-6 (3) and hand the Swiss only his fourth loss in 85 matches that year.

The Argentine also defeated Federer in the fourth round of the 2003 Australian and U.S. Opens, part of his five-match winning streak to begin the head-to-head with Federer, who would turn things around to finish with an 11-8 edge. But Nalbandian couldn’t complete a major breakthrough at either of those tournaments, just as he fell short at Wimbledon in 2002, when he dropped the final to Lleyton Hewitt 6-1, 6-3, 6-2. In the 2003 U.S. Open semifinals, Nalbandian failed to hold a two-set lead or convert a match point against fourth-seeded Andy Roddick in a 6-7 (4), 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-1, 6-3 loss. Roddick went on to defeat third-seeded Juan Carlos Ferrero (who knocked out top-seeded Andre Agassi in the semifinals) in the final, and Nalbandian was left to wonder, What if?

Here are highlights from Nalbandian’s win over Federer at the 2003 U.S. Open:

Todd Martin
Career-high No. 4, eight titles, two-time Slam finalist, four-time Slam semifinalist

Martin reached the last eight of Slams 10 times during a tremendous era for American men’s tennis dominated by Pete Sampras and Agassi. His near-misses were filled with heartbreak. In the 1999 U.S. Open final, Martin led Agassi two sets to one but fell in five. At Wimbledon in 1996, Martin was the only seed to advance to the semifinals. But he squandered a 5-1 fifth-set lead to fellow American MaliVai Washington and lost 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (6-8), 6-3, 10-8. Richard Krajicek crushed Washington in the final. “I obviously froze up a little bit,” Martin said after the match, “and Mal played well when he needed to. You get mad at yourself, you laugh at yourself, you really experience the gamut of emotions.”

Guillermo Coria
Career-high No. 3, nine titles, 2004 French Open finalist

Coria makes the list not necessarily because he possessed a dazzling game that should have won Slams, but because he actually should have won a Slam. No one on this list came closer to winning a major than Coria, who took a two-set lead on unseeded Gaston Gaudio in the 2004 French Open final. But Coria was overcome with cramps and nerves and lost the all-Argentine final 0-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 8-6. Coria served for the match twice in the fifth set and had two match points at 6-5, but he suffered only his second loss in his past 39 clay-court matches.

That match came in at No. 2 in Tennis Channel’s list of “Biggest Chokes”:

Marcelo Rios
Career-high No. 1 in 1998, 18 titles, 1998 Australian Open finalist

Rios has the dubious distinction of being the only ATP No. 1 to never win a Slam. The Chilean spent six weeks on top in 1998, the same year he won seven titles and made his only major final, a 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 loss to Petr Korda at the Australian Open. But Rios didn’t reach another Slam semifinal, and injuries helped hasten his decline. He retired in 2004 at age 28.

Here are highlights from Rios’ match against Agassi at the Miami Masters in 2002:

Miloslav Mecir
Career-high No. 4, 11 titles, gold medalist at 1988 Seoul Olympics, two-time Slam finalist

At 6-foot-3, the Big Cat — a semifinalist at all four majors — was surprisingly quick and graceful around the court. When he made the 1986 U.S. Open final as the No. 16 seed, CBS referred to him as “probably the best tennis player in the world nobody knows a thing about.” He upset No. 2 Mats Wilander and No. 3 Boris Becker to earn his spot in that final, where he lost to top-ranked Ivan Lendl in straight sets. His run to his second major final was much easier, but it ended the same way, a straight-set loss to Lendl at the 1989 Australian Open.

Tim Henman
Career-high No. 4, 11 titles, six-time Slam semifinalist

Tiger Tim did almost all of his damage at Wimbledon, which is a pretty good place to do it if you’re British. Of his six Slam semifinals, four of them came at the All England Club. His best chance was in 2001, when he beat a 19-year-old Federer in the quarterfinals and held a two-sets-to-one lead on wild card Goran Ivanisevic in the semifinals. But rain interrupted play and forced the match to be played over three days, and Ivanisevic regrouped to prevail 7-5, 6-7 (6), 0-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3. But, hey, at least Henman got a nifty Hill out of it.

Nikolay Davydenko
Career-high No. 3, 21 titles, four-time Slam semifinalist

The man Juan Martin del Potro famously nicknamed “PlayStation” could beat just about anyone when he was in his zone, hugging the baseline and taking the ball incredibly early off the ground to redirect it flat and hard. Davydenko might be the best player to never make a Slam final; he lost to Federer in three of his four semifinal appearances. Oh, and he’s the only active player to face Nadal more than once and boast a winning record (6-5).

Alex Corretja
Career-high No. 2, 17 titles, two-time French Open finalist

It’s hard to remember a pre-Nadal Roland Garros, but there was a time when the terre battue was the scene of unpredictable winners on the men’s side. It was a place of opportunity for the Spaniards and South Americans who grew up on clay. Corretja had a few chances to hoist the Coupe des Mousquetaires. He made the French Open final in 1998 (three-set loss to No. 12 Carlos Moya) and 2001 (four-set loss to top-ranked Gustavo Kuerten), and the semifinals in 2002 (four-set loss to No. 22 and eventual champion Albert Costa). Corretja also lost a memorable five-setter to an ill Pete Sampras in the 1996 U.S. Open quarterfinals:

Mark Philippoussis
Career-high No. 8, 11 titles, two-time Slam finalist

The Scud’s good looks, which became more of a punchline as his results began to wane, probably took the focus away from the fact that he was a legitimate threat at Slams when healthy. At 19 in 1995, he was the youngest player in the year-end top 50. Three years later, the big-serving Philippoussis made his first Slam final, at the 1998 U.S. Open, where he lost to Patrick Rafter in four sets. In 1999, Philippoussis was up a set on Sampras in the Wimbledon quarterfinals when he retired with a knee injury, a recurring problem for him. (“He was outplaying me. … I feel bad for Mark, because he was playing well enough to win here,” Sampras said afterward.) His last deep run at a Slam came in 2003, when he advanced to the Wimbledon final and lost to Federer, the first of the Swiss’ 17 major titles. Who knows what the Aussie’s career would have looked like if he had remained healthy and focused.

Henri Leconte
Career-high No. 5, nine titles, 1988 French Open finalist

A teenage prodigy who turned pro after winning the 1980 boys’ title at Roland Garros, the left-handed Leconte made the fourth round or better at 14 majors. Leconte, France’s Davis Cup hero in 1991, challenged at his home Slam multiple times, making the French Open semifinals in 1986 and 1992 and the final in 1988 (when he lost to Wilander in straight sets.)

  • Published On Oct 03, 2013
  • 11 comments
    AnchorDown11
    AnchorDown11

    How is Ferrer not on this list?

    He's the only won to have won 500 matches and has 21 career titles.

    Stat line: No. 3 - 20/19 - Grand Slams 1F, 5SF6QF - 537/262

    Tom14
    Tom14

    Liked this list it could have been a list of the current players below the big 4 and Juan. All these guys where very capable of beating slam winners in their prime. 

    GregoryJames
    GregoryJames

    No Ferrer? No Pioline? No Soderling? I might have to kick Henman and Leconte off the list to make room, and I like both of those players...A LOT!  Also some of the early players like Harry Hopman or Bunny Austin should make it too, but I guess the list is an Open Era compilation. These lists are always fun even if we get nit-picky about them.

    cdns211
    cdns211

    Some of the names on the list above are so iffy. If you had watched them when they used to play, and I watched all of them, they never looked like they could have won a slam. phillippoussis was a threat W, on his day he could have won, as Goran eventually did. But names like Davysenko, Todd Martin,, no way. And if they were playing today, some one like Berdych could clearly beat many of them. Or Tsonga. If you had gone further back, I would have out Vitas Gerulatis on the list. He was so damn talented, and should have won but was too much of a party animal.

    Doug22
    Doug22

    My vote for the greatest of all time (sort of) in that when he was on, it was the most amazing set of strokes ever seen. Every shot in the tennis arsenal was easy for him.  Incredible power, sublime touch, big serve.  You name it.  Pete Sampras got a taste of that in the Davis Cup final in the early nineties.  Pete served something like 29 aces in three sets, and lost decisively.  Half-volley winners hit in reply to Sampras forehand rockets, touch shots, blindingly hard hit flat backhands, vicious slices hit with no pace, or with tremendous pace.  The greatest if somewhat wasted talent of all time.  He was more interested in carrying on a conversation with the brunette in the fifth row (during a final) than in winning the match.  As a doubles player, at Indian Wells he had his partner, Guy Forget sit out when Connell and Michibata served.  He won those games against two on the other side.  Unbelievable, entertaining.  He had been called out by a fan when he and Forget fell behind a set and a break.  He smiled, and took over the match, hitting a dizzying array of fantastic shots.  Great personality.  He enjoyed his career despite the lack of prizes.

    SingleAlley
    SingleAlley

    If a player has not been to a slam final, or had not won the year-end master title, then he should not be on the BPWAST list.  And David Ferrer is conspicuously missing from your list.  

    FredC
    FredC

    @SingleAlley  I don´t know why they include Davydenko in the list cause I think that the article is focus in retire players, that is why I would think why Ferrer is not in the list as the same as Tsonga or Berdych, all of then have lost grand slam finals, multiple semifinals and more than 10 titles.

    Vinny Cordoba
    Vinny Cordoba

    @SingleAlley , Ferrer just seems like a player who you know is going to lose against the best, no matter how good he looks against everyone else. His record against Rafa, Fed and Djoker is a combined 14-44. And many of those were pretty lopsided. He's 5-7 against Murray, which is very respectable. But I never get the sense that once Ferrer comes up against a Big 3 player, he has much chance of winning. That hurts him in this debate I think.

    gustavus
    gustavus

    @SingleAlley :  Those are very overly specific criteria.  Look at Davydenko.  No one on this list has won more titles, no one else has a winning record against Nadal, he was a career high #3 in the games' toughest era to play.  He had the misfortune of breaking his arm when he was playing his best tennis and has never been the same since.  In short, he and Rios I think make the best argument of being the BPWAST.  I agree though that Ferrers' absence is very conspicuous.