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.
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:
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.”
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”:
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:
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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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.)