Yet another edition of the US Open has come and gone. The bright lights of New York and the buzz of the crowd have for decades provided an excellent venue for the year’s final, and glitziest, slam.
With that being said, let’s celebrate the rich and storied history of this tournament and look back on the five greatest champions to grace Flushing Meadows (and briefly Forrest Hills as we will consider Open Era only in this list). This article contains champions #3-#5. Stay tuned for individual pieces on champions #2 and #1.
5. Ivan Lendl
Accomplishments: Eight consecutive finals, three titles.
Signature moment: 1985 final
The 1980s was a chaotic time for tennis, but the one constant seemed to be Ivan Lendl in the US Open final. The stoic champion reached a record eight consecutive finals between 1982 and 1989. In a sense, these eight finals represented Lendl’s career arc.
In the first three, Lendl was overwhelmed by Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Lendl had the game to take it to these champions, although in 1984 McEnroe was simply too good, as shown by Lendl’s results outside grand slams, in a grand slam final, his lack of confidence and killer instinct showed, and he lost fairly routinely all three times.
Finally, in 1985, something clicked as Lendl put on a stunning display of tennis to demolish McEnroe in the final.
Two more wins, over Mecir and Wilander, followed in quick succession, as Lendl was at the peak of his powers between 1985 and 1987. However, in 1988, Lendl slowly started to decline, and the finals reflected that as well, as he narrowly lost five-setters to his younger rivals Wilander and Becker, who had unseated him from the top of the game.
While Lendl’s 3-5 finals record in New York may not look pretty, one should keep in mind that losing in the final is much better than not making it at all. In any event, eight straight finals, and three wins while routinely facing all-time great opposition, is a tremendous achievement and Lendl fully deserves his place on this list.
4. John McEnroe
Accomplishments: Four titles, three consecutive
Signature moment: Back to back classic wins over Connors and Borg in 1980
If Wimbledon showcased the genius of John McEnroe, the US Open showcased his heart. McEnroe grew up in Queens, so the US Open was his backyard, and he didn’t disappoint his hometown fans during his prime, as he ripped off four titles in six tries from 1979-1984. Indeed, the US Open served as both the first and last grand slam of his career, as he announced himself on the big stage in 1979 when, at just 20 years old, he won the tournament dropping one set (two of his opponents could not complete full matches), including back to back demolitions of seasoned veterans, Connors and Gerulaitis, in the semis and finals. That would be the most comfortable triumph he would have in his four title runs.
In 1980, he would upend Connors in the semis in a fifth-set tiebreaker. He would follow that up with another famous five-set victory over Bjorn Borg at the peak of his powers in the final, thus avenging the Wimbledon final and denying the great Swede the title he longed for the most. Beating champions such as Connors and Borg in back to back five setters surely has to rank as one of the most impressive feats in US Open, or grand slam, history.
1981 was not quite as tricky, but a reinvigorated Vitas Gerulaitis took McEnroe five sets in the semis before McEnroe once again denied Borg in a four-set final, marking the last time Borg would ever grace the top of the sport with his presence. Perhaps Borg’s departure affected McEnroe’s fire and will to compete, as he lost the next two years meekly to Lendl and Bill Scanlon.
However, McEnroe, armed with graphite, rediscovered that fire in 1984, posting one of the greatest seasons in the Open Era. The US Open served as a fitting capstone as he once again defeated Connors in a US Open classic in the semis before putting on an absolute clinic to destroy Lendl in the finals and avenge his one blemish of the year, the French Open final.
Few would think that would be McEnroe’s final US Open title, but declining motivation and physical condition ensured that McEnroe would never entirely be the same. He made 1985 final but had no answer for Lendl. McEnroe would have one last run in New York in 1990, reaching the semifinals. Still, there he ran into a 19-year-old kid named Pete Sampras whose monstrous serves, deft volleys, and precise passing shots would prove simply too much for McEnroe and just about everyone else during the 1990s.
While he burned short and bright in New York, McEnroe has a case to be ranked higher on this list due to his peak level of play and competition faced, but ultimately his longevity simply falls short, especially compared to the next guy on this list. Nevertheless, Johnny Mac combined dominant performances and effervescent shot making with extraordinary fight and courage to give us some of the signature US Open moments and greatest US Open matches in history.
3. Jimmy Connors
Accomplishments: 5 titles, wins on all three surfaces, 12 consecutive semis (or better).
Signature moment: Run to the semifinals at age 39 in 1991.
Simply put, Jimmy Connors embodied the spirit of the US Open. He poured his blood, sweat, and tears onto the court. He fought, he was scrappy, he would do anything and everything to win, and he fed off and egged on the crowds like no other. He always gave the crowd what they wanted, including his full effort. It took an exceptional performance to take him out. As a result, he was mind-numbingly consistent at the tournament, reaching at least the semis every year between 1974 and 1985, winning five titles and reaching seven finals. Overall, he reached fourteen total US Open semis in eighteen years, speaking to his amazing consistency at the tournament.
Connors run began in 1974 where he blew Ken Rosewall off the court in a clinical display of returning and passing to win the tournament on grass. He won in 1976 on clay, beating the best clay courters of the day, Vilas and Borg, in the semis and finals, although it was Har Tru and not the European red clay that those two were so accustomed to. However, the tournament being on clay may have worked against him, as he lost to clay specialists Orantes and Vilas in the finals in 1975 and 1977.
However, in 1978, the tournament switched to hard courts and Flushing Meadows, and Connors would christen the new location with another win, destroying a young McEnroe in the semis and Borg in the finals, although to be fair Borg was not at his best due to a blister issue.
From there, Connors would be denied the next three years due to facing McEnroe and Borg at the height of their powers, which is surely no shame. However, he took full advantage of McEnroe’s slight dip of play by beating Lendl in back to back finals in 1982 and 1983. These were two matches where Connors took full advantage of the substantial crowd support against a nervous Lendl who had still not figured out how to bring his best game to the big stage.
However, Connors was 31 after winning the 1983 US Open, his final major, and he began to slow down. Still, he put on another legendary match with McEnroe in the 1984 semis, playing tremendous tennis to nearly upend the all but invincible McEnroe. The McEnroe-Connors US Open matches were always electric due to them both bringing their best game and the crowd being torn between their two favourite sons. Connors would make the semis in 1985 and 1987, but at his age, he was no match for Lendl, who was playing his best tennis.
All this would lead up to Connors’ 1991 run to the semis. At 38 years old, people would have been happy if he could win a match or two. What he did though, was one of the most legendary runs in tennis and sports history. Connors started the tournament with a win over a McEnroe, Patrick this time, and then won his next two matches easily. Getting to the fourth round was an impressive feat for a 38-year-old, but that fourth round match would go down in history, as on his 39th birthday, Connors came back from two sets to one deficit to narrowly defeat Aaron Krickstein in a fifth set tiebreak.
The quarterfinal was a fairly routine win, but under the lights, Connors would again electrify the crowd with this iconic point.
At this point, Connors was gassed and went down to Jim Courier playing his best tennis in the semis, but he had provided the US Open crowd with a lasting memory of his fight and his indefatigable desire to win. As the man himself said right before the fifth set tiebreak with Krickstein, “This is what the paid for, this is what they want,” Jimmy Connors gave the people what they paid for, what they wanted, and then some, and as a result, he will forever remain one of the most iconic and beloved champions in the tournament’s history.
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