Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
Years played: 1977–1994
Major titles: 7*
When it comes to tortured tennis artists, McEnroe broke the mold. No player in the Open era brought such a volatile and brilliant mix of talent and temper to the court.
McEnroe showed plenty of both from the start. As an 18-year-old amateur in 1977, he reached the semifinals at Wimbledon. Along the way, he inspired a torrent of boos from the normally staid English audience by kicking his racquet across the grass. But he also impressed his not-easily-impressed countryman Jimmy Connors. “He’s not easy to play,” Connors said after beating Baby Mac in the semis. Jimmy soon found out just how right he was.
So did Bjorn Borg. The following year, McEnroe walked onto Borg’s home court in Stockholm and straight-setted him in front of the King of Sweden. Borg vs. McEnroe—fire vs. ice, lefty vs. righty, baseliner vs. net-rusher, civilization vs. its discontents—would become tennis’ most famous rivalry. The Swede and the American finished 7-7, but it was McEnroe who won three of their four major finals, and who drove Borg out of the sport in 1981.
McEnroe’s zenith came in 1984—he went 82-3 and played rings around Connors and Ivan Lendl in the Wimbledon and US Open finals, respectively. The lefty hook serve; the delicate touch at net; the relentless attacking game; the fire-spitting competitiveness: McEnroe fused all of the seemingly contradictory elements of his game into one unbeatable package that season. But while it was a peak year for Johnny Mac’s talent, it was for his temper as well. As the acclaim rose for McEnroe’s play, so did the calls for his suspension from the sport.
In the end, it wasn’t McEnroe’s rage that brought him down; it was his over-reliance on his talent. He had never needed to work as hard as his closest peer, Lendl, so he never did. The Czech caught and passed him in 1985, leaving McEnroe to spend his last decade chasing past glory, and trying to deal with a new, harder-hitting generation of players.
Others in the Open era won more and dominated for longer. But no tennis player of the last 50 years has been as famous, or infamous, for so long. McEnroe’s talent gave fans something better than victories; it gave us a vision, however briefly, of what was possible with a tennis racquet.