With Rafael Nadal at 80 and Novak Djokovic at 73, only Father Time stands between Roger Federer and the record for most singles titles won in the Open Era, long held by Jimmy Connors. But does the 37-year-old Federer need to surpass the American to be considered the winningest tennis player ever? How do Federer’s 101 titles measure up against Connors’ 109? We break down the hauls according to the quality of titles, tournaments and the opponents.
Out of Federer’s 101 titles, 54 could be classified as quality titles: 20 Grand Slams, 28 Masters 1000 titles and six year-end finals wins. Connors won 8 Grand Slams and three year-end finals. But the Masters 1000 tournaments didn’t come into being as such till 1990, when ATP chose to rebrand nine top Grand Prix Super Series events. Connors won 17 Grand Prix Championship Series events, widely considered to be on par with today’s Masters, taking his tally of key titles to 28.
But Connors, whose 24-year long career stretched from 1972 to 1996, largely played in an era when Grand Slams weren’t the be-all and end all of a tennis player’s resume. It was not until Pete Sampras crept up on Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Roy Emerson in the late 90s that American media helped the Majors gain mythical proportions.
Connors, like many of his contemporaries, skipped the Australian Open, going Down Under only twice: winning it in 1974 and getting to the final in 1975.
He was also banned from playing the 1974 French Open due to his association with ITF’s rival tour World Team Tennis, and many believe it cost him the chance to become the first male player to win all four majors in one year since Rod Laver (Connors beat 1974 champion Bjorn Borg in their only encounter on clay that year). Connors didn’t feature at Roland Garros for four more years. Indifference towards Grand Slams meant Connors played 35 Grand Slams. Federer has played 75.
Federer’s 47 titles have come at ATP 500 and 250 events - in a field of 32 or fewer players - with favourite haunts Halle, Basel and Dubai accounting for 27. Majority of his title wins (58 of 101) have also come playing best-of-five matches.
Connors won 65 tournaments in a field of 32 of fewer competitors, and 31 playing five-setters. 75 of his titles came in the US, which also brings us to the bone of contention. Connors’ early years as a pro - he decided to not join the newly formed ATP in 1972 and featured selectively on the competitive WCT tour - made him either a maverick or a dodger.
Most male pros were part of ATP, but Connors decided to dominate the minor leagues such as the USLTA Indoor Circuit, organised by his promoter and manager, Bill Riordan. As a result, Connors played in cities such as Little Rock, Roanoke, Salt Lake City, Omaha and Birmingham, amassing 16 titles in a 16 (or eight)-men field (He would often get first-round byes too).
All in all, he won 24 titles on this circuit. ATP recognises selected wins from this run (inexplicably, his 1972 Roanoke win, an event which featured only Connors and Vladimir Zednik, makes the cut).
Only 18 of Connors' 109 final wins (16.5 per cent) came against a top-five player, whereas Federer has had to muscle out a top-five player for 30 titles (29.7 per cent). Overall, Connors’ record against top-five players is 51-78, while Federer comes in at 102-69.
But Connors' milieu had more depth. Contemporaries Gottfried, Stockton, Vilas, older rivals Ashe, Laver, Nastase, Newcombe, Rosewall and young guns Borg, Lendl, and McEnroe jostled for points. It’s a far cry from the modern era ruled by a hegemony, with the top 20 filled with also-rans. While Federer has seen off generations of players, Connors had to compete with past, present and the future.