The French Open, which was to have started this week, has been postponed and Wimbledon was canceled. The US Open also might not happen because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a painful reminder that Grand Slam events are rare and precious opportunities for the players.
Nobody understands that better than the perennial Grand Slam contenders who never managed to punch through to win a major title. They constitute an elite club that most of them would just as soon not be in. Yet few of them would trade careers with “one-Slam wonders” such as Gaston Gaudio or Iva Majoli, both Grand Slam singles champions, both remembered best these days by trivia buffs.
Thanks to the Big Three — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic — this era has been a great recruiting period for that “best player never to win a major” club. Candidates include the likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic, all of whom are still active and thus still subject to salvation.
“Time and time again, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have beaten the ‘best to never to win a major,'” ESPN commentator Chris McKendry said. “They’re men who had the simple misfortune of being born at the wrong time.”
Some of those contenders still have a shot: For example, Dominic Thiem is just 26 years old, but he’s already been in three Grand Slam finals. So we’ve restricted this survey to retired players. ESPN.com canvassed a host of experts to come up with a list of the main candidates in the “no-Slam wonders” club for men and women as we reflect on what was scheduled to be the start of the French Open.
We’ll start with the top eight contenders from the ATP, ranked alphabetically:
Career-high ranking: No. 3
Grand Slams: French Open final, 2004; two US Open quarterfinals
Career finals W-L: 9-11, including wins at Hamburg and Monte Carlo
Nicknamed “El Mago” (“The Magician”) in the Argentine’s native Spanish language, Coria was a wizard on red dirt. “He was actually called the ‘King of Clay’ before Rafa was,” ESPN analyst Sam Gore said. “He was lightning fast, and he’s still considered one of the best serve returners ever.”
Coria, just 5-foot-9 and 125 pounds, overcame an early career doping suspension and ultimately became the 2004 French Open finalist, losing to Gaston Gaudio in a match no witness will ever forget: Coria served for the match twice and failed to capitalize on two match points in the heartbreaking loss.
How could he choke so badly? The matchup seemed absurd. Coria, the No. 3 seed, was a prohibitive favorite facing an unheralded countryman ranked No. 44. It was a surreal challenge. As Gaudio said after he won: “Losing the French Open final with two match points isn’t easy against anyone. Imagine losing to me.”
Pros: Coria is still ranked No. 1 in three of the four most important serve return statistical categories. No one, not even Djokovic, has posted a better break-point percentage (45.71%). Coria also remains tops in first-serve return points won (36.05%) and return games won (35.26%). He compiled a 31-match winning streak on clay between 2003 and 2004. During that period, he made six of the eight clay-court Masters Series finals.
Cons: His career unraveled starting in late 2005 for somewhat mysterious reasons. He developed a bad case of the service yips, double-faulting away matches. Coria won just one of his nine career titles on surfaces other than clay.
Wrap: In the pre-Nadal era, Coria seemed a lock to win at least a few French Open titles, and he was solid on hard courts as well.
Career-high ranking: No. 3
Grand Slams: Four semifinals (two each at the French and US Opens)
Career finals W-L: 21-7, including wins at the ATP Tour Finals and three Masters events.
Another slightly built player who punched above his weight, the slender 5-10 Ukrainian relied on blazing speed to contend on all surfaces. And contend he did. “He was great on hard or clay,” said Jimmy Arias, now head of the IMG Academy, “and he always seemed to be in a semifinal or a quarter at the majors.”
In 2009 in London, Davydenko defeated Nadal, Federer and Juan Martin del Potro to claim the biggest title of his career at the Tour Finals. He also won Masters events on hard and indoor carpet. Nicknamed “Ironman,” Davydenko was one of the most active — and consistently successful — players on the tour (he played 99 matches in 2006). He made the quarterfinals or better at eight of 12 majors starting with the Australian Open in 2005.
Pros: Davydenko played from inside the court, taking the ball on the rise to set up his slap-shot-like groundstrokes. As Spanish pro Fernando Verdasco once told reporters, “He didn’t give you time to think; he was a very fast player and a hard worker.” Davydenko’s success on hard and indoor surfaces, where power servers and taller, more muscular players flourish, owed to his ability to take time away from his opponents.
Cons: Davydenko did not have knockout power or a big weapon, so he was always vulnerable to being pushed around (he was 1-5 vs. Andy Roddick). He was forced to expend a lot of energy and worked hard for his wins, but the intensity was exhausting. He was most effective in the three-year window ending in 2008.
Wrap: Davydenko never got the lucky break in a major draw that might have enabled a win. Just 2-19 against Federer, at one point he lost to the Swiss champ four consecutive times (one quarterfinal and three semis) at majors.
Career-high ranking: No. 3
Grand Slams: French Open final, 2013; quarterfinals or better 17 times
Career finals W-L: 27-25, including a title at the Paris Masters
If you had to pick a sentimental favorite in this derby, it surely would be “The Little Beast.” As Todd Martin, now CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, said, “Ferrer gets it for longevity and maximization of potential. Nobody in our sport has squeezed their sponge like David, at least not for a very long time.”
A close friend of Rafael Nadal (who beat him 26 times in 32 meetings), Ferrer’s 27 titles places him second only to Nadal as a title producer in this golden age for Spanish tennis. Ferrer also played a pivotal role in turning Spain into a Davis Cup dynasty, playing on four winning teams.
Ferrer was one of the most widely respected players on the tour. An avid reader, he has said: “I want to read books that will help me improve as a person and not just a tennis player.”
Pros: Although he’s just 5-9, Ferrer is solidly built and, while fast, his outstanding qualities were his stamina and grit. He had an exceptional dartlike two-handed backhand and a reliable forehand. His speed allowed him to use the inside-out shot to great effect. “He was so consistent,” ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said, “He has to be up near the top in this conversation.”
Cons: Ferrer’s serve was more pop gun than top gun, which enabled opponents to attack his service games. He had trouble locking down big titles, with just one Masters-level triumph on his résumé. Katrina Adams, the former doubles star and past president of the USTA, put it this way: “You always knew what to expect from David, a grinder to the end with a never-say-die attitude. He just didn’t have the weapon … his endurance and grit, it just wasn’t enough.”
Wrap: With just a touch more confidence and greater ability to take risks and lift his game at key moments, Ferrer probably would have won a major.
Todd Martin (1990-2006)
Career-high ranking: No. 4
Grand Slams: Australian Open final, 1994; US Open final, 1999; four other semifinals
Career finals W-L: 8-12, including titles at Sydney, Barcelona and Queen’s Club
Surprisingly versatile for a 6-6 power server, the soft-spoken, thoughtful Midwesterner has a relatively modest title count, but he was a high performer at majors and he won trophies on all of the game’s common surfaces.
Martin was an integral part of the victorious 1995 U.S. Davis Cup team, and found a permanent place in US Open lore with his remarkable comeback against Greg Rusedski in a 1999 fourth-round match that ended after midnight. He ultimately made the final, where Andre Agassi lay in wait to frustrate his hopes.
It was a familiar story for a rock-solid player who was overshadowed for most of his career by Pete Sampras & Co. Agassi won four of their five meetings in majors; Sampras held a 6-1 edge.
Pros: While not speedy, Martin was surprisingly mobile for a big man. That was one reason he did well on clay, where he had extra time to set up for his groundstroke blasts. His serve was a wonderful weapon and his greatest asset.
Cons: Martin missed some excellent opportunities at majors. In a 1996 Wimbledon semifinal, he let a 5-1 lead in the fifth set slip away against unseeded underdog MaliVai Washington, who eventually won the decider 10-8. It was one of a number of times that Martin took his foot off the pedal instead of rising to the occasion.
Wrap: That loss to Washington was a rare golden opportunity in an era when Sampras utterly dominated Wimbledon. Sampras had been beaten by No. 17 seed Richard Krajicek, who easily subdued Washington in the final. It probably still hurts.
Career-high ranking: No. 4
Grand Slams: US Open final, 1986; Australian Open final, 1989; semifinalist at French Open, Wimbledon; Olympic singles gold medalist, 1988.
Career finals W-L: 11-13; won Dallas WCT
Mats Wilander suffered just one Grand Slam loss in his big year, 1988. It was inflicted by Mecir, in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, with the Czech player giving up just seven games. Mecir, whose languid, liquid movement and off-speed style earned him the nickname “The Big Cat,” was the player nobody wanted to meet.
“He was a great mover, especially for a man of his size (6-3),” Gilbert said. “And he could play on every surface.”
Unfortunately, Mecir’s body did not hold up to the ATP grind. From 1989 onward, he struggled with serious lower back problems that eventually forced him to retire in July 1990 at just 26.
Pros: Mecir had a unique style. He moved in a crablike manner, his anticipation so keen and his tread so light that he appeared at the ball without seeming to have moved. He had a compact backswing and hit precise, flat balls with great torso rotation. His timing was such that Mecir was able to use his opponent’s pace effectively. Mecir redirected rallies smoothly and had superb touch on his volley.
Cons: A power player could hit through Mecir, as Ivan Lendl amply showed when he clobbered Mecir in the two Grand Slam finals they played. Lendl handcuffed Mecir by hitting with great pace right down the middle of the court, denying Mecir the angles. A counterpuncher, Mecir was unable to turn the tables on that strategy.
Wrap: It’s ironic that a player who appeared to expend so little effort and energy (think of Mecir as the anti-Nadal) had his career — and his chances to win a major — drastically curtailed by a failure of his body.
Career-high ranking: No. 3
Grand Slams: Wimbledon final, 2002; four other major semifinals
Career finals W-L: 11-13; won ATP Tour Finals, 2005
Nalbandian gets a surprisingly high degree of respect from keen tennis observers. Commentator Anabel Croft, a former British No. 1, said, “He had wonderful technique off both sides, a massive talent who had great feel, an excellent serve, and knew when to use the drop shot.”
An Argentine player who stood 5-11 with muscular legs and broad shoulders, Nalbandian looked like a surefire Grand Slam champion when, in just his second year on the tour, he reached the Wimbledon final. But Nalbandian felt inspired only intermittently — as in 2005, when he won the ATP Tour Finals with a win (7-6 in the fifth set) over Roger Federer.
Pros: Nalbandian feared no one, as his 8-11 record against Federer amply showed. He was super consistent, especially for a player who took the ball on the rise and hit relatively flat shots, often at extreme angles. A mobile player with a low center of gravity, he covered the court quickly, prefiguring the current era with his ability to transition from defense to offense.
Cons: Nalbandian’s shortcomings were temperamental. In 2014, when he was ranked No. 3, he was famously accused of putting in a poor effort in a straight-sets, third-round loss at Wimbledon. The reason: He wanted to catch Argentina’s soccer World Cup match against Germany. He also created a sensation in 2012 when he was disqualified from the Queens Club final for kicking a linesperson hard enough to draw blood. He lost nearly $70,000 in fines and penalties for the act.
Wrap: Nalbandian pursued the good life at a significant cost to his career. As Tennis Channel commentator Leif Shiras said: “That bit of indifference about him could rankle. But when he was right, his tennis was off the charts.”
Marcelo Rios (1994-2004)
Career-high ranking: No. 1
Grand Slams: Australian Open final, 1998; three other major quarterfinals
Career finals W-L: 18-13; won Grand Slam Cup, 1998
The only No. 1-ranked male player who never won a major as well as the first Latin American player to reach the top ranking, Rios is the top choice of most experts. Paul Annacone, Federer’s former coach and a Tennis Channel analyst, spoke for many of his colleagues in both the coaching and commentating ranks when he said: “Rios is the most talented player that I have seen firsthand who did not win a major. I watched him make so many great players uncomfortable. And he did it without playing outside himself or his abilities.”
Rios was a slim 5-9, 160 pounds, nimble and blessed with exquisite timing. Yet he too was ultimately laid low by lower back problems, much like Mecir. Rios was just 27 when he played his last tour event, the 2004 French Open.
Pros: His game was silken, airtight and brimming with lefty juju. He was capable of hitting winners from anywhere on the court, at any time. Despite his lack of stature, he had a useful serve to go along with a great instinct for making opponents feel uncomfortable. ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, a former coach of Rios rival Agassi, said: “Rios’ shot-making and his ability to expose weaknesses in opposition was brilliant to watch. He made the difficult look easy, and he went gliding around a tennis court seemingly effortlessly.”
Cons: Patrick McEnroe, the ESPN analyst, said he believes Rios had Agassi-grade talent and even greater variety. But, McEnroe said, “Rios lacked Agassi’s determination and work ethic. You have to wonder if the injuries that cut his career short were due to lack of fitness. He just didn’t appear to work as diligently as many of his peers.”
Rios’ surly behavior and contempt for nearly everyone, including most of his peers in the ATP, was fodder for countless headlines. He had numerous run-ins with the law, including an arrest in Italy for punching a taxicab driver and then brawling with the arresting police officer. ESPN analyst Cliff Drysdale put it this way: “Rios was a monstrous physical talent with ball control genius. He also was the most anti-social athlete, ever.” In 2016, Rios said in an interview that he had been twice diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
Wrap: Had Rios embraced his career, valued relationships, and taken more joy and satisfaction from his career, he could have won numerous majors.
Career-high ranking: No. 4
Grand Slams: French Open final, 2009 and 2010; three other major semifinals
Career finals W-L: 10-10, including a title at Paris Masters
The career of this Bunyan-esque Swede was interrupted in summer 2011, when he was just 27, by a case of mononucleosis from which he never really recovered. At 6-4, 200 pounds, Soderling won titles on every surface but grass, and that lack was partly for want of opportunity.
Soderling was one of the few players who could hit anyone off of any court at any time thanks to the ability and willingness to apply raw power at any moment. He demonstrated that most convincingly in 2009, when he became one of just two men to defeat Nadal at the French Open. Soderling, seeded just No. 23, ended Nadal’s 31-match French Open winning streak with the fourth-round upset.
As if to show the result was no fluke, Soderling made his way to the final (he lost to Federer), then made the final again in 2010, where Nadal waited and exacted revenge.
Pros: Start with a serve that hit as high as 143 mph. Then there was that quake-inducing forehand. Although Soderling generated less pace with his two-handed backhand, his height and skills enabled him to create acute angles.
Cons: Soderling had a moody streak that sometimes manifested as a lack of confidence or enthusiasm. He was able to compensate for his so-so movement at the French Open, where the slow clay gave him ample time to set up for his big shots. But he struggled to get into position to unload on faster surfaces.
Wrap: Soderling remains something of a mystery. A quiet, introspective man who received little attention at the best of times, he never returned after contracting mono. He left the door open on a comeback until he officially retired in 2015, more than four years after he played his final ATP match.