As the tennis world patiently awaits the commencement of the 2021 US Open, with an eye to Novak Djokovic’s attempt to win the calendar Grand Slam, it begs the question: who has produced the most dominant season in tennis history?
Naturally, such a question poses something of a conundrum. How do you define dominance and how can it be compared from one season to the next?
A multitude of factors and statistics can be used. Titles won, sets lost, winning percentage, wins over top ranked opponents and performance at the four grand slams.
For the purposes of this article, we look at seven of the most dominant seasons in the Open Era (post 1968). With one condition – each player can only be listed once.
In the interests of full disclosure, this writer was not around to see the dominance of players like Lendl, Borg, Evert, Court and the like so an inherent bias exists towards the more modern players. So please, forgive me if we’ve missed your favourite player.
In no particular order – here we go.
John McEnroe – 1984
Tennis’ famous “Superbrat” was a staple at the pointy end of Grand Slam tennis throughout the early 1980’s. His rivalry with the likes of Lendl, Connors and Borg would bring back fond memories of yesteryear for fans older than I.
However, notwithstanding his fierce competition, McEnroe compiled one of the greatest seasons ever played in 1984. The American enjoyed a magnificent82-3 record for the season and a winning percentage of 96.5% which remains unsurpassed in men’s tennis.
McEnroe’s brilliance drove his game to an almost untouchable status winning Wimbledon, the US Open and year-end championships. Having chosen, like many of his contemporaries at the time, not to play the Australian Open, McEnroe’s season begun with a runners up effort at the French Open.
After leading two sets to love against a previously uncrowned Ivan Lendl, McEnroe’s fiery temper got the better of him as he was distracted by a camera man and capitulated 2-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5 to lose his first match of the year to the Czech.
Revenge, a dish best served cold, was soon to follow as the Superbrat dismantled Lendl in straight sets in the US Open final after giving Jimmy Connors the same treatment months earlier at Wimbledon.
Remarkably, one of McEnroe’s three losses that year came against a comparatively unheralded Indian, Vijay Amritaj in the first round of the Cincinnati Open.
Nonetheless, with 13 titles and a winning 6-0 record against Connors, 3-0 against Wilander and 5-1 against Lendl, McEnroe’s 1984 season places him on the Mount Rushmore of men’s tennis’ most dominant seasons.
Margaret Court – 1970
It comes as no surprise that the most successful female player in history makes an appearance on The First Serve’s list.
Court’s 1970 season saw her claim 21 tournaments with a remarkable 110-6 record at 94.8% en route to winning the calendar Grand Slam – the first woman to do so since Maureen Connolly in 1953.
On reflection, Court’s dominance is almost laughable. The Australian lost no more than four games in any match throughout both her US Open and Australian Open campaigns.
In a 2020 interview reflecting on success 50 years prior, Court told the International Tennis Hall of Fame: "If I look back, it just felt that year was going to be my year. In other years, I'd gotten the flu in the French or had an injury. Everything just has to be right in the one year. There's many times you'd go so close and then you might miss one somewhere. To get the four of them, it's not easy."
Despite her dominance, her finest performance of the year came against long-time rival Billie Jean King in the Wimbledon final. Battling injury, Court required an injection to numb the pain from a severely sprained ankle to overcome Jean King in a marathon 14-12, 11-9 encounter.
Novak Djokovic – 2015
While the Serbian is again forging a year to be remembered, Djokovic’s 2015 season stands as one of the most dominant in recent memory.
Although his 2011 season that began with a 43-match win streak could also find place on this list, Djokovic went to another level still four years later.
Winning 3 Grand Slams and six Masters 1000 events among 11 tournament wins, Djokovic compiled a 82-6 record at 93.2% in a year that is often remembered as one of tennis’ finest. Djokovic also enjoyed a 5-3 record over the then 34 year old Federer.
Of little surprise is the fact that it was the French Open that eluded Djokovic that year. Although it was not his Spanish rival that defied Djokovic’s bid for history, rather losing the final 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 to Swiss legend Stan Wawrinka.
Staggeringly, Djokovic ended the year 7,915 points ahead of second ranked Andy Murray – that being the equivalent of almost four Grand Slam titles. In fact, the difference between Djokovic and Murray alone would itself have finished fourth in the year end rankings between Federer at No. 3 on 8,265 points and Wawrinka at No.4 on 6,865 points.
Further, highlighting his dominance, Djokovic won 31 of 36 matches against top 10 players and seven of his eleven tournament wins came against the second and third ranked Murray and Federer in the finals.
Surprisingly, Djokovic’s season didn’t actually start with a tournament win as he fell in the quarter finals of his season opener in Doha to Croatian Ivo Karlovic 6-7, 7-6 6-4.
2015 also proved a highly profitable year for Djokovic as he won over $21.6 million USD that season.
Steffi Graf – 1988
Steffi Graf’s 1988 season was not her finest in terms of winning percentage. Despite her 73-3 match record, Graf went 75-2 in 1987 and 86-2 over 1989. Totalling, 234-7 over the three year period.
However, her dominance throughout the majors in 1988 was absolute. Graf won the Golden Slam in an unprecedented effort taking out all four majors and Olympic gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. She remains the only tennis player, male or female, to have achieved this remarkable feat.
Graf started her season as she meant to go on, wining the Australian Open without losing a set and defeating Chris Evert 6-1, 7-6 in the final.
Graf won 46 matches straight through the middle of season winning the French Open, Wimbledon and the Olympics with a loss of just two sets.
The German’s dominance was no more evident than her delivery of a double bagel to Natasha Zvereva in the final of the French Open that lasted a shockingly short 34 minutes.
Alongside her singles efforts, Graf won her first and only Grand Slam doubles title in 1988 partnering Gabriela Sabatini (whom she defeated in the gold medal match) to win Wimbledon while also picking up a bronze medal in the women’s doubles in Seoul.
Rod Laver – 1969
No list of this nature could be complete without the inclusion of “Rocket” Rod Laver.
Rocket’s 1969 season was his second that saw him win the calendar Grand Slam. Although unlike his 1962 season, Laver’s efforts in 1969 came against stronger competition after the tour had moved from amateur to professional status.
Lavers season included a 106-16 record and 18 titles with the loss of only 17 sets at the Grand Slams – that being slightly more than 4 per event on average.
Unlike Graf in her ’88 season, the Australian’s dominance at the majors was not without challenge. Laver had to come back from two-sets down against Australian Dick Crealy in the second round of the French Open before defeating fellow compatriot Ken Rosewall 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in the final.
Similarly, he fell two sets behind in the second round of Wimbledon to Premjit Lall before defeating Australian legend John Newcombe in the final in four tightly contested sets.
Although Laver’s winning percentage sits below 90% for the 1969 season, he remains the last man to win the calendar Grand Slam – at least for now.
Martina Navratilova – 1983
If this were a list counting down to number 1, Navratilova’s efforts in 1983 would be near impossible to surpass as she so nearly had a perfect season.
The Czech-American was at the top of her game as she won 86 of 87 matches that year including wins at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open for an unprecedented 98.8% record.
In her US Open campaign, Navratilova didn’t lose more than 3 matches en route to the final before losing four to 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert in her 6-1, 6-3 win.
If her dominance needed any further explanation, Navratilova ended the year 6-0 against Chris Evert who finished the season ranked number 2. Amazingly, Evert only won more than four games in one of their six encounters.
The number 3 ranked Andrea Jaeger also felt the force of Navratilova’s power, as Navratilova won all three of their matches without losing a set, including the Wimbledon final 6-0, 6-3.
Navratilova’s one loss, however, came in the fourth round of the French Open to unseeded Kathy Horvath 6-4, 0-6, 6-3 to spoil an otherwise perfect year.
Losing just nine sets for the season, it’s hard to look past Navratilova’s famous 1983 run.
Roger Federer – 2006
Roger Federer’s run from 2004 to 2007 is what endeared him in the hearts of all tennis fans. And his 2006 season was indeed his best (although the 2005 edition might disagree).
It was only a French Open final loss to Rafael Nadal 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 that stopped Federer winning the calendar Grand Slam in 2006.
Amassing a 92-5 record at 94.9%, Federer took out the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open as well as five Masters 1000 wins (including the end of season finals) and four other titles – making the final in 16 of 17 events.
The Swiss maestro also went 30-4 against top 20 competitors. With all four of those losses coming against the number 2 ranked Nadal, three of which on Nadal’s preferred red dirt.
Federer’s fifth and final loss for the year came against a then ranked 21, Andy Murray on the hard courts ofCincinnati. After that point, the fan favourite enjoyed a 29-match winning streak to, of course, finish the year as world number 1.
What’s more, Federer only lost a mere 13 sets in Grand Slams (including the 3 against Nadal in the Roland Garros final) – although, he only lost 9 in 2005. His record on hard courts and grass was also near perfect with the Swiss winning 97% of those matches.
While lists like this are purely academic in discussion, we have been blessed to enjoy the dominance of the abovementioned greats. A list of honourable mentions would easily be as long as this list itself too.
Finally, all eyes at the US Open will be on Novak Djokovic as he attempts to cement himself as the greatest of all time in men’s tennis with his twenty-first Grand Slam title and the first men’s calendar Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969 – surpassing his already brilliant 2015 season.
Listen to The First Serve, Monday’s at 8PM AEST 1116AM SEN Melbourne, 1629AM SEN SA, 1170AM Sydney or listen live and catch up on the SEN App.
Do solar panels work in winter? Solar energy output in Australia throughout winter is surprisingly high in some cities. You can learn more about better solar energy at B Solar. Talk with a B.Solar Advisor. Search for B Solar or visit b.solar to learn more.