In tennis, the general feeling is often that the best player will always win. Whilst the idea of a qualifier or an unseeded player doesn’t immediately rule out the idea that they are the best player, the reality is that the best player of any given tournament is unlikely to have had to make it there through the qualifiers. Similarly, it isn’t exactly common for a player considered to be the best to be unseeded in the tournament that they’re playing in, which is why it is such big news when it happens. Most people love an underdog, hence the reason one winning a Major always makes the headlines.
You might assume that it has never happened, but the truth is that it is not entirely out of the realms of the possible for an unseeded player or a qualifier to make it all the way to the final of a tennis tournament and to win it. Add in the fact that Majors are just like other tournaments, albeit a touch more prestigious, and you can see why it is that it isn’t just the best of the best that have managed to make it through and be on the winning end of certain competitions. It is unusual, of that there’s no doubt, but the entire reason we’re writing this piece is that it isn’t unheard of.
Quick Answer: How Many Unseeded or Qualifying Tennis Players Have Won a Grand Slam?
In 2021 at the US Open, Emma Raducanu became the first, and to date only, tennis player to win a singles title at a Grand Slam during the open era having come through qualifying.
Up to the end of the 2023 season, there have been 13 unseeded Grand Slam singles winners. The first was Mark Edmondson at the 1976 Australian Open. The latest was Markéta Vondroušová at Wimbledon in 2023.
The Tennis Majors
Every sport has its competitions that are seen as being more prestigious than the others. In golf, for example, the US Open, Open Championship, PGA Championship and the Masters all stand out about the others and are considered to be that sport’s ‘Majors.’ Some sports, such as football, have the more prestigious tournaments but they aren’t given the ‘Major’ tab. In tennis, the following tournaments are considered to be the sport’s Grand Slam Majors:
Held at Melbourne Park in the city of Melbourne, the Australian Open is the first of four events that players aim to win if they want to complete the sport’s Grand Slam. It was first held in 1905 under the moniker of the Australasian Championships, growing to become the highest attended of the Majors in the tennis. It features a competition for men, another for women, doubles for both genders as well as mixed doubles and wheelchair tournaments. Played on hard courts, the competition is thought of as being a fast-paced and aggressive one in terms of playing style.
Managed by Tennis Australia, the new name for the body previously known as the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia, it originally took place at the Warehouseman’s Cricket Ground, following in the footsteps of the likes of football for having begun life at a cricketing venue. It became the Australian Championships in 1927, finally turning into the Australian Open in 1969. It had become a Major in 1924, but it wasn’t until later in the century that European players began to enter on account of the remoteness of Australia. It has offered the same number of ATP points as the other Majors since 1996.
Also known as Roland-Garros, the French Open is held in Paris each year and normally begins in late May. It is the only one of the Majors to be held on clay, being considered one of the most prestigious clay court competitions in the world. It comes after the Australian Open chronologically, with the style of play tending to be at a slower pace and with a higher bounce. There are some who feel that the tournament is the most physically demanding of all of the Grand Slam events. Officially known as the Internationaux de France de Tennis, it was founded in 1891.
Back then, the event was known as the Championnat de France and was only open to players who were members of tennis clubs in France. Ironically, the first winner was a British player named H. Briggs, who lived in Paris and was a member of the Club Stade Français. It was made open to all amateurs internationally in 1925, which was also when the International Lawn Tennis Federation designated it one of the sport’s Majors. The male and female players have been paid equal prize money since 2007. It offers singles and doubles for both genders, mixed doubles and singles and doubles for wheelchair players.
Usually called just ‘Wimbledon’ by most tennis fans, the Championships is considered by many people to be the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament on account of the fact that it is the oldest. It took place for the first time in 1877 and traditionally plays over two weeks in late June to early July. The culmination of the tournament is the women’s final on the Saturday and the men’s final on the Sunday. There are certain traditions in place for Wimbledon, including an all-white dress code and strawberries and cream being consumed during the week.
The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, where the tournament is played, is a private club that was founded in 1868. Tennis was added to the list of sports offered in 1876, with the competition starting the year after. The only Major played on grass courts, adults play in singles for men and women, doubles for men and women and mixed doubles. There are also events for juniors as well as wheelchair players. There is a night-time curfew in place for Wimbledon, making it the only one of the Majors to have such a thing, with matches having to stop at 11pm.
The final Major played in the year is the US Open, or the US Open Tennis Championships, to give it its full and official title. It tends to start on the final weekend of August, going on for two weeks and typically coinciding with the US Labour Day holiday. It began in 1881 as the US National Championship and consists of the men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles. Juniors, seniors and wheelchair players also have events. It has taken place at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park since 1978.
When it was first launched, only clubs that were in the United States National Lawn Tennis Association were allowed to enter members, but in 1968 the Open era began. That was when professionals were allowed to compete, with the event having previously been limited to amateur players. Played on a hard-court surface, the US Open sees the play classified by the International Tennis Federation as medium-fast. Since 2005, the surface of the tennis court itself has been blue, making it easier for everyone to see the ball, with the area surrounding it being green.
Qualifiers Who Have Won A Major
Every tennis tournament has its own qualification criteria. For most of the players, they will be invited to participate on account of their world ranking at the time that the tournament begins. There are some spaces in the competitions that are held open to other players, however. Sometimes these may be Wild Cards, who are well-known players that are outside of the world ranking places but are invited to take part because it is felt that people will enjoy watching them or that their world ranking position is false for some reason, perhaps due absence through injury.
There are other spaces that are left for qualifiers. Given the ‘open’ nature of the tournaments, which allows for any player to theoretically enter it, there needs to be a way to stop thousands of people from turning up and taking part. As a result, competitions have qualifying rounds, which helps to separate the wheat from the chaff and ensure that only the most capable players end up playing in the tournament. There are pre-qualifying tournaments, which players can earn a place in the qualifiers by winning, then the qualifying matches themselves that take place leading up to the competition proper.
When it comes to tennis tournaments, it isn’t quite as simply as any old person being able to turn up and play in the qualifying competitions. Instead, the players ranked between 105 and 232 by the ATP get to take part in the qualification tournaments, with 16 players being selected from these to take part in the Grand Slam competitions. Of course, a player can make it into the qualifying events by taking part in the pre-qualifying events, which give them a chance to up their ranking points. Win enough of them and they might just make it into that 105-232 bracket.
Emma Raducanu – 2021 US Open
|Final||Leylah Fernandez||6-4, 6-3|
|Semi-Finals||Maria Sakkari||6-1, 6-4|
|Quarter-Finals||Belinda Bencic||6-3, 6-4|
|Fourth Round||Shelby Rogers||6-2, 6-1|
|Third Round||Sara Sorribes Tormo||6-0, 6-1|
|Second Round||Zhang Shuai||6-2, 6-4|
|First Round||Stefanie Vögele||6-2, 6-3|
|Qualifying Final Round||Mayar Sherif||6-1, 6-4|
|Qualifying Second Round||Mariam Bolkvadze||6-3, 7-5|
|Qualifying First Round||Bibiane Schoofs||6-1, 6-2|
There is only one player who has ever won a Grand Slam event having come through the qualifying rounds to be in it in the first place, with that player being Emma Raducanu. She won the US Open in 2021, getting into the tournament proper by winning three qualifying rounds. Once she was there, of course, she still needed to do something special in order to make it into the record books, which she did by winning her seven matches in the main draw. Not only that, she also managed it by winning every match without even dropping a set, which is remarkable.
In order to make to the US Open Raducanu defeated Bibiane Schoofs 6-1, 6-2, Mariam Bolkvadze 6-3, 7-5 and Mayar Sherif 6-1, 6-4. In the first round of the competition proper, Raducanu defeated Stefanie Vögele 6-2, 6-3, taking on Shuai Zhang in the second round and winning 6-2, 6-4. In the third round she played Sara Sorribes Tormo and won 6-0, 6-1, then in Round 4 she defeated Shelby Rogers 6-2, 6-1. That put her in the quarter-finals, where she beat Belinda Bencic, the 11th seed, 6-3, 6-4. In the semi-final she won 6-1, 6-4 against the 17th seed Maria Sakkari, winning 6-4, 6-3 against Leylah Fernandez in the final.
Unseeded Players That Have Won Majors (Open Era)
When tournaments come around, there is a desire from many to see the best players play one another towards the end of the competition. As a result, players are seeded according to their world ranking, with the seeds then split up onto separate sides of the draw. It means that the first seed won’t be able to play the second seed until the final, presuming the two of them make it through all of their matches. In tennis Grand Slam events there are usually 32 seeded players, spread evenly over the brackets in order to provide some balance, which is the case for both the ATP and the WTA.
The seeds don’t end up playing each other until the third round of the Grand Slam events, with the players they face in those first three rounds being unseeded players. An unseeded player is, as the name suggests, a player that wasn’t given a seed for the tournament. In tennis, only the last 12 months of a player’s career is considered when the seedings are decided. In other words, if a player misses a year of play for some reason, such as injury or pregnancy, they are unlikely to be given a seed but could still be a player at the top of their game when the tournament begins.
Mark Edmondson – 1976 Australian Open
In 1976, Mark Edmondson became the first person of either gender to win a Grand Slam event when unseeded. The Australian was ranked as the 212th best male player at the time, upsetting John Newcombe in the final having been a set down. His play improved in the years that followed, seeing him hit a career-high ranking of 15, but he never won another Major and was the last Australian player to win the men’s singles title at the Australian tournament. He won 34 tournaments as a doubles player, which included five Grand Slam events.
Chris O’Neil – 1978 Australian Open
Chris O’Neil made history in 1978 when she became the first woman to win a tennis Major whilst being unseeded. She was unseeded in spite of the fact that she had won the Australian Open Junior tournament five years earlier. She faced seventh seed Betsy Nagelsen in the final, defeating her in straight sets in order to claim the only Grand Slam title of her career. In the years that followed she reached a career-high ranking of 80. She was the last Australian to win the country’s home Grand Slam until Ashleigh Barty managed it in 2022.
Mats Wilander – 1982 French Open
When Mats Wilander won the French Open in 1982, he did so as a 17-year-old and was the youngest winner of a men’s Grand Slam at the time. The Swedish player was understandably unseeded given his age, but he defeated the third seed Guillermo Vilas in the final. The match lasted for 4 hours and 42 minutes, with the final score being 1-6, 7-6, 6-0, 6-4. It was the start of an impressive career for Wilander, who won another two French Open titles, three Australian Opens and the US open, as well as making it to the quarter-finals of Wimbledon on three occasions.
Boris Becker – 1985 Wimbledon
Wilander’s record as the youngest ever men’s Grand Slam tournament winner lasted just three years. In 1985 Boris Becker won Wimbledon aged just 17 years and 227 days, not only becoming the youngest Grand Slam winner but also the first unseeded player to enjoy a title win at Wimbledon. He knocked the eighth seed Kevin Curren out on his way to victory, who had defeated John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors on his own way to the final. Becker, of course, went on to have a career that involved two Australian Open wins, three Wimbledons and a US Open, plus three French Open semi-final appearances.
Andre Agassi – 1994 US Open
It was nearly a decade until the next unseeded winner of a tennis Major, which was when Andre Agassi enjoyed victory in the US Open. As proof of how silly the nature of seedings actually is, Agassi was a seeded player when he won Wimbledon two years earlier. He didn’t compete in the Australian Open and struggled in the French Open and Wimbledon, which is why he wasn’t seeded. He won the final in straight sets against the fourth seed Michael Stich, going on to win the same tournament five years later. He ended his career with four Australian Opens, two US Opens, a French Open and a Wimbledon title.
Gustavo Kuerten – 1997 French Open
There are plenty of things that Gustavo Kuerten managed during his career, but one of those that he was most proud of is likely to be the fact that he is the only Brazilian to win a male Grand slam singles title at the time of writing. He was 20-years-old when he won the French Open, defeating the two-time champion Sergi Bruguera in straight sets. He was impressive throughout his run to the final, beating the clay court specialist Thomas Muster when they played in the third round. By the time his career ended he has won three French Opens and was the top-ranked player in 2000.
Goran Ivanišević – 2001 Wimbledon
It would be untrue to say that Goran Ivanišević was entirely unfancied when he played in Wimbledon in 2001, given the fact that he had been a losing finalist in the tournament three time previously. That is what earned him his wild card entry into the competition where he made his way through the rounds to play in the final for a fourth time. It was fourth time lucky for the Croatian player, who defeated Australian Pat Rafter in five-sets. During his career the best ranking that he reached was number two, but Wimbledon was the only Grand Slam event that he won.
Gaston Gaudio – 2004 French Open
Argentinian Gaston Gaudio had not made it past the third round of a Major by the time he entered the French Open in 2004. In fact, he never made it past the third round of any of the Grand Slam tournaments, but in 2004 he defeated three of his fellow countrymen on his way to winning the trophy as an unseeded player. During his career he made it to a high of fifth in the world rankings, but it was his French Open performance that he’ll always be remembered for. He played Guillermo Coria in the final, going two-sets down before winning a five-set thriller.
Serena Williams – 2007 Australian Open
Over the previous twelve months, Serena Williams had suffered from several injuries and had a battle with depression before she entered the Australian Open in 2007. That meant that she was ranked number 81 in the world and didn’t get a seed, but she defeated a number of top 20-ranked players on her way to the final. She played Maria Sharapova and won 6-1, 6-2, winning the eighth Gran Slam of her career, making something of a mockery of the seeding system. By the time she retired, Williams was considered one of the best tennis players of all time and won 23 tennis Majors.
Kim Clijsters – 2009 US Open
Kim Clijsters retired from tennis in 2007, spending two years away from the courts as she had a baby. Little wonder, therefore, that she wasn’t given a seed for the US Open in 2009. She played in the tournament on account of being given a wild card, facing Caroline Wozniacki in the final. Having been world number one for the first time four years before, it’s fair to say that Clijsters knew how to hit a ball and the Belgian player won 7-5, 6-3 in a straight sets victory. She defended her US Open title a year later, also winning the Australian Open in 2011.
Jelena Ostapenko – 2017 French Open
When Jelena Ostapenko headed to France to play in the French Open she was ranked 47th in the world and wasn’t given much of a chance by commentators and tennis fans alike. That was even more the case when she ended up making it to the final to face third seed Simona Halep. The last time an unseeded player had won the French Open women’s title had been in 1933, whilst no Latvian had ever won a Major in tennis, so it was with no small degree of shock that she earned the crown when she won the Roland-Garros final 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
Sloane Stephens – 2017 US Open
In 2013, Sloane Stephens burst onto the tennis scene when she made it to the semi-finals of the Australian Open. Her form dropped off in the years that followed, in no small part thanks to the fact that she suffered several injuries. She was able to play in the US Open because of a system called ‘protective ranking,’ which aims to look after players with long-term injuries. She shrugged off her injury worries to defeat 15th seed Madison Keys 6-3, 6-0, having only dropped three sets during the entire tournament. Within a year she was the world number three, making the French Open final.
Markéta Šimková (née Vondroušová) – 2023 Wimbledon
Czech tennis star Markéta Vondroušová, now Šimková, was runner-up at the French Open in 2019, having become the first teenage Major finalist in close to a decade. A former junior world number one, Šimková was unseeded heading into the 2023 Wimbledon tournament and was not much-fancied over sixth-ranked Tunisian Ons Jabeur on account of the fact that no female player had ever won the Wimbledon women’s singles title having been unseeded. History is there to be made, though, and Šimková did just that when she won 6-4, 6-4, having been the first unseeded player to make the final in 60 years.