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Best of 3: Underrated champions

Patrick Rafter at the 1997 US Open (Getty Images)
Photo by:  (Getty Images)

The US Open has been won by the finest players in the history of the game, titlists who have been heralded as the best of all time and enshrined in the US Open Court of Champions and the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Yet, somehow, a few of its champions have slipped under the radar, notching multiple singles triumphs without the corresponding adulation. Here is a look at our Top 3 underrated US Open champions of the Open era:

Justine Henin

The early to mid-2000s were a golden age for women’s tennis, with the burgeoning excellence of the Williams sisters bumping up against the continued strong play of Lindsay Davenport, the emergence of Maria Sharapova and a number of deep Grand Slam runs from the beloved Kim Clijsters.

Often overlooked during that time was a player who, outside Venus, may very well be Serena’s sternest career test: Justine Henin. The petit Belgian was at her best on clay, where she won four French Open titles, but she was also a standout hard-courter who won two US Open titles, in 2003 and again in 2007, both equally memorable.

In 2003, Henin won an epic, three-hour semifinal over Jennifer Capriati, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6, and then turned around less than 24 hours later and defeated Clijsters for the title. She backed that up four years later with a second crown, topping, in succession, former world No. 1 Dinara Safina, Serena Williams, Venus Williams and 2004 US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova – all without losing a set.

Henin would never again compete in Flushing Meadows after 2007, falling prey to a series of injuries and opting for an early retirement, but her indelible victories and two women’s singles titles mark her as one of the finest New York performers of the Open era.

Rafael Nadal

Given the attention and adulation he has received throughout his career, it’s hard to consider Rafael Nadal underrated in anything. But when discussing his sure-fire Hall of Fame career, tennis historians and fans tend to focus on his nine French Open titles and his legendary five-set Wimbledon victory over Roger Federer in what many consider the greatest match ever played.

Forgotten among that is that Nadal is also one of the best US Open performers of the modern era. He is a two-time champion (2010, 2013), a three-time finalist (also 2011) and a five-time semifinalist (also 2008, 2009). His 43-9 record in New York is downright gaudy, and those 43 victories are the most of any active man save Federer and Novak Djokovic.

Nadal struggled initially at the Open, perhaps helping to drive the narrative that he is a lesser player in New York than in Melbourne, Paris or London, and recent injuries have led him to miss out on the Flushing fortnight in 2012 and 2014. But the Spaniard remains a fan favorite and, stacked up against history, one of the Open’s all-time greats.

Patrick Rafter

While beloved among fans, Patrick Rafter was never tennis’ leading man. Instead, he was a fine player with a picturesque backhand, some of the sport’s best volleys and an amiable good nature that became his signature (alongside the zinc oxide he face-painted on to protect against the sun).

Rafter is also one of just seven players in the Open era to repeat as a US Open men’s singles champion, joining all-timers Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.

In some ways, Rafter’s under-the-radar status is understandable. Unlike those other men, he never captured a Grand Slam outside the U.S. – coming closest at Wimbledon, where he finished as runner-up in 2000 and 2001 – and his first title was wildly unexpected – he won the Open as the No. 13 seed in 1997, defeating unseeded Greg Rusedski in the final.

Still, Rafter’s victories were impressive. His 1997 title run included victories over Andre Agassi and No. 2 seed Michael Chang, and in 1998 he upset top seed Sampras in a riveting five-setter. And when it comes down to it, he won two men’s singles crowns, as many as Agassi, Edberg and Rod Laver and more than Boris Becker, Bjorn Borg, Jim Courier, Mats Wilander and any number of Hall of Famers.