The question of who tops the list of the greatest tennis players of all time is much-contested has been debated for decades. The central issue is, with what parameters do you judge this by? The number of Grand Slam titles won? The number of tour titles they have won? The amount their presence has had on the game, i.e. their legacy? If we rely solely on the number of titles won, we come across a problem. Margaret Court holds the record for the most Grand Slam singles titles – a staggering 24 – but much of her career was played in the days before professionals were allowed to enter the majors. It is for this reason that Court is the only pre-open player in this list, included because she was undoubtedly brilliant, whatever era she played in. The others represent the very best in the open era of tennis, and quite a line-up they all make.
1. Steffi Graf
Having won a massive 22 Grand Slam singles titles in her career, an open era record, Steffi Graf will always be remembered as one of the tennis world’s greats. As the only player ever to have earned a calendar Golden Slam, by winning all four majors and Olympic gold in 1988, and the only player to have won at least four singles titles at each four Grand Slams, she is arguably one of the best players – male or female – of all time. Indeed, Graf broke quite a few records – many of which are still unbeaten to this day, including the record for the highest number of weeks with a number one ranking (an incredible 377), at one stage staying at the top spot for 186 consecutive weeks.
She is remembered for her fantastic forehand and her unique way of positioning herself in the backhand corner, using her super-fast foot speed to get to the ball every time. Combine that with her great humour, incredibly accurate and fast serve – topping 180 km/h, it makes Graf one of the fastest female servers ever – and Graf brought excitement to the court every time she stepped onto it. She has been named as the greatest player of all time by numerous publications and polls, and by greats such as Billie Jean King. If further proof were needed that she deserves the top spot, it is her ability to triumph on all surfaces. Whereas other players had their favourite surfaces, for example Margaret Court was a hard court specialist and Martina Navratilova always excelled on grass, Steffi Graf was a true all-rounder. Martina Navratilova herself said: “Steffi is the best all-round player of all time, regardless of surface.”
The fittest player on the tour in her time, her honed physique and incredible conditioning led her to win hundreds of Grand Slam titles. Whereas Steffi Graf dominated the singles game, Martina Navratilova was a force to be reckoned with in all three events – singles, doubles and mixed doubles. She may have won four less Grand Slam singles titles than Graf but she won ten Grand Slam mixed doubles titles and an incredible, record-holding 31 women’s doubles titles. Graf was the all-round surface great but Navratilova must surely be the all-round event champ. As Billie Jean King once said: “She’s the greatest singles, doubles and mixed doubles player who’s ever lived.”
Navratilova is one of just three female players, and the only open era player, to have earned the Grand Slam Box Set, having won the singles, doubles and mixed doubles at each Grand Slam over the course of her career. Like Graf, Navratilova’s bio reads like a never-ending list of records – she also holds the open era record for the most singles titles (167) and doubles titles (177) on the tour, and scooped the record for the longest period without a loss – a hard-to-comprehend 74 consecutive match wins. Add to that the shared record for the most consecutive Grand Slam singles titles, the record for both the highest number of WTA Tour Championship titles, and the fact that she is the only player to have won eight different tournament at least seven times, and it is obvious why Martina Navratilova makes this prestigious list.
3. Chris Evert
A powerful baseline player, Chris Evert was the undisputed female star of the 1970s. In the latter half of the 70s she dominated the women’s game and in her career amassed an amazing 90% match wins. Her two-handed backhand was legendary and opponents soon knew not to attempt to come to the net for fear of being passed time and time again – all, that is, except a young Martina Navratilova who in the 1980s became Evert’s fiercest rival with her aggressive serve-and-volley style.
Evert was the Queen of clay and can claim 125 consecutive matches on the surface, with a loss of only seven sets, a record which is yet to be beaten by any player in the world. And yet it is at the US Open that she holds the record for the highest number of singles wins – an impressive 101. Evert goes down in the history books for her consistency, her focus and her incredible pin-point accuracy when it came to ball placement.
4. Margaret Court
Winner of a record 24 Grand Slam singles titles and 62 major titles in total, Margaret Court also has the highest ever career match winning percentage at 91.74%. In the 1960s and early 1970s she was unbeatable. All this despite giving birth to three of her four children during her career. Part of the reason for her success, longevity and ability to bounce back after childbirth breaks was her commitment to fitness training, something that wasn’t viewed as particularly important in the women’s game in the 1960s. Nicknamed ‘The Aussie Amazon,’ her weight, circuit and cardio training gave her a physical advantage and ensured her stokes and serve were the most powerful of her time. It is because of Court that female players began to take physical training seriously.
In 1970, the year she took all four Grand Slam titles, she won 21 of 27 tournaments and 104 of 110 matches. The International Tennis Hall of Fame states: “For sheer strength of performance and accomplishment there has never been a tennis player to match (her).”
When it comes to brute power, mental strength, and continued longevity as one of the world’s top female players, Serena Williams is undoubtedly up their with the best of all time. As an athlete it could be argued that she is unsurpassed. She has got 16 Grand Slam titles to her name and the legendary John McEnroe declared Williams to be “the greatest female player that’s ever played this game.” Chris Evert made the same claim in her post-match commentary.
Considering she spent almost a year out of action between 2011 and 2012 due to a leg injury followed by serious complications, she has come back with a bang and is reasserting herself as the top female player on the circuit today. With three US Open titles, two French Open titles and five Australian Open titles also to her name, many are now hailing her the best female tennis player of the modern era. Even before her latest comeback and Wimbledon win, sports journalist John Wertheim argued in a Sports Illustrated article in 2010 that Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player ever, stating that: “Head-to-head, on a neutral surface (i.e. hard courts), everyone at their best, I can’t help feeling that she crushes the other legends.” It is difficult to compare Williams to the others as she is still in the prime of her career – the interesting question is, how much further could this star rise?
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