Twenty-one women have reached the top of the WTA rankings since the computerised system was introduced in 1975. Although the list isn’t quite a definitive “who’s who” of women’s tennis in the Open Era – many Grand Slam champions such as Conchita Martinez and Jana Novotna never attained the top spot – all the major stars of the WTA’s 40 years are here.
1. Chris Evert, ranked no.1 for 260 weeks between November 1975 and November 1985
The first ever woman to be ranked number one was a steely competitor whose remarkable consistency remains one of the most underrated achievements in tennis. During a 19 year career, Chris Evert won over 90% of her singles matches, and hoisted a Grand Slam trophy every year from 1974 – 1986. Her epic duels with Martina Navratilova were must-see battles in the 1970s and 1980s, and Evert was equally gracious in victory and defeat.
2. Evonne Goolagong Cawley, ranked number one for two weeks between April and May 1976
Evonne Goolagong Cawley was the most successful Australian player since Margaret Court, winning seven Grand Slam singles titles after turning professional in 1971. A versatile player capable of dominating at the net as well as from the back of the court, she is the only mother to win Wimbledon in the Open Era. Goolagong Cawley’s brief stint at the top of the rankings wasn’t actually reported at the time, as her points tally was originally miscalculated.
3. Martina Navratilova, ranked no.1 for 332 weeks between July 1978 and August 1987
The fire to Evert’s ice, this Czech-born American redefined women’s tennis with her dedication to training, diet and constant improvement. Powerful, charismatic and determined, Martina Navratilova had an astonishing career that spanned 20 years and included 18 Grand Slam singles titles, nine of which came at Wimbledon. She was the quintessential serve-volleyer, and raised the bar for female athletes everywhere.
4. Tracy Austin, ranked no. 1 for 21 weeks between April and November 1980
Just when it seemed as though Evert and Navratilova would carve up the Grand Slam events between them, along came Tracy Austin to break their duopoly. The pint-sized Californian became the youngest ever US Open champion at age 16 in 1979, and she won the same title two years later. Remarkably consistent from the baseline, Austin was forced into an extended hiatus and eventually early retirement because of chronic back injuries. Her time at the top was over before her 21st birthday.
5. Steffi Graf, ranked no.1 for 377 weeks between August 1987 and March 1997
The first player to match Navratilova for both power and consistency, Steffi Graf burst onto the tennis scene in the mid-1980s and quickly became the tour’s dominant force. Her “Golden Grand Slam” of 1988 is the Holy Grail of tennis, and her haul of 22 Grand Slam titles – she won each major at least four times – is her crowning achievement. Nicknamed “Fraulein Forehand” thanks to her remarkable strength on that wing, she was regarded as a “machine” by many of her opponents, and still holds the record for the longest ever spell as world number one.
6. Monica Seles, ranked no.1 for 178 weeks between March 1991 and November 1996
No one had ever seen anything like Monica Seles when she arrived on the tour in the late 1980s. Although initially defined by her unusual grunt, she soon gained attention for her relentless attacking game that took women’s tennis to a new level. Double-handed on both sides, she was nigh on unbeatable in the early 1990s, utterly dominating on clay and hard courts. Unfortunately, her career is likely to be recalled just as much for the stabbing incident that forced her into exile in 1993. Seles returned to the tour in 1995 and won the 1996 Australian Open, bringing her Grand Slam total to nine, but she was never quite the same player.
7. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, ranked no.1 for 12 weeks between February and June 1995
The “Barcelona bumblebee” was one of the most entertaining players to watch in the 1990s.Incredibly fast and always up for a fight, she scurried and scrambled her way to 29 singles titles in a 17-year career. It was unfortunate for Sanchez Vicario that her peak coincided with that of Graf. The Spaniard won three French Opens and one US Open, but she lost to the German in five major finals.
8. Martina Hingis, ranked no.1 for 209 weeks between March 1997 and October 2001
A true tennis prodigy, Switzerland’s Martina Hingis was born to wield a racket. Her peerless court sense, preternatural anticipation and keen tactical awareness helped her defeat stronger opponents from a very early age, and she came within one match of achieving the Grand Slam in 1997, age 16. Hingis retired in 2002 as the holder of five major titles. A comeback a few years later didn’t yield as much success, but her unique brand of tennis continued to delight fans the world over.
9. Lindsay Davenport, ranked no.1 for 98 weeks between October 1998 and January 2006
Without question one of the nicest players ever to reach the top of the rankings, Lindsay Davenport was also among the first of a new generation of power players. Her serve was strong and accurate, and her groundstrokes cleanly struck, allowing her to dominate opponents from the back of the court. Davenport gradually improved her movement and fitness to become a more complete player, and was rewarded with three Grand Slam titles to go with the Olympic Gold she won as a 20-yearold.
10. Jennifer Capriati, ranked no.1 for 17 weeks between October 2001 and June 2002
Jennifer Capriati’s unusual but highly successful career can be split into two phases. As a youngster, she wowed the tennis world, reaching the semi-finals of the French Open aged 14 and the last four of Wimbledon and the US Open a year later. Burnt out from too much too young, she took a lenghty break from the tour in the mid-1990s, and on her return evolved from a top twenty player to a Grand Slam champion. She won the Australian and French Opens in 2001, and fought off four match points to beat Hingis in the 2002 Australian Open final. Injuries eventually forced her into premature retirement in 2004.
11. Venus Williams, ranked no.1 for 11 weeks between February and July 2002
Venus Williams at her peak was a formidable sight. Tall, willowy and serene, she was nevertheless a remarkable fighter who once saved eight match points to defeat Capriati in Miami. Venus won five Wimbledons and two US Opens, and also reached the finals in Paris and Melbourne. In recent years, an auto-immune disease and various injuries have prevented her from competing regularly, but she is regarded as one of the classiest competitors ever to play the game, as well as one of the most powerful.
12. Serena Williams, ranked no.1 for 144 weeks from July 2002 to present
The younger Williams sister initially had a hard time living up to her father’s declaration that she was better than Venus, but once she found her range, there was no one to touch her. The current world number one is the holder of 16 Grand Slam titles and Olympic Gold, and is more dominant today than ever. Possibly the greatest server in the history of the women’s game, she is also unrivalled in the mental department: time and again, Serena has fought back from hopeless positions to win matches, her focus and self-belief never wavering. The survivor of family tragedy and life-threatening illness, her resolve is legendary. As long as she is healthy and motivated, there appears to be no limit to what Serena can achieve.
13. Kim Clijsters, ranked no.1 for 20 weeks between August 2003 and February 2011
Few players on this list are regarded with as much fondness as Kim Clijsters. The smiling Belgian with the bombastic game reached the top of the rankings long before she won her first Grand Slam title, but she kept believing that she could get her hands on a big one, and finally won the US Open in 2005. She retired in 2007 to have a baby, but, incredibly, came back to the tour in 2009 better than ever. Three more Grand Slam titles followed, along with another stint as world number one. Clijsters played her final match at the 2012 US Open.
14. Justine Henin, ranked no.1 for 117 weeks between October 2003 and May 2008
Undersized she may have been, but that didn’t stop Justine Henin from becoming one of the greatest players of her generation. The 5’5” Belgian’s backhand was always a thing of beauty, but she gradually developed the rest of her game to become a thoroughly dominant player. She won seven Grand Slam titles before her premature retirement in 2008, and her 2010 comeback was gaining traction before an elbow injury put her out of the game for good.
15. Amelie Mauresmo, ranked no.1 for 39 weeks between September 2004 and November 2006
Amelie Mauresmo was an artist on the tennis court, the possessor of a sublime one-handed backhand, powerful serve and excellent volley. Almost too talented, she struggled with nerves and shot selection in the early part of her career, but gradually became a mentally tougher player and won the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2006. Injury and a loss of form led to her retirement in 2009.
16. Maria Sharapova, ranked no.1 for 20 weeks between August 2005 and July 2012
Few who saw it will forget Maria Sharapova’s stunning upset of Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final. It announced the arrival of a player who, although not the most naturally gifted, was a determined competitor of a rare calibre. Sharapova has shown remarkable resilience throughout her career, remodelling her serve after shoulder surgery and constantly striving to improve. She is one of only ten women to win the career Grand Slam, and has many years left in which to add to her trophy cabinet.
17. Ana Ivanovic, ranked no.1 for 12 weeks between June and September 2008
The late 2000s were a time of parity on the women’s tour, and Ana Ivanovic was one of the players who capitalised. She reached the final of the Australian Open in 2008 and went one better at Roland Garros that year, her sole Grand Slam title to date. Ivanovic is a talented player with a formidable, aggressive game, and has climbed back to the top 15 following an ignominious tumble down the rankings. Time will tell if she can regain the form that took her to the top.
18. Jelena Jankovic, ranked no.1 for 18 weeks between August 2008 and February 2009
The first of the “Slamless” number ones on this list, Jelena Jankovic rose to the rankings summit by staying consistent and going deep at the big events. She reached the US Open final in 2008 and won four titles that year, but a gradual loss of form thereafter saw her fall out of the top 20. Recently, she has regained her confidence and pushed the likes of Serena and Sharapova to three sets, but she would need to elevate her game considerably to reclaim a place in the top ten.
19. Dinara Safina, ranked no. 1 for 26 weeks between April and November 2009
Perhaps the least famous of all the WTA’s number one ranked players, Dinara Safina played and won frequently enough to intermittently snatch the top spot from an inconsistent Serena Williams in 2009. Less volatile than her brother Marat, she came closest to Grand Slam glory at the 2009 Australian and French Opens, where she finished runner-up. Alas, a serious back injury forced her off the tour in 2011, and although she hasn’t officially retired, a successful comeback looks unlikely.
20. Caroline Wozniacki, ranked no.1 for 67 weeks between October 2010 and January 2012
Much like the two women who precede her in this list, Caroline Wozniacki crept to the top spot through stealth, the result of a busy playing schedule and consistently excellent, if unspectacular, results. A phenomenal defender able to go an entire set without missing, Wozniacki’s best Grand Slam showing to date came at the 2009 US Open, where she lost the title match to Kim Clijsters. Under constant pressure to “beef up” her game, the Dane is still in the top ten, but many worry that she’s heading in the wrong direction.
21. Victoria Azarenka, ranked no.1 for 51 weeks between January 2012 and February 2013
Having spent several years on the tour as a dark horse who tended to threaten more than she delivered, Victoria Azarenka stepped up a gear in 2011, and won her first Grand Slam title in Melbourne in 2012. Since then, she has lost three times to players not named Serena and Sharapova. With a versatile game and the ability to excel on all surfaces, Azarenka could stay at the top for a long time to come, provided she can shake off the injuries that have dogged her throughout 2013.