The five best women’s tennis players of the Open Era (beginning in 1968)? I have some thoughts on that:
1. Serena Williams. Williams is my unanimous choice as the No. 1 women’s tennis player in the Open Era. In the opinion of many experts and former tennis greats she is also considered the No. 1 female player in the history of the game. I heartily agree.
There never has been a female player who has hit with the power and consistency that Williams possesses. Her serve has been measured as high as 131 miles an hour, a speed that many male tennis pros never have achieved. When Serena is on her game, everyone else is playing for second place.
Some fans aren’t thrilled with Williams’ persona. I disagree. The 19-time Grand Slam singles champion exudes a joy for the game that is a pleasure to watch. She also holds the most combined major Grand Slams in singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles of any player playing today, man or woman.
She and her sister Venus (an outstanding player in her own right) own 13 Grand Slam doubles titles together. Although Williams will be 34 in August and has suffered numerous injuries and illnesses during her storied career, it is amazing that she still has the physical and mental attributes to be the odds-on favorite to win any tournament she enters.
2. Margaret Court. In 1970, the Australian great won all four Grand Slams (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open). Her remarkable overall record included 24 singles Grand Slam titles and 19 titles in each of open doubles and mixed doubles for an incredible 62 Grand Slam titles. She also won 192 tournaments overall. Both are records that may never be broken.
The question is: If her playing record was so incredible why isn’t Court ahead of Williams in my rankings? First, of the 24 Grand Slam singles titles that Court won, only 11 (compared to Williams’s 19) were in the Open Era. In addition, 11 of her Grand Slam singles titles were in the Australian Open. Through no fault of her own, many of Court’s earlier wins in the Australian Open were against weak competition because most of the top women’s tennis players in the world felt that the tournament was held in remote venues and wasn’t up to the standards of the other Grand Slams. Fortunately, the tournament is the equal of all the Grand Slams today. Although Williams and Court are both phenomenal players, I feel that Williams’ overpowering game would give her a decided edge in head-to-head competition with Court.
3. Steffi Graf. The German born Graf won 22 Grand Slam singles titles. In 1988, she became the only tennis player, male or female, ever to win the “Golden Slam” by winning all four Grand Slam singles titles and the Olympic gold medal. She is also the only tennis player in the Open Era to have won each Grand Slam singles title at least four times.
Graf’s forehand and outstanding court coverage were the keys to her resounding success. In 1999, Graf was named the greatest women’s tennis player of all time by the Associated Press. In 2012, she received a similar honor from the experts on Tennis Channel. If Williams and Graf had played each other at their peak I would definitely give the edge to Williams as she would use her penetrating serve and powerful ground strokes to take advantage of Graf’s slice backhand.
4. Martina Navratilova. The Czech-born star who later became an American citizen was ranked as the world’s No. 1 player in singles for 332 weeks, and for 237 weeks in doubles. This gave her the distinction of being the only player in the history of tennis to have held the No. 1 spot in both singles and doubles for more than 200 weeks. She was also the No. 1 player in the women’s rankings for seven years, including a record five years in a row.
Among her other amazing feats were winning 18 Grand Slam singles titles, including nine in a row at Wimbledon. She was in incredible physical shape and used her outstanding left-handed serve and volley game to dominate on all services. Serving and volleying is practically non-existent on the men’s and women’s tour today. The reason is that the rackets of today are much bigger and more powerful than they were in Navratilova’s day.
In addition, over 90 percent of today’s players use a two-handed backhand rather than a one-hander, which makes it easier to return serves. Navratilova was ranked among the top 10 women in the world from 1974-1994. Perhaps her most incredible feat was winning the U.S. Open mixed doubles title with Bob Bryan when she was almost 50. Navratilova would have found that playing serve and volley against Williams’ formidable ground strokes would have resulted in a sure loss if they had played each other in their prime.
5. Chris Evert. If you have ever looked at films from years ago that showed Evert playing tennis you might have thought that she looked like she was playing in slow motion. Looks can be deceiving as she is regarded ay many as the greatest women’s clay court player in tennis history.
She holds the all-time women’s record of winning seven French Open singles titles among her overall 18 Grand Slam singles wins. Although power was not her forte, her ground strokes, consistency, and court placement were impeccable, making her a very tough opponent to defeat. Her incredible record of at least reaching the semifinals of 52 out of 56 Grand Slam singles tournaments from 1971-1983 is one of the most amazing feats by any player, man or woman, in tennis annals.
The Florida-born Evert had a career winning percentage in singles matches of 89.96 (1309-146), which is the highest winning percentage of any woman in the Open Era. She retired from playing on the pro tour in 1989 at the age of 35. Of the players that I have ranked from 2-5, I feel that Williams would have her easiest match with Evert as Evert could not have possibly coped with Williams’ all-around power game.
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