What constitutes the greatest? A question pondered by sports fans the world over, and one that presents as especially tricky when comparing individuals across eras and becomes near impossible when you apply it to Women’s Tennis.
Should more weight be given to those who set records in the Open Era? Does domination of just one event count against a player when comparing to an all-court specialist?
RadioTimes.com has considered a variety of factors to identify just who deserves a place in the top ten, from major titles, legacy, longevity, natural talent, play style, and of course, the dreaded head-to-head records.
Let’s take look at just who managed to squeeze out the competition and who can truly be considered an all-time great. No prizes for guessing our number one.
10. Justine Henin
Henin dragged Belgian tennis to the top of the world alongside compatriot Kim Clijsters (herself unlucky to miss out on a place on this list). A year end #1 three times, Henin collected seven Grand Slams in the early 2000s, a remarkable feat in a decade which involved greats of the game both at the beginning and the end of their journeys. Often hailed for a unique mental resilience, it was Henin’s fierce one-handed backhand (a rare sight in the women’s game in the '00s) that was her calling card.
9. Martina Hingis
Hingis blazed the trail for Swiss Tennis superstardom long before Federer had even lifted the Wimbledon title for the first time. The definition of prodigy, Hingis remains the youngest open era Grand Slam champion, capturing her first title at the mere age of 16. And with two more following in the same year (1997) the new, and youngest #1 in history looked set to go toe to toe with a pair of legendary sisters you may find on this list. However, a string of injuries forced Hingis to retire at just 22, and although she did manage a historic return to the doubles court, including multiple Grand Slam titles, her absence from singles meant the Tennis world was robbed of what could have been.
8. Venus Williams
Bursting onto the scene with unrivalled power and prowess, Venus enters this list before her sister, just as she did with her arrival into the game, becoming the first African American woman in the open era to reach the summit of the sport. And while her seven Grand Slam titles might seem modest to some (including five at Wimbledon), if not for her sisters’ greatness, Venus may very well sit near the peak of this pyramid, having run into her sister in nine major finals, losing seven. A run which saw four all Williams finals in a row between 2002-2003, all not going Venus’ way. Regardless of the numbers, there’s no looming shadow here, Venus paved the way for generations of youngsters (including Serena). And despite a whole host of Injury setbacks, continues to play, with 2023 her 30th year on the WTA tour. Unrivalled longevity from a true sporting legend.
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7. Margaret Court
Maybe a surprise to some to see the player with the most slams in history (and maybe the most apt name) not higher up the list. But with 13 of those 24 titles coming before the open era, something must give. Nevertheless, Court remains an all-time great, with her imposing serve and volley style helping her complete the career Grand Slam at just 21. Court remains the only player in the sports history to have won major titles at every slam across all three disciplines of the sport (singles, doubles, mixed doubles) at least twice.
6. Billie Jean King
There a few more recognisable figures in the world of Tennis than BJK. Winner of 39 Grand Slam titles (12 singles, 27 doubles), King was arguably as influential off the court (and still is) as she was on it. A pioneer of equality in Tennis, King was a founding member of the first Women’s professional tour and was the pivotal force behind the US Open becoming the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money for men and women in 1973. To list all King has done for the game would take a lifetime, but as sporting rabbit holes go, you could do worse than tumbling down this one. Undoubtedly one of the most pivotal figures in Tennis history.
5. Monica Seles
Another superstar from the prodigy pool, and arguably the pick of the bunch. Seles won her first major title at 16 (youngest ever before Hingis stole the mantle) and collected eight Grand Slam titles before her 20th birthday. The teenage sensation was (without hyperbole) on course to be the greatest the sport had ever seen, before a horrendous on-court stabbing-attack in April 1993 by a fan of Seles’ great rival Steffi Graf derailed both Seles’ glittering career, and sadly put pay to one of the sports best rivalries. Despite returning to the sport two years later, Seles mustered only one extra slam after 1993, an incredible comeback and achievement that certainly shouldn’t be sniffed at, but it’s impossible not to think of what could have been.
4. Chris Evert
Charged with revolutionising Tennis, Chris Evert was arguably the first out and out baseliner in the Women’s game. Blessed with a brick wall defence and unwavering patience, this counterpunching style led Evert to 18 Grand Slam singles titles, including seven at the French Open (the most for a female player) and saw the American, former world #1 involved in one of the sport’s greatest ever rivalries, facing off in 60 finals, including 14 major finals with another all-time great, Martina Navratilova (Spoiler alert).
3. Steffi Graf
Graf shot to prominence in the late '80s and early '90s and is unlucky to miss out on a spot in the top two. With seven Wimbledon, six French Open, five US Open and four Australian Open titles, numbers were the name of the game for this German Powerhouse. Graf spent a whopping 377 weeks at world #1 across her distinguished career (a record still yet to be beaten), and sits on her own as the only player, male or female to complete the fabled golden slam, winning all four grand slams the Olympics in the same year.
2. Martina Navratilova
Navratilova amassed a whopping 59 Grand Slam titles across all disciplines of the sport (18 singles, 41 doubles) and holds the record for the most Open Era titles (167). A pioneer of modern training for athletes, The Czech American was ahead of her time and ahead of the field in the early '80s, dominating with her aggressive serve and volley style, a trait she utilised to devastating effect in her era spanning rivalries with a few who sit behind her on this list, namely Evert. Navratilova ended arguably the greatest rivalry the Women’s game has seen with a 43-37 lead over Evert, including a 10-4 head-to-head in Grand Slam finals.
1. Serena Williams
In a list of titans separated by fine margins, only one can claim full ownership of one of sports most overly tossed about phrases, and truly claim GOAT status. By whatever metric you care to throw out, be it titles, legacy, global impact, play style, one player rises to the top. 23 singles Grand Slam titles spanning 18 years (plus another 14 with sister Venus) and defeating all before her with a brutal yet elegant game. Her best was simply unbeatable, this is one of Sports rarest of legends, known by one name, she is simply, Serena.