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cover story: april 2005

Who was the Greatest Female Player Ever?

If granted one tennis wish, Id travel in a time machine and savor a dream match between high-flying divas Suzanne Lenglen and Martina Navratilova, with all the theatrics that would inevitably ensue. Other time-travelers might choose a baseline battle between relentless heavy hitters Helen Wills and Steffi Graf, or an athletic Big Babe showdown featuring Margaret Court against Serena Williams.

Navratilova backers unequivocally select her for the mythical greatest ever title. Proponents of Lenglen and Wills, who had near-perfect records between the two world wars, also stake their claims. And how about Court and Graf, the career leaders in Grand Slam titles?

How thoroughly and for how long the great ones dominated their generations will serve as the overriding criteria for this debate, with the quality of the opposition also taken into consideration.

To truly dominate, a star must consistently prevail on all surfaces, and no one did that better than Steffi Graf. Consider this: On her least productive surface, clay, the fraulein with the fearsome forehand captured six French Open titles!

Who can forget her dramatic tour de force at Roland Garros in 99? Not only did Graf become the first Open Era woman to beat the top three players in the world at the same event Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis but in a wild 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 final, her poise and professionalism contrasted sharply with the Swiss teens unsporting antics.

Although Graf, a svelte 5-foot-9 blonde, was not a serve-and-volleyer, she dethroned the ultimate grass court practitioner, Navratilova, at Wimbledon in 88. Seemingly unstoppable with six straight Wimby titles, the ex-Czech streaked to a 7-5, 2-0 lead before the equally athletic Graf whacked winners galore to take the final 5-7, 6-2, 6-1. Grafs powerful serve and vicious backhand slice complemented her booming forehand on grass as she racked up seven Wimbledon crowns, fewer only than Navratilovas nine and Wills eight.

Graf also amassed nine Grand Slam titles on hard courts, five at the U.S. Open and four at the Australian Open, making her the only male or female to win each Slam at least four times.

As much as Navratilova might yearn for the unofficial greatest ever accolade, in 96 she conceded, Steffi is the best all-around player of all time, regardless of the surface.

The recurrent back and knee ailments and assorted illnesses that periodically sidelined the German made the Graf Era all the more remarkable. Equally injurious was her unstable father, Peter, who undermined her career in 90 after so skillfully guiding it for years. Sensational stories revealed his extramarital affair with a call girl who was trying to extort $400,000. After upset losses at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, Graf confided, I could not fight as usual because of all the turmoil. Tennis is a game won with the head, and lately my head has not been on tennis. Graf was rocked by another scandal when Peter was imprisoned for tax evasion while managing her fortune.

Still, in 88, this intense perfectionist pulled off an unprecedented Golden Slam: winning all four major titles, plus the Olympic gold medal. In four other dominant years, 89, 93, 95 and 96, she captured three Slam crowns each. Her total of 22 majors was more impressive than Courts record 24, but more about that later.

Martina Navratilova
Margaret Court and Helen Wills  
Suzanne Lenglen  
Chris Evert and Billie Jean King  
Maureen Connelly
Greatest Female Player, Top 10
Monica Seles and Serena Williams  

To clinch my case for Graf as the greatest ever, I submit that she was ranked No. 1 eight times, No. 2 twice and No. 3 once. During Grafs 83-99 career, she faced stellar opposition from Chris Evert, Navratilova, Seles, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Gabriela Sabatini, Hingis, Davenport and budding stars Venus and Serena Williams.

When Grafs mother Heidi asked her why she never smiled on court, her fiercely competitive daughter replied, Would you rather see me smile or win? Her grimly stoical demeanor belied Grafs enormous joy. Announcing that she would continue to play in 99, Steffi confided, Tennis is my life. I need the fabulous emotions playing tennis gives me.

Passion may explain one requisite for greatness, because after winning her seventh doubles title in 03, Martina Navratilova, 47 years young, chirped, Im so excited about next year I cant stand it.

Martina joined the pro tour at 16, in 73, when rackets were mostly wood, balls were white, the Australian and U.S. Opens were contested on grass and Billie Jean whipped Bobby in the Battle of the Sexes that helped ignite the tennis boom. That same year the Womens Tennis Association was born and a tournament, the U.S. Open, actually offered equal prize money to men and women. It was an auspicious time for the very modern Martina to arrive. Two years later, Navratilova courageously defected from Czechoslovakia to America, where she knew her prodigious talent could blossom.

By 90 the muscular, 5-foot-8, 145-pound lefty had won 18 Grand Slam titles. Navratilova might well have collected more had she not skipped the Aussie and French Opens (which had declined in stature) five times each in the 1970s.

Nerves sometimes betrayed Martina, however, and she lost a stunning 14 Grand Slam finals. She especially struggled at the U.S. Open, which she didnt win until her 11th attempt, although she then captured it four times in five years.

Her glittering resume also boasts three Aussie and two French crowns and eight WTA Championships, along with a perfect 20-0 record in Fed Cup play. All told, Navratilova grabbed 167 singles titles, an Open Era record. She was ranked No. 1 seven times, No. 2 and No. 3 thrice each.

Blessed with superb hand-eye coordination, strength, reflexes, agility and speed, Navratilova took the compelling art of serve-and-volleying to new heights. She and baseliner Evert thrilled crowds for 16 years with an 80-match rivalry (43-37 for Navratilova), which far surpasses any other in womens sports history.

Martina revolutionized training methods. The Bionic Woman, as she was dubbed, was created in the early 80s by Nancy Liebermans punishing conditioning program, Rick Elsteins reflex training, Mike Esteps analytical coaching and nutritionist Robert Haas low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet and 39 different blood tests a month. When asked who was the greatest player ever, Graf replied, For me, she [Navratilova] is the uncontested No. 1; she has left a mark on the sport like no one else.

Helen Wills, a Phi Beta Kappa at the University of California, aspired for something higher than being No. 1 or even dominating her generation. I know I would hate life if I were deprived of trying, hunting, working for some objective within which there lies the beauty of perfection, she wrote. Ah, elusive perfection. Yet during the zenith of her brilliant career, from 27 to 32, Wills not only won every match she played 158 straight but also prevailed in every set to achieve the perfection she coveted.

Little Miss Poker Face, as she was called by Grantland Rice, showed her emotions about as often as she lost. Wills captured a phenomenal 19 of the 22 majors she played, plus a then-record eight Wimbledons, seven U.S. Championships and four French crowns and reached the final three other times. Had she taken the long boat journey to Australia, she undoubtedly would have amassed many more majors. Helens expression rarely varied and she always tended strictly to business, wrote doubles star George Lott, but her opponents were never in doubt as to what she held: an excellent service, a powerful forehand, a strong backhand, a killer instinct, and no weaknesses. Five of a kind! Who would want to draw against that kind of hand?

Certainly not some of her male practice partners. In a hard-fought San Francisco exhibition against her friend Phil Neer, Wills beat the former NCAA champion and eighth-ranked American man 6-3, 6-4. The AP, in its 1950 rankings of the players of the first half-century, put Wills No. 1 and Suzanne Lenglen No. 2.

While they were not archrivals because they only played once, their ballyhooed encounter at an otherwise forgettable tournament on the French Riviera in 26 became a classic. La Grande Suzanne, in her prime at 26, triumphed 6-3, 8-6 over the less-experienced college girl, but not before hundreds of reporters and cameramen and an overflow crowd filled with distinguished guests witnessed sensational shotmaking, theatrics and controversy. Ferdinand Tuohy wrote that the match was a simple game of tennis, yet a game which made continents stand still and was the most important sporting event of modern times exclusively in the hands of the fairer sex.

After the Great War, Lenglen became a national figure, the symbol of resurgent French pride. Her fiery Gallic temperament combined with her daring mid-calf skirt and sleeveless dress, colorful bandeaux, gold bracelet, lipstick (she was the first to wear it on court at Wimbledon), all-court athleticism and balletic grace made her tennis first female superstar. Indeed, the imperious Bill Tilden, a magnetic figure of the Golden Age of Sports, admitted that Lenglen was the only player who was a bigger draw than he was.

From 19 to 26, the incomparable Lenglen captured six Wimbledons and six French titles and, astoundingly, lost only twice in tournaments, defaults caused by illness. She never played the Australian, but her sole visit to the U.S. Championships in 21 proved a disaster. Suffering from bronchitis and coughing, Lenglen lost the first set to defending champion Molla Mallory and then retired, weeping, with unsympathetic fans and reporters calling her a quitter.

Lenglen was such a phenomenal performer that the French Davis Cup committee asked permission to include her on their team. While the record gives a razor-thin edge to Wills over Lenglen, when asked in 41 who was better, Elizabeth Ryan, the 19-time Wimbledon doubles champion who played and partnered them both, replied, Suzanne, of course. She owned every kind of shot, plus a genius for knowing how and when to use them. Even Tilden, who never disguised his contempt for Lenglen, wrote, For sheer genius and perfect technique, Lenglen was the greatest woman star of all time.

Purely by the numbers, namely her all-time-record 24 Slam singles titles, Margaret Smith Court towers above them all. But on closer inspection, her resume looks less awesome. Eleven of her major titles were at the Aussie Open, the least prestigious of the Big Four championships. Furthermore, from 60, when Mighty Maggie first won it as a 17-year-old, to her final triumph in 73, the fields were decidedly weak. Among the elite, Billie Jean King played there only thrice; Maria Bueno, Virginia Wade, Nancy Richey, Rosie Casals and Ann Haydon twice; Darlene Hard once.

Nervousness King called it the old el foldo occasionally got the better of Court, particularly at Wimbledon, which she won only three times. Court, now a lay minister in Perth, once said she would have won six Wimbledon singles titles if Id known ...about the study of the word of God and the power of it.

Nonetheless, the 5-foot-10, 156-pound Court blended a classic serve-and-volley game with aggressive groundies to rank No. 1 seven times and No. 2 twice. She achieved the second womens Grand Slam in 70, was unbeaten in 20 Fed Cup matches and captured a mind-boggling 194 singles titles. Courts legacy was to pioneer training methods for women. As a skinny 15-year-old, she left home to train with 50s champion Frank Sedgman and physical culturist Stan Nicholes and worked to gain strength and speed by lifting weights, running intense sprints and doing a wide range of exercises, a first for women players. Noting the marvelous specimen that Court had become, King visited Sedgman to copy the grueling regimen. John Newcombe rated Court undoubtedly the most athletic woman player Ive seen. Stronger than most men.

Extraordinary consistency at a very high level, rather than dominance, marked the 19-year career of Chris Evert. Unlike Graf, Navratilova, Wills and Court, she never won three or more Slam crowns in a year. Evert did, however, win 18 majors, highlighted by seven French and six U.S. Opens, to tie Navratilova for fourth place. She finished No. 1 five times and No. 2 seven times and notched a gaudy 40-2 Fed Cup record.

The 5-foot-6 Floridian also parlayed her accurate, error-free-groundstrokes game into three records that will likely never be broken: winning at least one Grand Slam title for 13 straight years, reaching the semis or better in her first 33 majors and winning 125 consecutive matches on clay.

Chris America, our girl-next-door sweetheart, will be remembered for her riveting rivalry with Navratilova, for her appealing femininity, and for helping to popularize the two-handed backhand (along with Connors, her former fiance, and Borg). But Chrissies most lasting legacy was impeccable sportsmanship and grace under pressure. A survey in 91, two years after she retired, revealed that she was the most recognized athlete (92 percent) among Americans over 13.

On our Top 10 list, Billie Jean King places just behind Evert at No. 7, but she transcended tennis even more. As the 12-year-old daughter of a Long Beach fireman, she vowed to change a sport she found elitist, stuffy and discriminatory. She tirelessly led the charge to create the ground-breaking Virginia Slims Circuit, championed equal prize money, founded (with her husband, Larry) and became the commissioner of World TeamTennis, was the first woman to coach a pro team (the Philadelphia Freedoms) with men and founded and was president of the Womens Tennis Association.

How the did she find the time, energy and focus to also win 12 Grand Slam singles titles (plus 27 in doubles), highlighted by six Wimbledon crowns? Like her good friend Navratilova, King served and volleyed brilliantly. But King handled pressure far better Court praised her as the greatest competitor Ive ever known. BJK lost only six Slam finals. Despite a series of knee surgeries, King managed to be ranked No. 1 five times and No. 2 on four occasions. She also sparked the U.S. to seven Fed Cup titles, going 26-3 in singles. About her inextinguishable passion, King once said: Ask Nureyev to stop dancing, ask Sinatra to stop singing then you can ask me to stop playing tennis. For changing tennis, the iconic King was named No. 5 on Sports Illustrateds Top 40 Athletes list for the previous 40 years in 94.

Greatest Female Player, Imagine

Greatest Female Player, Criteria

Greatest Female Player, California players

King once said that Maureen Connolly might have smashed all the records had not a horseback riding accident injured her leg and prematurely ended her short but sensational career in 54. Who could argue with that? In 51, Connolly won the U.S. title at 16 and then remained undefeated at Slams and lost only four matches anywhere.

Dubbed Little Mo for her booming and unerring ground strokes a reference to the big guns of Big Mo, the battleship Missouri the 5-foot-4 Connolly shot down distinguished champions such as Doris Hart, Louise Brough, Margaret Osborne duPont and Shirley Fry during her meteoric reign. She grabbed nine majors, including three each at Wimbledon and Forest Hills, dropping only one set in those finals. Connolly joined the immortals in 53 when she became the first woman to win the Grand Slam.

Like Lenglen, the obsessed Connolly fascinated the public, but was not as happy as she looked, confiding that I have always believed greatness on a tennis court was my destiny, a dark destiny, at times, where the court became my secret jungle and I, a lonely, fear-stricken hunter. I was a strange little girl armed with hate, fear, and a Golden Racket.

Nearly 40 years later, another driven but happier teen queen with devastating groundies suffered a bitter tragedy in her early prime. Monica Seles, a rare double-hander on both sides, had taken command of her exciting rivalry with Graf, beating her in a high-caliber Aussie Open final in 93 for her eighth Grand Slam crown. Three months later, during a changeover in Hamburg, a crazed German fan of Grafs stabbed Seles in the back. While the wound was not life-threatening, the traumatized Seles did not return to competition for 27 months. She battled migraine headaches until 97 and was never the same again, winning only one more major, the 96 Aussie, over a relatively weak field. Critics contend that Seles stayed away far too long and became a player who was consistently out of shape. Supporters insist that, if not for the stabbing, Seles, not Graf, would have ruled the 90s.

Several contenders vie for the No. 10 spot among the all-time greats. In the late 30s, Alice Marble was the first female to use the serve-and-volley attack. She won four U.S. titles and a Wimbledon, and would have won many more had she not been dogged by injuries and illness (anemia and pleurisy) and had she not turned pro in 40.

Pauline Betz is rarely mentioned on greatest-ever lists, but cognoscenti know better. Jack Kramer wrote that Betz was the second best player (after Wills) hed ever seen. From 42 to 46, the popular Betz used her splendid backhand, speed, stamina and competitiveness to capture five Slam titles and was ranked No. 1 four times. After the USLTA suspended her from amateur play in 47 for merely discussing professionalism, Bobbie topped the pro ranks for seven years.

From the late 50s to the mid 60s, Brazils Maria Bueno captured four U.S. and three Wimbledon titles and captivated fans with her sultry beauty and pretty dresses as much as her stylish strokes.

With a serene temperament and shot-making nonchalance, Aussie Evonne Goolagong enchanted spectators around the world. A Wiradjuri Aborigine, the daughter of an itinerant sheep shearer, she won Wimbledon twice, the Australian four times and Roland Garros once and reached 11 other major finals from 71 to 80.

An African-American also from humble beginnings, Serena Williams gets my vote for the No. 10 spot. At 23, immensely talented and powerful, Serena has already won two Wimbledons, two U.S. Opens, two Australians and a French title for a career Grand Slam. As King said, Serenas got great body strength, she has a strong mind. Theres no weakness, really. Forehand, backhand, serve. Shes very fluid. Shes got everything.

© 2005 INSIDE TENNIS All rights reserved.

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