cover story: april 2005
If granted one tennis wish, I’d 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 teen’s 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. Graf’s powerful serve and vicious backhand
slice complemented her booming forehand on grass as she racked
up seven Wimbledon crowns, fewer only than Navratilova’s
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
Court’s record 24, but more about that later.
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 Graf’s ‘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 Graf’s 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 Graf’s 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,
“I’m so excited about next year I can’t stand
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 Women’s 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 didn’t 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 women’s sports history.
Martina revolutionized training methods. The “Bionic Woman,”
as she was dubbed, was created in the early ‘80s by Nancy
Lieberman’s punishing conditioning program, Rick Elstein’s
“reflex training,” Mike Estep’s 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. “Helen’s 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
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 I’d 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 women’s
Grand Slam in ‘70, was unbeaten in 20 Fed Cup matches and
captured a mind-boggling 194 singles titles. Court’s 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 I’ve seen. Stronger than
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 Chrissie’s 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
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 Women’s Tennis
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 I’ve
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 Illustrated’s Top 40 Athletes list for the
previous 40 years in ‘94.
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 Graf’s 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) he’d 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, Brazil’s
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, “Serena’s got great body
strength, she has a strong mind. There’s no weakness, really.
Forehand, backhand, serve. She’s very fluid. She’s
INSIDE TENNIS All rights reserved.