The sport of tennis has been around for more than 100 years and is one of the few sports where both the men and the women share the spotlight equally. Here, we'll attempt to shine a light at some of those women who have made an impact on the sport. Whether their accomplishments brought attention to the sport, brought equality to the sex or simply dominated their peers, the following women champions have shaped the game.
Martina Navratilova is often in the conversation among the all-time great tennis players, men or women. It's not hard to understand why just by looking at the numbers. She's won more singles and doubles titles than any other player in the Open Era, with 18 Grand slam singles titles, 31 doubles titles (an all-time record), and 10 mixed doubles. Her fitness allowed her to win an Open Era record of 74 consecutive matches and notch a major mixed doubles title at the Australian Open in 2003, making her the oldest player to win a Grand Slam title.
As the most prolific American in the women's tour since the beginning of the Open Era, Chris Evert captivated American tennis fans during her period of dominance in the mid-'70s and '80s. She won a total of 157 singles titles, with 18 of them from major tournaments, and is one of 10 women to capture a career Grand Slam. Perhaps she is best remembered for being a part of one of the greatest tennis rivalries of all time with another tennis legend, Martina Navratilova.
When it comes to physically dominating her opponent, no one does it better than Serena Williams. Owning perhaps the single greatest stroke in women's tennis, her serve, Serena has powered her way into winning 15 Grand Slam singles titles, three WTA Championships and an Olympic Gold Medal, making her one of the very few men or women tennis players to earn a Career Golden Slam. Her ability to dominate the Grand Slams despite not playing in the other smaller tournaments has led many to believe the WTA rankings don't accurately represent who should be the top-ranked player.
As the other half of tennis' most dominant pair of sisters, Venus Williams captured five Wimbledon singles titles and two U.S. Open singles titles. But when paired together, the Williams sisters have found tremendous success winning Grand Slams as a doubles team, winning 13 major titles, as well as capturing the Gold medal in women's doubles the past three Olympic Games. Venus also played a crucial role in granting equal prize money to women at Wimbledon and the French Open when she penned an editorial to The Times arguing that women should receive equal pay at these two major tournaments. The editorial launched a campaign that would eventually convince the two tournaments to grant equal prize money to men and women in 2007.
Billie Jean King
Known for her extreme competitiveness, Billie Jean King was the one tennis player you could never count out until the final point was won or lost. She used her aggressive style of play to capture all four Grand Slam titles, eventually winning 12 major titles by the end of her career. But King did much to raise the public image and awareness of women's tennis; she's best remembered for competing against Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, and she constantly fought for gender equality in tennis. In honor of her contributions to American tennis, the United States Tennis Association renamed the USTA National Tennis Center to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where the U.S. Open is held annually.
With the recent dominance of the Williams sisters, it's easy to forget that there was a time when the color barrier hadn't yet been broken. Althea Gibson was the first black women's tennis player, and also the first black player of either sex to win a major title when she won the French Open in 1956. She went on to win two Wimbledons and two U.S. Opens, as well as capture a career Grand Slam in women's doubles. For her perseverance during those tough and segregated times, she was inducted to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971 and her name now belongs among the U.S. Open Court of Champions.
It's difficult to fathom just how long Steffi Graf dominated the women's tour. Over the span of 13 years, Graf nearly won half of the Grand Slams, nabbing 22 out of the possible 52, and setting the record for most major titles in the Open Era. She's won each Grand Slam no less than four times each and is the only tennis player to have claimed the illustrious Calendar Year Golden Slam in 1988, when she won all four majors as well as the Olympic Gold Medal. Her all-court game and athleticism has been unparalleled since.
Margaret Court is the most successful tennis player, man or woman, at the major stage. She's won 24 singles titles, 19 doubles titles and 19 mixed doubles titles for a grand total of 64 major wins. In today's era where tennis players either specialize in singles or doubles, this record is highly unlikely to be broken. Her long reach and agile movement allowed her to dictate rallies from the net, and her athleticism and fitness were unmatched during her prime. In honor of her success and contribution to the sport, she is a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame and has been awarded the International Tennis Federation's highest honor, the Philippe Chatrier Award.
Suzanne Lenglen may have played tennis at a time when it was acceptable to sip brandy between changeovers, but her game is still the envy of many modern tennis players. The charismatic French woman took her graceful court movement to a whole new level in the 1920s, when she was nearly unbeatable. Her popularity and success were mostly in Europe, where she won the French Open twice and Wimbledon six times. Aside from her Grand Slam successes, she also won two gold medals in the 1920 Olympic Games at Antwerp for the women's singles and the mixed doubles. The secondary show stadium at Roland Garros now bears her name to commemorate France's La Divine.
Monica Seles's career is one of the sport's greatest "what-ifs." As the youngest French Open Champion at 16, Seles's potential for greatness seemed limitless. From 1990 to 1993, she would continue to fulfill her path towards tennis immortality when she won another seven major titles, making it a total of eight Grand Slam titles out of the possible 11 tournaments she contested. However, her winning momentum was cut short when a deranged fan stabbed her on-court. It would take her another two-and-a-half years before she would start competing again. Her aggressive and powerful baseline game was essentially the precursor of many of today's women power hitters like the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova.
When she passed away in 1998, The New York Times called her "the first American-born woman to achieve international celebrity as an athlete." When you look at her list of accomplishments, it's not hard to imagine why. Despite never playing in the Australian Open, Willis still managed to amass a total of 19 major titles out of the 24 major tournaments she entered. She faced the legendary Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen in a wildly anticipated match in Cannes. Although Lenglen won the closely contested and only match, she avoided Willis for fear of losing to the American.
Along with Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati ushered in the wave of "power players." Unlike Seles, Capriati was barely out of her early teens. In 1990, she reached the French Open semifinal on her debut and became the youngest player to crack the top 10 in October of that year. Despite her early success, she was also an example of what happens when fame and fortune arrive too early. In a period of two years between 1994 and 1995, she struggled personally with arrests for shoplifting and possession of marijuana. However, she eventually managed to regain focus; in 2001, she used her talent to take the ball on the rise to hit powerful groundstrokes to put together her most successful year.
For a period of time, Evonne Goolagong was almost guaranteed a spot in the final. From 1973 to 1977, she reached the final of the 16 Grand Slams she entered, winning six of them. The Australian relied more on her deft touch than brute force, and her ability to carve angles at the net often drew comparisons to John McEnroe. Born from an Aboriginal family, she sometimes faced the ugliness of racial discrimination. In a tournament in South Africa, she had to be declared an "honorary white" to spare her from the racial discrimination prevalent in the country at the time. She ended her career with a total of seven Grand Slam titles and earning a spot in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Justine Henin was an anomaly of women's modern tennis. Power players like the Williams sisters, who can hit anyone off the court from the baseline, were at the top of the women's game, winning major after major. But Henin reminded everyone that hitting the ball hard isn't everything. Using a repertoire that included spins, slices, angles and perhaps the game's most picturesque backhand, the petite Belgian was able to defuse the power of other top players and capture seven Grand Slam singles titles.
It's incredible how anyone so young could accomplish so much. Despite losing the second round of her first two attempts in the U.S. Open, she finally broke through to the win the title in 1951, making her the youngest tennis player to win the U.S. Open. But at just 18 years old, Maureen Connolly put together one of the most dominant performances at the major stage. In 1953, after hiring a new coach, Connolly won all four major titles and became the first woman and only second person overall to win a calendar Grand Slam. Her achievement put her in the national spotlight as she became the Associated Press's Female Athlete of the Year.