- A look at the greatest female tennis players in history, including the likes of Serena Williams and Margaret Court.
- The debate about who among Graf, Navratilova and Serena is the best will never end, but the stats give a few clues.
Making a list of ‘best of all time’ is a highly subjective proposition, especially in women’s tennis where we have been spoiled with a plethora of great champions. Since women were first allowed to participate in Grand Slam tennis at Wimbledon in 1884, the sport has seen 135 different Grand Slam champions – from Maud Watson in 1884 to Sofia Kenin at the Australian Open 2020.
30 different women have won at least five Grand Slam singles titles. And out of those, 10 have managed to complete the ‘Career Grand Slam’, that is, winning all four Majors at least once.
As difficult as it is to choose the best from these world-beating women and then ranking them in order of greatness, we have compiled a list of seven players who stand out.
#7 Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King, despite being only seventh on this list, is perhaps the most influential tennis player of all time – among both men and women.
Along with being a feminist icon of the 20th century, Billie Jean King also dominated women’s tennis in the 1960s and 70s. Without King, women’s tennis would have been at least two decades behind where it is today, and perhaps still serving as a backdrop to the men’s category.
King is the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the governing body of women’s tennis today. Even if it meant risking her own tennis career, the American stood up for the betterment and unity of female tennis players.
However, that is not to say that Billie Jean King didn’t have an illustrious tennis career. King is one of just 10 female tennis players to have completed the Career Grand Slam, and her 12 singles titles places her sixth in the all-time list.
Between 1966 to 1975, Billie Jean King won six titles at Wimbledon, four at the US Open and a title apiece at Roland Garros and the Australian Open.
n addition to her singles exploits, King also won 16 Grand Slam doubles titles – including 10 at Wimbledon and five at the US Open. She won one doubles titles at Roland Garros but fell in the Australian Open final twice.
King won all four Grand Slams in the mixed doubles category for a total of 11 titles, to take her tally to 39 Slams across all three categories. If not for her misses in the Australian Open doubles, she would have been one of four ladies to have won the career Boxed Set.
Also, who can forget the insane ‘Battle of the Sexes’, where Billie Jean King famously knocked the patriarchy out of good old Bobby Riggs? King made short work of Riggs in three straightforward sets, heralding a revolution in the sport.
#6 Monica Seles
When a 15-year-old Monica Seles burst on to the scene in 1989, she stunned almost everyone in the tennis world – including a certain Steffi Graf.
Seles played with an unconventional two-handed forehand and possessed amazing retrieving skills, fitness and speed. She was an all-out aggressive player, who hit winners at will while standing inside the baseline to return serves.
By the end of 1989 (her first year on tour), Monica Seles was ranked as high as number six in the world.
The next year, Seles went on a 36-match winning streak. Her win at 1990 Roland Garros made her the youngest Grand Slam singles winner (16 years, six months) in the Open Era, before Martina Hingis broke that record seven years later.
By the 1993 Australian Open, Seles had a total of eight Grand Slam titles – only three behind that of the then 23-year-old Steffi Graf. And this was even before Seles had turned 20.
The Yugoslav phenom had the opportunity to complete the coveted ‘Calendar Slam’ (winning all four Majors in the same calendar year) in 1992 at the age of 18, but fell to Graf in a lopsided Wimbledon final.
Despite winning eight Grand Slam titles as a teenager, Monica Seles remains one of the most poignant stories in the history of tennis. It’s a story of what might have been if not for a deranged idiot named Gunter Parche attacking her at Hamburg in 1993.
Seles was leading in her quarterfinal match against Magdalena Maleeva, when Parche rushed on to the court from the stands and stabbed her in the back. The World No. 1 was rushed to hospital, where she received extensive treatment.
Seles’ physical injuries healed in a few weeks, but the mental scars lingered for a long time. She was never the same player again.
The perpetrator had a sick obsession over Steffi Graf, whom Seles had beaten in the the Australian Open final earlier that year. Parche attacked Seles because he wanted his favorite to return to the No. 1 position, but he didn’t spend a day of jail-time as courts in Germany deemed him to be psychologically abnormal.
Seles, on her part, vowed never to play tennis in Germany again.
After a hiatus of over 27 months, Monica Seles returned to tennis in 1995. And she looked mighty impressive too, as she won her comeback tournament and reached the final at the US Open (where she fell to Graf).
Now representing the United States after changing her nationality from Yugoslavia, Seles won her fourth Australian Open title in 1996. It turned out to be her final Grand Slam singles title though, as she failed to consistently produce her best tennis after her comeback from the stabbing incident.
Seles reached two more Grand Slam finals but lost to Graf and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario respectively, before playing her last competitive tennis match in 2003.
Many experts feel that had it not been for the unfortunate incident, Seles could have become one of the greatest women tennis players of all time. Navratilova even said that her fellow left-hander might have gone past Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slam singles tally of 24 titles.
Monica Seles might well have been ranked much higher than sixth on this list if not for the dirty side of human obsession. But that’s a hypothetical discussion, and unfortunately we can’t make a list based on what might have been.
Nevertheless, Monica Seles holds the record for the most Grand Slam singles titles won by a tennis player as a teenager. And that’s one record that is unlikely to be broken any time soon.
#5 Margaret Court
Margaret Court was among the earliest players to incorporate fitness and weight training into tennis. And it paid rich dividends for her on the tennis court, as she enjoyed a long career unhindered by injuries.
Court holds the all-time record for most Grand Slam singles titles (24) by a player, male or female. In addition, Court also won 19 doubles Grand Slam titles and 21 in mixed doubles, taking her total Slam haul to a record 64 titles – again, the most by any player in the history of tennis.
Court is one of only three players to complete the Career Grand Slam in all three categories (singles, doubles and mixed doubles), a term known as the ‘Boxed Set’. Moreover, she is the only one to achieve the Boxed Set on multiple occasions.
The Australian won a title in all but one of the three categories across all four Grand Slam tournaments on at least three occasions; she won two doubles titles at Wimbledon.
Margaret Court holds the unique distinction of winning the career Grand Slam either side of the Open Era. The Australian is also the only tennis player to win the Calendar Grand Slam in both singles (1970) and mixed doubles categories (1963 and 1965).
Court had an impressive 82.76% win record in Grand Slam singles finals, losing only five times in 29 final appearances.
But despite these astonishing records, many argue against Margaret Court’s claim to be the undisputed ‘greatest’ of all time. 13 of Court’s 24 Grand Slam singles titles came before the Open era began in 1968. Perhaps even more importantly, 11 of her 24 Majors came at the Australian Open – at a time when many top players used to skip the tournament.
Margaret Court holds the all-time record for most career titles won in singles (192). But as 92 of these titles came in the Open Era, Court ranks fourth behind Navratilova, Chris Evert and Steffi Graf.
There will always be a debate about whether Court’s achievements from the pre-Open Era and at the Australian Open should carry the same weight as the other greats in history. But there are also many experts who don’t place much importance on the mitigating factors, believe that Court should unequivocally be considered the greatest female tennis player of all time.
Whichever side of the debate you fall on, it can’t be denied that Court’s records are impressive enough to place her among – at the very least – the five greatest female tennis players of all time.
#4 Chris Evert
In the late 1970s, Chris Evert started a rivalry for the ages with Martina Navratilova – one that is still regarded as one of the greatest ever in all of tennis.
Known popularly as the ‘Cinderella in sneakers’, Evert’s powerful baseline game helped her amass 18 Grand Slam singles titles. That tally has been bettered by only four other players in the history of women’s tennis.
Evert had an utterly astounding 90% win rate in the 1,455 competitive singles matches she played during her 17-year long career. She also won a record eight Fed Cup titles with the United States.
In the 56 Grand Slam singles tournaments that Evert played during her career, she failed to make the last four on only four occasions. And three of those instances came at the end of her career, after her 18th Slam at Roland Garros 1986.
Chris Evert holds the record of most Grand Slam singles finals (34) by any tennis player, male or female, in the history of the sport.
At her peak, Evert made 34 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals in the tournaments she played. Her streak was finally broken at Wimbledon 1983, where she fell in the Round of 32 to fellow American Kathy Jordan.
Chris Evert holds the record for most consecutive years winning at least one Grand Slam singles title, doing so in 13 consecutive years from 1974 to 1986. Evert also reached a Grand Slam singles final in 14 consecutive years, from 1973 to 1986.
Her tally of five Grand Slam singles titles won without dropping a set is only bettered by the duo of Martina Navratilova and Serena Williams (six apiece).
Evert was the first player to win more than 1000 singles matches as well as 150 singles tournaments. She was the first female tennis player to reach the $1 million dollar mark in prize money.
Evert was also the ‘Queen of Clay’, winning the French Open singles title a record seven times. She won 125 consecutive matches on the surface between 1973 to 1979, losing only eight sets through the period. That streak continues to stand out among both men and women, with even the ‘King of Clay’ Rafael Nadal managing to win ‘only’ 81 consecutive matches on the red dirt.
Evert’s rivalry with Navratilova remains extra special due to the remarkable friendship shared by the two legends off the court. It’s rare to see two fierce on-court rivals in singles partnering up and winning doubles Slams, but Evert and Navratilova did just that.
#3 Martina Navratilova
What more can anyone say about Martina Navratilova’s longevity? Words fall short to describe her 32-year long career (with a six-year hiatus in between).
Complementing the dominance of Chris Evert in the late 1970s, Navratilova began a tug of war with the American for Grand Slam titles that lasted more than a decade. And in the late 1980s, she took on the young prodigy Steffi Graf head on to create a classic old-timer vs newcomer showdown.
In a singles career spanning around 22 years, Martina Navratilova won 18 Grand Slam titles. That includes a rich haul of nine titles at Wimbledon, which is a record by any player, male or female.
One of the toughest competitors in tennis history, Navratilova never gave up no matter the opponent or the match situation. After briefly quitting tennis in 1994 at the age of 38, Navratilova returned to the tour in 2000 to further her doubles career.
But she didn’t return to the doubles circuit just to be a journeywoman in her late 40s. Navratilova kept winning big titles – including a bunch of Majors – well into her second career. In fact, she retired from tennis as a Grand Slam champion, after winning the US Open mixed doubles title in 2006 with Bob Bryan – who was almost half her age.
By the time she called it quits for good in 2006, only a month short of her 50th birthday, Navratilova had amassed 31 doubles Majors and 10 in mixed doubles (in addition to her 18 singles Slams).
Like Margaret Court, Navratilova is one of only only three women to win the Boxed Set – singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at all the four Majors. Navratilova achieved the Boxed Set at a much older age than the other two though, when she was 45 (by winning the mixed doubles title at Australian Open 2003).
Navratilova holds the record for most consecutive years winning at least one singles title, doing so in 21 consecutive years between 1974 and 1994. The left-hander also qualified for the year-ending championships in each of those years, which is a record by quite some distance.
Navratilova was as much a champion off the tennis court as she was on it. She was one of the first openly gay professional athletes, and she fought for gay rights in sports while also voicing her opposition to the political regimes of the former Eastern-bloc nations.
Originally from Czechoslovakia, Navratilova was stripped of her citizenship by the then authoritarian regime in the country. She later went on to represent the United States.
Martina Navratilova holds a number of significant records in women’s tennis. Her eight wins at the year-end championships are the most by any female tennis player. Navratilova’s 167 career singles titles and 177 in doubles are the most by any tennis player in history, while she also holds the record of most singles matches played (1661) and won (1442) by any player.
The left-hander became the first player to win six Grand Slam singles titles in the Open Era without dropping a set, a feat that was later emulated by American Serena Williams.
In 1983, she lost just one match out of 87 – against the unheralded American Kathy Horvath in the Roland Garros fourth round. Navratilova’s 98.8% success rate that year (86-1) is the best by any tennis player in history. She also owns the longest ever winning streak in tennis, at 74 matches (in the year 1984).
These stupefying numbers undoubtedly make Martina Navratilova one of the greatest players ever in women’s tennis.
#2 Steffi Graf
By now you must have guessed the rest of this list; the top two were always a lock.
Breaking the duopoly of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in the late 1980s, a 17-year-old Steffi Graf emerged from the erstwhile West Germany to smash all kinds of records in the sport.
During her illustrious career, Steffi Graf was a benchmark for consistency across all surfaces. In 1988, just a year after her breakthrough win at the 1987 French Open, Graf went on to win all four Grand Slams in the year – thus completing the coveted ‘Calendar Grand Slam’ while still just a teenager.
Steffi Graf is the only player in history, male or female, to have won the Calendar Slam across three different surfaces; all the previous ones came before the introduction of hardcourt Slams. If this was not enough, Graf also won the Olympic gold in singles that year, making her feat the unprecedented and never-repeated “Calendar Golden Slam”.
On her way to winning an Open Era record 22 Grand Slam singles titles, Graf created a plethora of records. The German is the only player in tennis history to complete the Career Slam a staggering four times.
In total, Graf won seven Wimbledons, six French Opens, five US Opens and four Australian Opens. Many believe that makes her the undisputed queen of all surfaces, and the most versatile tennis champion in history.
Graf has also completed the ‘Channel Slam’ – winning both Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same year – on an astounding four different occasions. That is again a record among both men and women.
Steffi Graf retired shortly after her 30th birthday. Despite not having a career as long as Navratilova’s or Serena Williams’, Graf still holds her own by any statistical measure.
Graf holds the record for most weeks at the top of the women’s rankings, with 377. She also posted 186 consecutive weeks as the World No. 1, a record she now shares with Serena Williams.
But don’t for a second think that Graf did not have longevity. She was ranked third in the world when she hung up her racquet in 1999, having won the Roland Garros title that year before losing in the final at Wimbledon.
Unlike the other names on this list though, Steffi Graf never had an illustrious doubles career. She won her lone doubles Slam partnering Argentine Gabriela Sabatini, at Wimbledon 1988.
But for her titanic records in singles alone, Steffi Graf is widely regarded as one of the two best female tennis players in history.
#1 Serena Williams
Of course it had to be THE Serena Williams at the top.
Many experts believe it’s a toss-up between Williams and Graf for the numero uno spot in the all-time list. But Williams might have put the debate to bed by winning the Australian Open title in 2017 at the age of 35.
Serena Williams possesses a powerful serve – the best ever seen in the women’s game, rivaled only by her sister Venus. Her game is all about the first strike; Serena likes to take immediate control of a rally, and force her opponents into submission with consistent and aggressive groundstrokes off both wings.
She also boasts strong volleying skills, and has handy touch at the net.
In her career that has now spanned across four decades, Serena has won a total of 23 Grand slam singles titles – the most by any tennis player in the Open Era. Perhaps more importantly, she is only one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
With at least three titles at each of the four Majors, Serena is also just one Roland Garros win away from equaling Graf’s record of four ‘Career Grand Slams’ in singles.
Although she hasn’t accomplished the calendar-year Grand Slam, Serena Williams has on two different occasions held all four Grand Slams at the same time. She also holds the Open Era record in women’s tennis for the most singles titles won at the Australian Open (7) and the US Open (6).
Williams, however, has not been the epitome of consistency during her career. She is one of those players whose career found a late second wind. But what a second wind it has been!
After her first ‘Serena Slam’ in 2002-03, Williams experienced something of a slowdown in her career, managing to win only two Grand Slam titles in the next five years. The American then won five out of eight Slams between the 2008 US Open to Wimbledon 2010, before missing a few tournaments owing to injuries.
Soon after her return, Serena Williams embarked on the golden period of her career. She won 10 Grand Slam singles titles in her 30s, which included a second Serena Slam in 2015-16. In the process, she recorded the highest number of singles Slams by any tennis player, male or female, after turning 30.
Most tennis players think about retirement after turning 30. Had Serena Williams retired before her 30th birthday, she would have been way down in this list.
Williams won her latest Slam at the 2017 Australian Open, before going on maternity leave. Astonishingly, she was eight weeks pregnant already by the time she lifted the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
And she is far from done yet. Williams reached the Wimbledon and US Open finals in consecutive years in 2018 and 2019, where she lost to opponents almost half her age. But her relentless quest to equal Margaret Court’s tally continues.
With 351 wins, Serena Williams also holds the record for most singles matches won at Grand Slam tournaments. She shares the record for most consecutive weeks (186) at No. 1 with Steffi Graf. And her tally of 319 weeks overall at the top of the singles rankings is third in the Open Era, behind that of Graf and Navratilova.
In addition to ridiculous numbers in singles, Serena Williams has also 14 Grand Slam doubles titles – all with her sister Venus. She has completed the Career Grand Slam in doubles and has won two mixed doubles titles, both with Belarusian partner Max Mirnyi.
The debate between Serena Williams and Steffi Graf will perhaps never be settled, especially if the American retires without adding to her current Grand Slam tally. Some may even add that Navratilova, Evert and Court are in contention, and that we can never have an ‘undisputed greatest of all time’.
But many also believe that Serena Williams has made a strong enough case to be the greatest female tennis player of all time. With no disrespect to Roger Federer, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Margaret Court, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams possibly also deserves the distinction of being the greatest ever tennis player, male or female, to ever pick up a racquet.
Players we could not leave out…
I didn’t want to do an ‘Honorable Mentions’ section in this article. But I cannot, in my right sense, leave out certain players without giving them a mention. The most notable and deserving candidates who just missed the top seven are Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova, Martina Hingis and Venus Williams.