Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You’ll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
Years played: 1989–2003
Major titles: 9*
No event in the Open era has been as difficult to comprehend: Who would stab a tennis player? Even harder to grasp: Who would stab a 19-year-old girl in the back with a nine-inch knife in the middle of a crowded sports arena? Gunter Parche was his name, eternally to be known in the press as “a deranged Steffi Graf fan.” Parche’s act in April 1993 would sideline Seles for two years, while the attacker went free. When she returned, she was a shadow of her formerly invincible self.
From a tennis standpoint, the worst thing about this unfathomable story was that by the spring of ’93 there wasn’t much else that could stop Seles. She was on one of the most dominant runs in the sport’s history: she had won seven of the last eight majors, and the consensus was that the calendar-year Grand Slam was hers for the taking.
From a young age, Seles’ father and coach Karolj said, she had wanted nothing more than to have another tennis ball sent her way so she could clobber it. In her peak years as a teenager, she played as if she were in a trance. No one, not even Steffi Graf, could wake her from it.
When a 15-year-old Seles made her pro debut in the late 1980s, it was hard to imagine this 99-pounder could challenge Graf, who had just won her own calendar-year Slam. It was also hard to imagine a fiercer fighter than the German, but Seles surpassed her. By 1990, she had taken Graf’s French Open title; by ’91, she had taken her No. 1 ranking. That year she went 21-0 at the majors; in ’92, she reached the finals of all four.
During her meteoric rise, Seles changed the women’s game. Swinging with two hands on both sides, she didn’t try for elegance, and she didn’t waste much time trying to construct points. “She constantly went for winners,” as Bud Collins wrote, “seemingly off-balance and out of position but buoyed by excellent footwork and anticipation.” She was also the first to punctuate her swings with a loud grunt. Most important, though, was that when the match got tighter, her shots became both more powerful and more accurate. When it came to power and willpower, she pointed the way forward. A lot of young women players, including Serena Williams, were watching.
In Hamburg, Seles’ trance was finally broken, and tennis history was derailed in the process. But in her brief, blazing period of indomitability, she set the bar higher for her sport’s champions.
Defining Moment: It’s one of the tragedies of the Open era that the rivalry between Seles and Graf was both shortened and tainted by Seles’ stabbing. But Seles achieved perhaps her greatest victory over Graf in the 1992 French Open final, 10-8 in the third set. It was some of the most thrillingly tense shotmaking in that tournament’s history. As she always seemed to be in those days, Seles was the last woman standing.