The greatest female tennis player of the last 50 years: the fans' verdict

Who is the best of the best? Our writers have had their say this week. Now it’s time to hear from our readers

The days are long and the nights are warm but, sadly, we will have to wait until next year to see the great players of our time compete at Wimbledon. With that in mind, we are spending the Wimbledon fortnight debating which of the greats is the greatest of them all. This week our writers have made the case for Steffi Graf, Chris Evert, Serena Williams, Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles.

Now it’s time for the readers to offer their verdict. More than 500 of you have been in touch to argue your case and – as with our writers – it has proven to be a game of opinions. Steffi Graf was your clear favourite, picking up nearly twice as many votes as any other player. Serena Williams (the choice of our tennis correspondent, Kevin Mitchell) and Martina Navratilova were also popular choices – and you added some new names to the discussion.

Steffi Graf

Steffi Graf had the most graceful game of any female player in history. Her trademarks – the footwork of a ballerina, the speed of a gazelle, the impeccably carved backhand slice and that monstrous bazooka of a forehand – coalesced into a rare brand of athleticism, as beautiful as it was brutal. Being the greatest is not simply a case of having the numbers (though any way you spin it, Graf is in the conversation). She operated on a level of artistic elegance unmatched before or since. At full flight in her imperious pomp, she embodied what was possible with a tennis racket, doing so with incomparable poise while dragging her sport forward into the modern era.

There were so many great Graf matches. That last, dramatic French Open triumph against Hingis in 1999 is up there for the unexpected delight of it all. Her demolition of her arch-rival Monica Seles at Wimbledon in 1992 – after losing a heartbreaker at Roland Garros just weeks earlier – was particularly fulfilling. But I’d have to go with her first Wimbledon victory, in 1988 over the great Martina Navratilova.

She had lost her last two matches against Navratilova – the Wimbledon and US Open finals of 1987 – and this was her first meeting against her fellow GOAT candidate during her legendary Golden Slam-winning year. There was a lot on the line. Despite playing great tennis for the first hour or so, Graf somehow contrived to lose the first set from a winning position, and then found herself a break down in the second. From that point on, she raised her game to something otherworldly – probably the highest sustained level of excellence I have ever seen from a female tennis player.

She smacked forehand winners from everywhere, retrieved balls that were impossible to get, threw down second-serve aces, and – most thrillingly of all – displayed rare audacity on her backhand side in order to go for topspin winners. She won 12 of the final 13 games. In doing so, she elevated herself from great to greatest. Reehan Miah

Steffi Graf in action at the French Open in 1999.
Steffi Graf at the French Open in 1999. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Allsport

Martina Navratilova

Martina Navratilova’s athleticism, power and determination to succeed were truly astonishing. She raised the bar in terms of physicality in the women’s game and recognised the advantages of assembling a support team, each of whom had a specific role to play.

Her style of play – that relentless serve and volley approach where she would attack the net at every opportunity – stood out among the sea of baseliners and her rivalry with Chris Evert is the soundtrack of women’s tennis in this era. Her range of volleys was exceptional as was her determination to play her game in her style and impose her will upon her opponent and upon the court, no matter which surface it was.

At her best, she was unbeatable. In 1983, she played 87 matches and lost only one of them. Even the great Serena Williams would have struggled to get the ball past a prime Navratilova at the net. Courageous, indomitable and also stubborn, she refused to bow to the press, who treated her with suspicion. She played on.

Navratilova conquered all of the grand slams – winning singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at all four slams between 1974 and 2006 – but it was at Wimbledon where her volleying prowess caused the most damage, not only in titles but in eventually winning the respect of the crowd. Nick Gannon

Martina Navratilova shows off her Wimbledon trophy in 1990.
Martina Navratilova shows off her Wimbledon trophy in 1990. Photograph: Georges De Keerle/Getty Images

Serena Williams

Serena Williams has been dominant for such a long period of time. She has won 23 grand slams – the most of any active tennis player, male or female. She has been world No 1 for 319 weeks. She has redefined athleticism in women’s tennis. And she has transcended her sport.

Williams is a trailblazer. The face of tennis is notably more diverse than when she and her sister arrived. She has risen from humble beginnings in Compton – a world away from the privileged start of many tennis players – and has overcome overt racism to become an active voice for equal rights for women and men on and off the court. She is an absolute legend. Rebecca Joyce

Serena Williams celebrates after winning the French Open in 2013.
Serena Williams celebrates after winning the French Open in 2013. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King has had the biggest influence on women’s tennis in the past 50 years. Not only did she excel as a player by winning 39 grand slam titles – 12 in singles, 16 in women’s doubles and 11 in mixed doubles – but she is a crusader for social justice and women’s equality in sports.

She leveraged her position as a top player to spearhead the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973 and her achievements on the court were matched by her accomplishments off it. Without her pioneering spirit, there would be no equality in sports. The most important match of her life was seen by more than 90 million people when she beat Bobby Riggs in the now famous “Battle of the Sexes”. No tennis match had been seen by so many. Domien Takx

Billie Jean King takes on Bobby Riggs in their ‘Battle of the Sexes’.
Billie Jean King takes on Bobby Riggs in the ‘Battle of the Sexes’. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Chris Evert

Chris Evert won 90% of the singles matches she played, a record for men or women. She entered 56 grand slams, reached 52 semi-finals (including the semi-finals or better of 34 consecutive slams) and won 18 titles. She dominated on clay, popularising the two-handed backhand and the idea of staying on the baseline. She returned the ball like a human backboard, manipulating her opponent around the court. She also had amazing drop shots, devastating passing shots, as well as great accuracy and precision. You rarely saw an unforced error from Evert.

I was living in New York City in 1971 when she made a splash at the US Open as a 16-year-old. The local media covered her matches with the same interest they covered Muhammad Ali’s boxing bouts. You could tell Chris would become a star. She was calm and had a game that was advanced far beyond her years. The character and poise were there from the start. Henry Haynes

Chris Evert in action in 1985.
Chris Evert in 1985. Photograph: Trevor Jones/Getty Images

Monica Seles

Monica Seles revolutionised the women’s game with her power. As such a young player, who won eight grand slam titles as a teenager, she showed such mental strength to win matches. Grit and determination defined Seles – along with her trademark grunt. There are a lot of what-ifs with Seles. Had she not been stabbed in 1993, the history books would look a lot different.

Seles took the initiative in every single match she played, hitting the lines and depriving her opponents of time. Sure, other players have won more slams, but Seles will always be the best player to have ever played the sport. Robby J

Monica Seles in action at the French Open in 1990.
Monica Seles at the French Open in 1990. Photograph: Bob Martin/Getty Images

Justine Henin

Justine Henin is one of the greatest and most underrated players in women’s tennis. She won seven grand slams and an Olympic gold medal in a hugely competitive era in the women’s game. She had a varied and beautiful all-around style of play and, despite being small in stature, was a giant fighter. Oh, and her backhand wasn’t bad either.

Henin’s career is synonymous with the French Open, where she was magical. She also showed her fighting qualities in her epic victory against Jennifer Capriati in the US Open semi-final, when she overcame cramp and exhaustion to win not only that match but the title. Her victory in the Olympics semi-final against Anastasia Myskina in 2004 also stands out, as well as her many battles with Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters. Nicola Viggers

Justine Henin kisses the French Open trophy in 2003.
Justine Henin kisses the French Open trophy in 2003. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Evonne Goolagong Cawley

Evonne Goolagong Cawley was not just a phenomenal tennis player, she was also a person of colour from Australia who succeeded in a sport that was – and is still – dominated by the white, middle classes. Beyond the race issue, she was a breath of fresh air on our TV screens in the 1970s. To watch this young woman running around the tennis court beating the old pros was wonderful.

She certainly left a great impression on a young 11-year-old schoolboy when she won Wimbledon for the first time in 1971. I remember watching her in action on an old black and white TV with my mum and sister. She memorably won Wimbledon again nine years later. It was a pretty amazing feat given that she had given birth to her first daughter in the intervening years. She was such a happy, joyful person; you could not help but love her. A great ambassador to the game and her country. Steve Watts

Evonne Goolagong-Cawley in action at Wimbledon in 1981.
Evonne Goolagong-Cawley at Wimbledon in 1981. Photograph: Tony Duffy/Getty Images

Thanks to everyone who took part. Next week: who is the greatest male tennis player of the last 50 years?

• This article was amended on 6 July 2020. Due to an error during editing, Martina Navratilova’s grand slam titles were listed as being between 1975 and 2003, rather than the actual dates of 1974 and 2006.


Guardian readers and Paul Campbell

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