In the second part of his Wimbledon 2021 preview, Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, looks back at the greatest Wimbledon Women’s Champions.
The Five Finest Wimbledon Men’s Champions all come from the Open Era (since 1968, when tennis finally went fully professional), with Rod Laver alone straddling both the Open and the Amateur Eras. By contrast, the Five Finest Wimbledon Women’s Champions cover a much longer part of the history of tennis, with three from the Open Era and two from the Amateur Era. Although tennis was obviously not fully professionalized in the Amateur Era, those two great champions were effectively professional in everything they did and so undoubtedly merit inclusion in any consideration of the all-time greatest female tennis players, including the all-time greatest Wimbledon Women’s Champions.
Here, then, are the five Finest Wimbledon Women’s Champions Ever, in ascending order.
- SUZANNE LENGLEN: Six-Time Champion (1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1925)
Billie-Jean King also won six Wimbledon Singles titles, but she did so over a much longer period than Suzanne Lenglen won her half-dozen, so Lenglen just edges King for inclusion on this list. In fact, Lenglen’s dominance of Wimbledon, winning five titles in a row between 1919 and 1923 and adding another for good measure in 1925, was such that she can legitimately be said to have helped popularise tennis globally in the period after World War One, alongside her male equivalent from that time, the USA’s “Big” Bill Tilden.
Lenglen was born in Paris, in 1889, but unlike almost every other French player before and after her she learned to play tennis not on clay but on grass, at the Nice Lawn Tennis Club in the south of France, near to where her family first wintered and then sought shelter from the ravages of World War One. When the Great War finally ended, Lenglen was finally unleashed on the tennis circuit, eventually winning two French Championships (as her home Major was called before the Open Era), in 1925 and 1926, and six Wimbledon titles.
Having developed the footwork required for grass in Nice, Lenglen took to the lawns of Wimbledon like the proverbial canard à l’eau. She defeated the then-dominant Dorothea Lambert Chambers of Britain in her first two finals in 1919 and 1920, and then swept aside all-comers for the next three years. Consequently, before Les Musquetaires – Borotra, Brugnon, Cochet and Lacoste – broke the USA’s stranglehold on the Davis Cup in the second half of the 1920s, Lenglen was instrumental in making tennis a national obsession in France, a situation that persists to this day, even if France has not had players to match Lenglen and Les Musquetaires for nearly a century now.
- STEFFI GRAF: Seven-Time Champion (1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996)
For Lenglen and Les Musquetaires in the 1920s, read Steffi Graf and Boris Becker in the 1980s and 1990s. Just as the great French players of the amateur era hugely boosted the popularity of tennis in their native country, so did Graf and Becker in Germany in the Open Era. And if Becker was the first to break through at Wimbledon in 1985, when he won the Men’s Singles title as an unseeded 17-year-old, ultimately it was Graf who won more than twice as many Wimbledon Singles titles as her compatriot – seven to Becker’s three.
The first of those Wimbledon Singles titles came in 1988, as part of Graf’s remarkable “Golden Slam”, when she not only won all four Majors in that calendar year but added the Olympic Singles title in Seoul, as tennis was readmitted to the Olympics for the first time since 1924. And if Graf could never again reach those Olympian heights, nor has anyone else. Not even the Big Three of Men’s Tennis – Federer, Nadal and Djokovic – have come close to winning a Calendar Grand Slam, let alone an Olympic title to go with it. If Novak Djokovic can match Graf this year, it will be a truly historic achievement.
Of Graf’s six other Wimbledon Singles titles, perhaps the most memorable came in 1995, when she defeated Spain’s Arantxa Sánchez Vicario in the final, 4–6, 6–1, 7–5. Even though the second set was a virtual blow-out for Graf, after Sánchez Vicario had just edged the first set, it was still a genuinely epic final, not least because of “The Game”, as it is still simply referred to. That came at 5-5 in the third set, when Sánchez Vicario was serving. Eventually, she ended up serving 44 times in total in that single game, which lasted for nearly thirty minutes, almost holding eight times before Graf finally broke her at the sixth attempt and then went on to serve out successfully for the match, and the title.
Memories of “The Game” were revived recently, when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic contested what will surely come to be called “The Set” in their French Open semi-final last month, namely their truly extraordinary third set, which Djokovic eventually won. However, for all the extended glory of “The Set”, which lasted well over an hour, for sheer concentrated tennis genius, it is still hard to find anything to match “The Game”.
- SERENA WILLIAMS: Seven-Time Champion (2002, 2003, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016)
If, as now appears increasingly likely, Serena Williams does not match, let alone overtake, Margaret Court’s all-time record for women of 24 Majors, she may come to regret the years in the middle of her tennis career when she seemed less than fully focused on the sport. Back then, she dallied with numerous other off-court activities, notably fashion, and was certainly not the utterly single-minded winning machine that she eventually became after turning 30 and starting to work with Patrick Mouratoglou. If she had always been so laser-focused on tennis, she would surely top not only this list but the All-Time Winningest Women’s List.
However, even to suggest that is somewhat churlish, not least because everyone – not just tennis players or sportspeople in general but everyone, full-stop – matures at different rates. And if Serena did let a Major or two go astray in the middle of her career, she certainly made up for it later on, when she was undoubtedly the greatest player of her generation and arguably of any generation that preceded her.
On grass, it was her serve and forehand that were particularly impressive. John McEnroe has long argued that she is the greatest female server of all time, by a considerable distance, and it is hard, if not impossible, to argue with The Mighty Mac. And on the rare occasions when the ball came back over the net, especially on grass, it was usually dispatched instantly with what is surely also the finest forehand of any female tennis player ever.
As with Roger Federer, with whom she so often danced together at the Wimbledon Winners’ Ball, it seems certain now that Serena is past her best. As a result, she is only a contender for Wimbledon 2021, rather than the stone-cold favourite she was for much of the past two decades. And like Federer, it is surely more likely that she will make an ignominious early exit this year than that she will make the Final. Nevertheless, just as is the case with Federer, even if Serena is no longer capable of winning Wimbledon, the memory of her winning it at her most imperious will live forever. She may have been the Monster Truck, figuratively speaking, to Federer’s Ferrari, but ultimately the effect was the same – total dominance on a grass court of a kind that had never been seen before and may never be seen again.
- HELEN WILLS: Eight-Time Champion (1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1933, 1935, 1938)
Charlie Chaplin, who knew a thing or two about aesthetics, said that seeing Helen Wills play tennis, and in particular seeing her move on a tennis court, was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Chaplin was a tennis devotee, so much so that he famously allowed Bill Tilden to use his own private courts after the great American champion of the 1920s had fallen from grace in the late 1940s after being arrested for homosexuality when it was still illegal in America (and most countries). Consequently, he admired tennis players more than he did his fellow film stars, but his admiration for Wills was unmatched. And many tennis historians would say deservedly so.
Wills first emerged as the superstar successor to Suzanne Lenglen at the end of the 1920s, eventually going one better than her predecessor by winning an astonishing six Wimbledon titles in succession between 1927 and 1933, and adding two more before the end of the 1930s. The only shame is that these two great players, who between them dominated women’s tennis between the two World Wars, only ever played each other once, and not at a Major, let alone Wimbledon. Instead, this truly era-defining match took place at the Carlton Club in Cannes, in February 1926, when Lenglen was nearing the end of her career and Wills was just starting out on hers. Lenglen eventually won, but such was the closeness of the match (despite Lenglen winning in straight sets) that it was often said afterwards that it helped to hasten Lenglen’s early retirement.
In Lenglen’s absence, Wills dominated women’s tennis, and Wimbledon in particular, for the next decade. And although it is easy today to dismiss the achievements of even the greatest champions of the amateur era, especially as there is so little surviving footage of them, Wills’s tally of eight Wimbledon titles was so impressive that she remained the winningest woman at Wimbledon for more than half a century, until the only woman above her on this list emerged to take her crown as the greatest Wimbledon Women’s Champion ever.
1.MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: Nine-Time Wimbledon Champion (1978, 1979, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1990)
These days, the joke goes, there are more “Ovas” in women’s tennis than you would find in an extended rendition by Hot Chip of their greatest hit, “Over and Over”. One reason for that was the readmission of tennis to the Olympics in 1988, just before Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and then the USSR, as it meant that Communist sporting bodies added tennis to the list of sports they promoted in their attempt to win the Cold War sporting – and propaganda – battle.
However, the seeds for the rise of Russian and Eastern European women’s tennis had actually been sown a decade earlier, with the first Wimbledon triumph of Martina Navratilova in 1978. And although Navratilova eventually defected from her native Czechoslovakia to the USA and became a US citizen in 1981, the memory of her Major-winning achievements in her homeland and throughout the Communist Bloc was such that even today there are still young girls being named “Martina”, after her, in the hope that they too will one day become Wimbledon Champion. But even if they do, it is extraordinarily unlikely that they will go on to win the nine titles that Navratilova eventually won, in just over a decade, at Wimbledon.
If Serena Williams is said, by John McEnroe and others, to be the finest server that women’s tennis has ever seen, then Martina Navratilova is undoubtedly the finest serve-volleyer ever in the women’s game. Indeed, she was one of the last truly great serve-volleyers, of either gender, as the eventual replacement of wooden rackets by artificial rackets from the mid-1980s onwards eventually led to the almost complete disappearance of serve-volleying from tennis, even at Wimbledon. Quite simply, the greater power and greatly expanded “sweet spot” of non-wooden rackets made many serve-volleyers sitting ducks at the net for their baseline-hugging rivals, who could suddenly pass them with infinitely greater ease than they had been able to in the past.
Nevertheless, the memory of Martina serve-volleying her way to nine Wimbledon titles, usually beating Chris Evert in the Final, is one of the most enduring memories of the near-150 years of Wimbledon. Serena Williams may have been able to serve more faster and more accurately than Martina, but Serena was rarely seen anywhere near the net, especially after a serve, not least because so few of her serves ever came back.
Consequently, it is hard to resist the thought that the greatest ever hypothetical Wimbledon Women’s Final would surely be between Martina and Serena. With both women at their absolute peak (in this obviously wholly imaginary scenario), it is hard to think of any other woman – indeed, not even the three other women on this list – coming close to the fireworks that they could have generated together, particularly on the lush, dry grass of a classic Wimbledon summer.