Ahead of the 2021 Final, Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, looks back at the finest Wimbledon Women’s Singles finals ever.
Ash Barty and Karolina Plíšková will fight for the women’s final, but they will have lots of work to match these classics. In ascending order, here are the five finest Wimbledon Women’s Singles finals ever.
1970: Margaret Court beats Billie Jean King 14–12 11–9
Ordinarily, for a Women’s Major final to be considered a “classic,” it has to go the full three sets. But in the year before the tie-break was introduced at Wimbledon, two of the greatest women tennis players ever produced a titanic two-set match that lasted longer than most three-set finals. Court had already won two Wimbledon titles (under her less tennis-friendly maiden name of Margaret Smith), but her opponent in 1970 had one more than that, having already claimed a hat-trick of Wimbledon singles titles. And to add further spice to proceedings, Court was going for the Calendar Grand Slam in 1970. She duly won what is almost certainly the greatest two-set women’s tennis match ever played to claim her own hat-trick of Wimbledon titles, and less than two months later she won the US Open to complete a clean sweep of the year’s Major titles.
1976: Chris Evert beats Evonne Goolagong Cawley 6–3 4–6 8–6
Tiebreaks may have been introduced at Wimbledon for all other sets in 1971, but it was only in 2019 that the tournament went the whole hog and introduced a deciding-set tiebreak. Consequently, in 1976 the two golden girls of women’s tennis in the 70s had to keep going in the third set until Chris Evert finally triumphed against Evonne Goolagong Cawley 8-6. That was entirely in keeping with an extremely competitive match, in which Evert won the first set 6-3 before Goolagong Cawley turned the tables in the second set to win it 6-4. In the end, Evert won her second Wimbledon title in three years, but Goolagong would gain a measure of revenge four years later, when she defeated Evert in the 1980 final in straight sets, 6–1 7–6(4).
1978: Martina Navratilova beats Chris Evert 2–6 6–4 7–5
From the late 1970s through to the mid-1980s, it seemed that Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert (or Chris Evert Lloyd, as she was for part of that time after marrying British player John Lloyd) contested every Wimbledon final. That wasn’t quite true, but they did contest five of the eight finals between 1978 and 1985. Unfortunately for Evert, she lost every one of those five, and unfortunately for fans of women’s tennis only the first was a truly great final. At that point, Navratilova’s serve-volleying style was yet to assert its dominance over Evert on grass (Evert largely reversed that dominance on clay). Indeed, in her first Wimbledon final she looked slightly overawed as she succumbed 2-6 in the first set. Thereafter, however, she seemed to relax and with that state of relaxation came a far higher standard of play. She eventually won 7-5 in the third set, to claim not only her first ever Wimbledon title but her first Major title anywhere.
1995: Steffi Graf beats Arantxa Sánchez Vicario 4–6 6–1 7–5
And so we come to the top two which, regardless of the merits of the other women’s finals on this list, are undoubtedly the two greatest Wimbledon women’s finals of the Open Era (post-1968). Recently, the 1995 final between Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario has been mentally revisited by many older tennis fans (and tennis historians). That is because it produced “The Game,” or the greatest single game of tennis ever played–to go alongside “The Set,” or the greatest single set of tennis ever played, which was produced just last month by Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the third set of their French Open semifinal. “The Game” in question came at 5-5 in the third set of the 1995 final, when Sánchez Vicario was serving. For nearly half an hour, she tried but ultimately failed to hold her serve, before her great rival Graf finally broke her and then duly served out for the match.
2005: Venus Williams beats Lindsay Davenport 4–6 7–6(4) 9–7
In the absence of Wimbledon last year, due to the Ccronavirus pandemic, the usual Wimbledon fortnight was filled–in Britain, at least–by the BBC showing two weeks of historical highlights, complete with consideration of the greatest finals in the tournament’s history. Although there was some debate about the greatest Men’s singles final, there was none whatsoever about the greatest Women’s singles final. That was unquestionably the 2005 Final between Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport, which Williams eventually won 9-7 in the third set after only narrowly avoiding a straight-sets defeat by winning the second-set tiebreak.
However, mere statistics or analysis of the scores set by set cannot begin to convey the endless succession of seemingly miraculous winners by both women. This was not just the greatest Wimbledon women’s final ever, but arguably the greatest women’s Major final ever. And whatever happens between Ash Barty and Karolina Plíšková this weekend, it is extraordinarily unlikely that it will get anywhere close. If it does, the tennis-watching world is in for a truly historic treat.
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