The Greatest US Open Female Players of the Open Era

Chris Evert, Serena Williams, Martina Navratilova, three of the greatest US Open champion.

There have been an incredible number of great champions at the US Open. But, just as in the men’s game, only a handful of women in the Open Era have been able to dominate the event and win multiple titles in the trying New York conditions. Here’s a look at these champions in greater detail:

The Greatest US Open Women Players of the Open Era

Chris Evert

Chris Evert is a transcendent player who has to be on a list as illustrious as this. Unsurprisingly, Evert has a number of significant achievements at the US Open. Evert won the US Open on two distinct surfaces through the 1970s and 1980s. Evert won her first US Open in 1975 defeating Evonne Goolagong Cawley in three sets. This saw Evert go on a four year win streak between 1975 and 1978. In 1976 and 1977, Evert continued her hot streak against Australian players with victories over Goolagong and Wendy Turnbull. Then in 1978 Evert beat fellow American Pam Shriver. The interesting thing to note was her first three victories were on green clay then hardcourts in 1978. Evert made it five finals in a row in 1979 but this time lost to Tracy Austin.

Evert came back strong at the start of the 1980s. Beating Czech player Hana Mandlíková in 1980 and 1982 before losing to Navratilova in both 1983 and 1984. This made six US Open wins in total, the most in the Open era, which was tied by Serena Williams in 2014.  This achievement along with Evert’s longevity over two decades puts her at the top of this list. Not to mention winning three on green clay (har-tru) and three on hardcourt. The US Open was played on green clay for three seasons in the 1970s and no one else got a look in.

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A player who transitioned successfully from wood to the graphite era. Evert was one of the first players to use the iconic Wilson Pro Staff 85 racquet. Evert also helped to change the way tennis was played, the first high profile player to be incredibly successful with a two hand backhand and staying rooted to the baseline, Evert hardly went to net over her entire career. Evert was a counterpuncher but not a player with excess speed. Evert was a player with remarkable composure to hit good returns and passing shots against the best attacking players of the day.  This composure translated well onto the hardcourts and clay. Out of 157 titles, Evert won a whopping 70 clay court titles including six French Open championships.

As the 1980s, progressed, Evert was stopped in her tracks by Navratilova. Who beat her in a number of major finals at Wimbledon and the US Open. Evert getting some revenge at the 1986 French Open. However, Navratilova would meet a similar fate against Steffi Graf later that decade. This adds to Evert’s consistency of continually reaching finals at an advanced stage of her career. Evert deserves to be at the top of this list.

Serena Williams

One of the greatest tennis players of all time, Williams has a superb record at the US Open. Williams is tied with Chris Evert with six US Open championships, and along with Pete Sampras won the US Open as a teenager, in her twenties and in her thirties. Williams also won the doubles title in 1999 and 2009 with sister Venus.

She won her first championship in 1999, defeating another teenager and top dog in Martina Hingis. Williams got to the final in 2001 but this time lost out to sister. She had her revenge on Venus in the final in 2002 to win her second title, but then suffered through a lean spell until 2008 when she reclaimed the championship.  From 2011 to 2014, Williams reached four finals in a row. In 2011, she lost to Sam Stosur in a controversial final, but beat Victoria Azarenka twice in 2012 and 2013, as well as Caroline Wozniacki in 2014.

Williams’ win in 2014 rounded out her six titles over a fifteen year period which is very impressive. Since then, Williams has struggled to make it to 7, losing finals in 2018 and 2019, her final loss in 2018 to Naomi Osaka was even more controversial than her 2011 loss. The American also lost the 2020 semifinal to Victoria Azarenka and will be absent this year due to a hamstring injury. However, even if Williams does not manage to win another US Open, it is still one hell of a resume!

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As for Williams’ game, hardcourt is her best surface along with grass, in keeping with the traditions of players from North America. Williams has experienced first hand the changes to the deco court 11 courts in New York over the last two decades. A surface that was extremely fast in 1999 to a medium paced court today with more sand, allowing for higher bounce.  Back then the courts took the kick serve extremely well and Williams at a young age acquired one of the best serves on the tour at the time.

Williams’ serve improved further at the start of the last decade. She served an incredible amount of aces with a perfect service motion, both first and second serve. This is the key reason why Williams was able to dominate the tour. Williams possesses a devastating return of serve, her world class serve made her virtually unbeatable over a five year period up until 2015. Whether Williams can return at the age of 41 and compete at a high level in 2022 is questionable. However, her place at the top tier of US Open winners is already assured.

Steffi Graf

For a fairly introverted person, Steffi Graf may be the most popular champion on this list. Graf was popular wherever she played, and won a lot wherever she played. Graf is the only player in the Open to win each major title at least four times, male or female.  This makes Graf the most rounded player in terms of grand slam titles.

As far as the US Open goes, Graf won the title on five occasions. 1988, 1989, 1993, 1995 and 1996. In 1988, Graf defeated Gabriela Sabatini in three sets to complete the calendar slam.  Taking the Olympics into account, Graf completed the golden slam and total domination. In 1989 Graf came from a set down to beat Martina Navratilova.  In 1993 Graf overcame Helena Suková of Czechoslovakia in straight sets. Then rounded out her victories in 1995 and 1996 against long time rival Monica Seles.

In 1996, Graf was able to complete the job just before an almighty thunder storm broke out. Graf also went through that tournament without dropping a set. Besides Graf’s five triumphs, she did lose her first final in 1987 to Martina Navratilova. Graf then lost to Gabriela Sabatini in 1990 and an entertaining three set battle against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in 1994.

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Due to the fact Graf won so many titles on every surface, it is virtually impossible to speculate what her favourite surface is. Unlike today, in the 1980s and 1990s there was indoor carpet, rebound ace, deco 11 hardcourts, green clay, red clay and grass.  It is remarkable Graf was virtually dominant on all surfaces. In terms of the hardcourts and the US Open, the slightly slicker surface allowed Graf to keep her sliced backhand low at all times, forcing two handers to hit up.  Graf also had an accurate serve which she placed well in the corners. It wasn’t the fastest delivery but it was very effective.

What put Graf on a different level from her opponents was her forehand and her movement, Graf often “danced” across the court to hit her shots, particularly running around her backhand to hit her forehand. At 1 metre 75 (5 ft 9 inches) Graf was also athletic and quick. Graf was a little reluctant to go to net too often, with her athleticism she could have been successful if she ventured there more.  Opponents tried to attack the Graf backhand but the slice was too good. After 1996 injuries took its toll and Graf retired in August 1999, just before the US Open.

Martina Navratilova

Martina Navratilova is very much the player of the 1980s. Navratilova dominated the women’s game from 1982 through 1987, when Steffi Graf slowly started to take over. Unlike Graf who seemed to excel on all surfaces put in front of her, Navratilova clearly favoured the faster surfaces of Wimbledon and the US Open, where she could implement her serve and volley tactics more efficiently. This allowed Navratilova to win the US Open in 1983, 1984, 1986 and 1987. Navratilova defeated Chris Evert in 1983 in straight sets then in 1984 from a set down.  In 1986 Navratilova beat Helena Suková in straight sets and finally in 1987 Navratilova beat Steffi Graf for the last time in a grand slam final in straight sets.

Navratilova also lost a number of finals at the US Open. Her first loss came in 1981 to Tracy Austin. Followed by a loss to another Czech Hana Mandlíková in 1986. Steffi Graf got revenge on Navratilova in 1989 and new kid on the block Monica Seles dealt with Navratilova fairly handily in 1991. That made it eight finals in 10 years, four victories and four defeats. Overall incredible consistency over a sustained period. Navratilova also won an eye watering nine doubles titles at the US Open, with Pam Shriver partnering her in seven of those.

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In the men’s game, Ivan Lendl is widely credited for taking fitness in tennis to a new level. In terms of doing more gym work, runs in the woods and looking at his diet in a much more strategic fashion.  Using a fresh racquet at every change of balls and forcing players to match his level. Navratilova did the same for women’s tennis, taking fitness to a new level which for a long period her opponents could not live with. Navratilova played left handed which gave her a distinct advantage in the ad court, swinging the serve away from her opponent to open up the court.

Navratilova’s strategy was to put her opponents on the defensive by staying in rallies, looking for the short ball to attack. Navratilova was more prone to use the slice to come into net than heavy topspin drives. Those tactics combined with athleticism served Navratilova well. Navratilova won Wimbledon with a wood racquet in 1978 then dominated with a Yonex Graphite throughout the 1980s. Overall, Navratilova’s four US Open titles were added to the nine she won at Wimbledon, as well three Australian Opens and two French Opens.

Billie Jean King

One of the most iconic figures in the history of tennis in the amateur and Open era Billie Jean King would make any illustrious list. King has the unique distinction of winning the US Championships as an “amateur” and the US Open as a professional.  Her first victory came in 1967, defeating Ann Jones in straight sets. As tennis went “open” in 1968, King reached the final but was runner up to Virginia Wade. King won her second US Title in 1971 beating Rosie Casals, defended her title in 1972 against Kerry Melville Reid and finally 1974 against Evonne Goolagong.

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King won four titles, three under the US Open and one when called the US Championships. King played in six finals over a ten year period between 1965 and 1974.  King lost her first final in 1965 to Margaret Court in straight sets. King won her titles in an era when the US Open was held on grass in Forest Hills. Therefore, we never got to see King at her best on either green clay or hardcourts.  A product of her time, King was a supreme serve volleyer with tremendous athleticism and fighting spirit.

King was also involved in the “Battle of The Sexes” in 1973 against Bobby Riggs and helped to found the WTA Tour in 1973, King’s leadership in the world of tennis is well documented.  King won 12 major titles overall including six Wimbledon titles, as well as one at the French Open and the Australian Open. It should be noted King was also very successful in doubles, winning the US title on five occasions during both the amateur and professional era.

Honourable mentions:

Kim Clijsters

Kim Clijsters won three of her four major titles at the US Open in 2005, 2009 and 2010. In fact, Clijsters won two of her titles in her comeback from early retirement. Clijsters is a great hardcourt player but cannot be considered one of the all time great US Open players.

Venus Williams

Williams won her titles in 2000 and 2001. She lost the 2002 final to her sister and surprisingly never made another US Open final for the rest of her career.

Justine Henin

Justine Henin won the US Open in 2003 and 2007. Henin played great tennis on hardcourts but played in an era when the top players were well matched, and the titles were shared out.

Monica Seles

It is fair to say Seles would have added to her two US Open titles of 1991 and 1992 if not for the stabbing in Hamburg in 1993 which did so much damage to her career. Seles did reach the final in 1995 and 1996 but lost to Graf each time. By this stage, Seles was no longer the player she was of the early 1990s.

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