By Gerry Storch
The Williams sisters showed once again at the U.S. Open … Serena in winning it, and Venus in coming the closest to defeating her … why they are the two greatest female U.S. tennis players who ever took the court.
Each tournament they both enter, going in, you figure only one player can beat them … and that’s the other sister. It may not always happen that way, but usually it does. They are the most powerful ever to play the game … they both hold the tour’s fastest serve record of 129 mph … and the fastest sideline to sideline and backcourt to frontcourt. Their many championships playing doubles together (seven Grand Slams, two Olympics) give them the volleying deftness and quickness others lack. Their incomparable tenacity, as opponent after opponent has learned, means you may take a set off them, especially when they’re just going through the motions, but just try closing them out.
Their casual approach to entering non-Slam events over the years in favor of fashion and film/TV projects has drawn criticism, yet it is a smart strategy that has kept them fresh and allowed them to recuperate from injuries generated by their furious playing style … and is it so wrong to have a life?
As to who’s better, we’ll take Serena as she has won nine Grand Slam titles … including all four majors … and been to three other finals. Venus has won the U.S. Open twice and ruled Wimbledon with five wins, and been to two other finals in each, and taken Olympic gold in singles in 2000, but has never triumphed at the Australian or French, being runnerup there once each.
Here’s the rest of our top 10. Numbers in parentheses mean number of Grand Slam titles won and runnersup. And by U.S. tennis player, we mean born and bred … that rules out Monica Seles and Martina Navratilova, who became American citizens only after their careers were well underway. Had we counted them, Martina would be No. 3 and Monica No. 8.
3. Chris Evert (18,16). She influenced a whole generation of players with her two-handed backhand and cool demeanor. She flourished on all surfaces, winning two Australians, seven French, three Wimbledons and six U.S. Opens. She was world No. 1 seven times. In Evert’s 80 classic duels against the bigger, stronger Navratilova, she nearly came out even … going 37-43 in their rivalry.
4. Maureen Connolly (9,0). “Little Mo,” at 5-foot-5, had a brief but spectacular career cut short by a horse riding accident in 1954 that wrecked her leg at age 19. By that time, she had become the first woman to complete a Grand Slam in 1953. She won three successive U.S. championships (1951-53) and Wimbledons (1952-54). That zero in the stats column is key; she never lost a Grand Slam final and in fact won all nine Grand Slam tournaments she entered.
5. Billie Jean King (12,6). King was the queen of Wimbledon, winning a tournament record 20 titles (six singles, 10 doubles, four mixed). Despite being just 5-foot-4, she used a serve-and-volley style to become world No. 1 five times between 1966-72 but gained even more attention for two things … 1) whipping Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” before 30,472 in the Astrodome in 1973 and 2) becoming the first prominent female athlete to announce she was gay.
6. Helen Wills Moody (19,3). Nicknamed “Little Miss Poker Face,” and the nation’s first big female tennis star, Moody won her all-time American-best 19 Slam titles (eight Wimbledon, seven U.S., four French) without ever playing the Australian Open. Usually attired in a white sailor suit, from 1927 to 1932, she did not lose a set in singles anywhere. Tennis seems to have been good for her longevity … she died in 1998 at age 92, bequeathing $10 million to the University of California.
7. Althea Gibson (5,2). Powerful and athletic, Gibson took back-to-back U.S. and Wimbledon singles crowns in 1957 and ’58. She was the first black to win those titles. She could excel on slow clay as well, winning the French and Italian championships in 1956. She later became a pro golfer.
8. Doris Hart (6,11). As a young girl, Hart watched people play tennis from her hospital window after an operation. She took up the game and went on to win all four Slam singles. In 1951 at Wimbledon, she claimed the singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles titles with the loss of just one set.
9. Lindsay Davenport (3,3). She whipped herself into shape and made herself a champion, winning the Australian, Wimbledon and U.S. Open … and let’s not forget she took Olympic gold in 1996 in Atlanta. In an era of tempestuous teen tennis, her steadiness and good sportsmanship were welcome virtues. Of course, being 6-foot-2 and having the most powerful groundstrokes in the game, or close to it, didn’t hurt.
10. Tracy Austin (2,0). Better known today as a TV commentator, Austin came and went like a comet, being robbed of a great career by back pain. Before it forced her to retire at age 20, she managed to win the U.S. Open twice, performing at the very top level by beating Evert in one final, Navratilova in the other. The 5-foot-5 baseline master was the youngest ever to win the event … 16 years, 9 months … and remains the women’s tour’s all-time youngest winner of a tournament (age 14 in Portland).