Who are the best women’s tennis players to have ever graced the sport? In this piece below we look at the 21 best women’s tennis stars to have played the game with a special focus on their Grand Slam victories, especially in the Open era.
With three Grand Slam titles to her name including two in the Open Era, Virginia Wade makes it to this list by the skin of her teeth but that’s taking nothing away from an excellent player.
Having played across three decades between the early 1960s – when she featured at the 1962 Wimbledon – and 1985, when she participated in her final Grand Slam, also at Wimbledon, Wade earned a whopping $1.5 million in carer prize money.
With four doubles Grand Slam titles to her name as well, Wade was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989 and later began her coaching and commentary career.
Aranxta Sanchez Vicario
Playing in the same era as Steffi Graf was never going to be easy but for Spain’s Aranxta Sanchez Vicario to still come away with four singles Grand Slam titles and 10 doubles wins was hugely creditable. She also managed a whopping 77 career titles and interestingly, won eight of her matches against Graf across her career.
Interestingly, Sanchez finished her career with nearly $17 million in prize money which, to give a context, stood a respectable figure as compared to Graf’s $21.8 million.
One of the best things about Lindsay Davenport’s three Grand Slam titles was they came across the three different majors, Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open. Those three came in the period between 1998 and 2000 where she also won the Tour Finals and made her career-best French Open semifinal.
And all of this was preceded by her women’s singles gold medal at the Olympics, making her the third women’s player to do so. Davenport made the world number one in the women’s singles on five different occasions and was named one of the top 40 tennis players, man or woman in 2005 over the previous 40 years by TENNIS Magazine.
With a career earning of over $22 million and becoming one of the players to return to the circuit after having a child, Davenport sure makes it to this list of greatest women’s tennis players.
Jennifer Capriati saw the highs and lows as a (very) young tennis star very quickly but nothing can take three Grand Slam titles and one Olympics gold medal away from this American.
Especially because two of those majors wins came against Martina Hingis in the final (2001 and 2002 Australian Open), the third was one of the greatest Grand Slam final (2001 French Open) and the gold medal at Olympics stopped Steffi Graf from making it two in two at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
This is after she was not even 14 when she made her professional tennis debut, and went on to establish a gazillion records as the “youngest ever player”.
Having made her pro tennis debut in 2003, Angelique Kerber took 13 years to win her first Grand Slam title. This makes her one of the later bloomers in women’s tennis but she didn’t stop there.
After clinching the 2016 Australian Open title by defeating Serena Williams in the final, she repeated that feat again at US Open that year against Karolina Pliskova to make it her second Grand Slam title. And then two years later, Kerber won her biggest prize when she routed Serena again in the final, this time at Wimbledon, to make it three majors win of her career.
Kerber would have gone on to win the 2016 Olympics gold medal as well but for a shock finals defeat at the hands of Monica Puig. The German reached the number one ranking in the world in September 2016 and she has held that spot for 34 weeks.
Czech Hana Mandlikova won four Grand Slam titles but even more vitally became just the third woman in the history of tennis to have won them on three different surfaces. Incidentally she emulated this feat of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova by defeating both of them at the US Open of 1985.
Mandlikova’s success story doesn’t stop there either with the player having also led her country to three successive Fed Cup wins as well, and post retirement took to coaching with equal amount of success.
Mandlikova guided Jana Novatna to a Wimbledon triumph in 1998 after the latter had made it to three Grand Slams without winning either before that.
In 2019, Kim Clijsters announced she would be making a comeback to competitive tennis, which caught the tennis world by storm. Why? It was her third comeback and came nearly eight years after he had been retired, came at the age of 36 and 23 years after she had made her tennis debut.
This, however, isn’t why she makes this list. The four Grand Slam titles including three at the US Open and one at the Australian Open in 2011 in a career chequered with absences, along with making it to the world number one in both, the singles and doubles rankings is why she is much revered in the tennis world.
Those four singles titles in majors came after she had lost four successive Grand Slam finals starting with a defeat at the hands of Jennifer Capriati at Roland-Garros in 2001.
If this was a list for being the most marketable women tennis stars, Maria Sharapova’s name would have probably appeared in the top two or three if not at the pole position. What makes Sharapova even more remarkable as a result is she also had a sterling tennis career to go with those off-court exploits.
Sharapova burst on to the scene as a 17-year-old with a shock win at the 2004 Wimbledon final against the heavily favoured Serena Williams.
She went on to add a major title win in 2006 at the US Open, 2008 at the Australian Open and then collected two more at Roland-Garros in 2012 and 2014 making her one of the very players (10) in the history of the game to hold the Career Slam.
With a tour-ending title in 2004 and a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics to boot, Sharapova was one of the complete female tennis players in recent times and her career earning of more than $38 million (not counting endorsements) put her third in the list of top-earning women’s tennis players at the time of her retirement.
A singles world number one for more than 200 weeks and a doubles world number one for 90 weeks, Martina Hingis would have won more than her five Grand Slam singles victories had it not been for her injury issues and early retirement.
Hingis was done with tennis by the time she was 22 and by that time, the five Grand Slams, including three at the Australian Open, one at Wimbledon and another at US Open had been pocketed. There were also seven other finals which she lost.
By that time the Swiss player had also grabbed nine doubles majors titles, including all four Grand Slams in 1998. Hingis returned to tennis in 2006 and played for a couple more years before making a final comeback in doubles in 2013. Over the next few years, Hingis partnered Sania Mirza and Chan Yung-jan to win four more doubles titles in Slams.
The Williams sisters took to tennis like fish to water and have dominated it like no other siblings. And while Serena has taken off and become one of the greatest tennis players of all times, it was Venus Williams who was the first off the blocks.
Venus has seven Grand Slam singles titles to her name, all of which came in the 2000-2008 period. This includes five at Wimbledon. Add 14 women’s doubles, two mixed doubles and four Olympics gold medals to the kitty and you have the makings of a legend. Not to forget her 49 WTA titles, which is also the second-highest behind her sister.
And with $41 million in career earning as on March 2020, she is second in the list of highest-earning women’s tennis players.
Clay was Justin Henin’s speciality and it was at the French Open she won four titles including three in a row between 2005 and 2007. A US Open title in 2007 followed after having won the same competition in 2003 and the Australian Open in 2004.
With a WTA Finals win in 2006 and 2007 to go with the Olympics gold in 2004, Henin has one of the most complete record to go with what many peers and commentators have often described as a very complete game. With one of the most powerful single-handed backhands, Henin retired from the game in 2008 despite being the world number one at that stage.
She returned to the game in 2010 and made it to the final of the Australian Open and after fourth round defeats at the French Open and Wimbledon and a third round exit in the 2011 Australian Open, Henin retired for good for the second time.
Seven Grand Slam titles between 1971 and 1980 make Evonne Goolagong as one of the top players in this list of all-time female tennis greats.
It all began with a French Open victory in 1971, a title she never won again but was followed by Wimbledon wins in 1971 and 1980, and Australian Open titles in four successive years between 1974 and 1977.
Goolagong won the WTA Sportsmanship Award in 1978, which was the first year it was instituted and 1980, she also went on to make it to the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1988.
Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King’s career overlapped between the period before the Open Era and the Open Era itself, and in that time the American won a record 39 Grand Slam titles. This included 12 singles and 27 doubles (women’s and mixed) wins, which went with seven Fed Cup and nine Wightman Cup titles for the USA.
20 of these 39 came at Wimbledon too.
But Billie Jean King’s success wasn’t restricted to that or her number one ranking on the court of play. She was a champion off the court as well, as she championed the cause of women’s tennis players to go with gender equality. It was King who helped the formation of the WTA tour, which changed the course of women’s tennis.
The legend of Maureen Connolly will always live on because despite her retirement at the mere age of 19 or death at 39, the American won nine Grand Slam singles titles and two doubles titles between the years 1951 and 1954. This included all four majors, becoming the first ever woman player to do that in the history of tennis.
In 1954, she suffered in an accident while riding a horse and that ended her tennis career.
Can you imagine a player, whatever era she played in, to end with a career singles win-loss record of 332-7? That was where Suzanne Lenglen ended her career. To give you a context, Serena Williams, regarded as the greatest of all times came up with her best season in 2013 when she ended the year with a win-loss of 78-4!
Lenglen was that good.
She also won eight Grand Slam singles and eight doubles titles and was the first ever to sell out stadiums and become a celebrity sensation the world over across sports.
The French Open honored the memory of Suzanne Lenglen by naming one of their show-courts after her; the Suzanne Lenglen Court is one of the centre courts at Roland-Garros.
American Helen Wills Moody was a global celebrity and she brought about a revolution in tennis in more ways than one. She played in knee-length skirts which wasn’t quite the norm for those times and went on to capture a whopping 19 Grand Slam titles in the singles category.
Add 12 more in the women’s and mixed doubles, and the gold medal she won at the Paris Olympics singles and doubles, she was a phenomenon like none other.
And it wasn’t just the fact she won those 19 Grand Slam titles. Those 19 victories came from a mere 24 Grand Slams she participated in, during her 17-year long career. She made three other finals which she lost while an appendectomy cost her two other Grand Slam losses, giving her a career Grand Slam record of 125-4 (and one withdrawal).
Were it not for the shocking stabbing of Monica Seles on the tennis courts of Hamburg, she would have gone on to win a lot more Grand Slam titles than the nine she eventually did. Eight of those titles came as a teenager, out of the 14 Grand Slams she had played before the stabbing incident.
She took her time to return to the sport, missing 10 Grand Slams in the process but when she returned she won the first tournament she participated in; the Canadian Open. At the US Open in 1995, which was also her first Grand Slam, Seles made it to the final before going down to arch-rival Steffi Graf.
Many of her peers and experts reckoned Seles would have gone on to win anywhere between 18 and 25 Grand Slam titles had she not been at the receiving end of the stabbing.
With 157 singles titles in her career, Chris Evert stood second in the list of most women’s titles won in her career, ahead of Steffi Graf, Margaret Court and Billie Jean King and behind only Martina Navratilova. 18 of those titles came at Grand Slams, having reached 34 major finals which was also a record.
Evert won the French Open seven times and the US Open a further six times to go with three Wimbledon titles. Four tour final victories, three Grand Slam doubles titles and eight Fed Cup wins meant Evert had a fulfilling career to boot.
Post-retirement, Evert has been a coach, contributor to a magazine, commentator and also launched a tennis apparel line to add to her legend.
Martina Navratilova won a record nine Wimbledon singles titles to go with her nine other Grand Slam wins, making it 18 majors to her name. And while 18 titles by itself is a record worthy of recognition and making Navratilova one of the greatest of all times, she wasn’t done.
Navratilova also featured in 37 Grand Slam doubles finals and won 31 of them! Add 10 mixed doubles titles and Navratilova ended with 59 Grand Slam titles, most by any player during the Open era, male or female.
In fact, Navratilova’s endurance was second to none, when just shy of her 50th birthday, she went on to win the mixed doubles title with Leander Paes as her partner.
At the time of writing, Margaret Court holds the record for winning the most Grand Slam titles although there is an ample chance this record would be broken by Serena Williams. Court played on either side of the Open Era, winning 12 as an amateur and 12 as a professional.
Court, while controversial post her retirement for her views on same-gender marriages and relationships, also won 19 women’s doubles titles and 21 mixed doubles titles, and won the Multiple Grand Slam set, i.e. winning the singles, women’s and mixed doubles titles for all four Grand Slams on more than one occasion. She is the only player to do so.
If 22 Grand Slam singles titles weren’t enough, Steffi Graf also holds two other records – she is the only player in the history of tennis to have won the Golden Grand Slam; i.e. won an Olympics gold and all four singles titles at Grand Slams that year. It was a feat she achieved in 1988.
Other than that, she also holds the record for the most number of weeks as number one in the singles rankings; a record of 377, ahead of Martina Navratilova with 332.
However, there was a lot more to Graf than just her statistics. Possessing one of the most powerful forehands and a solid single-handed backhand, Graf battled a dodgy knee and other personal issues but never stopped competing and winning. She won her final Grand Slam title at the 1999 French Open, made the final at the Wimbledon next and retired from the game soon after.
While Serena Williams is yet not at the number one position on the most Grand Slams victories, the fact she won each of her 23 majors in the open era makes for a more sterling show than Court’s 24 wins. By a teeny-weeny bit for sure.
Add 16 other women’s and mixed doubles titles at Grand Slams, a whopping four gold medals at the Olympics and 319 weeks as the number one, Serena Williams has carved out a piece of history which won’t be forgotten in a long time.
While on-court controversies have dodged Serena on a more consistent basis than she would like, that hasn’t stopped her from winning more than $92 million in just prize money earnings alone. That would more than double if one adds sponsorship money as well to give her the number one spot in this list.