100 Greatest Female Athletes Ever
by Sports Illustrated
#75. Alice Marble (1913-1990)
[Four-time US Open Singles Champion; Triple Crown Wimbledon Champion in 1939.]
Alice Marble took up tennis as an alternative to her favorite sport, baseball. Her brother urged her to do so, concerned that if she did not trade in her bat and glove her femininity would be called into question. A natural all-around athlete, Marble took to tennis quickly. She had an aggressive serve-and-volley style -- unusual for a woman in those days -- that set new standards for tennis. From 1936 to '40 she won 12 U.S. Open and five Wimbledon titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. In her last three years as an amateur (she turned pro in 1940), she won 23 of 24 tournaments and 120 of 122 matches. Marble achieved her remarkable accomplishments despite a two-year disappearance from tennis (1933 to '35) due to anemia, pleurisy and a doctor's decision that she must give up the game. Flamboyant by nature, Marble typically wore a baseball cap on the court. Her theatrics continued off the court as well, where she associated with the movie-star set and even became a spy during World War II after being approached by U.S. army intelligence to keep tabs on a former lover who had gone on to work for the Nazis in Switzerland.
#72. Evonne Goolagong-Cawley (1951-)
[Seven Grand Slam Singles Titles]
Of Aboriginal descent, Evonne Goolagong grew up in Barellan, a small farming community in Australia. Tennis came into her life when her father discovered some balls in a used car he had purchased. Four-year-old Goolagong started swatting the balls around with a borrowed racket, and the rest is tennis history. At the age of 14, she moved to Sydney to train more seriously, and five years later played at Wimbledon for the first time, losing in the second round. In 1971, just six months after her Wimbledon appearance, she made it all the way to the finals of the Australian Open, where she lost to fellow Aussie Margaret Court. That spring she beat Helen Gourlay for the French Open title, and a month later crushed Court to win the Wimbledon ladies championship. Between 1974-'77, she won four Australian Open singles titles. In September 1976 -- after making it to the finals of every event she played that year -- Goolagong took a hiatus from tennis during which she gave birth to her first child. After a year away from the game, she returned and in 1980 defeated Chris Evert to win her second Wimbledon title. Goolagong retired three years later after suffering recurring foot problems, and in 1991 moved back to Australia, hoping to reconnect with her roots after living in the U.S. for eight years with her husband, Roger Cawley, and two children. Her 1993 autobiography "Home! The Evonne Goolagong Story" was an Australian best seller. Goolagong -- who during her career earned $1.4 million and reached 18 Grand Slam finals -- is an International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee.
#52. Helen Wills Moody (Roark) (1905-1998)
[31 Grand Slam Titles]
An icy cool customer on the court, Helen Wills Moody was known as "Little Miss Poker Face". No tennis player ever wanted to win more and not many did. The daughter of a prominent and wealthy California doctor, Wills grew up playing tennis at the posh Berkeley Tennis Club. She became so good at the game so fast that her father arranged for her to take private lessons. Preferring to hit with men to improve her power game, Wills had a heavy serve and booming ground strokes off both sides. She won her first U.S. singles title in 1923 at the age of 17, and the following year took home gold in both singles and doubles at the Paris Olympic Games.
Of all her memorable matches --including those played during her 15-year rivalry with Helen Jacobs-- one stood above the rest. In 1926, with the world clamoring for her to play French champion Suzanne Lenglen, 20-year-old Wills traveled to France to face La Belle Suzanne, six years her senior. With fans perched on ladders above a sold-out crowd at the Carlton Club in Cannes, Lenglen proved the 6-3, 8-6 winner. Motivated by that loss, Wills held the No. 1 world ranking for eight years and did not lose a set from 1927 to '33. She captured a total of 31 career Grand Slam titles, including 19 in singles. Her dominance of Wimbledon was particularly remarkable. Wills won eight singles titles at the All-England Club between 1927 and '38, second only to Martina Navratilova (nine). Wills also held the No. 1 world ranking for eight years and did not lose a set from 1927 to '33. In the early 1930s, Wills married and in 1938 she played her last major tournament, but not before bringing unprecedented and well-deserved attention to women's tennis.
#33. Suzanne Lenglen (1899-1938)
[Dominated women's tennis from 1919-1926]
French-born Suzanne Lenglen was a captivating crowd pleaser, and as a result, became one of the first female athletes to attain true celebrity status. Off the court, she was known for her hard drinking, flirtatiousness and vanity. On the court, however, she played with a so-called "unfeminine athleticism" and wore unconventional short skirts. Her play was fluid and elegant and she possessed a wicked zest for winning, which she did with regularity: two gold medals and a bronze at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, plus six Wimbledon and six French Open singles titles. From 1919 to '26, Lenglen lost only one match -- and that was by default. In 1926, at the Carlton Club tournament in Cannes, Lenglen played Helen Wills, a 20-year-old American who was her opposite both on and off the court. What would turn out to be the first and only match between these two tennis greats was one of the most ballyhooed of its era and among the most famed in the sport's history (Lenglen won, 6-3, 8-6).
#30. Althea Gibson (1927-)
[First African-American to win Wimbledon; 5 Grand Slam Singles titles.]
Althea Gibson brought grace, dignity and power to the world of tennis in the 1950's. She intimidated opponents with her powerful serve, pinpoint volleys and thundering overhead. But she is best remembered for having the courage to take on major tennis' all-white establishment. Gibson was a pioneer who broke several racial barriers in the sport and paved the way for future stars such as Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison, and Venus and Serena Williams. The first African-American to win the Wimbledon singles title (she did it twice, in 1957 and 1958), she also won the French Open and U.S. Open singles titles.
Born to a South Carolina sharecropper who moved his family to New York City in 1930, Gibson grew up in Harlem during the great Depression. She shot pool with the local sharks and played basketball with the boys in her neighborhood -- but she was especially adept at paddle ball. During the summer of 1941, a Police Athletic League supervisor watched Gibson win a local tournament and suggested she take up tennis. Gibson began taking lessons, beating all comers and rapidly rising through the ranks of New York's all-Black American Tennis Association (ATA). In 1947, Gibson won the first of her 10 consecutive ATA national championships. She continued to dominate the ATA circuit while remaining shut out of all-white United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) events.
After years of lobbying on the part of ATA officials and contemporaries such as former Wimbledon champion Alice Marble, Gibson made tennis history when she stepped onto Court 14 at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York on August 28, 1950 to compete in women's singles at the U.S. Championship. Gibson became the first African-American -- male or female -- to play in a major USLTA event. She defeated England's Barbara Knapp in straight sets, but lost to former Wimbledon champion Louise Brough in the second round. She made history again at Wimbledon that year, advancing to the quarterfinals.
Over the next five years, Gibson continued to win ATA titles, but her success in USLTA events was somewhat uneven until she returned from an exhibition tour of Asia for the U.S. State Department in 1955. She won 16 of 18 USLTA matches during the 1956 season, including the French Championships on May 20, becoming the first African-American to win a major tennis singles title.
Gibson was nearly 30 when she won her first Wimbledon title in 1957. She returned to a hero's welcome and ticker-tape parade in New York. She won her first U.S. Championship later that year and became the top-ranked female tennis player in the world. After winning her second U.S. title in 1958, Gibson retired from amateur competition. She took up golf and broke another color barrier by becoming the first African-American woman to compete on the LPGA circuit. She won one tournament during a seven-year career.
After retiring from professional competition in 1971, Gibson taught tennis and also served as athletic commissioner for the State of New Jersey from 1975 to '77. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971 and to the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.
#28. Maureen Connolly (1934-1969)
[First woman to win tennis' Grand Slam]
Though her tennis career spanned just a little more than four years, Maureen Connolly ranks as one of the sport's all-time great players. "Little Mo" began playing on the municipal courts of San Diego. After successfully lobbying her parents for a racket, Connolly started training with a local pro at age 10 -- and finished second in the first tournament she entered. She later worked with renowned coach Eleanor "Teach" Tennant, who had previously coached champions Helen Wills Moody and Alice Marble. A natural lefthander, Connolly played righthanded and developed overpowering groundstrokes from both sides. At 13, she won the national junior title. She won her first major title, the U.S. championship, in 1951 -- two weeks before her 17th birthday. She would lose only four matches during the rest of her career.
Connolly won nine Grand Slam titles in the space of four years: Wimbledon (1952-54), the U.S. (1951-53), French (1953-54) and Australian Championships (1953). In 1953, she became the first woman to capture tennis' Grand Slam. Connolly was particularly dominant at Wimbledon -- she was never beaten in singles in her three appearances at the All-England Club. But in 1954, just two weeks after winning her third straight Wimbledon title, Connolly's right leg was crushed in a horseback-riding accident. The injury proved career-ending, and Little Mo was forced to retire at age 19. She remained active in tennis, serving as a sponsor and coach until she died of cancer in 1969 at age 34 .
16. Margaret Smith Court (1942-)
[62 Grand Slam titles; won Grand Slam in 1970]
In the 1960s and early '70s, women's tennis was an all-Court game. Tall, agile and overpowering, Margaret Smith Court dominated her sport as few others have. Between 1960 and 1973, Court won a ridiculous 62 Grand Slam titles, including the Australian Open singles crown seven straight times. "With her athleticism and training, Margaret took the game to another level," says Billie Jean King, who nicknamed her the Arm because of her reach.
Weaned on grass, she was a nifty serve-and-volleyer. She also had the penetrating strokes -- and, yes, court sense -- to win on slower surfaces. In 1970, a year when her singles record was 104-6, she won the Grand Slam (all four majors in one calendar year), for which she earned only $14,800. The same feat today is worth roughly $2.5 million. No matter. Court played for love, not money. In '77 she retired to Australia, where she is a minister who tours for a nondenominational church. Though far removed from the public eye, her legacy endures as one of the great champions.
#14. Steffi Graf (1969-)
[Won all four Grand Slams plus Olympic Gold in 1988]
Perfection is an awfully tough standard. But for tennis's Überfrau, Steffi Graf, there was never an alternative. From the day of her pro debut at 13 to her retirement last summer at age 30 after winning the French Open, Graf was unable to tolerate anything less than flawlessness. Often described by her peers as "a machine," Graf was mirthless and merciless in plying her trade. But the results speak volumes. "Steffi," says no less an authority than Billie Jean King, "is definitely the greatest women's tennis player of all time." It's virtually impossible to exaggerate Graf's greatness. She's the only player to have won all four Grand Slam events at least four times. After assuming the No. 1 ranking in 1987, she topped the charts for 186 straight weeks -- and a preposterous 377 weeks total -- the longest reign of any player, male or female. She retired having won more than 900 matches, $20 million in prize money and 22 Grand Slam singles titles. "Sometimes I wish I could have been a bit more relaxed," she says, looking back on her career. "But then I wouldn't have been the same player."
5/6. Martina Navratilova (1956-) and Chris Evert (1954-)
[Each won 18 Grand Slam Singles titles; rivalry elevated women's tennis]
Just as the NBA had Bird and Magic, as boxing had Ali and Frazier, and as golf had Nicklaus and Palmer, so did women's tennis once boast an epic rivalry. For upwards of 15 years, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova matched each other shot for shot, fighting over the sport's most coveted titles and playing an ongoing game of leapfrog for the No. 1 ranking. "Everywhere I went, Chris was there to meet me," says Navratilova. "Everywhere she went, I was there to meet her."
Heightening their rivalry was the fact that Navratilova and her nemesis were a study in contrasts. Martina, a Czech expatriate who embraced America's freedoms, was unabashed about her homosexuality and freely loaned her name to dozens of political causes. Evert, known forever as Chrissy, was, as the nickname implied, the image-conscious girl-next-door with whom fans felt an instant familiarity. Their games betrayed their disparate personalities as well. Evert was the picture of consistency, keeping her foes at bay with classic, impeccably positioned strokes and a will of iron. Navratilova was a relentlessly aggressive athlete who attacked at every opportunity and forced the action.
Off the court, "Chrissy" was the smiling girl-next-door, but on it she was the iron-willed Ice Princess. Manny Millan
For all their differences, they were remarkably evenly matched. Evert won 157 career singles titles, and Navratilova claimed 167. Evert was the better clay-court player but reached the semifinals or better on the lawn of Wimbledon a staggering 17 times. Navratilova was at her best on grass but twice won on the red clay at the French Open. Appropriately, they each finished their careers with 18 Grand Slam singles titles. Head-to-head, Navratilova held a 43-37 edge, but Evert, who's two years older, won 23 of their first 29 meetings. Replicating the path of a ball in a tennis match, the "who's better?" debate will continue back and forth in perpetuity.
Beyond the numbers, their rivalry was marked by a profound mutual respect. Chris hated losing to Martina as much as Martina hated losing to Chris, but they felt a shared kinship. "I think we both realized that we pushed each other and, in the end, made the other one a much better player," says Evert, now 44. They were inextricably entwined throughout their playing careers, and it was somehow fitting that when the two players retired, they chose to settle in the same community, Aspen, Colo. As Evert joked at the time, "We just can't seem to shake each other.
#3. Billie Jean King (1943-)
[established Women's Sports Foundation in 1974. Won the Battle of the Sexes in 1973.]
Never mind the 39 Grand Slam titles, 695 match victories or the redoubtable career that lasted more than two decades. Mention Billie Jean King's name and the images first conjured are not of a tennis champion. Instead, King's legacy is that of a trailblazer who used her fame on the court to smooth the pavement for the next generation of female athletes.
The daughter of a fireman and a homemaker, King was imbued with an activist spirit as a middle-class prodigy trying to infiltrate a country-club sport. While she practiced tirelessly on the public courts of Long Beach, Calif., less skilled but better-connected players always seemed to get noticed first. Years later, traveling the circuit as an amateur, King grew weary of winning large events only to go uncompensated. So in 1968 she helped usher in tennis's open era by joining with several other women in signing professional contracts. In '70, angered by the fact that male players were being paid significantly more for victories than females, King and eight other women signed with Gladys Heldman, founder of what would become the Virginia Slims Tour. The next year King became the first female athlete to surpass the $100,000 benchmark in annual prize money.
King will forever be known for her 1973 victory over Bobby Riggs in the so-called "Battle of the Sexes." The match, played in the cavernous Houston Astrodome and televised nationally, was as much burlesque as tennis. But at the height of the women's liberation movement, its significance transcended sport. In defeating Riggs, the aging male chauvinist oink-oink, in three decisive sets, King laid to rest notions that testosterone was a prerequisite for athletic ability and intestinal fortitude. "Before that, women were chokers who couldn't take the pressure," says King. "Except, of course, in childbirth." Truth be told, King was so nervous before the match that she vomited in the locker room.
Her devotion to causes wasn't limited to tennis. In 1974 she helped create the Women's Sports Foundation, and she has long been a vocal supporter of Title IX. Today, in addition to serving on the board of a Fortune 500 corporation, the 56-year-old King (who retired from competitive tennis in '84) captains the U.S. Federation Cup team and remains active in, as she puts it, "growing the game of tennis" -- a game now filled with millionaire female athletes who are international celebrities. "Like the slogan says, We've come a long way," says Lindsay Davenport. "And we owe a big debt to Billie Jean King.
♥.i only have eyes for serena.♥
:: serena is our shepherdess & we are her lambs ::