You Gotta Know These Tennis Players
- Rod Laver (1938–present). Australia produced many talented players (Emerson, Rosewall, Newcombe, Stolle, Hoad) but Laver was the best of all. He weighed just 145 pounds in his playing days but his massive left arm generated incredible topspin shots. The only player to win the Grand Slam twice — in 1962 as an amateur, and in 1969 as a professional — Laver took 11 major singles titles overall. Turning pro in 1963, Laver won five U.S. Pro Championships; had he been allowed to play the majors from 1963 to 1967, he likely would hold the wins record instead of Pete Sampras. Martina Navratilova and Sampras both idolized Laver, the first to earn $1 million in a career.
- Pete Sampras (1971–present). “Pistol Pete” burst onto the scene in 1990, when he became the youngest man ever to win the U.S. Open. He would take five U.S. Opens and two Australian Opens, but his greatest accomplishments came on the Wimbledon grass. Starting in 1993 he won Wimbledon seven times in eight years, losing only to Richard Krajicek in the quarterfinals in 1996. The last Wimbledon win (2000) gave Sampras the all-time men’s major record, passing Roy Emerson’s 12. Married to actress Bridgette Wilson, Sampras silenced his critics (who thought he was washed up) by defeating Andre Agassi for the 2002 U.S. Open title — then he retired.
- Bjorn Borg (1956–present). On both grass and clay in the late 1970s, resistance to Borg was futile; he won Wimbledon five straight years (1976–80) and the French Open six times, for a total of 11 majors. Borg got started at age nine, after his father won a tennis racket in a ping-pong tournament and gave it to him. He took his first French in 1974 and dominated through 1981, when John McEnroe finally knocked him off at Wimbledon. Borg then inexplicably retired at 26; he tried an unsuccessful comeback in the early 1990s. Despite his great success, Borg never won the U.S. Open (reaching the final four times). He played at the Australian Open only once, usually preferring to take the winter months off.
- Bill Tilden (1893–1953). Between 1920 and 1925, he was almost unstoppable: He won six straight U.S. championships and took Wimbledon both times he played. Tilden was nicknamed “Big Bill” for two reasons: He stood 6-foot-2 with his trademark “cannonball” serve and he faced “Little Bill” Johnston in six out of seven U.S. finals. In all, he won ten majors (seven U.S., three Wimbledon) and turned professional in 1930 — winning a pro title at age 42 and competing in barnstorming tours until he was 50. Tilden also loved the theater; he performed in several Broadway shows (including the lead in “Dracula”), but lost a lot of money backing failed ventures.
- Andre Agassi (1970–present). His father boxed for Iran in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics; his own Olympic exploits included the 1996 tennis gold. Born in Las Vegas, he reached the world’s #3 ranking at age 18 but was better known for his image than for his play. Perhaps the greatest returner and baseline player ever, Agassi won his first major on Wimbledon grass in 1992. Briefly married to Brooke Shields, he fell to #141 in the world in 1997, but after they divorced, Agassi rededicated himself to the game. In 1999 he won the French Open, becoming just the fifth man to complete the career Grand Slam. In all, Agassi has won eight major singles titles (five since 1999), and is now married to women’s great Steffi Graf.
- John McEnroe (1959–present). Though perhaps best known for his fiery temper and abuse of referees (with taunts like “You can’t be serious!”), McEnroe was the dominant player of the early 1980s. As a 17-year old amateur qualifier, he made the semifinals of Wimbledon, and in 1979 he won the first of three straight U.S. Opens. He almost ended Borg’s run of Wimbledons in a five-set thriller in 1980, but succeeded the following year. In 1984, McEnroe compiled an 82–3 record, winning Wimbledon and his fourth U.S. Open, for a total of seven majors. An outstanding doubles player as well, he won 77 titles, many with partner Peter Fleming. He also played in the Davis Cup 12 times, captaining the U.S. team in 2000.
- Arthur Ashe (1943–1993). Ashe once claimed that he would consider himself a failure if he were remembered only for tennis. The first black man to win either the U.S. Championship (1968) or Wimbledon (1975), he was also the first American tennis player to earn over $100,000 in one year (1970). The author of Hard Road to Glory, a history of black athletes, Ashe announced in 1992 that tainted blood from a 1983 heart surgery had given him the AIDS virus. Arthur Ashe Stadium, the current home of the U.S. Open, was named for him in 1997.
- Martina Navratilova (1956–present). Born in Prague, she defected to the United States in 1975 because the Czech Tennis Federation had taken most of her earnings. A bit heavy early in her career, Navratilova won the first two of her nine Wimbledons in 1978–79 but subsequent losses led her to pursue a grueling fitness regimen. This paid off: She won 18 singles Grand Slams (58 overall), 167 total singles titles, and even more doubles crowns, many with partner Pam Shriver. A Wimbledon finalist at 37, Navratilova retired from singles in 1994, but returned to play doubles in 2000. In 2003 she tied Billie Jean King with 20 overall Wimbledons, taking the mixed doubles at age 46.
- Steffi Graf (1969–present). Her most devastating shot earned her the moniker “Fraulein Forehand.” Graf turned pro at age 13 and steadily rose through the rankings, garnering the #1 ranking and her first major (French) in 1987. The following year, Graf made history by winning the Grand Slam and the gold medal at the Seoul Olympics, the only player ever to go 5-for-5 in one year. Seven Wimbledons, six French, five U.S., and four Australians add up to 22 major career singles crowns — the last coming at the French in 1999 after two years of major back injuries. Graf retired that fall, and is now raising her son Jaden with her husband Andre Agassi.
- Chris Evert (1954–present). Queen of the Clay Courts, she won the French Open a record seven times and rolled off a 125-match win streak on the surface. As a 15-year old, Evert upset Margaret Court, who had just won the Grand Slam. 1974 was the first of a record 13 straight years in which she won a major — several of them hard-fought against her rival, Martina Navratilova. In all, Evert took 18 Grand Slam singles titles, and was the first female player to win $1 million in her career. She was married to British tennis player John Lloyd for eight years, but they divorced in 1987, and she then wed Olympic skier Andy Mill.
- Billie Jean King (1943–present). Her records themselves are impressive: 12 Grand Slam singles wins (including six Wimbledons) and 20 overall Wimbledon titles. King, however, is best known for advancing women’s athletics. Her brother, Randy Moffitt, pitched for the San Francisco Giants; she herself reached a #4 world ranking in 1960 and turned pro eight years later. At the time, prize money for women was paltry, so she co-founded the Virginia Slims Tour, and in 1971 became the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in a year. Two years later, in front of over 30,000 at the Astrodome, she whipped Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.” King retired in 1983, but not before winning a singles tournament at age 39.
- Margaret Smith Court (1942–present). The most prolific winner, male or female, she amassed 62 Grand Slam titles, 24 of them in singles (3 Wimbledon, 5 French, 5 U.S., and 11 in her native Australia). Billie Jean King called Court “The Arm” because of her long reach, aided by her height of nearly six feet. In 1970 she became the second woman (after Maureen Connolly) to win the Grand Slam, taking 21 singles championships overall that year; less impressive was her 1973 loss to 55-year old Bobby Riggs. Court did defeat King, Riggs’s nemesis, 22 of 32 times. She retired in 1977 and became a lay minister.
- Venus and Serena Williams (1980–present and 1981–present). Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe may have preceded them as trailblazing African-American players, but the sisters have taken the game to new levels and to more people. Born in Compton, California and coached from an early age by father Richard, Venus broke through first, reaching the final of the U.S. Open in 1997. Serena won a Grand Slam before Venus did (1999 U.S. Open), but Venus hit #1 by sweeping Wimbledon and the U.S. Opens in both 2000 and 2001. For a long time Serena could not beat her older sister, but that changed in 2002, when she took four straight major finals against Venus. With her 2003 win at Wimbledon, Serena now has six majors to Venus’s four. On the side, both are fashion designers, while Venus also designs interiors.
- Helen Wills Moody (1905–1998). A California native nicknamed “Little Miss Poker Face” because her expression rarely changed on the court, Wills’s play contrasted with that of the other great woman of the era, the emotional Suzanne Lenglen of France, though they met only once (as Lenglen turned pro). Nonetheless, Wills dominated her competition; between 1927 and 1932 she did not even drop a set! She won 19 major singles crowns — out of 22 entered — including eight Wimbledons, six U.S., and four French championships, in 1928 becoming the first player to win three Grand Slams in one season. Wills also swept the singles and doubles gold medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics.
This article was contributed by Adam Fine.