Twenty-Four Majors Good?

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Alright, tennis fans: Who is Jan Lehane O’Neill, and what exactly is her claim to fame?

Answer: She’s the woman who lost to Margaret Court in four consecutive Australian Open finals, starting in 1960. And that wasn’t the whole of the torments inflicted on her by the all-time women’s Grand Slam singles champion. O'Neill also made two doubles finals in Australia’s major, but lost each time—with Court across the net.

O’Neill was a good player, ranked in the Top 10 for three years in the early 1960s (and as high as No. 7 in 1963). Of course, this was before the computer age, so the rankings I cited were subjectively issued by Lance Tingay, a British journalist who loved tennis and labored for decades covering the game for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. Still, they were the best measure we had at the time, and of the time.

O’Neill played the Australian Open 13 times, which was more than twice as many times as she entered any other major (she played the U.S. Open a mere three times in her career). In addition to those four finals, O’Neill also appeared in two additional semifinals. Yet she made it as far as the quarterfinals at the other three majors just seven times overall.

I delved into O’Neill’s record because of what her CV says about the Australian Open, the tournament that has done so much to obfuscate tennis history. And examining O’Neill also says much about her nemesis, Court. For the Aussie won 11 singles titles at the Australian Open, which is nearly half of her historic haul of 24 majors.

Furthermore, Court bagged seven of those Australian Open titles before the advent of Open tennis in 1968, and a total of 13 majors before the game welcomed professional players back into the Grand Slam fold.

Court’s nearest rival in the record books is Steffi Graf, with 22 major singles titles, and her closest active rival is Serena Williams, with 17 Slams. It seems that Court’s record may never be broken. But while Court was a great player, I’m not sure she was 24 majors great. However I am convinced that no other player’s record is marred by such a great asterisk, which is a great shame.

You might think that as the Open era rolls on, such a thorny and unsatisfying situation would fade into oblivion. But this one won’t, because it can’t. Court’s record will only loom larger and larger as great players come and go; there may be no legitimate shot at wiping out that vestigial asterisk the way Pete Sampras did, when he broke Roy Emerson’s mark of 12 majors. The men’s Grand Slam singles title record now held by Roger Federer is an Open era achievement, and it will never bear an asterisk—unless the structure of the game undergoes some other revolution.

It may seem like I’m bashing Court here, but of course none of this was her fault. Nor was it entirely the fault of the conditions and issues that pretty much made tennis a three-Slam game for a long period in the 1970s and early 1980s—and thereby prevented stalwarts including John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, and Jimmy Connors from having a shot at breaking Emerson’s record.

Those dark days for Australian tennis did not really apply to the women, whose top players (including Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and Evonne Goolagong) generally showed up in Melbourne, even when the tournament was held in December, even when it was on grass.

In fact, only three dubious names appear on the Australian Open honor roll in the Open era—those of Kerry Melville Reid, Chris O’Neil, and Barbara Jordan, champions in, respectively, 1977, ’78, and ’79. All the other Australian Open champs each won at least one more major. With a more unified, cooperative tour and significantly less earning power than male players, most elite women players have always supported the Australian Open.

But there were other significant factors that diluted the Aussie Open fields in the years before Open tennis. One of them was the cost and toll of travel, which were still high right into the early days of the jet era. Top players from halfway around the globe didn’t make the trip simply because it was just too far too go and too long in getting there. Billie Jean King, for example, was already a two-time Wimbledon semifinalist before she made her first trip to Melbourne.

So the real caveat when it comes to Court’s record in Australia is attached to those early years. That she was a legitimate prodigy as well as one of the all-time greats is indisputable: She won her first Australian Open in 1960, in just her second attempt at a major (she made her Grand Slam debut in Australia the year before, but played in no other majors that year). That’s a testament to Court’s genius, but it’s also a comment on O’Neill’s class as a player.

In those four Australian titles Court won over O’Neill, Court never lost a set, and O'Neill only twice won four or more games in a set. In ensuing Australian Opens, Court beat higher-quality players, including King, Goolagong, Reid, Maria Bueno, and Nancy Richey—triumphs that put those first four victories into perspective as small beans. If we could only wave a magic wand to banish those titles, we would have a much more representative record.

But you can’t just chuck out those four wins and keep everything else as is. Yet if you could, I think you’d end up with a much more accurate pecking order at the top when it comes to women who played at least a significant portion of their careers in the Open era. It would leave Court with 20 majors—two behind Graf, but only two ahead of Evert and Navratilova. That may seem like a demotion, but I think Court still would be in pretty good company.

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