Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
19. Hana Mandlikova
Years played: 1978–1990
Major titles: 4 (1980, 1987 Australian Open; 1981 French Open; 1985 US Open)
When she emerged from Czechoslovakia in the late-1970s, Mandlikova was all arms and legs—in a good way. The daughter of an Olympic sprinter, she moved across the court with long, easy strides and hit the ball with long, elegant strokes. At a time when the two-handed backhand was gaining in popularity, Mandlikova's one-hander gave her an old-fashioned versatility that served her well on all surfaces. Over the course of a single point, she could come over the ball, slice it, drop it, and approach behind it. Every part of the game seemed to come naturally to her.
Mandlikova announced herself to the world in 1980, when she won the Australian Open at 17. But it wasn’t until the following spring that the world got an idea of how high Hana’s ceiling truly was. Seeded fourth at the 1981 French Open, the 19-year-old dropped one set on her way to the title; in the semifinals, she ended Chris Evert’s 72-match win streak in Paris. One month later, Mandlikova pulled off the equivalent on grass by handing that era’s other great player, her countrywoman Martina Navratilova, an exceedingly rare defeat at Wimbledon. In 1980 and ’81, Mandlikova reached the finals of each of the four majors. It appeared that the new decade might come with a new WTA No. 1.
But she never made it there. Unable to match Evert’s steely consistency or Navratilova's fierce all-court attack, Mandlikova never rose higher than No. 3 in the rankings. But she retained her ability to beat any opponent on any day. Along with stopping Evert’s French Open streak, she put a halt to two incredible Navratilova win streaks—of 54 matches in 1983 and 56 matches in 1987—and a 23-match run by Steffi Graf in 1986. Mandlikova’s crowning achievement came at the 1985 US Open when, playing with a new focus and aggression, she beat Evert and Navratilova, back to back, for the title.
Again, bigger things seemed to be in store for Mandlikova, but again, they failed to materialize. Suffering a series of injuries near the end of the decade, she called it a career—a beautiful, often brilliant, and ever-so-slightly unrealized career—at just 28 years old.
Defining Moment: Three times was a charm for Mandlikova at the US Open. After losing in the finals there in 1980 and 1982, she reached the title match again in 1985. This time, in a thrilling, headlong, two-woman race to the net, she beat Navratilova in a third-set tiebreaker, with one last diving, perfect, winning crosscourt volley.
Watch: Highlights from the 1987 Australian Open final