Fifty Shades of Greatness: An author's perspective on #OpenEra50

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The GOAT debate allows us to do more than rank players; it lets us rediscover them. (AP)

“The journey is what matters, they say.” That’s what I wrote near the end of the entry for Martina Navratilova in our 50 Greatest Players of the Open era countdown. No player of the last five decades traveled farther, as an athlete or a person, during the course of her career than Martina.

Looking back at the process of creating our list of legends (to view all fifty entries, go to, the same phrase came to my mind: “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” By now, most tennis fans understand that the debate over who is the GOAT—the Greatest of All Time—has its limits. How can we compare players who swung wooden racquets to those who use today’s souped-up frames and strings? How can we make major titles the No. 1 criteria for greatness, when players like Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall were banned from playing them in the 1960s?

But deciding who deserves to be called the mythical best-ever isn’t what makes these debates worth having. If you’re a longtime fan like me, the reward comes when you rediscover what made these half-remembered geniuses in tight shorts and Ted Tinling dresses special.

“Ah, how could I forget Hana Mandlikova?” I asked myself as I watched a YouTube clip of the Czech virtuoso gliding gracefully to net and carving a different shot with every stroke. Researching Mats Wilander’s career led me to his somehow-forgotten pinnacle, his five-hour win over Ivan Lendl in the 1988 US Open final; seeing Wilander parry and probe, advance and retreat, before finally finding a way past his nemesis made for riveting viewing 30 years later. Writing about Arantxa Sanchez Vicario left me happily immersed in the under-appreciated women’s game of the 1990s, when bitterly-contested clashes—between Sanchez Vicario, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Gabriela Sabatini and Navratilova—were a monthly occurrence. Sanchez Vicario came up short in many of those epics, but the passion she brought to each of them is what shines through today.

TENNIS Magazine Senior Editor Ed McGrogan discusses origin of #OpenEra50:

To revisit these 50 players is to realize how many unique and colorful personalities tennis has produced since it was brought down from its ivory tower in 1968. To follow these champions as they appear one by one, year by year, over five decades is also to see how apt the term “Open era” remains.

At the start of the 1970s, tennis was ruled by Australians and Americans. As the tours expanded, the sport’s geographical reach expanded with them. Players arrived from Romania, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and Argentina to put their own spins on the game, while Arthur Ashe and Evonne Goolagong broke barriers for African-Americans and Aborigines. That expansion—into Spain, Brazil, Belgium, Switzerland, Serbia—continues globally, as well in the U.S., where Venus and Serena Williams have established an African-American tradition that will continue long after their retirements.

Chances are, even if you’re from the U.S., you’ve cheered for one or more of the non-Americans on our list. As fans of a sport whose athletes represent themselves rather than teams or countries, we’re free to root globally and identify with players from anywhere. It’s fitting that our No. 1 male, Roger Federer, is cheered like a conquering hero from Melbourne to New York. But it isn't just true of Federer: for tennis fans, any player, from anywhere, can be a countryman.

In the end, we decided that Federer and Serena were the game’s GOATs. But the journey to that decision was what mattered. It was a journey that reminded us of how many original and captivating ways there are to master this sport.

Desert Smash: A Celebration of Celebrity, Charity and Tennis Unlike Any Other

The 14th annual Desert Smash charity tennis event is Tuesday, March 6, and there are many reasons to mark your calendar. Here are just five of those reasons, including the event's host, Serena Williams.

Desert Smash is the kick off to Indian Wells, which will be broadcast on Tennis Channel over the next two weeks.




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