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.)
Years played: 1982–1999
Major titles: 22*
The earliest sign that Steffi Graf was going to be one of the sport’s all-time winners came at the end of a defeat. It was 1986, and Graf was 17. She had just lost a three-set semifinal to No. 1 seed Martina Navratilova at the US Open. To the gasps and shrieks of the Flushing Meadows crowd, Navratilova saved three match points in an electrifying, 10-8, third-set tiebreaker. When it was over, she reached across the net to try to console the young German. Instead, the young German stuck her hand out and, without breaking stride, barreled off the court. Graf had no time for consolation. She wouldn’t be satisfied until she had won this tournament, and every other tournament under the sun.
That’s exactly what she would do. From the time Graf reached the fourth round at Wimbledon in 1984, at age 15, until she lost her last match at the same event 15 years later, she played unprecedentedly fast and forceful tennis. No player before or since has moved with such predatory haste, both between points and during them. Hurrying across the court like she was “double-parked,” as Mary Carillo put it, Graf was one of the last high-level players to keep a ball in her off-hand during points. Why waste time pulling it out of your skirt?
More important, of course, was what she did to the balls that her poor, defenseless opponents dared to send her way. Graf clubbed them, as often and as hard as possible, with her famous forehand. The shot, which she often leapt to hit, was an evolutionary leap for tennis. Crosscourt, inside out, inside in, down the line: Fraulein Forehand belted them all past her opponents. Like her fellow German Boris Becker, she ushered in a mid-’80s power surge that ended the divide between net-rusher and baseliner that had defined the premier rivalry of the previous era, between Navratilova and Chris Evert.
It didn’t take long for Graf to end the stranglehold those two women had on the WTA, too. Her breakthrough came at the 1987 French Open, when she beat Navratilova 8-6 in the third set. The guard had changed and the floodgates had opened; for the next decade, Graf would tear through the tour and the record books with her customary relentlessness. She would win 22 majors, and become the only player on either tour to win each of them at least four times. From 1987 to 1990, she reached the final of a record 13 straight Grand Slam events, and in 1988 she became the first player since Margaret Court in 1970 to win a calendar-year Grand Slam. At the Seoul Olympics, she made that Slam the game’s only Golden one.
It wasn’t just the ball and her opponent that took a pounding when Graf played; her body did, too; she would survive injuries to her calf, foot, back, and knee. As she aged, she was less dominant, but that only gave her a chance to show how icy-tough she was in the clutch. She won epic Grand Slam finals over Navratilova, Gabriela Sabatini, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Monica Seles. In the 1995 Wimbledon final against Sanchez Vicario, she won one of the greatest games ever played, a 32-point, 13-deuce tug of war that decided the title.
After being sidelined through much of the late-’90s and going three years without major titles, Graf would finish her career with one more surprise epic a month before her 30th birthday. In the 1999 French Open final, she came back to beat a new Martina, Hingis, in three wild sets. Afterward, Graf’s famous facade finally cracked, and the tears flowed. Four weeks later, she lost the Wimbledon final and was gone. Graf had no time for victory laps. It was only the victories themselves that mattered to her.
Defining Moment: It had been 18 years since a player had won a calendar-year Grand Slam. Now, in the final of the 1988 US Open, Graf was one set away from the sport’s ultimate achievement. But her friend Gabriela Sabatini, who had long played second-fiddle to Graf, wasn’t making things easy; after losing the first set, the Argentine surprised everyone when she won the second. Was Graf going to trip at the finish line? Not a chance. She powered through the third, 6-1, and into tennis history. Like Rod Laver on the men’s side, no one has followed there since.
Watch: Steffi Graf beats Martina Navratilova to win 1987 French Open