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: 2003–
Major titles: 2 (2012, 2013 Australian Open)*
When Victoria Azarenka took over the No. 1 ranking for the first time in early 2012, it looked as if women’s tennis had finally found a successor to Serena Williams.
The 24-year-old Belarusian-turned-Californian looked and acted the part. She was six-feet tall and as powerfully athletic as any player on tour. She was also as fiercely competitive and emotional as anyone this side of Serena. Vika—frowning, striding, clenching her fists, clashing with umpires, berating herself—has always been at her best when she’s about to boil over.
Besides looking and acting the part of a No. 1, Azarenka appeared prepared to play the role as well. Like Novak Djokovic, who rose to prominence around the same time, she was the foremost exemplar of the contemporary game. Her speed and her return, rather than her serve, were her most important weapons. She blended offense and defense until there was little difference between the two. Most important, like Djokovic, she expected to beat everyone she played, including her legendary opponents. While Vika never surpassed Serena, she challenged her in a way that no other woman of her generation has.
Yet six years after winning her first Grand Slam title, Azarenka has won just one more. Ranked No. 1 in 2012, she began 2018 at No. 205. She has been forced to end three of her seasons early for different reasons—injury, pregnancy, and, in 2017, a custody battle with the father of her son Leo. At 28, there’s still time for her to reclaim her past glory—no one has come along since who can match her athleticism and competitive fire. As it stands now, though, Vika is the 22nd-best women’s player of the Open era, but so far she’s an even bigger what-if.
Defining Moment: Azarenka’s career low and career high came within 48 hours of each other at the 2013 Australian Open. In her semifinal win, she called a trainer to the court and was granted a long medical timeout just before her opponent, Sloane Stephens, was about to serve to stay in the match. After breaking the American to win, Azarenka faced jeers from the crowd and harsh questions from the press. Two difficult days later, though, Vika silenced her critics with a three-set win over Li Na for her second major title.
Watch: Azarenka's TenniStory