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: 1959–1977
*Titles: 92 (per WTA website)
Major titles: 24*
Just as it might seem trivial to rate Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King as athletes only, while ignoring their forward-looking cultural contributions, many might feel queasy about celebrating Margaret Court’s playing career after all of the retrograde political positions she’s taken over the years. But even if we’re loath to glorify Australia’s greatest woman player—and maybe greatest player, period—her career still stands, and it’s a towering one. As the International Hall of Fame put it when it inducted her in 1979, “For sheer strength of performance and accomplishment, there has never been a tennis player to match her.”
What makes those accomplishments even more remarkable was the fact that Court, the daughter of a factory foreman and youngest of four children, was just 5’9”, and she was a natural lefty who was persuaded to play with her right hand. An early devotee of weight training, she was a standout 400- and 800-meter runner with Olympic aspirations. As a tennis player, she was the most intimidating physical presence of her day, and one of the foremost practitioners of the serve-and-volley style in the game’s history. Court’s tour-mate Rosie Casals nicknamed her The Arm, for the long, strong right arm that she used to deliver heavy hooking serves, reach out and intercept passing shots, and hammer home winning smashes. Her opponents complained that it was impossible to get anything around her or over her head.
That right arm, along with her speed and reflexes, helped Court amass a staggering array of statistics. Her career was split evenly between amateur and Open eras—if this future Pentecostal minister never adapted to the cultural changes of the 1960s and ‘70s, she had no trouble adapting her game to the newly professionalized tour of those years. Court won career Grand Slams in singles, doubles and mixed doubles as an amateur, and then won them again, in all three disciplines, as a pro. As a singles player, she won a record 24 Grand Slam titles and, including all professional events, 192 overall. In 1970, she won the first women’s calendar-year Grand Slam in 17 years, and three other times—in 1965, 1969 and 1973—she won three of the four majors. Court won 21 titles in 1970, a single-season record, and her 91.2 Open era winning percentage (593-56) is the best ever.
But it isn’t just Court’s recent comments that make her difficult to assess; it’s the way she accumulated that record Grand Slam total. She won 11 of her 24 singles majors at the Australian Open, including seven in a row from 1960 to ’66, before American and European players regularly traveled Down Under. In 1960, a 17-year-old Court lost in the junior final before going on to win the adult event. The woman she beat in four early Aussie Open finals, Jan Lehane, never made it past the quarterfinals at any other Slam. And in Court’s first seven wins there, her primary rival, Billie Jean King, was in the draw just once. From ’60 to ’66, Court wouldn’t win any other major more than twice.
Not all Grand Slam totals, in other words, are created equal. But to say that isn’t to knock Court’s ability; she would go on to prove herself over and over against the world’s best competition. In doing so, she would set the standards for excellence, dominance and athleticism that the women just behind her in the major-title chase, Serena Williams and Steffi Graf, have spent their careers doing their best to match. Court's controversial words have made many question her legacy, but her numbers still stand, and they're still among the best ever.
Defining Moment: King didn’t think her very long, very tense 1970 Wimbledon final against Court was much of a match. But then again, she didn’t win it. Court did, by the epic scores of 14-12, 11-9. This high point in one of tennis’ great rivalries also gave Court the third leg of the Grand Slam. She would win the fourth the next month at Forest Hills.
Watch: Margaret Court - Stories of the Open Era