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: 1994–
*Titles: 49

Major titles: 7*

“I don’t think anyone feels older,” a 36-year-old Venus Williams said at Wimbledon in 2016. “You have this infinity inside you that feels like it could go on forever.”

Williams has done her part to prove the wisdom of her statement, and of her cosmically positive approach to life. She has survived the overwhelming hype surrounding her debut as a 14-year-old, the slow acceptance of her family by the tennis world, the rise of her younger sister to become that family’s best player, an immune-deficiency disease and the everyday aches and pains and injuries that come with age. But 23 years after launching her historic, barrier-breaking career, Venus remains very much in orbit.

There never was a debut quite like hers. As an 11-year-old in 1991, the tall, beaded girl from the wrong side of the tennis tracks had been featured, along with her sidekick Serena, on 60 Minutes. Yet by 1994 few had seen either of the swinging sisters play a match that mattered. Was their father, Richard, who claimed his daughters would be No. 1 and 2 someday, but who kept them from playing junior events, conning the world?

It only took one tournament to find out the answer was a resounding no. At a WTA event in Oakland, Venus dodged the media scrum long enough to win her first match, and then win the first set over world No. 1 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. That night, Nike and Reebok came calling. Three years later, Venus was in the US Open final. Three years after that, she became the first African-American woman to win Wimbledon and the US Open since Althea Gibson four decades earlier.

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What Venus showed us in Oakland is still true 23 years later. She signaled there that not only was she a world-class athlete in the making, she was also a born competitor who played her best on the big stage. Along with her sister, Venus brought a new, more aggressive approach to tennis’s new century. A long-limbed 6’2”, she slammed down the hardest serve in WTA history, and swung out on her ground strokes with equal abandon. Venus pioneered the open-stance backhand, and, rather than just get her return of serves in play, she made that reactive shot into a proactive weapon. The rest of the women’s tour is still scrambling to catch up.

Venus’ game worked best at her favorite tournament, Wimbledon. She has won there five times, and in 2017, at 37, she reached the final. She has also been an Olympic stalwart for the United States, playing in a record five Summer Games and bringing back four golds and a silver. She first reached No. 1 in 2002; 15 years later, she came close to finishing the 2017 season in the top spot.

Venus has done of all this while waging a successful campaign for equal prize money at the majors, and inspiring her little sister. “She’s the only reason I’m standing here today,” Serena said after winning her 23rd major singles title in Melbourne last January, “and the only reason the Williams sisters exist.”

In 1997, when Venus became the first black player since Arthur Ashe to reach the US Open final, Sports Illustrated called her a “Party Crasher” on its cover. Twenty years later, Venus lost in the semifinals at the Open to another African-American, Sloane Stephens. Because of Venus, African-Americans are no longer the exception in tennis; they’re the tradition.

Defining Moment: It was power vs. power, six-footer vs. six-footer, American vs. American in the 2005 Wimbledon final. Venus and Lindsay Davenport had split their previous 26 matches nearly evenly. This one, the last they would play and by far the most intense, would be a microcosm of their long rivalry. Davenport held a championship point, but Venus wiped it away with a winner. When Venus finally won 9-7 in the third, she did what came naturally: she leapt for joy, and leapt some more.

Watch: Venus Williams wins the 2005 Wimbledon title

The 50 Greatest Players of the Open Era (W): No. 8, Venus Williams

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This Week on Tennis Channel Plus 2/12

ATP Buenos Aires (Feb. 14-18)

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ATP Rotterdam (Feb. 13-14)

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