This week, we're counting down the Top 5 Indian Wells finals (look for the Top 5 Miami finals soon!)


It can feel like fate when champions of different eras overlap just long enough to face each other. Think Pete Sampras meeting Roger Federer on Centre Court in 2001, or Andre Agassi vs. Rafael Nadal in the same stadium four years later. In both of those cases, the young helped usher out the old.

That’s also what happened in the most historically serendipitous clash of the titans of them all, when a 17-year-old Serena Williams met a 29-year-old Steffi Graf in the 1999 Indian Wells final. One month before this match, Williams had won the first of her 73 WTA titles. Three months after it, Graf would win the last of her 107 titles. Never have two players with more (eventual) combined Grand Slams—45—squared off.

At the time, only Graf was a major winner—she had 21 of them. That  June, she would turn back the clock long enough to win her 22nd and final Slam in Paris. When she couldn’t do it again in the Wimbledon final, she called it quits on the spot. Thankfully for us, she hung around long enough to meet her successor twice. In January of ’99, Graf and Williams played in Sydney, and Graf won 7-5 in the third. The legend could see that the rookie had talent, but that it was still raw.

“I kind of thought, you know, she has a lot of potential,” Graf said of Williams. “It’s going to take time for her to choose the right shots at the right time.”

The process, it turned out, was already underway. Serena won her first title, in Paris, a month later.

I had to keep saying to myself, ‘I’m not going to win at the baseline, no one has ever won at the baseline.’ Serena Williams


“It was really good for me to win that tournament, because I really was able to see that I can go out there and I can win,” Williams said after her inaugural victory.

Against Graf, she showed she could win against anyone, anywhere. The German was famed for her power, but it was Serena who dominated their rallies. She hammered her two-handed backhand crosscourt into Graf’s one-handed slice, and closed on the net relentlessly. She romped the winner count, 35 to 11.

Serena’s inner monologue was a sign of the all-court times.

“I had to keep saying to myself, ‘I’m not going to win at the baseline, no one has ever won at the baseline,’” she said later.

Graf showed her Hall of Fame mettle by coming back to win the second set, and taking a 4-2 lead in the third. That would have more than enough to demoralize most of Fräulein Forehand’s opponents. Instead, Serena showed that she had Hall of Fame mettle, too, by winning five of the last six games.

“It means a lot to me, because Steffi is a great champion,” Serena said. “She has more titles, from what I hear, than any man or lady playing tennis.”

That cheeky “from what I hear” was a sign of what was to come from Serena. Even as a teenager, she never allowed herself to be overawed by an opponent.

It’s also part of the reason why, two decades after edging her out on court, Serena would edge out Graf in the Grand Slam title race, too.