Though tennis champ Serena Williams is currently ranked No. 1 in the world and has a multitude of wins under her belt — 641 as a singles player, to be exact — she says she doesn’t consider herself the greatest player of all time. “Maybe top five, but definitely not number one,” Williams said. “I’m not the greatest player. I’m still playing and I’m still trying to reach records.”
Despite Williams’s modesty, she will undoubtedly eventually grace this list. We took a look at some of the other greats in the game to see how she sized up.
1. Steffi Graf
The International Tennis Hall of Fame called Graf a “champion of the highest order,” and few would disagree. Through the 1980s and ’90s, Graf became the only tennis player to capture every major tournament at least four times, including the so-called “Golden Grand Slam” in 1988. Known for her cool demeanor, Graf landed twenty-two Slams, 107 titles and 377 weeks as the world No. 1. As evidenced by having won each of the four Grand Slams at least four times, Graf was extremely versatile across all surfaces: “Steffi is the best all-around player of all time, regardless of the surface,” said Martina Navratilova.
2. Monica Seles
Seles’s star was undoubtedly on the rise before a deranged fan stabbed her on April 30, 1993, and it was, investigators later found out, the motivation behind the attack: The man was obsessed with Steffi Graf and intending to derail Seles — then 19 and ranked No. 1. Seles, though falling statistically behind other greats in number of titles, nevertheless boasts impressive statistics: She won seven out of eight majors as a teenager, and finished with nine overall — more than Justine Henin, Martina Hingis, and Venus Williams, among others. She was also the youngest player ever to win the French Open, at age 16, and to earn the year-end No. 1 ranking.
3. Chris Evert
After turning pro in 1972, Evert began her meteoric rise to singles’ domination in the mid-1970s, which would last until the mid-1980s. With eighteen Grand Slam Singles’ titles and three doubles’ titles, Evert won every major at least twice and still holds the record for reaching the most Grand Slam singles finals — thirty-four times, in case you’re wondering. Evert had a career winning percentage in singles matches of over 90 percent and reached the semifinals or better in forty-eight of all forty-nine Grand Slams she entered during her first sixteen years on the tennis circuit. She also won at least one of the four possible Grand Slam singles titles for thirteen consecutive years; something golfer Jack Nicklaus called, “The greatest record in sports.” Evert was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1995.
4. Martina Navratilova
It’s safe to say Martina Navratilova is a tennis legend. Over a the course of a career that spanned approximately four decades, Navratilova won fifty-nine Grand Slam crowns and a record nine Wimbledon singles champions. Since the Open era began in 1968 and statistics began being recorded, no player — male or female — has won more tournaments than Navratilova’s 167. (To put it in perspective, Roger Federer has seventy-eight.) Furthermore, no won has won more matches than she has in the singles game: Navratilova won 1,438 and only lost 212. In doubles, Navratilova’s story was similarly as sweet: She has thirty-one grand Slam Doubles titles and ten Grand Slam Mixed Doubles titles.
5. Margaret Court
Over the course of her career, the native Australian won a record twenty-four Grand Slam singles titles and sixty-two majors; the former more than any male or female player in the history of the game. Most importantly, she did so in an era where very few women were gaining recognition for their athletic achievement: the 1960s. In 1970, Court became the first woman during the Open era to win the singles Grand Slam — all four majors in the same calendar year. Court also won nineteen doubles and nineteen mixed doubles titles, and her singles career winning percentage of approximately 91 percent (1180 wins to 107 losses) is an all-time record.
6. Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King was ranked No. 1 in the world for five years, winning Wimbledon singles championships and four U.S. Open titles. King also defeated 1939 Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes in 1973, trouncing him 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in front of a worldwide television audience of some 50 million. In the course of her career, King won thirty-nine Grand Slam titles — including 12 singles, 16 women’s doubles, and 11 mixed doubles titles — and was the first woman to win more than $100,000. Rival Margaret Court, when asked, called King “the greatest competitor I’ve ever known.”