Greatness in sport can be measured by very few specific factors. Specifically, women’s pro tennis can be measured by a Grand Slam (all four slams in a year) or a Golden Slam feat (all four slams in a year plus Olympics), followed by the number of Slams or Majors won, the coveted no.
1 ranking, the longevity of the player, the tournaments won on different surfaces, Fed Cup or now renamed Billie Jean Cup victories, Olympics medals, doubles and mixed titles. One standout difference between women’s tennis in the 90s to now, is the pace and power generated and the fitness level of the women.
Modern racquet technology surely has some part to play in the power game today, but many other factors like attention to recovery, better knowledge in the field of nutrition, good physios and support staff have made a huge difference.
Wimbeldon Championships of 1990 might have been changing of the old guard in Women’s tennis where 33 year old Martina Navratilova beat 27 year old Zina Garrison for the title. That would be the last singles title for the evergreen Martina Navratilova when a blazing young Monica Seles sprung onto the tennis scene by becoming the youngest ever French Open champion at 16 years and 6 months.
Monica’s Seles’s game was that of an aggressive baseliner and with her two handed forehand and backhand, the angles and power she generated were something totally radical. The relentless pounding of groundstrokes was her trademark.
In my view, Monica Seles is the one that set the modern-day standard for Women’s tennis. Monica Seles won 3 of the 4 Slams in 1991 only to have possibly the toughest competitor of all time Steffi Graf in her heels. But Seles was dominating the scene, she won 7 Slams from 1991 to April 1993 when the darkest incident in tennis history took place.
A fanatic deranged fan of Steffi Graf stabbed Monica Seles during a match changeover which would abruptly put an end to her short but remarkable career . Recovery from a stab wound to Monica’s shoulder took 2 years and she never did truly gain back to her old self.
Steffi Graf then dominated the Women’s Tennis world for the next 8 years. Steffi, with her flat aggressive forehand and the deep backhand slice, won her 22 Slams and even the prized Golden Slam in 1998 where she won the Olympic Gold as well.
Aranxta Sanchez Vicario was the no.2 player in the world at the time but could beat Steffi only one time in a Slam at the US Open in 1994. She had to be content with the Runners Up trophy on 5 other Slam appearances against Steffi.
Argentine Gabriela Sabatini was well loved by most fans mainly for her looks and could only claim one Slam. After 1996, came the emergence of one of the most versatile players tennis had ever seen, Swiss Miss Martina Hingis.
I had the honor of playing against Martina Hingis in 1994 Junior Wimbledon Championships in 1994. My partner, Cara Black had a terrible draw as she lost to Hingis in the 1st round of singles and doubles that tournament. Hingis’s diminutive appearance fooled people, but her knowledge of the game of tennis along with her ability to hit any shot in the book, made her one of the most thorough players of all time.
Hingis dominated the scene part of 1997-1998 with 5 Slams and her last one in singles would be in Australian Open 1999 as would be Steffi’s last major in Wimbledon 1999. The arrival of the taller and bigger girls took finesse and some of the craftiness off the menu and was replaced with sheer power and force with the likes of of Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters.
Lindsay Davenport, towering over 6 feet 2 inches in height, won 3 Slams in 1998,1999 and 2000. She was the first woman who put an end to the then undefeatable Graf. Steffi’s backhand slice became a nemesis for her if one were to pound her on that shot or they came to the net by attacking the backhand.
The era of William’s sisters was just starting in the beginning of the year 2000. Their domination of the Women’s tour is distinctive, not just in the amount of Slams they have won, but really, in the sheer longevity of their reign.
With Serena’s first US open win in 1999 to her last Slam win in 2017, she was also the finalist on 4 more occasions after 2017. A record breaking 23 Slam singles titles later, Serena Williams could arguably be the greatest women’s player of all time in the Open Era.
Her power and never give up attitude has been instrumental in her victories. After becoming a mother, she has been attempting a comeback and continues to train for that elusive comeback Slam title. Venus Williams, the lither and calmer of the sisters, won 7 Slam titles to her credit.
Her strength was her movement and her prowess at the net might have won her more titles if not for her sister Serena on the other side of the net. On 5 out of 7 occasions, Venus lost to her sister Serena in the final of a Slam.
Jennifer Capriati took the tennis world by storm as a 13 year old getting to the semi-final of a Slam in 1990, but too much pressure too early, caused many problems for the phenom including shoplifting charges and possession of marijuana.
Her example made the WTA bring the Age Rule into effect where 13-year-olds could no longer play WTA tournaments and 14–17-year-olds could only play limited ones. Despite this personal turmoil, Capriati made a comeback and won 3 Slams in 2002–2003-time frame.
The small country of Belgium produced two legends of tennis in Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. If there was one shot that I could pick out of all the players in that era, it would be the backhand of Justine Henin. She was consistent and precise with it and she could match with the power of all the girls including William’s sisters on her backhand.
Kim Clijsters was a year younger, but was slightly overshadowed by Henin, especially in the Slams. Kim Clijsters had such an aggressive style of play and won 3 US Open titles and an Australian Open. Maria Sharapova has the distinction of having won all the 4 majors in different years.
Her story of moving from Russia to the IMG Academy just for tennis was a huge tennis success story. She was named highest paid athlete for 11 consecutive years from prize money and endorsements. Naomi Osaka and Ash Barty traded the No.1 spot a few times and both have three Slams to their name.
The most interesting aspect in today’s women’s tennis is that there is so much depth, that there are no clear Slam favorites. The no.1 ranking signifies only the consistency of performances through the year, but it doesn’t guarantee a favorite for the Slams.
Ash Barty seemed like she could become a favorite, but stunned the whole world by announcing retirement at the age of 26 when she had just won the Aussie Open 2022. Iga Swiatek is another exciting player to watch now, but only time will tell if she and other promising girls can add more Slams to their belt.
In my view, it just makes for more fun and thrilling times when it’s not so monotonous and anyone can win the Majors.