The growth of tennis since the 1930’s has seen the sport go from one dominated by amateurs to the Open Era that began in 1968. Tennis has changed arguably more than any other sport. The equipment and surface that tennis is played on has evolved more than other sport. As with other sports, more countries have players on both tours that ever before, and the prize money in the Grand Slams is beginning to become equitable.
Tennis is probably the only sport that has a near-equal footing with both women and men. Since the Martina-Chrissy rivalry in the 1980’s, the WTA has garnered plenty of interest on its own. Tennis players legacies are judged on the amount of Grand Slam titles a player wins.
The term was first used by New York Times writer John Kieran in 1933 when Australian Jack Crawford was attempting to become the first player to win the Grand Slam. Kieran wrote, ''If Crawford wins, that would be something like scoring a grand slam on the courts, doubled and vulnerable.”
His run was ended by England’s Fred Perry. Perry became the first player to capture the career slam in 1935, and Don Budge was the first player to win all four slams in the same year in 1938. They were among the first two players to dominate tennis.
Judging the most dominant player by decade among the men is more difficult prior to the open era. Many of the men played on the pro tour. They also had their own version of the Grand Slam, and Perry would later win the Pro Slam.
Starting with the coronation of the term Grand Slam, here is a look at the best players by decade beginning in the 1930’s.
Wills Moody was the first and, until the present, the only player to win the most Grand Slams by gender in two different decades. Serena Williams currently has won the most Grand Slams in the 2000’s and 2010’s.
She won her first title in 1923 and had already amassed 11 Grand Slam titles and one Olympic Gold Medal (1924) in the 1920’s. Between the 1926 and 1933 Wimbledon semifinals, Wills Moody went undefeated without dropping a set. She won eight Grand Slam titles in the 1930’s, three more than fellow American Helen Jacobs.
Before Andy Murray captured his first Grand Slam title at the US Open in 2012, Fred Perry was a dominant player from the U.K.
Perry was the dominant presence in tennis throughout the 1930’s. He was the first player, male or female, to win the Career Grand Slam. He accomplished the feat after winning the French Open title in 1935. He won eight Slams in the 1930’s. He could have had more, but turned pro in 1936. Only amateurs were allowed into the Grand Slams before 1968.
He won three straight Wimbledon titles from 1934-36, three US Open titles in four years from 1933-36 and led the British Davis Cup team to four straight Davis Cup titles between 1933-36. He added the U.S. Professional title in 1938.
The 1940’s are a hard era to judge. During World War II, only the US Open was held. Wimbledon and the French Open were cancelled between 1940-1945, and the Australian Open was not held from 1941-1945.
Frank Parker’s four titles led the men in the 1940’s, and Pauline Betz Addie and Margaret Osborne DuPont led the women with five.
In the late 1930’s, the professional men’s tour started to gain momentum. Some of the biggest names in tennis began playing professionally in the 1940’s. Jack Kramer won three Grand Slam titles and two professional major titles. Bobby Riggs won four combined grand slam-pro majors.
If you add in her Grand Slam doubles titles in the 1940’s, DuPont’s total escalates to 20. She was the most dominant player in tennis during the 1940’s
“Little Mo” was the most dominant player in the tennis in the 1950’s. She accomplished a lot in short period of time. She won nine Grand Slam titles between 1951-54, all by the age of 19.
A horseback riding accident ended her career early. She won the last nine Grand Slams she entered and had a 50-match Grand Slam winning streak.
Her title at the French Open in 1953 made her the first female player to capture the career grand slam. She would go on to win Wimbledon and the US Open that year to become the first woman to win all four slams in the same year.
The tragedy of her life would continue, as Conolly passed away from cancer at the age of 34 in 1969. She left behind a husband and two daughters.
The most dominant male amateur in the 1950’s was Tony Trabert. Trabert won five Grand Slam titles in the 1950 and also followed that up with titles at the 1956 and 1959 French Pro titles.
Pancho Gonzales was arguably the most dominant player in the 1950’s overall. He won 11 professional slam titles and three tournament of champions. He won the Wembley Pro (England) from 1950-52 and the US Pro championship from 1953-59.
The comparisons are difficult. Prior to the open era, professionals competed on a different tour. It was thought the professional tour was superior, but it’s hard to tell.
Overall, because of her impact on the sport and her complete dominance in career that was cut short, Connolly was the most dominant player of the 1950’s.
The 1960’s was the era that the professionals began to break away from the amateur events. Although they had stronger fields, it was still the amateur events that captured the public’s imagination.
The Open ERA would eventually change everything, beginning with the 1968 French Open.
Margaret Court's 16 Grand Slam titles during the 1960’s are the most in any decade by any player, male or female.
Seven of those titles came in her home country of Australia, although a grand slam did not have the competitive fields that they have today.
All but three of those titles occurred before the advent of the open era. Court won all but Wimbledon in 1969 and followed that up with the Grand Slam in 1970. From the 1969 Australian Open through 1971 down under, Court captured eight of the nine slams.
Her 24 career Grand Slams are still the record.
Roy Emerson won the most Grand Slam titles by a man in the 1960’s with 12, but Rod Laver was the undisputed king of tennis in the 1960. Laver twice won a grand slam (1962 and 1969), won 11 Grand Slam titles and eight majors on the professional tour before the Open Era.
Court gets the nod as the most dominant player of the decade. Her record of 16 Grand Slams in a decade still stands. It has been challenged twice. Martina Navratilova won 15 in the 1980s, and Roger Federer matched that in the 2000s.
The dawn of the open era placed all the players on the same tour. The best players were now in an equitable place for comparison.
The women had three dominant players during the 1970’s. Chris Evert’s career began, and her nine grand slam titles were the most of any player male or female during the decade. Court was just behind her with eight, and Billie Jean King won seven of her 12 career grand slam titles in the decade.
Bjorn Borg earns the title of most dominant player of the 1970’s. His eight grand slam titles were three more than any other man. He won the last four Wimbledons of the decade and the last two French Opens. He only played in one Australian Open. It was not a given during that era that the top players would compete down under.
He also advanced to two US Open finals during the decade. His 11 career Slams overall rank fourth all-time among men.
Navratilova entered the 1980’s having won the final two Wimbledons of the 1970’s. Her rise and rivalry with Chris Evert was one of the biggest attractions for what some consider the golden age of tennis.
With Evert, they held an unprecedented dominance over the sport. They played 61 times in the finals of a tournament, including 14 times in a grand slam final.
Eleven of those 14 meetings in a Grand Slam final occurred in the 1980’s. Navratilova won all but three of those meetings.
Navratilova was the ITA World Champion and WTA Player of the Year from 1982-86. She won six straight Wimbledon titles between 1982-87 and also captured four US Open titles in that timespan.
Her 15 Grand Slam titles in the 80’s occurred from the 1981 Australian Open through the 1987 US Open. She held all four Grand Slam titles at the same time when she won the last three titles of 1984 and the Australian in 1985.
She had one of the greatest seasons in tennis history in 1984. During that season, Navratilova had a 74-match winning streak.
Ivan Lendl: If not for Navratilova, fellow Czech Lendl would have been the most dominant player during the 1980’s. His seven Grand Slam titles fall far short of Navratilova, but he was best player of the decade for the men. In addition to his seven Grand Slam titles, Lendl also finished runner-up in a slam nine times.
He was the ITF Champion and ATP Player of the year from 1985-1987.
Pete Sampras held near complete domination over the men’s game during the 1990’s. He won 12 Grand Slam titles. Andre Agassi’s five was the second highest amount. The 12 titles tied Roy Emerson’s record for slams in a career. He won two more titles in the 2000’s to set the record for 14. It was broken by Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2009.
Twelve of his 14 Grand Slam titles came at the US Open and Wimbledon. His seven titles are tied for the most ever with William Renshaw and Federer. Six of those came in the 1990’s, and four of his five US Open titles occurred in the 1990’s. Sampras also claimed the Australian Open in 1994 and 1997. His best finish at the French Open was a semifinal run in 1996.
Sampras was also a member of two Davis Cup-winning teams. He teamed with John McEnroe to give the US a doubles point in 1992. In 1995, he almost singlehandedly led the United States to victory. He won both of his singles matches and teamed with Todd Martin to earn the doubles point.
Sampras finished the 90’s with 61 titles and an 11-2 record in Grand Slam finals.
Steffi Graf was the most dominant woman of the 1990’s. If she had began her career about four years later, she would have had the most dominant decade in the history of tennis. By the time the 1990’s began, Graf had accumulated eight Grand Slam titles, a gold medal and the Golden Slam in 1988. She ended the 1980’s with Martina Navratilova as her main rival.
Monica Seles was the dominant player from 1991 through the 1993 Australian Open. She won eight out of the 12 Grand Slams during that stretch. If not for Graf’s straight set win over Seles at Wimbledon in 1992, Seles would have captured the Grand Slam.
Seles’ 1993 stabbing by a fan of Graf’s opened the door for Graf to regain her dominance. From that point forward, she won the next four Grand Slam titles. In 1995 and 1996, she did not play in Australia, but won the other three Grand Slams back-to-back. She won her final title in Paris in 1999.
Federer’s dominance in the 2000’s is unprecedented. His 15 titles during the decade rank as the most titles ever by a male in their career and tied him for the most in any decade with Martina Navratilova.
Federer’s dominance transcends tennis. His dominance of tennis in the 2000’s is in the discussion for any sport. After quarterfinals at the French Open and Wimbledon in 2001, Federer did not win his first Grand Slam until Wimbledon 2003.
During his 2001 run, he defeated Sampras in five sets in the fourth round. That was the effective passing of the torch from the two greatest Wimbledon champions.
From 2004 Wimbledon until the 2010 Australian Open, he advanced to an astounding 22 consecutive Grand Slam Semifinals. In the middle of that streak, he played for an incredible 10 consecutive Grand Slam Finals, winning eight. When he won the ever elusive French Open in 2009, Federer became the sixth man to win the career grand slam. The only title he has yet to win is a singles gold medal in the Olympics.
Serena Williams' 10 grand slam titles in the 2000’s rank fifth among women all-time. She missed five grand slam tournaments during the decade. When she won the last three grand slam in 2002 and the Australian Open in 2003, she was dubbed with the Serena Slam. She repeated at Wimbledon in 2004 for a total of five out of six grand slam titles. She was 10-2 in the decade in Grand Slam finals and also captured two WTA Tour Year End Championships
With only three years complete in the decade, choosing the most dominant player was difficult. Rafael Nadal’s five Grand Slam titles and three runners-ups top Djokovic’s four and three.
Nadal lost in the quarterfinals in Australia in 2010 and 2011 and lost in the second round at Wimbledon before sitting out the US Open in 2012 with injury problems.
Djokovic is currently on a run similar to Federer in the 2000’s. After losing in the quarterfinals in Australia and at the French in 2010, he has gone on a run of 10 straight semifinal appearances in a Grand Slam.
Djokovic has also has 17 titles thus far in the 2010’s. His 2011 season clinches the title for him. He finished the season 70-6 and had a 43-match winning streak to begin the season. His streak included victories in seven consecutive tournaments. He beat Nadal six times in a tournament final on three different surfaces.
Serena Williams is one of only two players to ever win the most Grand Slam titles by gender over the course of two decades. Helen Willis Moody had the most in the 1920’s and 1930’s. She followed up her dominance to begin the 21st century with four Grand Slams thus far through the 2012 US Open. She is one of only a handful of players to win a Grand Slam title in three different decades. Martina Navratilova was the last player to accomplish that with titles in the 1970’s, 80’s and 1990’s.
She won titles in Australia and Wimbledon and capped it with titles at Wimbledon, an Olympic gold medal (just weeks later again at Wimbledon) and the US Open. She is challenging to become the greatest woman of all-time. She accomplished all this in the 2010’s despite missing the 2010 US Open and 2011 Australian and French Open’s with a severe foot injury.