The Greatest Stars in Wimbledon History

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistJune 29, 2013

The Greatest Stars in Wimbledon History

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    Serena Williams' recent success instigates debate whether she is the greatest star in Wimbledon history.

    Does her resume at the All England Club stack up against Open Era greats Martina Navratilova and Pete Sampras? Has she done as much as standouts from the distant past, such as Suzanne Lenglen and Bill Tilden?

    What is required to be considered a "star" at Wimbledon anyway? Although winning Wimbledon singles titles is certainly the most important aspect of gaining stardom, it is not the only measure.

    Sometimes longevity and popularity play roles in such a subjective ranking. The increased exposure and greater depth of talent these days also are factors, which is why recent players get the benefit of the doubt. Finally, a player's place in tennis history contributes to his or her star quality at any event, including Wimbledon.

    We begin with nine players who barely missed making our list, then count down the 12 greatest stars in Wimbledon history.


Honorable Mention

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    Nine players deserve recognition for their Wimbledon exploits:

    Venus Williams: She has won five Wimbledon titles and probably would be next on the list.

    Maureen Connolly: A three-time Wimbledon champion, Connolly suffered a career-ending injury at age 20.

    Dorothea Lambert Chambers: She won seven Wimbledon titles early in the 20th century.

    Boris Becker: The first of Becker's three Wimbledon crowns came at age 17.

    John McEnroe: McEnroe gained worldwide recognition for his behavior, his three Wimbledon championships and his classic matches against Bjorn Borg.

    Margaret Court: Three Wimbledon titles were among her record 24 Grand Slam singles titles.

    Chris Evert: Evert was a three-time Wimbledon champion and a seven-time runner-up.

    Bill Tilden: Big Bill won all three of his Wimbledon finals between 1920 and 1930.

    Rafael Nadal: Nadal has been to five straight Wimbledon finals and won it twice. He has time to win more.

12. Fred Perry

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    Wimbledon Singles Titles: Three (1934, 1935, 1936)

    Placing Fred Perry on the list instead of standouts such as John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Chris Evert and Venus Williams will spark debate.

    He did not dominate Wimbledon any more than any one of those four. However, Perry is the only player who has a statue of his likeness on the Wimbledon grounds. That's because he has become an icon of British tennis whose star has grown brighter each succeeding year that a British male fails to win Wimbledon.

    Perry was not particularly popular in England when he won his Wimbledon titles, partly because of his behavior on and off the court, partly because of his strained relationship with the All England Club and partly because he turned pro in 1937. BBC History Magazine details the aspects of his outcast status in a 2011 article.

    Only in retrospect has he become an honored star, largely because a British man has not won Wimbledon in the 77 years since Perry won his third Wimbledon title. That's why a three-quarter-life-size stature of Perry was erected at the All England Club in 1984. That's why the BBC began its coverage of the 2010 Wimbledon with images of Perry. That's why he's on our list.

11. William Renshaw

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    Wimbledon Singles Titles: Seven (1881, 1882, 1883, 1884, 1885, 1886, 1889)

    William "Willie" Renshaw was the first star of Wimbledon tennis. That earns him some sort of recognition.

    The depth of talent and media exposure obviously were not as great then. Plus, he had to win only one match to capture five of his titles, since the defending champion faced the winner of the all-comers tournament in a challenge-round match for the championship.

    But few dominated his era like Renshaw, who did not lose a match on the court at Wimbledon in seven years. His reign of six consecutive titles ended when he was unable to defend his title in the 1887 challenge round because he suffered from tennis elbow, according to Medicine, Sport and the Body: A Historical Perspective, by Neil Carter.

    The 1880s  were dubbed the "Renshaw Rush" because of the interest William Renshaw and his twin brother Ernest brought to the game, according to a BBC article. The Renshaws were the first serve-and volley players of note, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, using a style that dominated grass-court success through much of the 20th century.

10. Serena Williams

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    Wimbledon Singles Titles: Five (2002, 2003, 2009, 2010, 2012)

    In a June 2013 article, Rolling Stone magazine called Serena Williams the most dominant sports figure in the world today. More dominant than LeBron James. More dominant than Michael Phelps. It's a debatable point, but inclusion in that discussion makes her an unmitigated star.

    That distinction, coupled with her five Wimbledon titles, with the very real possibility of a sixth, guarantee her a spot among the greatest stars of Wimbledon.

    She was ranked the sixth-best female player in history by the Tennis Channel, and that list was published before she captured the last three of her 16 Grand Slam titles.

    Williams is playing the best tennis of her career at age 31, so she might move up our list of Wimbledon stars in time. The only thing preventing her from being ranked higher now is her failure to get past the Wimbledon quarterfinals four times since she first got to the semifinals in 2000.

9. Helen Wills Moody

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    Wimbledon Singles Titles: Eight (1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1933, 1935, 1938)

    Helen Wills Moody's eight Wimbledon titles are the second most in history, behind only Martina Navratilova's nine.

    Wills lost only one match on the court at Wimbledon in her entire career. When Wills competed in her first Wimbledon at age 18, she lost to Kitty McKane Godfrey in three sets in the 1924 finals. Wills never lost on the court again, going 50-0 from that point on.

    Besides her 1924 loss in the finals, Wills' only official loss at Wimbledon came in 1926, when she had to withdraw before her first match because of appendicitis.

    She did not lose a set at Wimbledon during a four-tournament span from 1928 to 1932. (She did not play Wimbledon in 1931).

    Wills appeared on the cover of Time magazine twice, first in July 1926 after she was forced to withdraw from Wimbledon, and again in July 1929 while she was in the midst of winning her third Wimbledon title. That is indicative of star power.

8. Suzanne Lenglen

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    Wimbledon Singles Titles: Six (1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1925)

    French star Suzanne Lenglen never lost a match on the court at Wimbledon, a perfect 36-0. Her only official losses came in the 1924 semifinals and the 1926 third round when she withdrew from the tournament before taking the court.

    She won her first five Wimbledon titles in succession, including two (1920 and 1921) in which she had to win only one match. At that time, the defending champion played a challenge-round match for the title against the winner of the all-comers tournament.

    Lenglen's first Wimbledon crown came in 1919 in her first tournament on grass. She beat seven-time champion Dorothea Lambert Chambers in the challenge round.

    The flamboyant Lenglen was a star not only because of her enormous success on the grass courts of the All England Club, but because of her controversial persona, as described in a 1982 Sports Illustrated article:

    No matter where she went or what she did, controversy, scandal, gossip and rumor buzzed about Lenglen's bandeaued head like a swarm of benevolent bees, and she, who understood better than even the best sports promoters of her day the uses of fame, did nothing to quiet any of it. 

7. Rod Laver

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    Wimbledon Singles Titles: Four (1961, 1962, 1968, 1969)

    Rod Laver did not lose a match at Wimbledon from 1961 through 1969, winning 31 consecutive matches before losing to Roger Taylor in 1970.

    In the midst of that run, Laver was barred from Wimbledon for five years between 1963 and 1967 because he was a professional. Those were Laver's peak years, ages 24 to 28, when he dominated the pro tour. We can only speculate how many more Wimbledon titles Laver would have won had it been open to pros at that time.

    Laver won the first two Wimbledons of the Open Era, which began in 1968. His last Wimbledon title came in 1969, a month shy of his 31st birthday.

    He reached the finals of six consecutive Wimbledon tournaments in which he played from 1959 through 1969. He dropped a total of one set in the finals of the four Wimbledon tournaments he won.

    His 1962 and 1969 Wimbledon victories were part of his Grand Slams those years. He is the only player to win all four majors in the same year twice, and he is ranked the second-best player in history by the Tennis Channel.

6. Pete Sampras

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    Wimbledon Singles Titles: Seven (1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000)

    The seven men's singles titles won by Pete Sampras are tied for the most in history.

    He never lost in a Wimbledon finals and was pushed to a fifth set in only one of them. Sampras had a 57-1 record at Wimbledon in a nine-tournament span from 1993 until his loss to Roger Federer in 2001.

    Sampras won his first Wimbledon title in 1993 at age 21, three years after he won his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open. Between 1992, when he lost to Goran Ivanisevic in the semifinals, and 2001, when he lost to Federer in the fourth round, Sampras' only loss at Wimbledon was against Richard Krajicek in the 1996 quarterfinals.

    Sampras lost only one set while winning Wimbledon in 1994 and dropped just two sets in 1999.

    The Tennis Channel ranked him as the third-best male player in history in large part because of his success on the grass at Wimbledon, where he captured half of his 14 Grand Slam titles.


5. Bjorn Borg

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    Wimbledon Singles Titles: Five (1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980)

    Bjorn Borg was the first male player since 1906 to win five straight Wimbledon titles.(Roger Federer later matched that feat.) Borg did it when the men's game was filled with stars, as he beat the likes of Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe in the finals.

    Borg got to a sixth straight Wimbledon finals in 1981, shortly after his 25th birthday. He lost to McEnroe in that finals and never played at Wimbledon again.

    Borg won the 1976 Wimbledon title one month past his 20th birthday, and he did not lose a set in the process. He won 41 consecutive matches at Wimbledon, the last being a 1981 semifinals victory over Connors after Borg had lost the first two sets.

    Borg's most memorable match was his 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18) , 8-6 victory over McEnroe in the 1980 finals. It featured a 22-minute, fourth-set tie-breaker, and long-time New York Times tennis writer Neil Amdur called it the greatest match he ever saw.

    The young, handsome Borg was called the "first rock star of tennis," according to a 2007 article in the Daily Telegraph. In that interview, Borg recalls times when hundreds of girls waited for him in hotel lobbies. That's star power.

    Borg is ranked as the fifth-best male player in history by the Tennis Channel.

4. Billie Jean King

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    Wimbledon Singles Titles: Six (1966, 1967, 1968, 1972, 1973, 1975)

    The six singles titles are enough to earn her a spot on this list. However, it was her longevity and gritty determination that elevated her a few spots on the list of Wimbledon stars.

    King (then Billie Jean Moffitt) won her first Wimbledon title in doubles in 1961 at the age of 17. Then, as an unseeded 18-year-old, she stunned top-seeded Margaret Court (then Margaret Smith) in both players' opening singles match in 1962.

    King won her first Wimbledon singles title at age 22 in 1966, but it was her comeback efforts in later years that earned her greater respect.

    In 1980, at age 36, she saved a match point in the second set before beating Pam Shriver 10-8 in the third set of a fourth-round match. King then lost to defending champion Martina Navratilova 10-8 in the third set in the quarterfinals.

    Two years later, as a No. 12 seed, King fought off a triple match point before beating Tanya Harford, who held a 7-5, 5-4, 40-love lead on the 38-year-old King in the third round.

    King then beat No. 6 seed Wendy Turnbull in the fourth round and upset No. 3-seeded Tracy Austin in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, King saved four match points before losing to No. 2 seed and eventual champion Chris Evert 7-6, 2-6, 6-3.

    Finally, four months shy of her 40th birthday, King got to the semifinals in 1983 before losing to Andrea Jaeger.

    King also won 10 women's doubles titles and four mixed doubles crowns at Wimbledon.

    She was ranked the fifth-greatest women's player in history by the Tennis Channel. 

3. Steffi Graf

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    Wimbledon singles titles: Seven (1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996)

    Steffi Graf's seven Wimbledon titles are the second most since World War II, behind only Martina Navratilova's nine.

    She won her titles in a span of nine yeas, dominating the event at a time when several other all-time greats loomed. Graf beat Navratilova in the finals of her first two Wimbledon championships, emphatically ending Navrtilova's run of six straight titles.

    Besides those two wins over Navratilova, Graf beat Chris Evert, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis once apiece and Gabriela Sabatini twice during that nine-year run, never losing to any of them in that span at Wimbledon.

    Graf was named the top female player of all time by the Tennis Channel.

2. Roger Federer

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    Wimbledon Singles Titles: Seven (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012)

    No man has won more Wimbledon singles titles than Roger Federer, and only Pete Sampras and William Renshaw have won as many. Between 2003 and 2008, he won 40 consecutive matches and won Wimbledon five straight times, matching Bjorn Borg's Open Era record.

    He has reached the Wimbledon finals eight times and won seven of them.

    At age 19, Federer ended Pete Sampras' run of four straight Wimbledon championships and seven in eight years by beating Sampras in five sets in the fourth round in 2001. 

    Federer's five-set loss to Rafael Nadal in their 2008 Wimbledon final is "widely believed to be the greatest tennis match ever played," tennis historian Steve Flink was quoted as saying in an article.

    After failing to get past the quarterfinals in 2010 and 2011, Federer won his seventh Wimbledon title in 2012 at the age of 30.

    Although his second-round loss in 2013 suggests his career is on the decline, Federer is capable of winning an eighth Wimbledon title.

    Federer was ranked as the best player in history by the Tennis Channel, and his second-round loss at Wimbledon this year ended a run in which he had reached at least the quarterfinals of 36 consecutive Grand Slam events.

1. Martina Navratilova

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    Wimbledon Singles Titles: Nine (1978, 1979, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1990)

    Martina Navratilova's nine Wimbledon titles are the most in history by either a man or woman. No player since World War II has won more than seven.

    Her six straight Wimbledon titles between 1982 and 1987 also are a record, and she won 47 consecutive matches at Wimbledon before losing to Steffi Graf in the 1988 finals.

    Navratilova's final Wimbledon title came in 1990, which was also her ninth consecutive berth in the finals.

    She got to the finals in 1994 at age 37, 19 years after reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals for the first time at age 18.

    Her longevity in doubles was even more impressive. Navratilova, who won seven Wimbledon women's doubles titles, got to the doubles semifinals in 2005 at age 48 and reached the quarterfinals the following year three months shy of her 50th birthday.

    She is ranked as the second-best women's player in history by the Tennis Channel.