Wimbledon 2010 has been a royal occasion in more ways than one.
Sure, the current queens of the tournament, Serena and Venus Williams, top the seedings and have sailed through to their rightful place in the second week.
Of course, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal top the men’s list and have, rather less regally, sailed into Week Two.
But on Thursday, the questions these players were asked related not to tennis but to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, who paid her first visit to the championships since 1977.
That happened to be the last year that a British player won a title on the hallowed turf—Virginia Wade. She took a seat behind the Queen in the Royal Box alongside a pair of other British women champions—Ann Jones and Angela Mortimer Barrett.
The three British "Queens of Wimbledon," however, managed just one title apiece and will not find a place in this celebration of the greatest women to grace the emerald court.
But Her Majesty did meet two of the highest Wimbledon achievers—Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King. She also met the two current queens of SW19—the Williams sisters. All four feature later in the story that began, for women, in 1884 at the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club.
First, it is the charismatic yet tragically short career of Maureen Connolly.
"Little Mo" Connolly was the first woman to win all four Grand Slams in the same calendar year. By happy coincidence—talking of the queens of Wimbledon—it was in coronation year, 1953.
She was a strong baseline player with an outstanding backhand, but she was also very tactically astute for such a young talent.
She won her first U.S. title at 16 and her first Wimbledon at 17, and it was assumed that the American teenager, having achieved the accolade of the calendar Slam by the tender age of 18, would go on to break record after record.
But two weeks after winning her third straight Wimbledon, she was hit by the first major blow in her life.
She had loved horseback riding since she was a small child, but could only afford to pursue it after her tennis successes. In the event, this first love was to terminate the second when her leg was crushed in a riding accident. Her career ended at 19, having won the nine consecutive Slam titles in which she’d played.
Connolly continued her tennis interests as a newspaper correspondent and as a coach for the British Whiteman Cup team, but then came the second blow. She was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1966 and died two years later, at the young age of 34.
The brilliant Connolly sits alongside three of the greats of tennis, each with three Wimbledon singles titles. Just how near the top of this list she might have reached, we shall never know.
Singles Champion: 1952, 1953, 1954
Doubles Runner-up: 1952, 1953
Total titles: 3
Chris Evert is famed for her reputation on clay-court tennis. But such was her talent that this most consistent and gracious of players stacked up a remarkable record not only on the hard courts of her home country but also on the grass of London.
Her lightness of movement, intelligent shot-placement, and the weight of her baseline game broke new ground on the grass where an all-court game spearheaded by strong serving and volleying was still the norm.
Evert made her debut at Wimbledon in 1972, aged 17, and from that year until her last appearance in 1989, she failed to reach the semifinals just once.
Having lost in her first final to King in 1973, Evert might has seen Wimbledon success open up before her when she won her title the very next year. But her great misfortune, much as Navratilova’s was on clay, was to come up against—in Martina—one of the finest ever grass-court exponents in the women’s game. Navratilova defeated Evert in all six finals that they contested.
Evert, though, did win the title three times, and she played in 10 finals. It is in recognition of this that she finds herself—in this listing at least—ahead of Connolly.
Singles Champion: 1974, 1976, 1981
Singles Runner-up: 1973, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1985
Doubles Champion: 1976
Total titles: 4
For a decade, the Williams sisters have dominated the women’s tennis landscape and in eight of those 10 years, a Williams sister has won Wimbledon. In four of those finals, they have played each other, and the current champion is younger sister Serena.
Since her rise to the top, she has reached 15 Grand Slam singles finals and won 12, tying her in sixth place with King. But while her Slam record overall is better than Venus’s, her record at Wimbledon is less so. Her powerful serve and baseline hitting ensure that she excels on the hard courts more than anywhere else.
That said, she does score one achievement over her elder sibling: in the mixed doubles. In 1998, at just 17 years old, she won her first professional title with Max Mirnyi, the first Wimbledon title that either Williams won. It is still one that’s missing from Venus’s score sheet.
Serena’s next Wimbledon title, appropriately, was achieved with her sister—the women’s doubles title in 2000. And it is Serena’s outstanding record with Venus, pushing her total number of titles to eight, that puts her above two of her fellow “three singles” colleagues.
Singles Champion: 2002, 2003, 2009
Singles Runner-up: 2004, 2008
Doubles Champion: 2000, 2002, 2008, 2009
Mixed Doubles Champion: 1998
Total titles: 8
The great Australian, Margaret Court, stands at the very top in tennis’s list of achievements.
In a career that straddled the amateur and Open eras, she won a total of 62 Grand Slam titles: next in line is Navratilova with 59, and both outstrip the next, King, at a mere 39. (The top man is Roy Emerson with 28.)
She won 24 singles Slams: Next in line is Steffi Graf at 22. She is the only person to win all 12 Slams at least twice. In fact, take out Wimbledon’s results (where she won only three singles and two women’s doubles), and she won the other 10 Slams at least four times.
The story of Court’s achievements is all the more extraordinary because of her personal timeline. For when Court married in 1967, she retired for 18 months. She took another year out to have her first child, and then a further year to have her second. It was not until she was expecting her third child in 1977 that she retired for good, aged 35. Little wonder she favored playing at her home Slam over any other!
Court was a tall and powerful woman who worked hard to develop her 5'9" frame. She was quietly determined and single minded, willing to put in gym and road time to reach her targets.
Sure enough, by the age of 17, Court was a Grand Slam winner, taking the first of seven consecutive Australian singles titles. (She would go on to win four more!)
She may only have won three singles titles at Wimbledon, but in the 12 years she played there, she only once failed to reach the quarterfinals, and only three times failed to reach the semi-finals. That, along with her remarkable doubles record, puts her top of the four triple-winners.
Singles Champion: 1963, 1965, 1970
Singles Runner-up: 1964, 1971
Doubles Champion: 1964, 1969
Doubles Runner-up: 1961, 1963, 1966, 1971
Mixed Doubles Champion: 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1975
Mixed Double Runner-up: 1964, 1971
Total titles: 10
American Louise Brough was the dominant woman of the post-war years and won, altogether, 35 Slam titles across the four events between 1942 and 1957.
That puts her behind the likes of only Navratilova, King and Court. Classy company indeed.
But it was Wimbledon that reaped her greatest rewards in singles titles. She reached at least the semifinals in 10 out of 11 successive years. If you add in doubles events, too, she reached 21 finals from the 30 events she entered.
Brough was renowned for her classic shot-making and outstanding volleying, the tools of the successful Wimbledon champion both before and after her own dominance. They were also the skills that set down such an outstanding doubles record.
Singles Champion: 1948, 1949, 1950, 1955
Singles Runner-up: 1946, 1952, 1954
Doubles Champion: 1946, 1948, 1949. 1950, 1954
Doubles Runner-up: 1947, 1951, 1952
Mixed Doubles Champion: 1946, 1947, 1948, 1950
Mixed Doubles Runner-up: 1949, 1955
Total titles: 13
Venus, who turned 30 this month, has one of the finest grass records of any active player, and were it not for the arrival of her sister, it could have been even better.
Now competing in her 14th Wimbledon, she has thus far reached the finals eight times in the last 10 attempts, with the first win coming at just 20 and the most recent at 28. She even made the quarter-finals as a teenager in 1998 and 1999.
It seems, for Venus, to be little short of a love affair with the grass. While she has won just two other Slams, both at the U.S. Open and back in 2000 and 2001, it is at Wimbledon that her special skills and physique have borne most fruit.
Her height—over 6'—helps her deliver the biggest serve in women’s tennis—almost 130 m.p.h. Her great striding game carries her easily to the net where she is a confident volleyer. Backed up by full-blooded ground strokes, especially on the backhand, and all-court skills honed by years of doubles success, she fits Wimbledon like a glove.
She is a hair’s breadth from equaling the historic names of Suzanne Lenglen and King. Thus far, at Wimbledon 2010, there are hints that this could be the year when she joins them.
Singles Champion: 2000, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2008
Singles Runner-up: 2002, 2003, 2009
Doubles Champion: 2000, 2002, 2008, 2009
Mixed Doubles Runner-up: 2006
Total titles: 9
Suzanne Lenglen was a star in her time, and brought crowds to tennis—and particularly to women’s tennis—in unprecedented numbers.
She was a precocious and prodigious talent, who won her first major tournaments in 1914, aged just 14. Her misfortune, as far as the record books go, is that just as her career was ready to take off, the First World War brought the French Championships and Wimbledon to a halt.
She was therefore unable to enter Wimbledon until 1919, where she promptly won five years in a row. In 1924, she reached the quarterfinals but withdrew with illness—she had health problems throughout her entire career—but came back to win again in 1926.
Altogether, Lenglen won the Wimbledon singles and doubles in the same year six times, and three times she added the mixed doubles, too. But by turning professional in 1926, her Wimbledon career came to an end.
The nature of her dominance is also outstanding. In winning five of those titles, she lost just 13 games. Admittedly in 1920 and 1921, while the ‘challenger’ system was still in place, she had only, as defending champion, to play the final. But for the three remaining titles, she played as many matches as her opponent, and still left them standing.
Her flamboyant style, too, warrants attention, for she transformed the image of the women’s game. She wore free-flowing, comfortable clothing, often in the lightest of fabrics, that exposed both arms and legs. It was not unknown to see her sip brandy between games and to play up to media. But she drew just as much attention for her elegant, fast and agile tennis.
Her life, plagued by illness, came to a premature end at barely 40, but her name lives on in Roland Garros’s second show court. And she takes her place here just slightly behind the mighty King only because of those ‘challenger’ rules almost a century ago.
Singles Champion: 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1925
Doubles Champion: 1919, 1920. 1921, 1922, 1923, 1925
Mixed Doubles Champion: 1920, 1922, 1925
Total titles: 15
King was just 17 when, in 1961, she first played at Wimbledon. That was the very last time she failed to reach at least the singles quarter-finals—and she continued to compete at her favorite tournament until 1983.
Even in 1961, she didn’t come away empty handed: She won the first of her 14 doubles titles!
By 1963, she had reached the singles finals, and by 1966 she was the singles champion. In 1967, she won the singles, doubles and mixed doubles at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and went on to win the Australian Open as the year turned to 1968 (one of the rare times she played that event). She then won Wimbledon again.
But by the end of 1968, she needed knee surgery, as she would do twice more in her career. However, that did not stop her playing, in 1970, one of the greatest Wimbledon finals against long-term adversary, the towering Court. It was a straight sets loss for King, but the women played 46 games: 14-12, 11-9.
King was a hard-hitting shot maker and a great volleyer despite her 5'4" height. She was also a woman to tackle problems head on, and when she felt her forehand down the line was weak, her solution was to make a point of playing it more often.
It’s that gutsy character that has been applied to every part of her life.
She recently received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work on the rights of women and gays, causes she spearheaded her entire life. She also works tirelessly to bring tennis to the masses.
Little wonder, then, that the prestigious home of U.S. tennis is named in her honor, or that she won the Sunday Times Lifetime Achievement Award, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, and many more.
And little wonder, too, that she, with Navratilova, were first in line to meet Her Majesty at Wimbledon last week. For by the end of her playing career, she had claimed a record-setting 20 Wimbledon titles, since equaled only by Navratilova.
Singles Champion: 1966, 1967, 1968, 1972, 1973, 1975
Singles Runner-up: 1963, 1969, 1970
Doubles Champion: 1961, 1962, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1979
Doubles Runner-up: 1964, 1976
Mixed Doubles Champion: 1967, 1971, 1973, 1974
Mixed Doubles Runner-up: 1966, 1978, 1983
Total titles: 20
The elegant power of German Stephanie Graf is at the root of one of the most complete players of the Open era. Her fluidity, all-court game, and mighty forehand captured almost every record going, and her versatility ensured she captured multiple titles in every Slam.
She became the only player to win every Major at least four times, including the “Golden Grand Slam”. Between 1987, when she won her first Slam and 1999 when she won her last, she reached the finals of 31 of the 43 Slams in which she took part, and won 22 of them.
Within this remarkable catalog, Wimbledon takes pride of place, with seven singles titles. Such were her many skills that she could dominate with her powerful forehand, but break through the defense of her opponent with a low angled backhand slice and venture to the net as required.
It seems fitting that Graf became the player to end Navratilova’s unbroken run of six titles in a row in 1988. For in the Open era, no-one else has exceeded her achievement.
Singles Champion: 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996
Singles Runner-up: 1987, 1999
Doubles Champion: 1988
Total titles: 8
There are some to whom gifts are handed with such freedom that its seems unfair to the rest. It would be easy to say this of American Helen Wills Moody, for she was bright enough to win an academic scholarship to study fine arts at the University of California, she was a highly accomplished painter, a successful writer, and an excellent horsewoman.
Her beauty was captured in paintings by Diego Rivera and she was admired by Charlie Chaplin. But she also had a father who saw that her early ill health might be improved by plenty of exercise and fresh air, and that was the start of one of the most successful of tennis careers on record.
Between 1923 and 1933, Wills won 17 of her 19 singles Slam titles, and was runner up in two more. (And this was at a time when players did not take in the Australian championships because of the time and distances involved in reaching them.) Wills also won gold in both the singles and doubles at the Paris Olympics.
Between 1927 and 1933, she achieved a 180-match winning streak without losing a set, and at Wimbledon—her favorite and most successful venue—she didn’t lose a match between 1927 and her final ever Slam in 1938, despite periods away from tennis due to back injuries.
Her game was truly formidable. By practicing against men, she developed the powerful, athletic, and unflagging play that dominated all-comers. She could drive the ball with speed, pace, and depth, and had a serve that could pull her opponent wide of the tramlines.
It took more than half a century for a woman to win more Wimbledon singles titles than the multi-layered Wills Moody. Navratilova was that woman.
Singles Champion: 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1933, 1935, 1938
Doubles Champion: 1924, 1927, 1930
Mixed Doubles Champion: 1929
Total titles: 12
Navratilova’s achievements on the tennis court are almost without parallel: 18 singles Grand Slam titles, 31 doubles titles and 10 mixed doubles titles.
But though the tennis seeds were sown early in her homeland of Czechoslovakia—her grandmother had been an international player—her successes were increasingly stifled by the invading Soviet regime.
By 1975, aged 18 and already a runner-up in the Australian and the French Opens, she was being refused visas to travel and so defected after her semi-final defeat at the U.S. Open.
But Navratilova found life hard, missed her family, gained weight, and lost matches. It would be almost three years before she and her tennis gained the confidence to win her first singles Slam title: at Wimbledon in 1978.
Navratilova had never even seen a grass court until a week before her first appearance in London in 1973, and she was immediately hooked.
By that tumultuous year of 1975, she had reached the quarter-finals of what was to become her signature tournament.
1978 marked the start of a record-breaking 13-year Wimbledon period during which she won nine singles titles, reached three more finals, and made at least the semis in every year up to 1994 (barring a quarter-final exit in 1991).
Navratilova’s athletic game, an attacking style that brought her to the net at every opportunity, her classic use of cross-court slice, and her swinging left handed serve were made for grass, but her supreme athleticism, and a willingness to evolve and to work at the tactical game were just as vital.
Indeed she claims that this willingness enabled her to win her ninth Wimbledon title in 1990, aged 33.
She has always dedicated time and energy to political and social causes, campaigning for gay and lesbian rights.
What’s more, the players who have influenced her have remained friends, in particular Evert and King. But in this list, more so than in any other, Navratilova is queen.
She has said: “Wimbledon is like a drug. Once you win it for the first time you feel you've just got to do it again and again and again.” And that’s just what she did.
Singles Champion: 1978, 1979, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1990
Singles Runner-up: 1988, 1989, 1994
Doubles Champion: 1976, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986
Doubles Runner-up: 1977, 1985
Mixed Doubles Champion: 1985, 1993, 1995, 2003
Mixed Doubles Runner-up: 1986
Total titles: 20