Here we look at the ten best tennis players in the history of the sport — both male and female. Tennis has changed over the decades; gone are the wooden rackets and the white tennis balls — it is all about the power these days.
There are some famous names, considered great players in their day, who have not made our top 10; names like Jaroslav Drobney, Lew Hoad, and Ken Rosewall. But we have tried to look at the overall picture when putting together our list, regardless of the changes the sport has seen.
Several female players feature, some ahead of men. And we have also looked at the players’ personal lives and what they went on to do after retiring. We hope you enjoy it. And if you disagree with our list, be sure to let us know in the comments section below. Without further ado, let’s count down the top ten tennis players of all time…
10 Billie Jean King
Billie Jean Moffitt, as she was known when she first burst on to the tennis scene, is a legend in the tennis world. At the age of 15, she made her Grand Slam debut in the American Open, losing in the first round. But she went on to become the winner of the first singles title on the inaugural Women’s Tennis Association Tour and was a future World No1.
During her career, she won 39 Grand Slam titles including 12 singles, 16 women’s doubles, and 11 mixed doubles titles. But underneath her calm exterior as she clocked up the wins she was experiencing an inner turmoil. Born to a homophobic methodist fireman father and housewife mother in Long Beach, California, she did not realize she was gay when she married Larry King in 1965 and it wasn’t until 1968 that she realized she was interested in women.
In 1971 she began a relationship with her secretary Marilyn Barnett, keeping it a secret at first. But in 1981 it became public knowledge after Barnett filed a lawsuit against her. As soon as people knew, she lost all her sponsors and endorsements and in 1987 she and Larry divorced. She was the first prominent female athlete to admit she was a lesbian. She is a keen supporter of the Elton John Aids Foundation and the Women’s Sports Foundation and has received a string of honors including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
9 Chris Evert
Evert won 18 Grand Slam singles titles and three doubles championships during her career. She also reached 34 Grand Slam titles, more than any other player in the history of tennis, and she never lost in the first two rounds of a Grand Slam tournament. She won 90.05 percent of her singles matches during her career, the highest in professional tennis history. On clay, her winning percentage was a record 94.05 percent.
Evert was also the darling of the tennis courts during her career, and when aged 17 she met 19 year-old American player Jimmy Connors and they started dating they became tennis’s golden couple. Their fairytale romance captured the hearts of many and when the engaged couple both won the singles at Wimbledon in 1974 it seemed like the perfect ending.
The wedding was arranged for the following November but was suddenly called off and that was the beginning of Evert’s disastrous love life. Four years after splitting from Connors and with a couple of romances in between she married British player John Lloyd who she met at Wimbledon and called herself Chris Evert-Lloyd.
Their marriage petered out and she married the US downhill skier Andy Mill. She retired from tennis at the age of 34 and settled down to raising three sons with Mill.
She divorced Mill after 18 years to marry his friend and business partner, Australian golf champion Greg Norman. But her angel image was tarnished as Norman was married when they met and their marriage only lasted 15 months. She now coaches at the Chris Evert Tennis Academy which she co-owns with her brother John.
8 Margaret Court
Margaret Court (nee Smith) won more Major tennis titles than any other player in the history of the sport. Born in 1942 in Perth, Australia, she became the first woman player to win a calendar Grand Slam in 1970 and she is the only person to have won all 12 Grand Slam events — singles, same-sex doubles, and mixed doubles — twice.
Brought up a Catholic she converted to Pentecostalism in the 1970s and after retiring from tennis went from the court to the church and became a Pentecostal Christian Minister in 1991. She founded the Margaret Court Ministries and a Pentecostal church known as the Victory Life Center in Perth and is still serving as its senior pastor.
Court is very vocal in her speeches against LGBT rights and her views have been heavily criticized by gay tennis players Billie Jean King, Rennae Stubbs, and Martina Navratilova.
7 Bjorn Borg
Born in Stockholm, Sweden on June 6, 1956, Borg was the first player to earn more than one million dollars in prize money in a single season. As a child, he was fascinated by a golden tennis racket his father won at a table tennis tournament and after his father gave him the racket it was the start of his career.
He joined the professional circuit at the age of 14 and a year later he became one of the youngest players ever to represent his country in the Davis Cup. From 1974 to 1981 he won 11 Grand Slam singles titles, including five consecutive Wimbledon titles and six French Open titles.
But whilst his tennis career was a great success his personal life was not so good. He married tennis professional Mariana Simonescu in Budapest on July 24, 1980, but it ended in divorce.
He had a child by Swedish model Jannike Bjorling and was briefly married to Italian singer Loredana Berte. The break-up resulted in news reports Borg had attempted suicide which he has always denied.
6 Rafael Nadal
Nadal is an incredible sportsman who after missing the London 2012 Olympics and being out of the game for over six months with a career-threatening knee injury has returned to the circuit to play better than ever.
Nicknamed Rafa, the Spanish left-hander began playing at the age of four with his Uncle Toni who still coaches him. He comes from a sporting family as his other uncle Miguel Angel Nadal is a former professional football player who played for Barcelona and the Spanish national team. Miguel competed in the World Cups in 1994, 1998 and 2002. Immediately after winning Wimbledon in 2010 Nadal flew to South Africa to watch Spain win the World Cup in the final.
He is a specialist on clay, which has also earned him the nickname the King of Clay. He is arguably the best clay court player of all time. He is the only male player to win a single Grand Slam tournament — the French Open — eight times. As of early 2014, he had won a total of 13 Grand Slam singles titles, a record 26 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles and a record 15 ATP World Tour 500 titles.
5 Pete Sampras
Pistol Pete, so named for his outstanding serve and volleying, first became interested in tennis at the age of three when he found an old racket in the basement of his home. He taught himself to hit balls against the wall with it and spent hours practicing. He went on to win 14 Grand Slam titles during his career.
Born in Maryland, the USA to Sammy and Georgia the family was of Greek origin and he went every Sunday to the local Greek Orthodox church. Known for not showing any emotion on court, he wept openly throughout his quarterfinal match against Jim Courier at the 1995 Australian Open after his friend and coach Tom Gullikson collapsed at the Championships and had to return to the USA.
Tim, who was the twin brother of player Tom Gullikson, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died the following year. Despite his agony, Sampras went on to beat Courier and win the title.
4 Martina Navratilova
Often referred to as the greatest female player of all time in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, Martina was born in the Czech Republic and was coached by her mother. At the age of 19, she made a courageous decision to leave all her family behind and seek political asylum in America even though she spoke little English.
This was because the Czech Sports Federation told her she was becoming too Americanized and she had to return to school and stop making tennis her priority. Moving to America turned out to be the right thing to do. During her career, she was ranked as World No1 for 332 weeks in singles and a record 237 weeks in doubles. She also won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, a record 31 major women’s doubles titles and ten major mixed doubles titles.
Sadly, her sexual orientation has been publicized almost as much as her tennis, especially after she broke up with her long-term partner Judy Nelson which resulted in a bitter legal wrangle. Apart from commentating, Martina now devotes herself to charity work and standing up for gay rights. She played her last career match in 2006 at Wimbledon when she lost in the third round of the mixed doubles, although she still plays in exhibition matches.
3 Steffi Graf
Steffi Graf was the golden girl of tennis and holds the record for the most Grand Slam Championship wins by any player, male or female since the introduction of the Open Era in 1968 — having clocked up 22 singles titles.
In 1988 she became the first and only player to achieve a calendar Golden Grand Slam by winning all four Grand Slam singles titles and an Olympic gold medal in the same year.
Her father Peter taught her to swing a wooden racket at the age of four and she played her first tournament at the age of five. Having been coached and managed by her father they became estranged for many years after he was jailed for tax evasion in 1997. But they were reconciled when he developed pancreatic cancer and she flew from the USA to Germany in November 2012 to see him before he died. She is married to former tennis ace Andre Agassi and they have two children.
2 Rod Laver
The 75-year-old Australian was born in Queensland to a cattleman and is one of the old school of players. Nicknamed Rod the Rocket he was World number one for an astonishing seven consecutive years and is the only player to win the Grand Slam (four major championships in the same year) twice.
The center court at Melbourne Park where the Australian Open is held was named The Rod Laver Arena in his honor. He was married to his wife Mary for 46 years until her death in 2012. While he was being interviewed by ESPN TV in July 1998 Laver suffered a stroke but he has recovered well and is enjoying his retirement in California, USA.
He won 200 career titles, including 19 Major singles titles with 11 Grand Slams and 8 Pro Slams. He also won nine Major doubles titles. He holds the men’s record of 22 singles titles in one season, an amazing feat which he achieved in 1962.
1 Roger Federer
The popular Swiss player has been at the top of the tree for more than a decade and at 32 he is still playing as well as ever. Like all top players, he hit a rocky patch but is still considered to be the best tennis player of all time.
Born in Basel to a South African mother Lynette and a Swiss father Robert his parents met when they were both working for a pharmaceutical company in South Africa. Federer began playing at the age of eight and his favorite player was Pete Sampras although he also idolized Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg. Away from the court, he loves spending time at the beach with his wife and twins and he is a fanatical supporter of his hometown football team Basel Football Club.
Federer has been ranked inside the men’s top ten for over 14 years. He has won 17 Grand Slam singles titles and reached the finals of every Grand Slam competition at least five times — which is an all-time record. He has won the most prize money of any player in history — more than $80million. He was the first player to win more than $50million in prize money. He has so far been ranked as World No1 for 302 weeks during his career, including 237 weeks back-to-back from 2004 to 2008.