Grass, the traditional surface for lawn tennis, has gone from being the court that hosted three of the four Grand Slams, to one that is restricted to a few weeks on the calendar.
Grass has been a surface that has seen the greatest champions in women’s tennis prosper. In the amateur era and the start of the Open era, players like Margaret Court, Helen Wills Moody and Suzanne Lenglen scripted win after win and lifted trophy after Major trophy. Most of them on grass.
But in the Open era, the top players only have the green lawns of Wimbledon to showcase their grass prowess. Yet, they have made the oldest Major the perfect stage for excellence. Some of the top contenders for greatest of all time have claimed a bagful of Wimbledon trophies – both champion and runners up. Of Serena Williams’ 23 and Steffi Graf’s 22 Majors, seven came at Wimbledon.
The truncated season, though, makes it harder to ascertain who fits the bill across eras: the ones who shined when grass was the predominant surface or now, when it’s all about Wimbledon. To narrow it down, we look at the numbers mainly from the Open era with Wimbledon success.
In the fourth part of this series, we look back at the champions who thrived on grass, in a week we would have normally been watching Wimbledon. Here are the five top grass court players in Open era women’s tennis, in no particular order.
Martina Navratilova, with her Open era record of 59 Grand Slam titles across disciplines, was a force to reckon with across surfaces and tournaments. But it was on the grass of Wimbledon that she had her most dominant run. As rival and friend Chris Evert said, “Her game was tailor-made for the grass,” with a solid serve backed by devastating volleys and a sublime touch at the net.
Statistically the greatest player on grass courts, her numbers at Wimbledon are astonishing – 20 titles across four different decades and three categories. Between 1978 and 1990, she won a record nine singles titles, including six in a row, seven doubles titles and four mixed doubles titles.
She reached the Wimbledon singles final 12 times, including nine consecutive years from 1982-1990. Four of these were when she won the doubles title as well. She has also played the most matches at The Championships (326) and has a 120−14 record.
In 1987, she snapped Graf’s 39-match winning streak but it was Graf who ended her run of six straight titles. Her record-breaking ninth title came when she was 33 and at 37, she reached the final again for a shot at a 10th trophy, before losing to Conchita Martinez. Astonishingly, her final title at Wimbledon came in 2003, when she won the mixed doubles with Leander Paes at the age of 46! This is perhaps the biggest testament to the American’s supreme fitness and athleticism that saw her dominate the sport.
She has also won three other Grand Slams on grass from six at the Australian Open. Overall, she had a win percentage of around 89 on grass and lifted 32 WTA titles on the surface. She once won 47 consecutive WTA encounters from 1985-’87 on the surface.
Serena Williams has dominated the hard courts more than any other surface but has been a standout performer on the green lawns as well. With a huge serve and powerful groundstrokes that are more often that not winners, her game blossoms on a fast-moving surface like grass and Wimbledon has been seen as the surface where she can get the elusive, record-equalling 24th Major.
Incidentally, Serena’s first taste of Grand Slam success came on grass, when she won the 1998 Wimbledon mixed doubles title with Max Mirnyi. Since then, she has won seven titles in singles and six in doubles with sister Venus. In her singles career, she lost only four finals, to a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova in 2004, Venus in 2008 and more recently back-to-back finals to Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep after her maternity break.
While the American may not have the same number of matches on grass given the short span and reduced workload where she doesn’t play warm-up events, her win percentage on grass is around a solid 89. At Wimbledon, she has a 98-12 record and at the All England Club, this record gets even better as she won both the singles and doubles gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics.
Her seven Wimbledon titles and one Olympic gold account for the total of eight singles trophies on grass, but she is in no way done yet, even at 39.
Stefanie Graf has the unique distinction of being a player who is featured in both the clay and grass court lists, but then Graf was a unique player. Of her 22 Grand Slams, all won in a span of just 12 years, seven came at Wimbledon from nine finals. She had a stunning 90% win record at Wimbledon with only seven losses to 74 wins.
‘Fraulein forehand’, as Graf was called, said that grass was her favorite surface to play on and used her forehand to great effect to succeed on it. Her attacking style, swift footwork and the effective backhand slice she developed made her a formidable player on the surface.
The German lost her first Wimbledon final, to no less than Navratilova, in 1987 as well as her last, to Lindsay Davenport in 1999. That also turned out to be the last Grand Slam final she ever played, retiring at only 30.
But she is also the only player to beat Navrtilova at Wimbledon in her prime, winning the final in 1988 and ‘89. In her Golden Slam run in ‘88, Graf also won the women’s doubles title with Gabriela Sabatini.
With five titles, Venus is fourth on the list of women with the most number of Wimbledon singles trophies, behind only Navrtilova, Serena and Graf.
The American, though, could be considered a tad underwhelming considering she reached a nine singles finals, but lost to Serena on three occasions and most recently, to Garbine Muguruza in 2017. With her long reach, athletic strokes and fluid movement on court, she has adapted her game to grass like few others. In her long, decorated career, she holds an 89–17 record at Wimbledon.
Additionally, she has also won six doubles titles with Serena along with an Olympics gold at London 2012 at the All England Club.
But Venus’ legacy at Wimbledon goes beyond tennis. She relentlessly led the campaign for equal prize money for men and women at Wimbledon and finally won that battle in 2008. Fittingly, she beat Serena in the final to defend her crown and be the first benefactor of her fight for equal pay.
Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King’s career spans both the amateur and Open era and she is the only player whose numbers of both eras are counted. Her prowess with the racquet is undeniable and makes a part of most best lists. And playing in the time where grass was the foremost surface, she thrived on it with a swift serve and volley game.
Of her 39 Grand Slam trophies, 20 came at Wimbledon across disciplines and eras with six singles titles (four in the Open era) along with ten doubles titles and four mixed doubles trophies. The American also won all three titles available at Wimbledon (singles, doubles and mixed doubles) in a single year twice in her career.
Additionally, 11 of her 12 singles Grand Slam titles came on grass and she was a runner-up six other times. Overall, she has 22 titles on the surface.
Chris Evert: 3 Wimbledon, six Grand Slam titles on grass.