As The Sportsman builds and improves its sports coverage across the board, we will be on site at Wimbledon for the first time at the Championships providing the best reports, interviews, features and analysis from London SW19.
It is exactly 100 years since Centre Court opened its gates after the All England Club moved to the current Church Road site, and the surroundings have changed beyond all recognition in that time.
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But the magic of Centre Court remains. So many great players have graced the hallowed turf in that time, and in the build-up to this year’s tournament, we have had a go at selecting the best 15 in the men’s and women’s game to have competed there.
15. Don Budge
Don Budge was the first player to win all four grand slam tournaments in the same calendar year, with that feat coming in 1938 – and lifted the Wimbledon trophy on two occasions among his six slam conquests. He remains the youngest to pull off the career grand slam of winning the quartet of the biggest prizes in the UK, France, the USA and Australia.
American Budge, born in Oakland in California, is also the only man to have won the ‘Triple Crown’ of the singles, doubles and mixed doubles at a slam event, and did that twice at Wimbledon in both 1937 and 1938.
He is rated as one of best players of all time, possessing a backhand viewed as one of the finest ever seen in the game. And to back it up Budge was blessed with real power and full armoury of destructive shots. In 1973 at the age of 58 he returned to Wimbledon to win the veteran’s doubles event partnered by Frank Sedgman.
14. Chris Evert
Always a big threat in the draw at Wimbledon, Chris Evert’s achievements in winning the singles title on three occasions came in spite of grass being her least preferred surface, and also competing in the same era as Martina Navratilova – arguably the greatest force on the surface the sport has ever seen. Seven losing finals reflected that harsh reality, with five of them coming against her nemesis.
Evert had won the tournament twice by the time she was 21 in 1974 and then again two years later, and there was to be one further success in 1981 as she impressively beat Hannah Mandlikova in the final, with the Czech player having helpfully ousted her compatriot in the semi-finals. She also won the doubles in tandem with Navratilova in 1976.
A gripping singles rivalry between Evert and Navratilova, the natural baseliner against the full-on serve and volleyer with both also excellent doubles players, firmly helped put women’s tennis to the very forefront of sport. Evert’s calling-cards were a relentless consistency and mental strength as she regularly passed those rushing the net.
13. Helen Wills Moody
Californian Wills Moody first appeared at Wimbledon in 1924, just two years after the switch of sites from Worple Road – and that was the prelude to a phenomenal run of success in London and at the other slams. Moody, known as ‘Poker Faced Helen’ for her inscrutable demeanour and ability to stay calm under pressure, won the women’s singles title eight times between 1927 and 1938. There were also three wins in the women’s doubles, and another in the mixed.
The set she dropped in the first round in the year of her first success in 1927 was the last one she would concede in singles at SW19 until 1933. Between 1927 and 1933, Wills Moody - viewed as a power-play serve and volleyer in contrast to French player Suzanne Lenglen who was viewed as having a wider range of shots and more guile - won 180 matches in a row, a spell that saw her win 14 of her total of 19 grand slam singles titles.
12. Fred Perry
The status enjoyed by Fred Perry was strongly illustrated less than a decade ago when to huge fanfare Andy Murray in 2013 finally ended a 77-year wait for a British men’s singles champion at the tournament. Perry had been the last to achieve that in 1936.
Long before the Open era arrived in tennis, that made it a hat-trick in the Stockport-born player’s home event, with those wins coming in consecutive years. His speed and all-court game showed you could win on grass without relying on a serve and volley approach.
Turning professional at the end of that year meant Perry’s achievements were not properly hailed at the time with the international federation not fully catching up with the growing reality until 1967 – but his statue has been a Wimbledon landmark since 1984, a great honour for a man of Lancashire working-class roots who eventually moved to the USA. And there was plenty of colour in a life that saw him date Marlene Dietrich, and play doubles with Charlie Chaplin.
Along with his tennis achievements, Perry’s legacy is also found in the clothing range and brand bearing his name, most famous for producing the polo shirts sold in the millions worldwide.
11. Venus Williams
It remains genuinely hard to get your head around the extraordinary fact that Venus Williams won 10 grand slam singles titles plus another 14 in doubles, was one of the greatest woman players ever to walk out on Centre Court where she lifted the singles Wimbledon trophy no fewer than five times – but still wasn’t the best player in her own immediate family.
With younger sister Serena – with whom Venus formed such a formidable doubles team - still a teenager, her older sibling by two years first won the Wimbledon singles crown in 2000. The taller of the two and with a willowy, rhythmic serve that invariably picked out the lines and also so strong off both wings with an incredible reach due to her 6ft 1ins frame, Venus was born to win in SW19 and also won the women’s doubles there six times.
10. John McEnroe
From the moment that John McEnroe breezed into Wimbledon as a teenage qualifier in 1977 and surged all the way into the semi-finals with an intoxicating brand of serve and volley tennis combined with angry on-court outbursts at the officials, the left-hander swiftly dubbed ‘Superbrat’ was destined to write himself into the very fabric of the tournament.
At times it was all too much for both the authorities and the well-heeled and genteel set that generally populate the show courts. But the New Yorker was box office, and backed his antics up with sublime skills and titles. McEnroe lost to Bjorn Borg in an epic final in 1980, but 12 months later knocked the Swede off his Wimbledon perch - and went on to win the singles title three times, along with five doubles titles, four with Peter Fleming and the last with Michael Stich.
9. Rod Laver
It is with good reason that Australian Rod Laver was always the hero of Roger Federer. The left-hander’s achievements propel him into any conversation about the greatest ever, and as someone whose time in the game straddled the pre- and post-Open eras the trophy haul might have been so much bigger but for the politics surrounding that controversial switchover.
The left-hander won four Wimbledon singles titles – two in 1961 and 1962 before the game opened up, and then two after in 1968 and 1969. But having turned professional at the start of 1963 that meant Laver was banned from taking part in the traditional four slams for five years and without that it seems inconceivable that he would not have won far more than his final singles total of 11.
Laver’s style combined a serve and volley approach with fierce groundstrokes, while using a variety of spins – and he made the use of an attacking top-spin lob a real weapon. He added a Wimbledon doubles title in 1971.
8. Billie Jean King
Without Billie Jean King there might eventually have been a professional women’s tour anyway - but the chances are in less dynamic and trailblazing hands it would have taken another 20 years to pull together, and in all likelihood this year’s 128 players in the Wimbledon women’s singles would not be competing for a £2million first prize.
Among her phenomenal total of 39 slam titles The American former world No1 won 20 of those just at Wimbledon alone – six in the singles, ten in the doubles and another four in the mixed doubles. King, a tireless campaigner for equal rights and equal pay for women players, was instrumental in the setting up of the Virginia Slims Circuit in 1970 that was to become the WTA – one of the ‘Original Nine’. King also answered a challenge to win the famous ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match in 1973 against ageing former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs, who had made many derogatory remarks about the women’s game. This iconic contest proved a window for tens of millions into women’s tennis.
7. Novak Djokovic
Serbia’s Novak Djokovic will be the defending Wimbledon singles champion in 2022 - once more coached by Croatia’s former champion Goran Ivanisevic - having lifted the trophy for a sixth time 12 months ago. In all he has won 20 slam singles crowns, including a record nine in Australia. Djokovic turned pro just as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were starting to establish themselves as dominant players on the tour.
He won Wimbledon for the first time in 2011, beating Nadal in the final in four sets, and this in an incredible personal year of achievement that also saw Djokovic win the Australian Open and the US Open plus seven other tournaments. The 2014 final saw him beat grass-court godfather Roger Federer in five classic sets, a trick he repeated in four the following year. And in 2019 there was a third final and even more epic and unforgettable win over the Swiss legend, this time in a tiebreak triggered when the score reached 12-12 in the fifth set.
6. Bjorn Borg
For five years in a row at Wimbledon Sweden’s Bjorn Borg was ‘The Iceman’ on the lawns of SW19, beating Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors (twice), Roscoe Tanner and then in 1980 the emerging John McEnroe in a scintillating match that spawned a recent Hollywood biographical film – with the explosive American finally proving the man to end the wonderful run of success when he was once again the opponent in the final 12 months later.
That brief Wimbledon rivalry spawned a million ‘Fire and Ice’ headlines, with the calm and never ruffled Borg in his Fila gear and headband the polar temperamental opposite to the highly combustible McEnroe. Borg, a natural baseliner, played his shots on either side with a lot of top-spin and generally only serve-and-volleyed on his first service. Borg was the first male player since 1886 to appear in six consecutive Wimbledon men’s singles finals, although Roger Federer went on to beat that with seven.
5. Steffi Graf
Germany’s finest ever player Steffi Graf won a total of 20 grand slam singles titles – and seven of those were claimed at Wimbledon. From 1988 Graf only failed to lift the Wimbledon trophy twice in nine years, with her list of final victims comprising Martina Navratilova twice in a symbolic changing of the guard transition, and also Gabriela Sabatini, Monica Seles, Jana Novotna and then Aranxta Sanchez Vicario also on two occasions.
1988 was also the year Graf won the ‘Golden Slam’ of Wimbledon, Australia, Paris and the US Open plus Olympic gold as tennis was reintroduced to the Games. She also won the Wimbledon doubles that year playing with Sabatini. Graf was a force of nature on the court, with ‘Fraulein Forehand’ as she became known regularly running round her backhand side to crush her main weapon beyond flailing opponents, something she backed up with a fine serve, good volleying and backhand slice when needed. She later married Wimbledon champion Andre Agassi.
4. Pete Sampras
The bullet serves and cat-like movement and reflexes at the net made Wimbledon a very happy hunting ground for ‘Pistol’ Pete Sampras. The American won the singles title seven times, part of a total slam haul of 14 with successes on the faster surfaces, and only the clay of Roland Garros proving a bridge too far. Sampras is the only player to have won all seven Wimbledon finals in which he played, and won 40 of his 42 singles matches on the Centre Court. Sampras converted his earlier double-handed backhand to a single-hander with the express purpose of winning Wimbledon.
Sampras enjoyed some gripping rivalries, notably with fellow American Andre Agassi, and his final victims at Wimbledon included Jim Courier, Goran Ivanisevic (twice), Boris Becker, Cedric Pioline, Agassi and Pat Rafter – before his era of dominance on the grass gave way to that of Roger Federer. Between 1993 and 2000 Sampras only failed to win Wimbledon once – losing to eventual winner Richard Krajicek in the quarter-finals in 1996.
3. Serena Williams
A huge ovation for Serena Williams from the normally sleepy Eastbourne crowd recently was a reminder if any were needed of the impact and aura the American has carried in tennis for more than 20 years. Williams, the younger sister of Venus, has won 23 grand slam titles of all types making her the most successful player in the Open era, and leaving her one behind Margaret Court’s 24, with time now seemingly running out for the 40-year-old to reach that milestone.
Williams’ power, drive, desire and professionalism took women’s tennis into a completely different stratosphere and dragged plenty of rivals along with her, forcing them to improve to stay relevant. Of those 23 titles, 14 of them came at Wimbledon where Williams won seven singles crowns, six doubles titles and enjoyed one win the mixed doubles. Serena’s first three Wimbledon titles saw her beat Venus in the final, and there were also wins against Vera Zvonareva, Agnieszka Radwanska, Garbine Muguruza and Angelique Kerber. Oddly, though she had a 20-2 career head to head advantage over Maria Sharapova, Williams lost their only Wimbledon final in 2004.
2. Roger Federer
Roger Federer’s love affair with Wimbledon began early as a junior in 1998, when he won both the singles and doubles titles. The first sign that there would be senior singles titles to follow those came in 2001 when at just 19 Federer impressively beat and outplayed the defending and seven-time champion and dominant force on grass Pete Sampras in the last 16. Perhaps surprisingly given his rare gifts the Swiss player had to wait two more years to win the title for the first time beating Mark Philippoussis in the final, and that set him off on a run of five consecutive singles titles and ownership of the Centre Court.
The devastating serve that dug him out of so many holes allied to wonderful and naturally instinctive net coverage, a clubbing forehand, a rapier backhand, an innate ability to take the ball earlier than most and big-match and big-point temperament were too good for the rest on grass. Federer won eight singles titles at Wimbledon, the last coming in 2017 when he beat Marin Cilic in the final. The sheer class plus the rivalries with Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic have left a tennis legacy that will endure for all time.
1. Martina Navratilova
The honour of being the best player seen at Wimbledon over the last 100 years goes to Martina Navratilova, who was simply better, fitter, stronger, more athletic and more professional than those she competed against. That resulted in her winning a record nine singles titles including six in a row, just eclipsing the eight of Helen Wills Moody - and the Czech Republic-born player was in the Wimbledon final 12 times in all including a run of nine consecutive appearances from 1982 to 1990. Navratilova was stripped of her Czech citizenship after seeking political asylum in the USA as an 18-year-old, and granted temporary residence – becoming a citizen in 1981.
Navratilova beat Chris Evert no fewer than five times in the final, with her other victims Andrea Jaeger, Hana Mandlikova, Steffi Graf and Zina Garrison. She also won the doubles seven times with partners Evert, Billie Jean King and Pam Shriver, plus the mixed doubles with Paul McNamee, Mark Woodforde, Jonathan Stark and Leander Paes – bringing her Wimbledon total to an amazing 20.
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