After watching Serena Williams use all of her incomparable gifts to dominate her contemporaries and reestablish herself as the most driving force on the WTA Tour last season, I started thinking about just which current or former WTA Tour players possessed the greatest stokes in this history of their sport.
Well, after some careful consideration, I have compiled another G.O.A.T (Greatest of All-Time) list that will undoubtedly give avid tennis lovers something to debate over for quite some time.
Now, with 2012 season rolling right along as the second week of the 2013 Australian Open approaches this coming weekend, let’s take a look at the top 10 strokes in WTA Tour history.
10. Althea Gibson – Serve and Volley
The legendary Althea Gibson is the only player on this list that gets a 2-in-1 billing – and rightfully so. Gibson had the biggest and most accurate serve in the world in a time when ‘big’ serves were completely uncommon. However, it was her ability to get to the net quickly for a put-away volley following one of her big serves that really set her apart from every other player in the world. The 5-foot-11-inch Gibson used her unusually long reach to flick would-be passing shots out of the air for volley winners that often left her opponents either standing flat-footed or lunging. More importantly, Gibson won 11 grand slam titles, including six in doubles titles in her Hall of Fame career during a time when she faced rampant racism and everything that it entailed for a person of color living in the United States during the 1950s and 60s.
Robert Ryland, a former friend and contemporary of Gibson’s that would eventually coach the Williams sisters briefly had this to say about the legendary Althea Gibson.
“She is one of the greatest players who ever lived,” Ryland said. “Martina (Navratilova) couldn’t touch her. I think she’d beat the Williams sisters.”
9. Billy Jean King – Volley
While the legendary Billy Jean King is now recognized as a trail blazing pioneer and innovator, ‘back in the day’ she was an absolute monster of a player that won 12 grand slam singles titles and an insane 39 grand slam titles overall (16 doubles, 11 mixed doubles).
King was a player that loved to rush the net and force her opponents into some sort of tricky passing shot that, more often than not, eventually turned into a winning volley.
While its was really hard for me to select just one shot of King’s because of her all-court style, for me, her put-away volley was the best the game had ever seen until Martina Navratilova came along that is.
In a 1984 interview King once said she might have been even better had she not been so busy off court growing the sport for both, women and men alike.
“Sometimes when I’m watching someone like Martina [Navratilova], I remember how nice it was to be No. 1. Believe me, it’s the best time in your life,” King said. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you different. … My only regret is that I had to do too much off the court. Deep down, I wonder how good I really could have been if I [had] concentrated just on tennis.”
8. Monica Seles – Two-Handed Groundstrokes
It’s a damn shame that Monica Seles had her stupendous career completely derailed by some psychotic Steffi Graf-loving fan or else who knows how many grand slam titles she would have won.
The Yugoslavian born Seles won nine grand slam titles in a six-year span, including the 1991 Australian, French and U.S. Open crowns. Seles won three slams in four tries against Graf and won both, the Aussie and U.S. Open in consecutive years. With eight Grand Slam singles titles before her 20th birthday on December 2, 1993, Seles holds the record for most Grand Slam singles titles won as a teenager in the Open Era.
On April 30 1993 Seles was leading Magdalena Maleeva during a second set break when Günter Parche, an obsessed fan of Graf’s, ran on court behind Seles and stabbed her with a boning knife between the shoulder blades.
While her injuries only took weeks to heal, the psychological damage was done as if forced the young star to stay away from competitive tennis for two years before returning.
Nevertheless, Monica Seles had some of the best groundstrokes off of both wings that I’ve ever seen in the women’s game. Seles was deadly accurate and equally powerful and remains the best player to ever use two hands on both groundstrokes.
Fuzzyyellowballs.com co-founder and lead instructor Will Hamilton remember Seles as an aggressive player that liked to take control of points early.
“Allowed her to handle pace on both sides, take the ball early, and dictate play,’ Hamilton said.
7. Justine Henin – One-Handed Backhand
All I can say is that I am still in awe of the way the tiny, 5-foot-6, 130-pound, Justine Henin used her incomparable one-handed backhand to, not only win seven career grand slam titles, but become one of the very few WTA players in the last 15 years that could take out either of the Williams sisters – or on occasion – both.
Case in point…while en route to the 2007 U.S. Open title, Henin took out Dinara Safina 6-0, 6-2 in the fourth round, Serena Williams 7-6 (7-3), 6-1, in the quarters, Venus Williams 7-6 (7-2), 6-4 in the semis and Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-1, 6-3 in the finals.
I started using a one-handed backhand almost a decade ago, mostly because I wanted to emulate my favorite player, Roger Federer. However, a year into my learning process, I found myself in a real battle to master the one-hander – until my title-winning wife suggested I watch the picturesque form of Henin. After some in-depth study of Henin’s entire swing shape, my backhand improved dramatically, to the point where it is now a flat-out weapon (Thanks Justine).
Globally-renowned fuzzyyellowballs.com head tennis coach and master instructor Will Hamilton offered up his thoughts on Henin’s one-hander.
“Wow… What a shot,” Hamilton said. “(Henin had) one of the best one-handed backhands of all time, no question. As a shorter player, you might think a one-hander would be a liability because she’d be hitting so many high balls. But it didn’t matter… her one-hander was that good.”
6. Venus Williams – Serve
I’m going to get right to the point and say that Venus Williams would have likely gone down with the greatest serve in WTA Tour history were it not for an undiagnosed disease, (which we now know is Sjogren Syndrome) that has robbed her of much of her energy and vigor the last few years. The fact of the matter is that it is the elder Williams, not the more publicized Serena that had the fastest serve ever recorded in WTA Tour history. Williams ripped one serve at 130.0 mph at Zurich back in 2008 after initially setting the fastest serve record at 127 mph way back in 1998.
While Williams’ 130.0 mph serve has been surpassed by Sabine Lisicki (130.5 mph) in 2009, make no mistake about it…Venus Williams’ fluid, one-of-a-kind ‘whip-like’ serve is undoubtedly one of the top 10 shots in WTA Tour history and one of the main reasons the elder Williams has won seven grand slam titles in her glorious career.
5. Martina Navratilova – Volley
If John McEnroe is the greatest volleyer of all-time on the men’s ATP World Tour, then Martina Navratilova is undoubtedly the best female volley artist of all-time on the women’s WTA Tour. While Navratilova undoubtedly had a lot of other gifts and was the first tennis player, either male or female, to make physical conditioning a huge part of her training, the fact of the matter is that Martina Navratilova possessed the softest pair of hands – and the greatest touch at the net – that the women’s game has ever known.
4. Serena Williams – Forehand
I swear, I once heard a tennis ball yell, ‘Ouch!’ when Serena Williams blasted it past some dazed opponent for one of her signature winners. Seriously though, outside of Steffi Graf’s unrivaled forehand, there’s never been a more formidable forehand than the one we’ve seen Williams use time and time again to simply overpower – and overwhelm – her far weaker female counterparts. Williams can hit her blazing forehand to any part of the court with ease – and I swear, she shouldn’t be allowed to use her best groundstroke on second serve returns…because it’s so unfair to her opponents!
3. Chris Evert – Backhand
Evert is widely recognized as the ‘Mother of the Two-Handed Backhand’ and for good reason since she was the first player to use it – en route to a stunning 18 grand slam titles in her Hall of Fame career.
Evert’s father, Jim, made his daughter start hitting with two hands off the backhand wing because she was so small compared to the other players her age. However, what began as a method to help her deal with her opponents’ power, ended up as arguably the greatest innovation the game has ever seen. Today, over 70 percent of the world’s top 100 players use a two-handed backhand.
2. Steffi Graf – Forehand
If opponents hit a ball to Steffi Graf’s backhand, they could count on getting a slice return almost 99 percent of the time. However, if an opponent hit a ball to Graf’s unrivaled forehand, they could expect a blazing ‘tracer’ of epic proportions that generally ended up whizzing by them for an outright winner. It’s no wonder that Graf’s rocket-like forehand aptly earned her the nickname ‘Fraulein Forehand’.
The wife of former American superstar Andre Agassi hit her forehand inside in, inside out, down the line – or worse – cross court – with devastating accuracy, power and speed while mostly overpowering her contemporaries en route to a whopping 22 grand slam singles titles, the second most in WTA Tour history.
1. Serena Williams – Serve
Simply put, there’s not a tennis coach, analyst, current or former WTA or ATP player on the face of the planet that doesn’t agree that Serena Williams has the most dominant serve to ever grace the woman’s game. Not only does Williams possess more power in her serve than any other player in history (outside of sister, Venus that is), but she’s also the proud owner of the game’s most pinpoint serve placement.
Williams can blast a flat serve down the ‘T’ at 130 miles per hour or she can use her incomparable – and absolutely unhittable – slice out wide, to both, frustrate and overwhelm her counterparts.
Make no mistake about it tennis fanatics, Serena Williams is the undisputed owner of the greatest stroke in the history of women’s professional tennis. Whether you love or loathe the polarizing Williams, there’s no denying that her potent, pulverizing and simply overpowering serve is the greatest shot in WTA Tour history!