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Sports Then and Now

Great Competitors In Women’s Tennis History

Posted on December 08, 2009 by Claudia Celestial Girl
Women's Tennis history is filled with great competitors.

Women's Tennis history is filled with great competitors.

In your face. Pushy. Mentally strong. Competitive. These are not your usual adjectives for describing ‘Ladies.’

Gracious and elegant; cute, classy, and tenacious. These are more common ways Lady competitors are described.

And yet, one of the reasons that we love to watch tennis is that very basic, visceral psychological aspects of life, play themselves out in 1-2 hours on the tennis court.

This article is meant to be complementary to Rob York’s presentation of the top five male competitors click here.

In his piece, York suggested that great competitors brought something of mental strength, focus, or force of will over and above their physical abilities to achieve the victory.

This article is a presentation of the top five Ladies’ Competitors. I mean those who, like their male counterparts, show you their will to win, their audacity, their indomitable spirit; something about the Human Condition.

As a theme song for this feature, I’ve selected “Take This Job and Shove It (I Ain’t Workin’ Here no More).” This is a humorous song that underscores a core, basic, fighting spirit, that is part of what a true competitor brings to the contest.

5. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario

Sanchez-Vicario won the French Open twice, the USO (over Monica Seles) and Wimbledon, and was runner up in a few more Grand Slams.

She took World No. 1 Steffi Graf by surprise in 1989, kicking her butt in a close tie-break in the first of the FO, then taking her out of her game in the third set to win the match, after a let down in the second set.

Arantxa Sanchez Vicario

Arantxa Sanchez Vicario

S-V lost to Steffi Graf a bunch more times in Grand Slam finals, but she was always dangerous. She was the youngest player (at 17) to win a Grand Slam (supplanted the very next year by Monica Seles at 16).

Her technical skills were modest. She had a pretty good forehand, but it was her tenacity, and indomitable spirit that that powered her through many of these matches.

Like Leyton Hewitt and Jimmy Connors, Sanchez-Vicario was a fighter from the word go. She refused to concede a point, and would go almost anywhere on court to retrieve a ball, again and again.

In the (2m) video below, from the 1989 French Open, you can see Graf’s frustration in dealing with S-V, who will not let go of the point(s).

4. Kim Clijsters

Diapers. Sleep deprivation. Cholic. Nap time. Whining. Crying. Constant Interruption. Reading time. Feeding time. Repeat.

Kim Clijsters

Kim Clijsters

You can’t tell your husband and child to ‘take this job and shove it.’ You are there for the duration.

It is not for nothing that women rarely return to the tour after having their first child. The mental toughness required to concentrate on tennis enough to retain proficiency, much less excel, at a sport that requires constant repetition and muscle memory for success, is phenomenal.

With a baby in hand, it’s hard enough to concentrate on reading the newspaper in the morning!

In 2009, Kim Clijsters not only returned to the tour after a two-year absence in which she got married and had a baby, but after only three tournaments, entered and won the US Open, the only lady to do it as a wild-card!

3. Serena Williams

Serena and Venus Williams are both statuesque, powerful, athletic Ladies, who have muscled their way, and overwhelmed most of their competition in 10 years on the tour.

Serena Williams

Serena Williams

The difference between these two Ladies is … killer instinct.

In the 2009 USO, Serena offered some choice words to a line judge, offering to take the tennis ball and shove it …

She may not have gracious mannerisms. She may not have the elegant technique of a Justine Henin. She may not always be focused on the day-to-day grind of the tour.

In some years (2006), she was sidelined by injury. In other years (2004), she was troubled by the untimely and brutal murder of another sister … (in beautiful, picturesque Compton, Calif.).

But when the Grand Slams come along, look out! Serena comes to life.

One of the greatest triumphs of her career: coming back in 2007 to win the title at the AO seeded No. 81! (She credited her murdered sister with the inspiration to power her way to the title).

Her triumphs on the court are too numerous for this particular slideshow, but include a match in which she fought off 10 set points: the 2008 USO quarter finals against sister Venus.

I would rank her much higher on this list but for the fact that she doesn’t always show up to play…her fire and attention drift when the stakes are not Grand Slam high.

My choice for video(s) to illustrate Serena’s killer instinct are these two 30s commercials for the 2009 USO.

In the first, Serena speaks lovingly of her relationship with her sister, just before using some dolls to illustrate just what she was going to do to Venus in the USO.

In the second, sister Venus basically says that if you want a friend on the Ladies’ Tour… get a dog.

2. Martina Navratilova

I could quote the number of titles, the number of Grand Slam matches, but it is not the out and out numbers that land her a spot on a list of the top five competitors.

Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert were both known for their competitive fire.

Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert were both known for their competitive fire.

Nor the fact that she has continued to compete on the Ladies’ tour well into her 40s, and won her last major title (mixed doubles at the USO) at the age of 50.

In 1975, Ms. Navratilova told communist officials basically ‘You can take this country and shove it,’ defecting from Czechoslovakia, and becoming a pariah in the land of her birth.

She was not allowed to see her mother, or have her parents come to the Slams to see some of her tournaments.

She also focused on strength and conditioning at a time (especially for Ladies) when such techniques were unorthodox.

Her biggest rival was Chris Evert. By the time Steffi Graf came along, Steffi had better technique, and could handle almost everything Martina could throw at her.

Nonetheless, Martina’s fighting spirit, and willingness to use her athleticism represented Chris Evert’s biggest challenge.

In the below video, Chris Evert, who was also a monster competitor, talks about her rivalry with Martina.

1. Monica Seles

“Not me!’ ‘Not meee!’ That is supposedly how Monica’s grunt’ sounded when playing against her.

Monica Seles

Monica Seles

In many ways, Monica Seles laid the ground work for the Ladies’ game as we know it today, power from the baseline; a departure from metronome-like baseline ball-striking and the subleties of serve and volley.

Monica won her first Grand Slam at the age of 16 (she first defeated Chris Evert at the age of 15!), and won all six of her first Grand Slam tournaments.

She played three years before she was stabbed by a deranged fan on court in 1993. The rationale given by the fan: to prevent Seles from taking more titles away from stellar rival Steffi Graf.

The attack was successful. Monica was never the same after being stabbed with that 10-inch knife in the shoulder.

For many tennis fans, her great rival, Steffi Graf, is the greatest Ladies’ champion of all time.

In this slideshow, I mean to show the greatest ‘competitors’ of the sport, where some innate characteristic beyond technique or physical effort powered the star to victory, that if you took away physical ability, you would have something bare and raw that spoke at a visceral level about the Human Spirit.

Monica, with her powerful two-handed backhand, grunting with effort, had something more on court, a magnetism and presence, that embodied an intelligent, gracious, spirit of defiance…something powerful enough to motivate an unrational person to stab her.

She had the opposite of the gritty characterstic of the theme of this presentation ‘take this job and shove it …’

Monica was someone you would rush to give a job to if she showed up. These qualities are credited by many of today’s top Ladies with inspiring them in their tennis careers.

For these reasons, Monica Seles is my No. 1 pick for the greatest competitor of the woman’s game.

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