Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You’ll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
15. Lindsay Davenport
Years played: 1993-2010
Major titles: 3 (1998 US Open; 1999 Wimbledon; 2000 Australian Open)
By the start of the 1990s, women’s tennis had produced its share of power-baseliners. Steffi Graf’s forehand was frightening, and Monica Seles doubled her pleasure by slugging with two hands from both sides. But Lindsay Davenport brought a new, nonstop wallop to the WTA. “She likes to hit the ball hard into the corner,” said Gabriela Sabatini, an early victim of Davenport’s. “Very, very hard.”
Davenport grew up in Southern California and was coached by two of the best tennis minds in the U.S. game, Robert Lansdorp and Robert Van’t Hof. Her point-ending forehand drew comparisons to Graf’s, and her heavy, penetrating two-handed backhand would become the model for many future double-handers. While Davenport wasn’t a nationally celebrated prodigy like her contemporary, Jennifer Capriati, or her fellow Californian Tracy Austin, she turned pro at 16 in 1993 and cracked the Top 10 the following year. In 1996, she won a gold medal in singles at the Atlanta Olympics.
By 1998, it was becoming clear that Davenport’s wallop, rather than her rival Martin Hingis’ wiliness, was going to point the way to the future of women’s tennis. Hingis had used her variety and consistency to dominate the WTA in 1997, and she had beaten Davenport in three of four meetings that year. But Davenport turned the tables in the 1998 US Open final to win her first major. One month later, she took Hingis’ No. 1 ranking. The American, while adding a Wimbledon and Australian Open title, would hold that spot for 98 weeks over the next seven years.
But the same power wave that Davenport surfed to the top would soon take two younger, speedier Southern Californians—Venus and Serena Williams—to the same place. After winning her first three Grand Slam finals, Davenport would lose her last four, all to Venus or Serena. The last one was the most painful; in the 2005 Wimbledon title match against Venus, Davenport held a championship point before losing one of the Open era’s best Grand Slam finals, 9-7 in the third set.
Despite that defeat, and despite having spent a decade on tour, Davenport plowed on and won eight more tournaments from 2005 to 2008. She had helped start the WTA’s power age, and she had survived it.
Defining Moment: Nobody got on a roll like Davenport. She won all three of her majors without dropping a set. The second one, at Wimbledon in 1999, was the most surprising. Davenport had never been past the quarterfinals there, but she ran through the draw and closed with a straight-set win over Steffi Graf that convinced the German she should retire. When it was over, Davenport cried tears of joy and shock. She had powered her way to a place where she may never have believed she would go.
Watch: Lindsay Davenport’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech
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