So, Todd and I are back again with the second edition of the Court of Appeals feature. As a reminder, in short, this ATP BACKSPINNER picks a topic and outlines a number of candidates, using carefully detailed arguments to sell them emotionally with numbers or any way I can, then Todd will give his take on my nominations. He can agree, or say everything I have suggested is rubbish and he has a much better idea of who'd be a better choice. Once he outlines his thoughts, he'll present his final rankings, then I'll do the same.
After examining the best men's player never to be #1, this time we'll look at the women.
1. Must have won a slam and been to two finals
2. Must have been Top Four for at least a week
3. Open era players only
4. Five nominees for both the ATP and WTA tour
5. At least 400 career wins
123 weeks. One slam. That is the combined total for Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina and Caroline Wozniacki. Together they have made just nine slam finals. Each player on this list has had an arguably better career than those ladies. Sometimes it is inarguable. Welcome to part two...
She played at Wimbledon in 1962. It was her slam debut. Her last was also at Wimbledon, in 1985. She lost to Pam Shriver in three sets in the third round. But before 1977, when she was 30 and slam-less in five years, she had been a spectacular doubles player and was 2-0 in singles slam finals. She made the U.S. Open finals in 1968 as a fresh-faced 23 year old and beat Billie Jean King 6-4, 6-2. Four years later she triumphed in her debut at Kooyong, sweeping Evonne Goolagong aside 6-4, 6-4 to win the Australian Open.
This is a woman who won 55 singles titles, though not all in the Open era, and who made nine slam semi-finals. She also won 839 matches, 510 more than she lost. She achieved her career high of number two in 1975 and she may have ascended further but for her 3-24 record against the big guns of her day. It didn't stop her being inducted into the Hall of Fame, though her 4-6 record in doubles slam finals helped. Her relative athleticism helped her to run around the backhand and hit the forehand, which was a decent weapon. Of course, it is hard to judge different styles as the game was so much more different then. It was an earlier time when she rose to the top, or nearly, but she was unfortunate enough to be sandwiched between the King/Margaret Court era and the Martina and Chris show. Lots of the players we are talking about on these two lists have both suffered terrible bits of bad luck, lacked mental fortitude or had injuries. Look at Guillermo Vilas. How much bad luck did he have? It is similar for the next lady on the list...
I'm sort of restricted to only admiring the numbers on this one, and Wade's 3-0 mark in major finals (in three different slams) is impressive. Defeating King and Goolagong in their home slams puts her squarely in the mix, as does the fact that no British woman has won Wimbledon since her '77 title run (Johanna Konta was the first to reach the semis since Wade in '78).
Results-wise you can compare her to Stan Wawrinka. Otherwise, her game style is akin to Svetlana Kuznetsova in that she has magic. Her game seems to crackle. Unfortunately, much like Sveta, she had trouble keeping it all together. The problem with having such a game is sometimes you just have bad losses. Despite that she managed a fantastic 565-194 win/loss record. She made the finals of the YEC in 1986, too. She had a memorable career but was denied in four slam finals. Evert denied her at the U.S. Open twice, in 1980 and '82, and Wimbledon once in '81. Martina beat her at the Championships in 1987. She managed a competitive 7-19 record against Chris Evert. But she was 8-29 against Navratilova. Her biggest triumph, however, was undoubtedly in 1985 at Flushing Meadows. She defeated Martina Navratilova in a match so famous I have heard of it. She edged her sort-of compatriot 7–6(7–3), 1–6, 7–6(7–2). After beating Evert in the semi she raced to a 5-0 lead in the final before collapsing. She had a 5-3 lead in the final set but blew that, too. This was a player who lived and died by the sword.
Washed up by 25, like the great Bjorn Borg, we were always left wondering what if?
But if you want to nominate a truly special player can you do any worse than the woman who broke Martina's 54 match win streak in an epic three setter?
Of course, Hana is my personal horse in this race, as becoming a fan in the final stage of her career sort of established many of the characteristics for the sort of player I tend to gravitate toward -- talented, sometimes misunderstood types who usually must struggle to break through a "wall," often self-imposed, to achieve their career objective. (Thus, never big fan of a dominant great like a Federer, Graf, or Nadal, but more pulled toward a Novotna, Dokic, Henin (who then became a "great"), Azarenka, Halep or, as the last few seasons have played out, Ostapenko.)
I'm surprised you didn't mention what I think is the biggest note on Mandlikova's career resume for this "competition" -- that in the Navratilova/Evert era she managed to win three-quarters of a Career Slam, and twice reached the final of the only major she failed to win (Wimbledon), falling, naturally, to Chris ("81) and Martina ('86) in those attempts. Ultimately, she won *four* slams, including being able to smash through the Navratilova/Evert wall by defeating them on back-to-back days to win the U.S. Open in 1985. She was the third woman (after you-know-who) to win slam titles on grass, clay and hard courts. As far as seasonal slam consistency goes, Mandlikova had that, as well. Over an eight-year stretch from 1980-87, she produced at least one SF-or-better result at a major in seven seasons. As the leading member of the previous Czech stretch of dominance in Fed Cup play, she was part of four Czechoslovakian FC championship squads from 1983-88.
She may have only won a slam but her two YEC victories, four slam finals and 55 finals are reason enough to include her. She has to be in here because she was so consistent. She made four semi-finals at all four slams. How many players have done that outside of Serena Williams, Graf, Evert and Navratilova? Maria Sharapova hasn't done that. Nor has Venus Williams. You say Justine Henin? No. Oh, I hear Martina Hingis? No. Clijsters, Goolagong, Austin, Mauresmo, Azarenka, Davenport. No, no, no, no, no and NO. The Argentine is one of just five players to achieve that feat. The catch is that she was just 3-15 in those 18 semi-finals, but consistency is the pathway to the world number one spot. In this day and age she would have been a world number one. But unfortunately for her there was a little German lady in her way. Her 11-29 mark against Graf, while not awful, is the reason why she couldn't get over the hump.
Relevant from 1985, Sabatini played her last slam match in 1996. She was just 26 years old. Like Mandlikova, she retired before her time. Her last title came in 1995 at Sydney, nine years after her first. If you choose the Argentine it will be for the weapons she had at her disposal, her sheer consistency and the fact that she was denied by Graf so many times. She really got unlucky during her career. Graf beat her at Wimbledon in 1991 6-3, 4-6, 8-6. That's the one. If she had gotten over the hump this BACKSPINNER believes she could have cracked the top ranking. Her highest ever ranking of two seems a little unfair. She did so much in her decade of relevancy. Here she is at her first ever slam semi-final, Roland Garros 1985.
I used to downgrade Sabatini for her inability to be the big rival for Graf that she'd been expected to be, but these recent Backspin editions where her history has been discussed has turned around my opinion on her career. Really, some of her numbers are eyebrow-raising. As things stand, until something changes, Sabatini is the last great South American women's player (though, it should be noted, Garbine Muguruza was born in Venezuela and easily could have assumed that position in the current game). For eleven straight seasons, Gaby had at least one slam SF-or-better result, and, though she won just one slam, *did* collect many big titles in her career, including two WTA Championships, six Tier I wins (three in the '91 season alone, when she also reached the Wimbledon final after she'd won the U.S. Open at the end of '90, and then two more in '92... which says much about how much confidence a single slam win can instill in a player who was sometimes lacking in that area). While the issue of Graf's great(er)ness will always be an albatross around Sabatini's neck, that her lone slam crown came via a win over the German in the final at least stands as one shining example in her favor in that discussion.
She didn't get luck with slam draws or with health. Her father was an abusive man. She spent four years in the wilderness. She had so many challenges throughout her career. It ended in heartbreak, the video of that event (a knee injury) is available -- but not here -- because it is so saddening. At the very peak of her game she was better than Amelie Mauresmo, who became world number one because she timed her slams well. Pierce was maddeningly inconsistent. But she was also the most talented person of her generation.
This BACKSPINNER maintains she hit the greatest shot of all time (#4 on this list):
But she is still somewhat forgotten, and passed over. When she won her first slam, at the 1995 Australian Open, she was 20 years old. She lost just 30 games. She blitzed the field. The year before at the French Open she beat Steffi Graf 6-2, 6-2. In a slam semi-final. It was arguably the worst slam result of Graf's career She dropped ten games on the way to the final. That isn't even an average of two a match. She was utterly dominant but somehow lost the final to ASV. That was the Frenchwoman's career. Utterly dominant at her best, but unable to convert that brilliance consistently.
Pierce's six slam finals and 18-23 record in finals are evidence of how she was both very good and very bad. But where she really stands out isn't just the shotmaking of a world number one, it's the belief of a number one. The year is 2005. We're in Melbourne. She has won one title in five years. She goes out 6-2, 6-2 in the first round to a total journeywoman. At the next slam, looking finished, she comes from nowhere to make the final. She beats Vera Zvonareva in the third round and Patty Schnyder in three sets in the fourth. Two top ten players gone. She then proceeds to smack world number one Lindsay Davenport 6-3, 6-2. She routs Elena Likhovtseva 6-1, 6-1 in the semi-final. She is up against Justine Henin, the tenth seed, in the final. The Belgian has saved match points, struggled through the whole tournament and looks shaky. The Frenchwoman responds by losing 6-1, 6-1. At the U.S. that same year it is an identical story. She does away with the 6th, 3rd and 7th seeds all for the loss of just one set. She then collapses in the final and loses to Kim Clijsters in embarrassing fashion. But she has the heart of a champion. To come back after so many years of poor results and have a year like that. It is what the best in the world do. And besides who else could be the hitter of both these shots?
Pierce was a free spirit who had fun, who loved the game. Dinara Safina was miserable towards the end, never far from tears. Pierce laughed and joked. She had a beautiful smile. The players these day cannot see anything but the game. Pierce saw life. She saw fun, and showed it to us. She was a bright light and her love of the game is something these new players need to learn. She would have made a great ambassador for the game, which is what part of being a number one is. No?
Though she surely belongs here, my one problem with considering Pierce for the spot on this list, even with her unquestioned talent, is that I'm not sure she was ever really seen as the second or third best player on tour at any given point in her career. She was essentially a feast-or-famine, "big title sniper" who was always potentially lethal, but never reliable as a late second week participant at the major level (she had sixteen Round of 16 losses, and eight in the QF). As opposed to, say, Sabatini's big slam result consistency, Pierce only produced SF-or-better results at majors in five years over a twelve-season stretch. And, true to Pierce's career pattern, all six of those results were trips to slam finals (2-4). She never saw her path in a major end in the semifinal round. Actually, she's a great deal like Galileo's fifth nomination...
Petra and Venus have one of the most underrated rivalries in our sport. You can name about five classics right away. But yet you don't think of that one straight away. That's Kvitova - like Pierce, she has been sadly overlooked.
This is the woman who has devastated players with the simplest of gameplans. Two huge weapons combined. That serve and forehand combo. It is more lethal than Del Potro's. He doesn't do angles. She has made Serena look silly on a number of occasions. That forehand is the second biggest weapon on the tour today. Yes, it is. Behind Serena's serve there is nothing more deadly. And then to compliment that it seems that her touch and movement are always ten per cent better than you think they'll be. It isn't just that Kvitova is so powerful or that she seems to dish out more bagels than a New York bakery, it is the guts. It is having the balls to go for that shot that other number ones didn't have. Forget Wozniacki. We know she lacks any kind of offensive nous. But Arantxa S.V. didn't have it, either. Sometimes Evert lacked that killer instinct. I know that's blasphemy.
In 2009, Petra saw off Dinara Safina in an epic three-setter. When things got really tight, when she was down match point to the world number one, she launched an inside out backhand right into the corner. Down match point off her weaker wing. Aged 20. At the U.S. Open. Insane.
Novotna choked. She didn't have the mentality of a number one. And Sveta? Try six years in the wilderness. That lost 2005 season. Her inability to defeat Schiavone. The fact my life is shorter because she cannot kill off matches. But Kvitova? When she's on she is untouchable. If Petra was given two years of full health this BACKSPINNER believes she could take two slams. She has won five Fed Cups, without losing a final, and been to eight semi-finals. She is only 27. The statistics at slam, and title, level do not suggest she can live with Mandlikova. But she has the best weapons of the five. She has been the closest to number one. She was 115 points away at the end of 2011. She had won the most prize money, won a slam and gone 6-1 in finals. But who got it? Wozniacki. And doesn't that just make you so bitter? She will win several more slams, though this BACKSPINNER's bold previous prediction of five Wimbledons may be optimistic.
Personally, I wouldn't have included Kvitova here. Her best career slam results are so centralized -- in place and time -- that I think she needs to produce 3-4 more true slam title-contending years (i.e. SF+ results) to be considered. Both of her slam titles -- and only major finals -- were at Wimbledon, just as three of her five career SF+ results have been. In fact, she has just one SF-or-better slam result since Roland Garros '12 (SW19 win in '14). Four of her five SF+ slam results came during an eight-major stretch from 2010-12, as she's posted just one from 2013-17, which should have been the prime of her career. Kvitova's standing is bolstered, of course, by her five Fed Cup titles, but while "Good Petra" is always an in-the-shadows slam threat, "Bad Petra" has been plagued by quite a few early slam exits. Her lack of overall season consistency, which is really *the* key component in any player reaching #1 (even more so than slam titles, as the WTA computer shows) within the current formula, is why she's even eligible for this discussion. There's still time for Petra to rectify that, of course.
Still, I would have left her off the original five nominations list in favor of one my following mentions/additions. As I did with the men, I'm going to throw a few extra names into the hat. Some just for recognition, and some for inclusion in the final vote...
Here are my potential additional nominations who didn't make the cut:
While we often see the iconic shot of Novotna crying on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent after losing the '93 Wimbledon final, here's a more rare shot of her triumphant return to the scene five years later...
And then there's...
Like so many here, Kuznetsova's frustrating tendency to have her level of play ricochet from good to bad and back again has often stood in the way of her ever finding her way into the #1 ranking. The Russian, though, more than most, has literally been just a few points from another (higher) level of greatness. She's won two slams -- at the U.S. Open and Roland Garros, with seven combined QF at the other two -- and has come perilously close to getting a third which, if she never reached #1, would make her just the third woman in the Open era to win three or more slams (w/ Mandlikova and Wade) without ever topping the rankings. On four different slam occasions, Kuznetsova has come as close as a handful of points from changing history, and quite possibly creating her own path to a title that never came, holding MP or having a commanding lead only to lose and then see her opponent that day go on to win the title: 2004 RG (Myskina - 1 MP in 4th Rd.), 2005 RG (Henin - 2 MP in 4th Rd.), 2009 AO (served for match vs. Serena in QF) and 2013 RG (led Serena by a break in 3rd set in QF). In addition to her two slams wins, the Russian lost twice in major finals to Henin ('06 RG/'07 US). With a high ranking of #2, she had a starring role in three Russian Fed Cup title runs, reached a total of seven slam doubles finals (at least one at every major), winning twice. But Sveta has never done anything easily, win or lose, maybe best represented by the fact that she's been a participant in both the longest Open era women's singles match in slam history (4:44 at '11 AO vs. Schiavone) and the longest (4:00 in '16) ever in Fed Cup play, as well. Even with her difficulty in closing out some of the biggest matches of her career, Kuznetsova's combination of singles, doubles and FC success may make her a Hall of Famer one day. At least one final big run at a major could seal the deal, as her last slam semi was back in 2009, although her recent return to the Top 10 some thirteen years after her maiden slam title in '04 has already lengthened her period of top-level relevance in the sport.
We had seven men in the final voting field in the men's version of this Court of Appeals, so it seems fair that the same should be the case with the women. I'm going to pull out my executive decision powers to add both our personal favorites -- Kuznetsova and Novotna -- to the list of five that Galileo originally nominated.
I think Hana Mandlikova is the greatest tennis player nobody has heard of. Today’s fans would sadly go, "Who?" I complain about the rankings a lot but Mandlikova has more reason to be bitter. How did a four time slam winner with almost 600 wins never climb higher than three? In a strange twist, five of the seven women have been top two but the two who weren’t may be the ones who deserved to be top the most. (Ah, very good point. - tds)
You’re correct about Sabatini’s underrated mental toughness and consistency. Those are number one traits.
Pierce could almost be described as an underachiever in much the same way as Safin is. So much talent and a few good results, but hardly what we might expect.
I don’t think anybody has better weapons than Kvitova on this list, but Bad Petra is one of the worst players of all time. Her career is liberally scattered with really terrible losses. And she is a bit of a one surface wonder.
I love Jana Novotna and think she was a deserving world number two, but that mentality... is it that of a number one? (Probably not.) Kuznetsova has the same problem. Both had wonderful moments and plenty of them, but neither could beat the biggest players consistently.
2. Sabatini (4)
3. Wade (6)
4. Kuznetsova (9)
5. Novotna (10)
6. Pierce (11)
7. Kvitova (14)