The ladies of Wimbledon: From Billie Jean to Serena Williams

The ladies have evolved from playing in dainty petticoats to grunting as loudly as the gentlemen

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By Sumit Chakraberty

Published: Thu 30 Jun 2022, 11:29 PM

Last updated: Fri 20 Jan 2023, 12:17 PM

It’s called the ladies’ and gentlemen’s championships at Wimbledon, unlike the other three Grand Slam tournaments where they become plain men and women. Wimbledon also stands out because of its verdant courts, reminding us that the game originated as lawn tennis in 19th century England.

For all the tradition and quaintness of Wimbledon, which started this year on June 27, the championships are as fiercely contested here as anywhere else, and probably even more so because of the aura that surrounds this venue. The ladies have evolved from playing in dainty petticoats to grunting as loudly as the gentlemen, if not louder.

The first lady to raise eyebrows with her aggressive style was the legendary American, Billie Jean King. Even sartorially she faced reprobation in her early years for turning up in shorts. But she went on to become the world’s No.1 women’s tennis player and a champion of gender equality.

King dominated Wimbledon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during the transition from the amateur to the Open era. Her speed and ability to rush the net made her a force on the skiddy grass courts where she won six singles titles. Sharp volleying also made her a formidable doubles player, and she still holds the record of winning 20 titles at Wimbledon, including 10 and four titles in doubles and mixed doubles, respectively.

King beat Australian Evonne Goolagong 6-0, 6-1 in 1975, the most one-sided ladies’ singles final of the Open era. That was her last singles title as knee injuries hampered her in later years. But she won the doubles in 1979, partnering the reigning singles champion Martina Navratilova. It took her to the record of 20 Wimbledon titles that is unlikely to be broken because most of the top players no longer participate in both singles and doubles.

Goolagong, the winner of an all-Australian Wimbledon final in 1971 when she beat Margaret Court, lost three finals before claiming a second title in 1980. In 1971, she was the first Aboriginal person to win a Grand Slam title, and in 1980, the first mother since 1914 to win a singles title at Wimbledon. Last year, a second Aboriginal Australian won the Wimbledon ladies’ singles title after a gap of 41 years — Ashleigh Barty.

The 1980 ladies’ singles had some dramatic battles, mirroring the epic Borg-McEnroe final in the gentlemen’s singles. Billie Jean King, making a comeback, lost a see-saw quarter-final 6-7, 6-1, 8-10 to Martina Navratilova. King later said it was the only match in her career that she lost because she had “bad eyes”.

It began to drizzle in the first set tiebreaker that King lost after being 5-1 up. The officials had earlier agreed that play would be suspended if it drizzled, because King wore glasses, but the chair umpire refused to do so until the first set ended. And in the final set, during a break at 8-9 she broke her glasses, and the spare pair felt different according to her.

Navratilova then lost a three-set semi-final to Chris Evert, whom she had beaten in the finals in the two previous years. Evert lost to Goolagong in the 1980 final, in a reversal of 1976 when she had defeated Navratilova in the semi-final on her way to beating Goolagong for her first Wimbledon singles title.

Those were the only two times when Evert beat Navratilova at Wimbledon. The Czeck left-hander dominated their rivalry with seven wins, five of which were finals. Nevertheless, their contrasting styles made for spectacular tennis.

Navratilova’s athleticism and power brought the serve-volley game to the ladies’ singles. This gave her a big advantage on grass courts over her American rival who relied on classy groundstrokes from the baseline.

Navratilova won six singles titles in a row in the eighties, and nine overall, which is a record. Her run of consecutive victories ended in 1988 when she lost to Steffi Graf after beating her in the previous year’s final. The German champion repeated the three-set victory over her Czech archrival and went on to win seven singles titles in nine years.

Graf matched Navratilova in power, athleticism, and volleying at the net. She overpowered opponents with her forehand groundstrokes, and her scathing slices with a single-handed backhand would skid off the grass. You could say her classic playing style made her the ladies’ equivalent of Swiss maestro Roger Federer. Her battles with the left-handed Navratilova in the nineties were a precursor to the Federer-Nadal rivalry in this millennium.

Navratilova did win her ninth and last Wimbledon singles title after Graf became the champion. That was in 1990 after African American Zina Garrison upset Graf in the semi-finals. The Czech star made it to the finals one more time in 1994, the year when three-time defending champion Steffi Graf lost in the first round to Lori McNeil, another African-American and a childhood friend of Zina Garrison.

The 37-year-old Navratilova lost the 1994 final in three sets to Conchita Martinez, the first Spanish player to win the ladies’ singles. Steffi Graf then returned to win the next two titles, beating another Spanish player in both finals, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. Thereafter she was beset with back and knee injuries which required surgery.

She recovered and made it to another Wimbledon final in 1999, but lost to a tall American with a strong serve, Lindsay Davenport. Then she retired at the age of 30.

Many would consider Graf to be the greatest women’s tennis player of the last millennium, placing her above Navratilova, Evert, and King. She’s the only tennis player to have won the Golden Slam, winning all four Grand Slam tournaments and the Olympic gold medal in 1988. She’s also the only one to have won each of the four Grand Slam titles four times or more, underlining the adaptability of her game to all surfaces. Her powerful baseline play with an inside-out forehand set the tone for the modern style of tennis where charging the net has become far more difficult.

The end of the millennium and the Navratilova-Graf era marked the arrival of the Williams sisters who took power and athleticism to a new level in women’s tennis. Apart from their dominance and sheer presence on court, the storied background of African-American siblings with meagre means overcoming class barriers to reach the top captured people’s imagination. The film released last year tells the story of how their father Richard Williams, portrayed by actor Will Smith, planned for their success even before they were born.

The elder sister, Venus Williams, was the first to win the ladies’ singles title at Wimbledon in the year 2000. She defeated the then World No.1 Martina Hingis in the quarter-finals, sister Serena in the semi-finals, and defending champion Davenport in the final. At six feet, one inch she was just an inch shorter than Davenport, but had more speed and power. Serving at over 180 kmph and stooping to unleash thunderbolts from both flanks, the new 20-year-old champion got into a winning streak that year, notching up 35 victories in a row. It’s a record that only got broken at this year’s Wimbledon when the current World No.1, Iga Swiatek, won her first-round match.

Venus defended her Wimbledon singles title in 2001, defeating Justine Henin in the final. Then she started losing to her sister, who beat her in the 2002 and 2003 finals.

A year younger than Venus and four inches shorter, Serena had a stronger build and more reliable groundstrokes, making far fewer unforced errors than her sister. From the French Open in 2002 to the Australian Open in 2003, she faced Venus in four Grand Slam finals in a row and won all of them.

Venus took a long break after losing the 2003 Wimbledon final to Serena, nursing an abdominal injury she picked up during her semi-final win over Kim Clijsters. Serena, too, was sidelined for a few months after undergoing surgery on her quadriceps. She subsequently lost the 2004 final to Maria Sharapova, the first Russian to become the World No.1.

Venus, on a comeback trail, avenged Serena’s loss by defeating Sharapova in the 2005 semi-finals en route to her third Wimbledon title, an encore of the 2000 final against Davenport. A wrist injury affected her performances the following year, but she was back in full flight, winning back-to-back Wimbledon singles titles in 2007 and 2008, prevailing over her sister in the last one. The saga of the two sisters facing each other in the ladies’ singles finals at Wimbledon ended in 2009 with Serena beating Venus.

Now, it was Serena’s turn for a resurgence, winning four more titles in 2010, 2012, 2015, and 2016. Then her sister, coming to terms with injuries and an autoimmune disease, made a comeback to reach the 2017 final, but lost to Spaniard Garbine Muguruza, bagging a bagel in the second set, which was the first and only time either one of the Williams sisters lost a set 6-0 in a Wimbledon final. Serena reached the finals in 2018 and 2019, but lost to Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep. With the 2020 championships being cancelled due to Covid-19, that marked the end of an amazing two decades of two sisters appearing in the ladies’ singles finals a record 16 times, four of which featured them together.

Serena withdrew after slipping and falling in the first round of Wimbledon 2021. After a year’s hiatus from singles tournament play, as she recovered from her ankle injury and focused on business ventures, the holder of an Open era record 23 Grand Slam titles appeared at Wimbledon this year as a wildcard entry. Much to the crowd’s disappointment, she lost in the first round to Harmony Tan of France, whose slices from both flanks prevented Serena from getting a feel for her shots and gaining a rhythm.

Arguably the GOAT (greatest of all time) of women’s tennis, 40-year-old Serena did show glimpses of her formidable shot-making despite being out of touch and ponderous in her movements. It prompted her to say after her 5-7, 6-1, 6-7 loss that she was enthused enough to train for the upcoming US Open.

Meanwhile at Wimbledon, the exit of Serena Williams and absence of 2021 champion Barty appear to clear the road to victory for Polish star Iga Swiatek who is way ahead of everyone else in the ATP women’s singles ranking.

Barty shocked everyone by walking away from professional tennis after winning this year’s Australian Open at the age of 25, saying she preferred to stay at home.

It left Swiatek feeling like an imposter who had usurped the World No.1 ranking after losing to Barty in the Australian Open semi-final and never getting another crack at her. But the Polish star has an easy style, which makes her a worthy successor.

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