Featuring some of the greatest athletes in the world, tennis is known for requiring a combination of precision, focus, hand-eye coordination and power to excel. The heated one on one battles in tennis history make the sport one of the most compelling to watch.
The sport also has some of the greatest characters. There’s the “passionate” John McEnroe, the consistent Steffi Graf, and the great Rafael Nadal who dominated the sport and are considered some of the best of all-time. Here’s a look at the best the sport of tennis has to offer.
A living legend in tennis, Roger Federer has won an incredible 1,242 singles matches in a 22-year pro career. He has the most Grand Slam singles titles (20) in history for a male player. Federer’s consistency is special. From the 2005 Wimbledon tournament to the 2007 US Open, Federer was either the winner or runner-up.
Federer’s versatility might be what stands out most in his career. A great server and returner, Federer could beat opponents from either an offensive or defensive position on the court. He’s also amassed quite the collection of prize money, taking home $129,946,683 over his career. That’s the second most all-time.
Steffi Graf does have one achievement that separates her from the pack. In 1988, she became the only tennis player to complete the Golden Slam, winning all four Open tournaments and an Olympic gold medal in the same year. In 1988, Graf also became just the third woman to complete the Grand Slam.
A tennis pro at the young age of 13, Graf is the only tennis player to win each major Grand Slam tournament at least four times. There weren’t many players better than Graf, who was ranked number one by the Women’s Tennis Association for an astounding 377 weeks. Let’s calculate it. There’s 52 weeks in a year. That’s more than seven years of elite play.
Nationality: Czechoslovakian (1956-1975), American (1975-Present)
Navratilova was ranked number one in the world for 332 weeks in singles and 237 weeks in doubles. She’s the only player to ever be ranked at the pole position for more than 200 weeks in both fields.
Since the Open Era began in 1968, there are no other players with as many match wins as Navratilova (2,189). A left-handed wizard with a racquet, Navratilova has 18 Grand Slam singles titles. This includes nine Wimbledon Finals victories. From 1978-1990, Navratilova only lost four times in the London-based tournament.
Arguably the greatest tennis player of the 1990s, Pete Sampras was a winner through and through. He won 14 Grand Slam singles titles. Wimbledon was Sampras’ most dominant tournament, where he won seven of eight titles from 1993-2000. He has 64 total titles which ranks sixth in the Open Era. Nicknamed “Pistol Pete,” Sampras was named to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007.
Sampras’ on-court duels with Andre Agassi were a joy to watch. These were battles for the ages. The crown jewel of their 34 matches was the 2001 US Open quarterfinals where Sampras defeated Agassi in a closely contested four-set contest.
Another tennis legend, Novak Djokovic is sure to go down as one of the most dominant tennis players of all-time, possibly the GOAT. The 33-year-old from Serbia has 17 Grand Slam titles to his name with eight from the Australian Open, five from Wimbledon, three from the U.S.Open, and one from the French Open.
Djokovic has been known for both his efficiency on the court and his iconic showdowns with some of the other tennis legends on this list including Rafael Nadel and Roger Federer. Djokovic has represented Serbia well becoming the first male Serbian player to win a Grand Slam singles title, and the first to earn a number one ranking from the ATP. Djokovic has held that ranking for 287 straight weeks, making him second all-time. The tennis star is estimated to be worth $220 million, and his $144 million in prize money is the highest of all time.
Arguably the best player in tennis during the late 1960s, Rod Laver amassed 11 Grand Slam singles titles in his career. In 1962 and 1969 Laver won the Grand Slam. He’s the only player to do that more than once. Laver won four Wimbledon tournaments and also captured two US Open titles.
Laver was known for his rivalry with fellow Aussie Ken Rosewall. The two battled in 164 total matches. Laver managed to have the upper hand in the head to head record, going 89-75 against Rosewall. Laver’s accomplishments are everlasting, with both a cup and an arena named after him.
Along with Roger Federer, Borg is one of two men in tennis to appear in four consecutive French Open and Wimbledon Finals. A 10-year pro, Borg got his start at a young age and had become a phenom in his teenage years. He was the number one player in tennis from 1977-1980. The Barry Sanders of his sport, Borg retired at just 26 years old.
From Mallorca, Spain, “Rafa” is still active, but he could retire with a pretty good career. A young prodigy, Nadal started playing the sport along with soccer, but he eventually chose tennis as his main priority. Nadal definitely made the right decision. He has won 19 Grand Slam singles titles. That’s the second most for a male tennis player.
Twelve of Nadal’s 19 Grand Slam titles have come at the French Open. Nadal has been ranked number one in the world for 209 weeks. This includes being ranked at the top of the tennis world five different years. His battles with Roger Federer are classics. Nadal owns the head-to-head with a 24-16 record against Federer.
At only eighteen years old when she began her pro career, Margaret Court is a legend and pioneer in the sport. She still holds the record for major titles for any tennis player. In 1970, Court won the Grand Slam. This made her the first woman in history to accomplish that feat. Court had a record 64 major titles and her career 91.68 winning percentage is one of the greatest of all time.
A dominating presence in the sport during both the 1960s and 1970s, Court’s 24 Grand Slam titles are still unrivaled, though Serena Williams is nipping at Court’s heels.
A Hall of Famer in tennis, Billie Jean King played 31 years as a pro. She has 12 career Grand Slam singles titles. With 129 career titles, King ranks as one of the top women to play the sport ever. King’s impact on sports off the field is just as important as her on field success. She fought for gender equality in sports, successfully campaigning for equal pay for women and men in tennis. King also famously defeated Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes match.
A modern day GOAT in sports, Serena Williams has been a fixture in the sport since she went pro at the age of 14. She got off to a great start early, winning her first Grand Slam singles title in 1999 with a US Open win over Martina Hingis. With 73 career singles titles and 842 career wins, it’s hard to top what Serena Williams has done in her career.
After her recent loss to Victoria Azarenka in the Quarterfinals of the 2020 US Open, Williams is still closing in on tying Margaret Court for most Grand Slam singles titles (24). She’s just one Grand Slam Finals win away from reaching tennis legend territory.
An 18-time grand slam singles title winner, Evert was dominant. Known for her impact on the sports as a baseline-exclusive player, Evert revolutionized the way the sport was played in the 1970s. She turned pro in 1972 and immediately ascended to the top of the sport. Evert was named the world’s number one singles player seven out of eight years from 1974-1981.
She didn’t take many losses in her career. Evert won 89.97 percent of her matches which is the highest win percentage of any pro tennis player ever. She ended her career with 157 singles and 32 doubles championships in total.
The first player to win all the Grand Slam tournaments in a single year, Don Budge made a major impact in the tennis world. Armed with a fierce backhand, Budge was dominant especially in the years 1937 and 1938. He won all three Wimbledon championships. When Budge won in 1938 he won without losing a single set.
Considered the complete package with his skillset, Budge had 43 career titles. He played 17 years as a professional. Budge had six total Grand Slam singles titles.
Maybe the most fiery competitor on this list, McEnroe built up his own compilation of meltdowns in the sport. Even with his tantrums, McEnroe’s success in tennis is undeniable. McEnroe has seven Grand Slam singles championships, including four title wins at the US Open. 1984 was a special year for McEnroe. He had an 82-3 match record and was ranked number one in tennis that year. McEnroe ended his singles career in 1994 and finished with 77 career titles and 881 wins.
Whether he had long, flowing hair or rocked a baldie, Andre Agassi was a dynamic player in the sport of tennis. Like his hair, Agassi’s game evolved throughout his career. Known for his first-strike style of play, Agassi eventually morphed his game with consistency and accuracy.
An olympic gold medalist, Agassi has eight grand slam titles. This includes four Australian Open titles and two Finals wins at the US Open. A career grand slam winner, Agassi breathes rarefied air in the sport of tennis. With 60 overall titles in his 20-year career, Agassi ranks as one of the best of all time.
Emerson set a lot of records during his playing days in the 1960s. He was the first player to win 12 majors in tennis history. Emerson is the only male tennis player to complete a career Grand Slam in both singles and doubles tournaments.
Ranked number one in the sport in 1964, Emerson finished his career with 1325 wins. He was named to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1982. There aren’t many players with Emerson’s collection of accomplishments in tennis.
Nicknamed “Big Bill,” Tilden was a pioneer in tennis. He was the first American to ever win Wimbledon. A loner by nature, Tilden would make the simplest match a challenge on purpose to test himself. He would lose sets on purpose to dig himself out of a hole and play to the style of his opponents to see if he could win at a disadvantage. That must’ve helped since Tilden managed to win 138 career titles. This includes 10 Grand Slam singles titles. Tilden won the US Open six consecutive years from 1920-1925.
The rare southpaw on this list, Connors’ longevity is unique to the game. He was a pro for 24 years. What stands out is how elite Connors was. He was ranked top 10 in the worldwide rankings of tennis for 16 straight years. Connor’s list of feats and stats are pretty strong. He’s the all-time leader in titles (109), matches played (1,557), and wins (1,274). 1974 was a magical year for Connors, who won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open all in that year. Connors was the number one player in the sport in 1974, 1976 and 1982.
Nationality: Yugoslavian (1988-1992), FR Yugoslavian (1992-1994), American (1994-Present)
Seles is one of the biggest what if stories in sports history. At the top of the sports world, Seles was stabbed in a game in Hamburg, Germany by a crazed fan of competitor Steffi Graf. The incident caused Seles to retire from the sport for two years.
An aggressive baseline player, Seles had won eight Grand Slam singles titles by the time she turned 20 years old. She had been ranked number one in the sport in both 1992 and 1993. After the incident, she won just one title, the Australian Open in 1996. Still, Seles’ career was remarkable. She racked up 53 singles titles over her 14 years as a pro.
Nationality: Czechoslovakian (1960-1992), American (1975-Present)
The ultimate finalist, Lendl was a major title runner-up a record 11 times. A player with a strong forehand and elite topspin, Lendl won eight Grand Slam titles including three US Open championships and three French Open title wins.
Nicknamed “the Terminator,” Lendl had an 11-year stretch from 1981 to 1991 where he made at least one Grand Slam final every year. Lendl has found a new life as a tennis coach of pro tennis players. He helped Andy Murray to three titles and coached recent US Open runner up Alexander Zverev from 2018 to 2019.
The other half of arguably the best sibling duo in sports history, Venus Williams was a phenom from a young age. A pro at the age of 14, Williams has seven grand slam championships. Five of her seven titles come from Wimbledon. She has also won 14 Doubles titles, all with her sister.
An Olympic gold medalist three times (twice in doubles and once in singles), Williams established herself as a powerful server and a quality athlete in the sport. Though her performance and accolades have slowed down the past decade, there’s no doubt that her success early on in her career earns her a spot on our list.