graf seles

The 10 Most Significant U.S. Open Women’s Matches Of All Time

Attacking The Net did it for Roland Garros.

ATN did it for Wimbledon. 

Now, ATN offers a list of the 10 most significant U.S. Open women’s matches of all time.

Reminder number one: This is not a list of the best matches, only the most significant.

Reminder number two: See reminder number one.

Reminder number three: See reminder number two.

Reminder number four: This is a set of opinions and is not presented as fact.

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10 – 2003 SEMIFINAL: JUSTINE HENIN d. JENNIFER CAPRIATI, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4)

This match was a great match in its own right and on its own terms, but it merits inclusion on the list of the most significant U.S. Open women’s matches for a number of reasons.

First, this match — which lasted just over three hours and ended in the early minutes of Saturday morning at the USTA National Tennis Center — was delayed by rain, meaning that Henin had to turn around after a supremely taxing semifinal and play Kim Clijsters 20 hours later (about 17 hours after going to bed). Henin’s ability to subsequently defeat Clijsters for her first of two U.S. Open championships represents one of the greatest feats in Open Era tennis history. Henin’s semifinal-final double-stack achievement at the end of the 2003 U.S. Open is the WTA equivalent of what Rafael Nadal pulled off in the 2009 Australian Open semis and final. Nadal logged more than twice the court time of Henin, yes, but Henin didn’t get a day off between matches, thanks to the U.S. Open’s longstanding use of “Super Saturday” and the cluttered weekend schedule it requires.

The other main reason this match is particularly significant is that it represented Capriati’s last best shot at a U.S. Open final (let alone a title). It’s quite surprising that Capriati never even made a U.S. Open final, for all of her gifts and her natural ballstriking ability. The surprising nature of the fact is magnified by another fact: She made a U.S. Open semifinal (one mentioned later in this piece, below) at the age of 15.

9 – 1923 FINAL: HELEN WILLS MOODY d. MOLLA BJURSTEDT MALLORY, 6-2, 6-1

The history books will tell you that Molla Bjurstedt Mallory has won more United States championships (it was, of course, not the U.S. Open until the Open Era began in 1968) than anyone else, with eight. However, four of those eight titles came under a “challenge-round” system in which a player didn’t have to go through a full list of opponents to win. Mallory certainly merits a place high on the list of great champions at this event. She won her eighth title in 1926, 11 years after her first and eight years after her final challenge-round championship victory. Yet, Helen Wills Moody rates as the better player (and United States champion) of the era. This is the match which sent the Californian on her way to tennis immortality.

Helen Wills Moody is widely known as an eight-time Wimbledon champion. Her name lingered in the public memory when — and because — Martina Navratilova chased, caught and surpassed her for Wimbledon singles titles over the course of the 1980s and into 1990. However, Wills Moody won seven United States titles, none of them with a challenge round. Why is this title more significant than, say, her seventh crown in 1931? Consider this: Wills Moody won her first Wimbledon in 1927, entering into a dominant prime period for the next several years. It was her ability to break through at Forest Hills, N.Y. (the site of this event for over 50 years, concluding in 1977), which provided a necessary jump-start to her transcendent career.

8 – 2012 FINAL: SERENA WILLIAMS d. VICTORIA AZARENKA, 6-2, 2-6, 7-5

The greatness of Serena Williams (and of the Williams Sisters in general) is located in many places and found in many forms. One pillar of this greatness is longevity. Serena has endured long periods without U.S. Open titles, first from 2003 through 2007 and then from 2009 through 2011. The ability to rediscover her best competitive instincts — a constant feature of her career — is what has made Serena the all-time legend she is.

In 2012, Serena’s hard-earned three-set triumph over another elite competitor, Victoria Azarenka, affirmed her place as the top women’s player in the world. The victory also gave Serena the belief needed to fend off Azarenka in a similarly prolonged and contentious three-set prizefight a year later. When Serena dominated the WTA Tour in 2002 and 2003, it was a case of a player growing into a physical prime. What Serena has done in 2012 and 2013 is what has given her career even more historical resonance, plus a measure of completeness it didn’t quite possess in early 2011.

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7 – 1983 FINAL: MARTINA NAVRATILOVA d. CHRIS EVERT, 6-1, 6-3

Martina Navratilova's first U.S. Open title in 1983 was not the toughest in terms of the level of match-play pressure she faced, but it was one of the more cathartic and emotionally powerful moments of her career. The match might not seem all that significant until you contemplate how the 1980s might have changed in the event of a Navratilova loss to Chris Evert.

Martina Navratilova’s first U.S. Open title in 1983 was not the toughest in terms of the level of match-play pressure she faced, but it was one of the more cathartic and emotionally powerful moments of her career. The match might not seem all that significant until you contemplate how the 1980s might have changed in the event of a Navratilova loss to Chris Evert.

The 1984 final between these two friends and rivals was a far better match, enshrined in the annals of time as the centerpiece of the greatest Super Saturday of all on Sept. 8, 1984. Yet, the 1983 match probably deserves to be seen as the more significant result. It’s debatable, sure, but the weight of history supports 1983.

First, Navratilova was very much in the midst of her overwhelmingly dominant period, which encompassed most of 1983 and 1984. Reborn as the epitome of physical fitness after a wasteful relationship with junk food and American excess in the 1970s, Navratilova might have dominated the WTA in this period of history without her 1983 triumph over Evert, but the very point of history (and its sports results) is that events transpired as they did; “what might have been” is an always-intriguing phrase, but it’s not the actual historical record. Navratilova regularly came to New York as the player who took second place in the hearts of locals when compared to Everybody’s All-American (woman), Chris Evert. She felt supported by U.S. Open crowds at times, but she was never going to be more popular than Chrissie. Navratilova stared down a lot of internal demons in the final of the 1983 U.S. Open. Winning that match represented one of the most cathartic moments of her career.

Maybe Navratilova would have dominated the circuit in 1984, anyway.

The 1983 U.S. Open final made sure she did.

A postscript: Evert won more U.S. Opens than Navratilova (6-4), but she never defeated Navratilova in a U.S. Open final. 

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6 – 1975 FINAL: CHRIS EVERT d. EVONNE GOOLAGONG, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2

Chris Evert won three of her Open Era-record six U.S. Open singles titles during the years of Har-Tru clay at the old West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y. Evert maxed out on clay before the move to hardcourts at the USTA National Tennis Center in 1978.

Chris Evert won three of her Open Era-record six U.S. Open titles during the years of Har-Tru clay at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y. Evert maxed out on clay before the move to hardcourts at the USTA National Tennis Center in 1978.

The 1975 U.S. Open marked the beginning of a three-year period in which the tournament, still played at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, moved from grass to green clay. Chris Evert, the Open Era WTA leader in Roland Garros titles with seven, made a home on green clay during this three-year run, and her emergence on her favorite surface is why she was able to win six U.S. Opens overall. Historians will surely continue to debate whether the green-clay years are primarily responsible for Evert’s large U.S. Open title haul, but there can be no debate about the fact that the 1975 Open gave Evert the breakthrough she had been seeking in her home-nation major. Once Evert tucked away the ’75 title, she won three more consecutive Opens, completing her “four-peat” on hardcourts at the brand-new USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows in 1978.

As for Goolagong, this loss cemented her “almost” identity at the U.S. Open. The Australian lost four consecutive finals from 1973 through 1976. She claimed four Australian Open titles, but major triumphs outside her homeland were rare. In the case of New York, they proved to be entirely elusive.

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5 – 2001 FINAL: VENUS WILLIAMS d. SERENA WILLIAMS, 6-2, 6-4

Serena and Venus enabled the Williams family to have the stage all to itself -- in prime time, no less -- on one of the more significant nights in 21st-century tennis history.  Americans watched in big numbers. A one-of-a-kind buzz filled Arthur Ashe Stadium. The journey of the Williams Sisters to the top of their sport, on American soil, made the 2001 U.S. Open final a moment that was meaningful, but not for the way in which it unfolded. The meaning was found in the fact that the journey had reached such a lofty elevation, giving Serena, Venus, Oracene, and Richard a shared triumph before the world.

Serena and Venus enabled the Williams family to have the stage all to itself — in prime time, no less — on one of the more significant nights in 21st-century tennis history. Americans watched in big numbers. A one-of-a-kind buzz filled Arthur Ashe Stadium. The journey of the Williams Sisters to the top of their sport, on American soil, made the 2001 U.S. Open final a moment that was meaningful, but not for the way in which it unfolded. The meaning was found in the fact that the journey had reached such a lofty elevation, giving Serena, Venus, Oracene, and Richard a shared triumph before the world.

Early-period Williams Sister matches — unlike the dazzling Montreal semifinal the siblings unfurled a few weeks ago — were understandably disjointed, given the impossible-to-navigate circumstances which greeted them. There’s no handbook on “How To Deal With Playing Your Beloved Sister In A Major Final At A Relatively Young Age,” so Williams matches took all sorts of odd turns over a decade ago.

This match wasn’t significant for the tennis, or for the final outcome. It was significant because this was the first all-Williams major final, enhanced by two other facts:

First, the match occurred in the United States, drawing a huge television audience of nearly 23 million.

Second, this was the first women’s final placed in a prime-time slot, something which likely drove up the ratings.

In 1999, the Super Saturday format at the U.S. Open was tweaked. Two men’s semfinals and the women’s final were still played all on the same day, but in a twist from 1998 (after three years without Super Saturday from 1995 through 1997), the women’s final — formerly sandwiched between the men’s semifinals — was moved to the end of the order of play, and appropriately so. In 2001, though, CBS decided to take the extra step of separating the women’s final from the daytime men’s semifinals. Black Rock took what had been a single, uninterrupted session of Saturday tennis and placed a break between a daytime (men’s semifinal) session and a new nighttime (women’s final) session. The primetime women’s final was born, only for constant weekend rain to lead to the current schedule involving a Sunday afternoon women’s final and a Monday afternoon men’s final.

At any rate, the Williams Sisters in prime time represented — strictly in terms of buzz and national popularity — the high-water mark for women’s tennis in the United States during a highly prosperous period for the WTA.

4 – 1991 SEMIFINAL: MONICA SELES d. JENNIFER CAPRIATI, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (3)

This was Mary Carillo’s “Big Babe Tennis,” only with players who were not that tall.

This match is also a significant match that just happened to be a phenomenally great contest as well. Seles and Capriati displayed some of the most ferocious baseline slugging ever seen at the U.S. Open, regardless of gender. This was not a match for the faint of heart, and among non-finals at the majors (all the majors, not just the Open), it remains an enduring moment in tennis history, imbued with a considerable “were you there?” quality.

Nevertheless, as great as the tennis was, the core significance of the match was that it was contested by two players who were not even of college age at the time. Seles was 17… and the older player inside Louis Armstrong Stadium. Capriati was 15, thrust into an intense spotlight at such a fragile and early age. Seles’s career was derailed for reasons beyond her control, but Capriati — though able to find some later successes after a decade on tour — struggled to keep her life in balance and is still trying to find peace of mind.

You can look at this match and say that it inspired tennis parents (and young kids) to dream big. That’s true, at least to an extent. A couple of younsters with the last name of Williams certainly forged a remarkable rags-to-riches American story, one that should be celebrated. Yet, Seles-Capriati (from the Capriati side of things) also serves as a cautionary tale about pursuing fame and fortune without a grounded outlook and parents who can provide needed perspective (and support). The WTA formulated policies in subsequent years which regulated the amount of playing activity for players aged 14-17.

Seles-Capriati 1991 truly did change tennis. Not many other matches can say that… certainly not to the same degree.

3 – 1999 FINAL: SERENA WILLIAMS d. MARTINA HINGIS, 6-3, 7-6 (4)

The high-quality longevity of Serena Jameka Williams, referred to above in her 2012 win over Victoria Azarenka, is bookended on the front end by her 1999 title — yes, two calendar decades ago and in the previous century, for cryin’ out loud.

Ponder this fact about Serena’s longevity: Whereas Martina Navratilova bookended her first U.S. Open final in 1981 with her last one in 1991; Evert bookended her first final in 1975 with her last one in 1984; and Steffi Graf bookended her first final in 1987 with her last one in 1996, Serena can look at all of those legends and say that there’s a 14-year gap between her first final and her most recent one.

She might very well increase that gap by making another U.S. Open final in a few weeks. Serena’s been that good for that long.

As for Hingis, the loss marked the end to a hugely frustrating 1999 season at the majors, one in which she also lost to Graf in the French Open final. Hingis’s period of brilliance was so bright when it shined, but the losses she suffered in 1999 prevented her career from being seen in a far greater… light.

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2 – 1981 FINAL: TRACY AUSTIN d. MARTINA NAVRATILOVA, 1-6, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1)

Tracy Austin's career was cut short by injuries, but her 1981 U.S. Open championship was itself a manifestation of her ability to back up one achievement (in 1979) with another. Austin won something very important that day, and so did Martina Navratilova, who felt supported by a New York crowd in ways she'd never quite felt before.

Tracy Austin’s career was cut short by injuries, but her 1981 U.S. Open championship was itself a manifestation of her ability to back up one achievement (in 1979) with another. Austin won something very important that day, and so did Martina Navratilova, who felt supported by a New York crowd in ways she’d never quite felt before.

Regrettably, Tracy Austin’s career wasn’t able to continue for a full decade. Had it done so, the Californian probably would have won at least a dozen majors — she was that good. Fortunately, Austin was able to back up her 1979 U.S. Open title with a second one in 1981, ensuring that her major-tournament career wasn’t limited to a single crowning achievement before injuries took their toll in 1982 and 1983, cutting her career way too short. This match carries a “what might have been” identity to be sure; Austin could have formed quite the “trivalry” with Navratilova and Chris Evert, something the WTA would have loved to have seen over the course of the 1980s. Yet, within the short scope of Austin’s tennis career, this match was and is (and will be) powerfully validating.

In a rare twist, though, this match was even more significant for the loser than the winner — not solely for the best of reasons, and not solely for the worst, either.

This match has a happy subtext for Navratilova because her tears — shed in her chair after losing in a third-set tiebreaker — were not the product of defeat. They were the product of feeling a level of support from the New York crowd that she had not felt in the past. Navratilova’s journey to American citizenship was not an easy one on several levels. The aftermath of this match represented one of the sweeter notes in that story, certainly at that period in her life.

The negative dimension of this match for Navratilova is that it was one of only two women’s U.S. Open finals to be decided by a final-set tiebreak, something unique to the U.S. Open among the four major tournaments. In Australia, France, and suburban London, an extended battle would have ensued. A tiebreaker, the ultimate crapshoot in tennis, decides a 6-6 final set in a championship match only in New York. Navratilova lost this third-set tiebreaker to Austin, and she fell in a third-set tiebreak to Hana Mandlikova in 1985. Those two losses prevented Navratilova from matching Chris Evert’s total of six U.S. Open titles.

1 – 1995 FINAL: STEFFI GRAF d. MONICA SELES, 7-6 (6), 0-6, 6-3

One of the great unanswered questions in women’s tennis history is, “If Monica Seles had not been stabbed in 1993, how would her career have unfolded alongside Steffi Graf’s own journey?” It’s the one question which prevents Graf’s career from being almost unanimously seen as the best women’s career in the Open Era and, most likely, of all time as well.

A chilling and horrifying (but thankfully not fatal) act deprived Graf and tennis fans from seeing Seles at her best over the remainder of the 1990s. However, there were a few times when Graf and Seles renewed their rivalry after 1993, and this match marked the first meeting in a major final after Seles was attacked and severely traumatized.

As was the case with most Seles-Graf meetings, this particular showdown was contentious, riveting and layered. Graf narrowly won the first set (by the smallest possible margin, in fact), only for Seles to storm back and bagel the German in the second set. Graf built her career, though, on being a third-set problem-solver and survivor, and on this Saturday afternoon at Louis Armstrong Stadium, she found the ability to shrug off the second set and deny Seles what would have been a victory that could have profoundly altered the course of women’s tennis. Seles’s career didn’t reach greater heights primarily because of a deranged attacker who wielded a knife in Hamburg, Germany. Yet, Graf did have to answer the challenge Seles provided in 1995. She did, and it’s an important reason her career is viewed so favorably today.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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