The best WTA players never to win a Grand Slam

Tennis

The debate about the best player to never win a Grand Slam has added poignancy now that the French Open, originally slated to start this week, is postponed and Wimbledon has been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. The topic has become even more compelling in an era dominated by the ATP’s Big Three and Serena Williams. That quartet has been the driving force behind the addition of a slew of new contenders on that short list of “no-Slam wonders” (as opposed to those “one-Slam wonders”).

Tennis and Olympics commentator Mary Carillo dropped a valuable insight when she told ESPN.com that the decline in surface specialists — once a staple of the tours — seems to have had a significant impact on weeding out the ranks of champions.

“The Grand Slam champions in recent memory can win at every major, which means that there aren’t a lot up for grabs,” Carillo said. “In a different time, [John] Isner might have won a Wimbledon by now and [Elena] Dementieva could have won a hard-court major. Not anymore.”

We’ve already looked at the ATP’s contenders for that dubious “no-Slam wonders” title, so it’s time to check out the WTA list ranked alphabetically. Active players are not included:

Rosie Casals (1968-1991)

Career-high ranking: No. 55
Grand Slams: US Open finals 1970, 1971; Wimbledon semifinals, four times; Australian Open semifinals
Career finals W-L: (incomplete record), won Tour Championships

Sure, this goes way back in the Open era. But Casals was a rarity, according to some of our experts. Her singles record is woefully incomplete, so we won’t guess at it. But Casals won numerous titles in a career that ended just six wins shy of the magic 600 number. She also is a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Those who saw “Rosebud” play still recall being blown away by the skills of the 5-foot-2 daughter of Salvadoran immigrants who learned the game from an uncle on the public courts of San Francisco.

“Rosie was a small package in size, but she had the heart of a fierce lion in the way she competed,” said Katrina Adams, a former doubles standout and recent president and CEO of the USTA. “She was a serve-and-volleyer and could play from anywhere on the court.”

Casals also was an exceptional doubles player. She was 9-12 in Grand Slam doubles finals, all but one of those nine wins in partnership with Billie Jean King. With 112 doubles titles, she trails only Martina Navratilova on the all-time list. That’s significant, because Casals played at a time when all the top players took part in doubles.

Pros: Casals was one of the most creative of all players, willing to try any shot at any time, from anywhere on the court. She had an excellent kick serve, and her one-handed slice backhand volley was exceptional.

Cons: She was 5-foot-2. It was a tremendous disadvantage for someone who insisted on playing risky, attacking tennis. She was vulnerable to the lob, and as Adams said, “I’m certain that if Rosie had a couple more inches on her, she wouldn’t have been passed so much at the net.”

Wrap: Casals once said: “I’m not a disciplined player. I don’t play the shots that are there but the shots that I feel.” Had she not played in the long shadows cast by Margaret Court and King, Casals most likely would have won multiple singles Slam titles.


Career-high rank: No. 3
Grand Slams: French final, 2004; US Open final, 2004; three US Open semifinals, two Wimbledon semifinals; one French and one Australian semifinal
Career finals W-L: 16-16; Olympic singles gold medalist, 2008

This 5-11 left-handed Russian was one of the top choices among our pundits. As ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said, “Dementieva was very strong but also incredibly quick. She created real power from the baseline and always looked like one of the fittest women on the tour. With a more consistent serve, who knows what she could have accomplished.”

Dementieva was part of a gifted generation of Russian players that also included former No. 1 Dinara Safina and former French Open champion Anastasia Myskina. In the three-year span ending with her retirement in 2010, Dementieva made five major semifinals and one quarterfinal in the 11 majors she entered.

The apex of Dementieva’s career occurred in the summer of 2008 at the Olympic Games in Beijing, where she won a grueling three-set, gold medal battle with Safina. In some places, including Russia, Olympic gold is even more valuable than a Grand Slam title.

Pros: Dementieva’s running forehand was unparalleled. A hard, flat shot, it was complemented by a steady, equally spin-free backhand. Although she was net-shy, she was athletic enough to play two semifinals and a quarterfinal at Wimbledon.

Cons: Plain and simple, it was Dementieva’s serve. She whacked 10 double faults in the French Open final of 2004, allowing her compatriot, friend and underdog, Myskina, to win. In her gold medal match four years later, Dementieva put almost 70% of her first serves into play to win.

Wrap: Brad Gilbert summed up her case: “An Olympic gold, two Grand Slam finals, all kinds of major quarterfinals, how do you argue with that? It’s amazing how good she was, even with that awful serve.”


Mary Joe Fernandez (1986-2000)

Career-high ranking: No. 4
Grand Slams: Australian Open final, 1990, 1992; French Open final, 1993; three additional major semifinals
Career finals W-L: 7-9, WTA Tour Finals champion, 1996; Olympic singles bronze medal, 1992

Fernandez is an ESPN analyst, a two-time Olympic gold medalist (doubles, 1992, 1996), a former U.S. Fed Cup team captain and half of one of the major power couples in tennis. Her husband, Tony Godsick, is the longtime manager of Roger Federer. She’s tennis royalty, but her profile has remained remarkably low.

A heralded prodigy, in 1985 Fernandez became the youngest player to win a main-draw match at the US Open. It was eight days past her 14th birthday. Her game and unflappable demeanor earned her an immediate reputation as the “next Chris Evert,” but she had the misfortune to spend most of her career in the long shadow cast by Steffi Graf, who stopped Fernandez in the Australian Open final.

The most memorable match in Fernandez’s long career was her 1993 French Open quarterfinal with Gabriela Sabatini, who jumped to a 6-1, 5-1 lead before Fernandez mounted an amazing comeback to win after 3½ hours, 10-8 in the third set. In the final, Fernandez once again met her nemesis, Graf. The German star won all 17 of the matches against Fernandez.

Pros: Fernandez was an excellent returner and master of defense, with rock-steady groundstrokes anchored in a versatile backhand that she hit down the line to great effect. Her self-control and composure were outstanding. She was also an outstanding doubles player who claimed the gold in two Olympics.

Cons: While mobile, Fernandez wasn’t blazing fast. Her serve was there for the taking, and her consistency couldn’t fully compensate for a basic lack of power.

Wrap: Fernandez was a diligent, cool competitor who excelled at unnerving opponents with her consistency.


Zina Garrison (1982-1997)

Career-high ranking: No. 4
Grand Slams: Wimbledon final, 1990; four additional semifinals
Career finals W-L: 14-22, Olympic singles bronze medal and doubles gold medal, 1988

Garrison and Lori McNeil both emerged from the public courts of Houston to reach amazing heights with the help of coach John Wilkerson. One of seven children, Garrison was hailed as “the next Althea Gibson” when she won the U.S. girls’ 18 title. She missed her graduation from Ross Sterling High School because she was playing the French Open — the only Grand Slam where she did not make at least a semifinal (she was a quarterfinalist in the first year of her pro career, 1982).

Garrison went on to end up ranked No. 6 in wins on the all-time list for grass and indoor carpet (during Garrison’s peak years, indoor carpet was a common surface on the Virginia Slims tour). Although she won Olympic gold in doubles, she had great success but never won a major doubles title. Garrison also played on two winning Fed Cup teams, and is a former captain of that squad.

The tournament of her career was undoubtedly Wimbledon in 1990. She had grueling, three-set wins over two iconic players, Monica Seles and Graf, but ran out of steam when she met Navratilova, losing their straight-sets final.

Pros: Garrison moved extremely well, with a low center of gravity that implemented her main strategy: Getting to the net, often via chip-and-charge tactics. Her slice backhand was terrific, as were her volley and smash.

Cons: Garrison’s serve — especially the second delivery — was vulnerable. Her forehand was not as solid as her backhand.

Wrap: In the pre-Williams sisters era, it wasn’t easy to meet the expectations of those seeking another African American champion. Early in her career, Garrison had trouble handling the concomitant pressure. After her big upset of Seles at Wimbledon in 1990, Garrison said: “Psychologists [once] used me as a textbook example of emotionally getting upset under pressure.”


Career-high ranking: No. 1
Grand Slams: US Open final, 2008; six additional semifinals
Career finals W-L: 15-21, won four top level WTA events

Shortly after the fluid Serbian reached the No. 1 ranking, she returned to the IMG Academy to rest and train. “When I congratulated her,” Jimmy Arias, director of tennis there recalled, “Jelena looked at me, she laughed and said, ‘I know, I know, but I never won a Grand Slam.'”

Jankovic’s best chance came at the 2008 US Open, but in that final she ran afoul of Serena Williams. She was a prolific winner, grabbing titles on every surface with 644 career match wins. Her 409 wins on hard court is good for seventh on the all-time list.

Jankovic was a complicated competitor. She led Justine Henin Hardenne by 6-4, 4-2 (with a point for 5-2) in the 2006 US Open semifinals when she got into a prolonged dispute with chair umpire Enric Molina. She ultimately lost the game and never won another.

Pros: Jankovic’s signature shot was her superb down-the-line backhand. Her strokes were nearly flat and flowing and carried serious sting. A superb athlete, her liquid movement enabled her to play great defense.

Cons: The serve came and went at times, and it had an outsized impact in the matches she lost. Her greatest flaw was the tendency to undermine herself and lose focus.

Wrap: Jankovic had a moth-to-flame relationship with major titles, true enough, but she had so much talent that it’s a little surprising that she never won one.


Career-high ranking: No. 2
Grand Slams: Wimbledon final, 2012; two-time Australian Open semifinalist
Career finals W-L: 20-8, including a win at the WTA Tour Finals in 2015

It was easy at first glance to underestimate this right-hander from Poland. As former British No. 1 and Sky TV commentator Anabel Croft said, “She had so much talent and a brilliant tennis brain. You could always learn from her ability to move opponents around the court. I enjoyed watching her [brand of] cat-and-mouse tennis.”

Radwanska was a model of consistency throughout a prolific career that earned her 594 wins, which helped put her in the WTA’s all-time to top 10 in career earnings (nearly $27.7 million) at the time of her retirement.

Pros: Her trademark was the original “squat shot,” her way of fielding fast shots that landed close to her feet. Aficionados were enthralled by Radwanska’s deft touch, clever shot-making, and effortless style. Adams calls her one of the “greatest anticipators” the game has seen in recent times. Her grasp of strategy and tactics was unrivaled, built around her defensive abilities and an ability to find or create open spaces during rallies.

Cons: The main reason Radwanska never won a major probably was her serve, which had no pop. As guileful as she was, she was not fully able to make up for a lack of power.

Wrap: Radwanska’s ability to captivate spectators was a rare, unteachable gift. “She never had the power to overcome the big hitters,” Adams said. “But she was a genius on court.”


Dinara Safina (2000-2011)

Career-high ranking: No. 1
Grand Slams: French Open finalist, 2008, 2009; Australian Open finalist, 2009; Wimbledon and US Open semifinalist
Career finals W-L: 12-12, Olympic silver medalist in 2008

Safina and her brother, Marat Safin, are the only brother and sister to both reach the top of the singles rankings. She was a slow starter who didn’t crack the top 10 until 2008, once saying, “Being the little sister in such a big tennis family (Safina’s father was tennis director of Moscow’s famed Spartak Club) is not an easy situation. Maybe that’s why it took me longer to develop … [I] wanted to be something by myself, like being a big player by myself. So at the beginning I was putting too much pressure on myself.”

The struggle with expectations, self-imposed and external, hounded the nearly 6-foot pro for her entire career. It’s probably the main reason Safina, for all her power, never won a Grand Slam singles title (she’s a US Open doubles champion). “With her power, height, determination and imposing ground strokes, Safina seemed to be the complete package and a burgeoning superstar,” espnW writer D’Arcy Maine said. “But on the biggest of stages, she could never seem to finish the job.”

Still, Safina packed a lot of winning into a brief window as an elite player, claiming all six of her titles while ranked in the top 10 between 2008 and the end of 2009. A chronic back injury that surfaced in January 2010 ended her career by May 2011.

Pros: Safina was a slugger who took the ball on the rise, hitting piledriver groundstrokes off both wings. She used her forehand very effectively, hitting acute angles to set herself up for winning blasts. She also had powerful serve.

Cons: While an excellent doubles player, Safina was not quick enough in singles to do much damage up at the net with her volley. Her serve, while big, would break down on occasion. But her greatest impediment was her nerves.

Wrap: The loss to Serena Williams in the Australian Open was understandable, but she also failed to close the deal on two occasions at the French Open against beatable opponents: fellow first-time Grand Slam finalist Ana Ivanovic (2008) and Russian compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova. Both losses were in straight sets, memorable for Safina’s struggle with nerves. The loss to Dementieva at the 2008 Olympics in Sydney was at least a more competitive match.


Helena Sukova (1983-1998)

Career-high ranking: No. 4
Grand Slams: US Open final, 1985, 1993; Australian Open final, 1984, 1989; one semifinal and 11 major quarterfinals
Career finals W-L: 9-20, two Olympic silver medals in doubles

Another example of international tennis royalty, Sukova’s mother, Vera, was a Wimbledon singles finalist in 1962, and her father, Cyril Suk II, was president of the Czechoslovak Tennis Federation before the breakup of that nation. A brother, Cyril Suk III, had a solid career as an ATP pro. Sukova has been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

At 6-2 with long arms and wide shoulders, it was only natural that Sukova would gravitate to a slam-bang brand of power baseline tennis. The gusto with which she did that carried her very close to the top of the game. Her proficiency in doubles, which earned her the No. 1 ranking for 44 weeks in 1991, sometimes dimmed her singles accomplishments.

Pros: A right-hander, Sukova walloped the serve and forehand. She had an excellent volley, as evidenced by her doubles success, and moved well.

Cons: Her big, loopy strokes featured a lot of moving parts that could be broken down under pressure. Her one-handed backhand was dangerous but not always consistent.

Wrap: Sukova reached four major finals, which proves she was no fluke. When she was hot, she was torrid. Sukova ended Navratilova’s 69-match grass-court win streak and was just the fourth woman to defeat Navratilova and Evert in the same tournament.

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