Don Budge – 1938
Growing up in Oakland, California, the young Budge loved football and soccer before focusing on tennis. He played for the U.S. Davis Cup team from 1935-38, winning 25 of 29 matches, and in 1937 led the team to its first title since 1926. After Fred Perry, the reigning king of amateur tennis, turned pro in 1937, Budge began his domination of the all-important Grand Slam tournaments, which at the time were open only to amateur players. (Journalists began using the card-playing term “Grand Slam” to describe winning all four major tennis titles in one year in the early 1930s.)
Taller (at 6’ 2”) and stronger than many of his opponents, Budge was the “big man” of tennis at the time, and became the first player to use his backhand as an offensive weapon. In 1937, he won Wimbledon and the U.S. championships; he repeated the same feat in 1938, adding the Australian and French titles to clinch the first-ever Grand Slam. After a total of 14 Grand Slam titles (six in singles, four in doubles and four in mixed doubles), Budge turned pro in 1938. He amassed a winning record before enlisting in the Army Air Force in 1942, when an injury to his right shoulder during training hurt his future play.
Maureen Connolly – 1953
A native of San Diego, Connolly began playing tennis at the age of 10, and by 15 had won more than 50 tournaments. In 1951, she won her first U.S. Open championship, at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens, just before her 17th birthday. The press dubbed Connolly “Little Mo,” a reference to the World War II battleship USS Missouri, which was known as “Big Mo.” After winning Wimbledon and a second U.S. title in 1952, she hired Australian Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman as a coach, and benefited from his emphasis on physical fitness. In 1953, Connolly made her only trip to the Australian Open, which at the time (when amateur players didn’t earn any money) attracted fewer players; she defeated Julie Sampson Haywood, a fellow Californian, in the final, then went on to beat Doris Hart of Missouri in the finals of the French, Wimbledon and U.S. championships, becoming the first woman to win a Grand Slam.
In 1954, the 19-year-old Connolly was riding her horse back in San Diego when they crashed into a cement-mixing truck, crushing her right leg. From 1951 until her accident, Connolly had played in nine Grand Slam singles tournaments and won all nine, with a 50-0 record. Though she hoped to resume her tennis career after her recovery, the injury was more serious than originally thought and she announced her retirement in 1955. After marrying Norman Brinker, she had two children and worked as a tennis instructor; she died of cancer in 1969, at the age of 34.
Rod Laver – 1962 and 1969
Laver, the son of two lawn tennis players, grew up playing in the Australian outback before attracting the attention of Harry Hopman, captain of Australia’s Davis Cup team. He scored his first Grand Slam tournament wins in doubles (Australia) and mixed doubles (Wimbledon) in 1959, and triumphed in singles for the first time in Australia the following year. In addition to winning his first Grand Slam in 1962, he racked up a string of additional titles, including the German and Italian championships, earning a rare “clay court triple” with victories in France, Germany and Italy in a single season. Laver turned professional at the end of 1962, after leading Australia to a win in the Davis Cup.
In 1968, the major tournaments began allowing professionals to compete with amateurs, launching what is known as the Open era. Laver won the first open Wimbledon championship that year, and the following year became the only player in singles history to win a second Grand Slam. He is the only player to sweep the majors in a single year in both the amateur and Open eras, an extraordinary achievement that will never be matched. Laver was a force on the professional men’s tennis tour into the 1970s, and remained tennis’ all-time leading money winner until 1978.
Margaret Court – 1970
Laver’s fellow Aussie Margaret Court also spanned the pre-Open and Open eras, winning her first Australian singles title in 1960, at the age of 18. Like Maureen Connolly, Court was a natural leftie, but was trained to play right-handed according to common tennis wisdom of the time. (Only later would the emergence of left-handed champs like Martina Navratilova change this practice.) The tall, gangly champion known for her powerful serve and volley game would go on to win six more consecutive titles in her native country, and a record 11 altogether. To those Australian titles Court added three Wimbledon, five French and seven U.S. singles’ titles, and in 1970 became the first woman of the Open era to win the Grand Slam. In that year’s Wimbledon final, Court played through the pain of a sprained ankle to beat Billie Jean King 14-12, 11-9 (there were no tie-breakers at the time) in one of the greatest women’s final matches ever played at the All-England Club.
Court’s Grand Slam year is particularly impressive in its intensity: She played 27 tournaments in 1970, winning 21 of them and compiling a 104-6 match record. In comparison, Connolly played 12 events in 1953, and Steffi Graf played 14 in 1988, the year she won her Grand Slam. (In a measure of how tennis changed over the years, Graf won $877,724 in prize money for her four Grand Slam titles, while Court took home $14,800.) Court is also the only player—man or woman—in history to win the Grand Slam in doubles as well as singles: She won all four major mixed doubles’ events in 1963 alongside her countryman Kenneth Fletcher and then completed the feat again in 1965 with three different partners. Court went on to win tournaments (including the U.S. Open in 1973) after the birth of the first of her three children.
Steffi Graf – 1988
German legend Graf, the last player to win the Grand Slam, earned her first international ranking at the tender age of 13. She won her first major title in 1987, beating the Czech-born American Martina Navratilova on the red clay of the French Open. (Though she never won all four major titles in a single calendar year, Navratilova made her own claim to Grand Slam immortality earlier in the ‘80s, winning six consecutive major titles from 1983’s Wimbledon to 1984’s U.S. Open.) The following year, at the age of 19, Graf defeated four very different opponents–Chris Evert in Australia, Natalia Zvereva in France, Navratilova at Wimbledon and Gabriela Sabatini in the U.S. Open—to become the third woman to capture the Grand Slam.
Just weeks after clinching her historic victory in New York, Graf also won the gold medal in the Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea—an unmatched achievement that was dubbed a “Golden Slam.” Graf continued to dominate at Grand Slam tournaments into the late 1990s, racking up a total of 22 major titles over the course of her career. Battling injuries, Graf retired from tennis in 1999; she married fellow tennis legend Andre Agassi in 2001.
What Else is at Stake for Serena
Steffi Graf won Wimbledon seven times, second only to Navratilova’s nine titles there. Williams now has five Wimbledon singles titles, as does her sister Venus. By winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Serena would not only capture the Grand Slam, but also match Graf’s record of 22 titles—not to add any extra pressure. With a win at Wimbledon, she would also surpass Navratilova as the oldest woman ever to win a major singles’ title. Navratilova won Wimbledon in 1990 at 33 years and 263 days, just 12 days older than Serena was when she captured the French Open title last month.
A Wimbledon win would also mark the second time Williams has won four consecutive major titles (albeit not in the same calendar year). She last completed the so-called “Serena Slam” in 2002-03 at the age of 21.