Why Do so Few Women Repeat as Tennis Champions?

Only Serena Williams among women won more than three “Slam” titles since 2010.

Posted Jan 25, 2020

The number of women who win many Grand Slam tennis championships has steadily declined—why?

Over the last half-century, the number of women winning more than three of the major tennis championships (Wimbledon and the U.S., Australian, and French Open Championships) of the 40 contested in each decade has declined.

Here is that list by decade:

Women who won more than three Grand Slam tennis championships:

The 1970s (4) — Chris Evert (9), Margaret Court (8), Billie Jean King (7), Evonne Goolagong (6)

The 1980s (4) — Martina Navratilova (15), Chris Evert (9), Steffi Graf (8), Hana Mandlíková (4)

The 1990s (3) — Steffi Graf (14), Monica Seles (9), Martina Hingis (5)

The 2000s (3) — Serena Williams (10), Justine Henin (7), Venus Williams (7)

The 2010s (1) — Serena Williams (12)

No woman other than Serena Williams won more than three Grand Slam titles from 2010 to 2019. (Williams is now 38 and hasn’t won a GS title since 2017.)

Of course, perhaps Serena’s dominance accounts for this paucity of repeat champions. But the data don’t support that contention; Martina Navratilova won 15 championships in the 1980s and Steffi Graf 14 in the 1990s, compared with Serena’s 12 in the decade just past.

Let’s take a step back. What does it take to repeatedly prevail against the large group of talented athletes who enter such tournaments?

Number one, obviously, is great tennis and athletic skill. 

Has the number of women with such prowess declined? Why? In general, the level of play has risen.

In addition, of course, champions need motivation and perseverance—has the number of women with those qualities likewise been decreasing? Why?

Perseverance includes the physical and psychological fortitude to play at the highest level over a decade. Have the number of women with that fortitude playing tennis at that level declined? Why?

It is worth comparing the diversity of repeat winners in women’s tennis with men’s.

Men who won more than three Grand Slam tennis championships:

The 1970s (4) — Borg (8), Newcombe (5), Connors (5), Vilas (4)

The 1980s (4) — Lendl (7), Wilander (7), McEnroe (6), Becker (4)

The 1990s (3) — Sampras (12), Aggasi (5), Courier (4)

The 2000s (2) — Federer (15), Nadal (6)

The 2010s (3) — Djokovic (15), Nadal (13), Federer (5)

There was a similar decline in the number of multi-championship men over four decades, but a rise in the last one.

But focusing solely on women in tennis, has there been a decline at the highest level of desire and performance? Are there fewer women, able—or willing—to dedicate themselves in the way necessary to excel, at least in tennis?

If so, will this trend continue? No Grand Slams have been completed yet in the 2020s. However, there are signs that this trend is continuing in the 2020 Australian Open now being played. The Australian Open champion from 2019, Naomi Osaka, was defeated early on by an unranked young player. Of the top eight seeds among the women, five were defeated by the third round, compared with only two of the top eight men.

So, to judge by this limited slice of elite sports performers, we have not yet seen a brave new world of exceptional women surging to the fore, ones who grab the championship mantle—and keep it.