Women who have dominated sports throughout history, from Serena Williams to Lisa Leslie
Throughout history, women have left their mark on a myriad of sports. For International Women’s Day, it’s worth reminiscing about those women. Some names transcend their respective sports — nearly everyone knows of Serena Williams and Lisa Leslie — whereas others have dominated their game on an international level, like Brazil soccer’s Marta.
Below those well-known names, however, many women have stood out in their sports — but only to those who pay attention to them. For example, in the current WNBA, names like A’ja Wilson are starting to break through, along with Maya Moore.
Here’s a look at some of the most dominant athletes in women’s sports and the records that they hold.
Before Arthur Ashe, there was Althea Gibson. Before Arthur Ashe became the first black men’s player to win a Grand Slam event, Gibson played in — and won — the French Open in 1956. In 1957 and 1958, she won both Wimbledon and the US Open.
Gibson was also the first black woman to join the LPGA tour, where she continued to face discrimination. She spent her entire career trying to fight that, but ultimately her financial situation was untenable.
“I don’t want to be put on a pedestal,” Gibson said at the end of her career. “I just want to be reasonably successful and live a normal life with all the conveniences to make it so. I think I’ve already got the main thing I’ve always wanted, which is to be somebody, to have an identity. I’m Althea Gibson, the tennis champion. I hope it makes me happy.”
Whatever you think of her controversial post-career comments, Margaret Court was a legend on the court. She won the Australian Open 11 times, the French Open five times, Wimbledon three times, and the US Open. In 1970, she became the first woman in the Open era to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam, a feat only matched by Steffi Graf.
Court’s 24 Grand Slams is a record that stands today, and her dominance in the 1960s has been unmatched by any player in any decade — though Martina Navratilova’s 1980s are run comes close.
The Australian Open’s center court has been called Margaret Court Arena since 2003. She took on Bobby Riggs in the first “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973. She played in 47 Grand Slams and made it to quarterfinals or later in 43 of them — an outstanding rate. Court won her first Grand Slam title at the 1960 Australian Open.
Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King was a rival of Court’s in the 1960s, and she dominated at Wimbledon, winning The Championships six times — arguably Court’s weakest grand slam tournament. King left her mark on the sport with 12 Grand Slam wins, but where she has become truly indelible is in her activism.
King won $100,000 by beating Riggs in 1973, months after he defeated Court. King won the second and most famous “Battle of the Sexes” match in straight sets 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, if he drew an enormous national TV audience.
King has frequently quoted Title IX as the basis of her fight for equality, emphasizing its succinctness.
““This match was about social change,” King said last year, per Yahoo! Sports, about facing Riggs. “I knew what it meant because I was on tour, playing, and people would come up to me as I traveled the country. I’d listen to them. Some were angry. Some were saying, ‘Come on, you’ve got to win.’ Some were saying, ‘Why the hell are you doing this?'”
Martina Navratilova won 18 Grand Slams from 1978 to 1990. From 1982-1986, she was ranked No. 1 globally, a span in which she won 428 of 442 singles matches. That mark is untouched to this day. At one point, she won a record 74 straight matches and reached 11 consecutive Grand Slam finals. Navratilova was ranked in the singles top 10 for 20 years from 1975-1994, yet another record.
In the 1990s, Steffi Graf took Navratilova’s crown as tennis’s most dominant player. She won 22 Grand Slams from 1987 to 1999, including a three-year gap from a US Open win in 1996 to her final Grand Slam victory at the French Open in 1999. Graf also won a calendar-year Grand Slam in 1988.
Graf broke Navratilova’s record for consecutive Grand Slam appearances, making it to the finals an outrageous 13 straight times. She also won what is now called a “Golden Slam” in 1988: all four Grand Slams and an Olympic gold medal.
Only three other players — men or women — have achieved a singles Golden Slam in their career, and none of those happened in a single season. One of them is Graf’s husband, Andre Agassi. Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams have also achieved the feat. It’s a testament to just how ridiculous Graf’s 1988 was. She carried that success through the 1990s before another legend came along.
That legend, of course, is Serena Williams. She is knocking on the door of Court’s Grand Slam record with 23 wins, and perhaps even more impressive is her longevity. While Court dominated the ’60s, Navratilova the ’80s, and Graf the ’90s, Williams has stretched her dominance over the 2000s and the 2010s. She also made two straight Grand Slam final appearances in Wimbledon and the US Open in 2018, her second and third tournaments back from a harrowing pregnancy.
Williams has become an icon for African-American and women’s empowerment, and her reputation is well-earned. She has spoken out frequently about motherhood, all while playing tennis at a dominant level. On two different occasions, Williams has held all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously, a feat dubbed the “Serena Slam.”
Williams has had particular dominance at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and she’s trying to continue that run at 37 years old. While she isn’t the runaway favorite that she’s been in previous years — particularly with the emergence of young players like Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, and Garbine Muguruza as stars in the women’s tennis world — it’s hard to bet against Williams tying Court’s mark eventually.
Lisa Leslie was one of the first WNBA players to go “mainstream,” so to speak. Leslie, who now coaches in the BIG3, made waves as early as high school by dunking in the open court. However, dunking wasn’t what made Leslie a legend.
Her all-around game was her calling card. Leslie won the WNBA MVP three times (2001, 2004, 2006). She was a scorer, a stout defender down low, and a dominant presence on the glass. She is also a four-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.
Sue Bird has been in the WNBA since 2002. She’s played her entire career with the Seattle Storm and is a three-time WNBA champion, most recently in 2018. Bird, who missed the 2013 season and returned in 2014 after knee surgery, holds the WNBA record for assists at 2,831 — 232 more than the second-place mark.
Bird is also an eight-time All-WNBA player, including five first-team appearances. She’s had success overseas as well, winning five Russian National League championships and four EuroLeague titles.
It’s pretty easy to argue that no one has had the individual WNBA success Diana Taurasi has had with the Phoenix Mercury. She’s the league’s all-time leading scorer and is a three-time champion as well.
Taurasi also has four gold medals with fellow UConn Husky Sue Bird. Taurasi was the first overall pick in the 2004 WNBA draft. Since then, she’s more than lived up to the hype. Connecticut was 139-8 while she was there, and they won three straight national championships.
Sheryl Swoopes was inducted into basketball’s Hall of Fame in 2016 and made the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame a year later. A five-time first-team All-WNBA player, Swoopes was active from 1997 to 2011. In her first four seasons with Houston, she won four WNBA titles.
Swoopes won WNBA Defensive Player of the Year three times and is a three-time WNBA MVP. Swoopes shared the throne with Leslie as one of the WNBA’s elite players in the early 2000s and is now remembered as one of the league’s best players ever.
Similar to Leslie, her all-around game is what sets her apart. Swoopes was also a key component in the formative years of the WNBA. A three-time Olympic gold medalist, she was part of the team that brought women’s basketball into the public eye in 1996 after winning gold in Atlanta.
Tamika Catchings is a WNBA defensive legend. She rose to prominence with the Indiana Fever and, in her 15-year career, was the Defensive Player of the Year five times and first-team All-Defense 10 times. Catchings is also third all-time in scoring, which is a testament to her talent on both ends of the floor.
Catchings is the league’s all-time steals leader and has taken the freest throws of any WNBA player in history. Indiana won a championship with Catchings leading the team in 2012. She’s also a four-time Olympic gold medalist.
Maya Moore is another player who has had tremendous success with one team. The Minnesota Lynx has won a title every other year since she was drafted first in 2011, notching wins in 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017. That might mean that the Lynx is due this season.
Moore is already knocking on on the door of several records, and she’s third for points in a season. Moore also has her own shoe line, and at 29, she may still have many years left to catch and shatter records. Though the Lynx has been inconsistent in her tenure, Moore has been a model of consistency.
Notably, Moore will be sitting out the upcoming WNBA season to focus on ministry and family. In her absence, other WNBA stars, such as the Las Vegas Aces A’ja Wilson, will step into the limelight as marquee players in the league.
Hayley Wickenheiser had one of the most prolific careers in international hockey. With Canada, she won four Olympic gold medals from 2002 to 2014 and won silver in 1998. Canada also won seven World Championships and took silver six times with her.
In international competition, Wickenheiser tallied 68 points at World Championships and 51 points during Olympic play.
Wickenheiser played professionally in Finland as well for HC Salamat and Linden HC. She played 41 professional games among men and notched seven points in the 2003 playoffs with HC Salamat. Wickenheiser is now the Assistant Director of Player Development for the Maple Leafs, which began in August 2018.
Cammi Granato was the USA women’s hockey team captain that took gold in Nagano in 1998. She is Team USA’s all-time leading scorer with 343 points and 186 goals.
Granato was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010 and in 1997 was invited to the Islanders’ training camp, which she ultimately declined.
Brazil’s Marta has left a mark on women’s soccer, similar to Wickenheiser’s mark on hockey. A five-time FIFA World Player of the Year, Marta is the most prolific Women’s World Cup scorer of all time with 15 goals. A ridiculous seven of those were scored in the 2007 World Cup.
Marta has 133 caps with Brazil and 110 international goals. She carried the Olympic flag in Rio in 2016 and has another 139 goals in 197 professional matches.
When you talk USWNT, not many names come to mind before Mia Hamm. A mainstay on the national team from 1987 to 2004, Hamm made her debut with the senior team at 15 years old. She scored 14 goals in 42 international matches.
Hamm was one of the leaders of the 1999 national team that won the World Cup, which is still the only time the host nation has won the tournament. She is still, even as the game had grown to be bigger than it was when she played, one of the most widely recognized faces in United States soccer history.
Abby Wambach has made four career World Cup appearances with Team USA, and she’s another name synonymous with USA soccer. Wambach was part of the 2015 World Cup-winning team and took silver in 2011.
She has 256 caps with the USA and 184 goals in that span. Wambach was a longtime face of the USWNT and a leader in her four World Cup appearances.
Alex Morgan already has 99 goals in 158 national team appearances. USATSI
She already has 99 goals in 158 national team appearances. In 2018, she was the United States’ Female Player of the Year. Morgan had a pair of goals in the 2011 World Cup and scored another in the United States’ gold-medal-winning 2015 appearance.
Moving forward, Morgan will try to continue the United States’ success and lead them to their fourth World Cup championship. The 2019 World Cup begins in France in June, and this squad isn’t one you’ll want to miss.
Lindsey Vonn has become a larger-than-life figure in the world of women’s skiing. She retired after this year’s world championships in Sweden and finished with 82 World Cup wins — just four shy of Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 86. Vonn also finished with three Olympic medals, including one gold.
Vonn, who battled injuries her entire career, won a record eight World Cup season titles downhill. She’s also one of just six women who won World Cup races in all five skiing disciplines. Vonn is now considered one of the greatest skiers of all time, and her 2015 comeback after knee injuries to win the World Cup downhill in just her second race back is an iconic moment in skiing history.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee, simply put, may well be the best female athlete of the 20th century. Joyner-Kersee dominated the Olympics in 1988, taking gold in the heptathlon and the long jump in Seoul. She was the first American woman to win gold in either of these events.
Joyner-Kersee would go on to win gold again in the heptathlon in 1992 at the Games in Barcelona. She took bronze in the long jump as well.
Outside of the Olympics, Joyner-Kersee was dominant in the World Championships. She won gold in the long jump and heptathlon two times each, winning both in 1987 in Rome.
Aly Raisman’s legacy stretches far beyond gymnastics. Though her success is unquestionable — Raisman has three Olympic gold medals, two silvers, and a bronze. She has become a voice against the injustices perpetrated by the USOC and the Gymnastics Board.
Raisman was one of the hundreds of women who testified against Larry Nassar for his systemic abuse against prominent young gymnasts in the United States.
Raisman was part of both the Fierce Five and the Final Five gymnastics teams, alongside Gabby Douglas as the only two to participate on both squads. She has also been a part of two gold medal-winning teams at the World Championships (2011 and 2015) and has won silver and bronze medals.
Raisman’s fight for justice, along with her record in the sport, has thrust her into the limelight, a position that she’s handled with grace.
Biles was on the Final Five with Raisman, and her career has been one of the best in gymnastics history. Not only does Biles have Olympic four gold medals, all of which came in 2016 in Rio, she’s also finished first a ridiculous 14 times at World Championships. Biles has won a record four all-around World Championships, a mark that she set in 2018.
Biles has been consistent in her dominance to a degree few people in any sport have ever achieved. She came back in 2018 after a hiatus and was as consistent as ever.
She has already been called the greatest gymnast of all time, but USA gymnastics icon Mary Lou Retton, not just due to her Olympic performances but also due to her outstanding body of work.
Annika Sorenstam won 10 LPGA Majors from 1995 to 2006, and her run was one of the best in history. Sorenstam burst onto the scene with back-to-back US Open wins in 1995 and 1996. Though she was dormant for a bit after those two wins, Sorenstam stormed back in the early 2000s.
She became must-watch TV and won the ANA Inspiration in 2001 and 2002 and the Women’s PGA Championship in 2003, 2004, and 2005. For a time, it was Sorenstam vs. the field, and it showed how women’s golf was covered.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias
The reality is that Babe Didrikson Zaharias could be in about four different categories, but her most dominant career was easily in golf. Zaharias won 10 LPGA majors when there were only three of them: The Western Open, The Titleholders Championship, and the U.S. Women’s Open.
Zaharias inspired Joyner-Kersee to get into the track, as she was everything from a track star to a baseball player to a basketball player. Zaharias was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1951.
Zaharias was derided for her athleticism at the time. But she was a fierce competitor, and it showed in her ability to be the best at whatever it was that she did.
These are just some of the most influential women in sports — there are countless more who have influenced their respective sports. While it’s difficult to pin down who had the “most” influence, names like Serena Williams and Mia Hamm are part of the American sports and cultural lexicon, and they’ll continue to be. Other sports — such as volleyball or UFC — have been dominated by Kerri Walsh Jennings/Misty May-Treanor and Ronda Rousey, at least for a time.
Other women are primed to make a mark on their sports. It’s a safe bet that Chloe Kim will have a long, prolific career in USA snowboarding, and she put on one of the best shows in the sport ever at the 2018 Olympics. More and more women are breaking through in football. As they continue to build their legacy, we’ll look forward to hearing more about them in the future.