The Great Debate: Author Argues Graf Is The Greatest Woman Of Open Era -
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post #1 of 13 (permalink) Old Apr 28th, 2004, 07:03 PM Thread Starter
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The Great Debate: Author Argues Graf Is The Greatest Woman Of Open Era

The Great Debate: Author Argues Graf Is The Greatest Woman Of Open Era

Photo By Michael Cole By David MacCarthy

Tennis historian Raymond Lee's statistical study of the greatest women players of the Open Era, which was posted on Tennis last November, provoked passionate debate among tennis historians and fans. Mr. Lee used 10 statistical categories to compare the most accomplished champions of the Open Era and crowned one woman — Martina Navratilova — with the Tennis Week title as the greatest woman player of the Open Era.

Since the story, The Best Of The Best, initially appeared Tennis Week has received several responses to Mr. Lee's study. In the following article, David MacCarthy re-examines Mr. Lee's analysis and, after altering one category in the study, concludes that Steffi Graf is in fact the greatest women player of the Open Era. Here is David MacCarthy's article:

Raymond Lee's analysis of the top women players of the Open Era was fascinating. With so many talented and outstanding performers, it's always interesting to see how top players match up when using consistent statistical data.

Mr. Lee used both career and "best consecutive five-year period" data to form the basis of his analysis, which concluded the best women players of the Open Era, in order, are:
  1. Martina Navratilova
  2. Chris Evert
  3. Steffi Graf
  4. Monica Seles
Choosing a five-year period is certainly a strong benchmark. Five of the 10 categories he used to rank players was based on data during the best five-year period. However, Mr. Lee did not indicate why he chose a consecutive five-year period instead of simply the best five years in a career.

Virtually all of those great champions maintained consistency throughout their careers, including a high degree of success over several years. But as we all know, it's difficult to maintain consistently outstanding results over a period of five consecutive years without experiencing some type of slump, which is quite relative when discussing these players.

On the men's side, Andre Agassi is probably the classic example. Despite some incredible results in the 1990s as well as the current decade, Agassi's dramatic drop from the top top in 1995 to No. 141 in 1997 was a large blip on his otherwise extraordinary career.

Mr. Lee's data for determining the top women uses a "best consecutive five-year period" criteria to rank players in various categories. However, when ranking the greatest players of the Open Era it may not be necessarily fair to use five consecutive years since even the greatest players do occasionally experience slumps. Therefore, using simply the best five-year period of a player's career may provide a more accurate view of the game's greatest women players.

For instance, in Mr. Lee's analysis, Monica Seles' best five years are 1989-93, but 1989 was Seles' first full year on the WTA Tour. While 1989 was certainly a great year for her, Seles was more successful in later seasons. Similarly, according to Mr. Lee, Steffi Graf's best five-year period was 1987-91. Few could argue that these weren't some of the best years of her career as Graf was No. 1 for most of that five-year period. However Graf produced two seasons outside of that period that were even greater than the 1991 season included in that period. In 1995, Graf won three Grand Slam titles and 47 of 49 matches; in 1996, she also captured three Grand Slam crowns and won 53 of 57 matches. In fact, 1991 was Graf's least productive year in her career from 1986-96 in terms of won-loss percentage.

Some historians might also argue that Chris Evert's record in 1980 and 1981 was equal to or even better than some of the seasons she had from 1974-78. In 1980, Evert won two Grand Slam titles and 70 of the 75 matches she played; in 1981 Evert won 72 of 78 matches. There is no player who had a greater five-year consecutive period than Martina Navratilova; her record from 1982-86 is virtually unmatched.

If we change that single category in Mr. Lee's statistical study from best consecutive five-year period to simply the best five years of a player's career, these are the best five years for each of the four champions:
  1. Chris Evert: 1974-78
  2. Steffi Graf 1987-89, 1995-96
  3. Martina Navratilova 1982-86
  4. Monica Seles 1990-93, 1996
Using the best five years of these champions' careers rather than the best five consecutive years, I rank the best women players of the Open Era in this order:
  1. Steffi Graf
  2. Martina Navratilova
  3. Chris Evert
  4. Monica Seles
Mr. Lee states in his analysis that if the result of the 1978 Wimbledon final went in Evert's favor, she would have emerged as the statistical leader ahead of her long-time rival Navratilova. All things being equal, while this may have helped Evert win more Grand Slam titles than Navratilova, I don't believe it would have altered the overall impact of their careers or their place in history. No one can match Chris Evert's high degree of consistency throughout a career, btu Navratilova still won many more tournaments and matches and would still have emerged ahead of Evert using the data I've selected.

Be that as it may, both Graf and Navratilova still lead four categories each, but Graf finish third in only two categories: career tournament titles and tournament titles won in a best five-year period. In the categories where Graf finished second, she is only statistically miniscule percentages behind the leaders: Graf's 88.7 career winning percentage compared to Evert's 89.6 career winning percentage or Graf's 96.3 winning percentage for her best five years (she compiled a 334-14 record in that span) compared to Navratilova's 96.8 winning percentage for her best five years.

In the categories where Graf finished second, the difference between No. 1 and No. 2 was very slight; there was a much larger gap between No. 2 and No. 3. In the four categories where Graf finished first, she had a fairly significant lead in each one (career Grand Slam titles won, percentage of Grand Slams won in career, total Grand Slams won in best five years and percentage of Grand Slams won in best five years).

My analysis is that although very close, Steffi Graf has slightly better numbers than Martina Navratilova. Another interesting stat to study is the head-to-head results of the main rivalries — Evert vs. Navratilova and Graf vs. Seles — in each of their best five years:
  • Evert (1974-78) led Navratilova 22-6
  • Navratilova (1982-86) led Evert 18-4
  • Graf (1987-89, 1995, 1996) led Seles 5-0
  • Seles (1990-93, 1996) tied Graf 4-4
Both Evert and Navratilova dominated their main rival — each other — during the best five years of their careers. While Graf did not lose a match to Seles during Graf's best five years, she was actually even with Seles during Seles' best years. Evert held a 26-24 record over Navratilova when combining the years 1974-78 and 1982-86. Seeing how these rivals fared against each other during the best and their rival's best years also supports Steffi Graf's status as the greatest woman player of the Open Era since Steffi Graf was the only woman who did not have a losing head-to-head record against her top rival during Seles' best years.

Steffi Graf will be inducted into the International Hall of Fame in July. In my view she is the greatest woman champion of the Open Era.

Tennis Week asked Raymond Lee for his view on David MacCarthy's analysis. Raymond Lee replies:

David MacCarthy's facts are intriguing, but there are also some flaws in his analysis.

The purpose of the best five-year period is to show how great the player was over an extended period of time. Some players can be great in some years and poor in many others. It takes into account injuries and shows consistent greatness. It penalizes a player like Chris Evert, whose worst years aren't that much worse than her best years. The line on her graph was pretty much at a high level all the way until there was a slight downturn in her last years.

Graf, while consistently maintaining a level of outstanding results throughout her career, also had some years in which she was slowed by injuries and some years in which her father's public problems surely must have hampered her. Because of those factors, her performance was not as strong in those years, but these issues can often affect many champions.

The head to head aren't totally fair either in that Evert played Navratilova 28 times during Evert's best years and Evert only played Navratilova 22 times during Navratilova's best years. The percentage in favor Evert in the former is 78.6 and the percentage in favor of Navratilova in the latter is 81.8! Martina was more dominant over Chris in her peak years than Chris was over Martina in Evert's peak years.

The Seles-Graf head to head used by Mr. MacCarthy is deceiving. Seles was not near her peak from 1990 to 1993 during Mr. MacCarthy's idea of some of Graf's peak years and Seles was hurt and never the same in 1995 and 1996. Quite frankly, Graf was at or near her peak during Seles' peak period and lost more, in part, because Seles could beat her.

After Seles' stabbing, Graf really had no rivals except an aging Navratilova, who was still a contender and still producing remarkable results for a player of her age or any age for that matter. In 1992, a 36-year-old Navratilova was 71-7 for a winning percentage of .910 and won eight of 15 tournaments, including Wimbledon!

Navratilova also crushes Graf in terms of total tournament victories with 60 more tournament titles to her credit. That's 56 percent more than Graf, and while Navratilova has obviously benefited from enjoying a much longer career than Graf, that is still a huge disparity in career championships. For these reasons, I stand by my original conclusion published by Tennis Week: Martina Navratilova is the greatest woman champion of the Open Era.
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post #2 of 13 (permalink) Old Apr 28th, 2004, 07:26 PM
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Interesting counter view to the original Tennis Week article. I remember reading that article when it first published, and believed it to be conveniently skewed in advance in Navratilova's favor. Her best years just happened to be 5-6 years in a row, whereas many other players have equally great years, but may have a lull or two in between. Basing players' entire careers on 5 consecutive years is flawed for that exact reason. Looking at the best 5 consecutive years tells one just that: which player had the 5 best consecutive years (Navratilova, hands down), but may say very little about the player's entire career.
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post #3 of 13 (permalink) Old Apr 28th, 2004, 07:52 PM
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Steffi is the best.
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post #4 of 13 (permalink) Old Apr 28th, 2004, 08:02 PM
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Its like much statistics based social science. The criteria are arbitary and the issue may not be enlightened by statistics anyway. There is no logical reason why a player who is injured for part of any arbitarily decided period (5 years or 3 or 2?) but who has more success overall ought to be considered less successful than one who had a better 5 year run. Apart from the GS count its the same quantity v quality v quality of opponents argument you would have looking at, say, Serena and Martina H or even Graf and Seles. Navratilova won lots of titles but fewer GS over a longer period than Graf - is that better or worse? It could all be about who the opponents were (which gives you an impossible equation) and people probably resolve it by watching a tape of Wimbledon 88 anyway..
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post #5 of 13 (permalink) Old Apr 28th, 2004, 10:21 PM
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That was a fun read.... already prooving what I already know, Steffi is the best!

The Commander In Chief: Steffi Graf
General: Serena Williams
Admiral: Kim Clijsters
Lieutenant General: Elena Dementieva
Major General: Myskina

nominees for Brigadier General:
Venus, Golovin, Lindsay, Petrova, and Pierce
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post #6 of 13 (permalink) Old Apr 28th, 2004, 11:33 PM
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Originally Posted by fammmmedspin
It could all be about who the opponents were (which gives you an impossible equation)
That is one of the key reasons why you cant say who was/is the greatest player in the womens game.

Personally, I dont think you can be considered THE greatest player in a sport is you failed to achieve one of the main goals in that sport while you were competing.

Mens is easier. A conspicuous gap in the trophy cabinet rules out so many in the mens game, including sampras, borg, mcenroe, llendl, wilander connors etc, who all failed to win one of the slams, and that was not without trying. That leaves emerson, laver and agassi. No brainer, IMO, its laver. Every slam at least twice, and mucho time away as a por and not allowed to play slams. I know that some will disagree, and say Sampras, but IMO, failing to win the french is key.

However, in womens tennis there are so many women who did everything that I think it is fruitless trying to say who was the greatest. In recent times Nav was great, graf was great, evert was great, BJK was great and court was great. Serena is great too and is still motoring.

But the technology of the game changes, as well as the level of professionalism, and financial resources, and demands. So, hard to compare absolute standards across generations.

To make up for that, most tot up wins and titles to say who was greater across generations, but the key thing in my mind is that that can never take account of the quality of the opposition.

2 great players in one era will share the spoils and detract from each others record.

SO who knows? Its enough that the womens game is lucky enough to have seen so many greats, after that its a matter of opinion, bias, preference whatever.
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post #7 of 13 (permalink) Old Apr 28th, 2004, 11:53 PM
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eek... so agassi would be ranked above pete in your list of all time greats??? yowzas, i'll just have to say that i disagree-- head to head, gaggles more slams, titles, bigger wins...
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post #8 of 13 (permalink) Old Apr 29th, 2004, 12:29 AM
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Originally Posted by faboozadoo15
eek... so agassi would be ranked above pete in your list of all time greats??? yowzas, i'll just have to say that i disagree-- head to head, gaggles more slams, titles, bigger wins...
U misunderstand me, i think. I should have made myself clearer.

I just meant that, IMO, you couldn't be THE Greatest, WITHOUT winning all of the slams.

I didnt mean that agassi or emerson was better that sampras, just that I cant put sampras above laver as the greatest ever, cos pete never was able to win the french.

IMO, agassi has been brilliant, but too patchy early on his career. If, however, he had won one more wimbledon and one more french, ie all the slams twice, then, yeah i would place him above sampras, but he didn't.
He still could I guess, though its really unlikely.

My point was that the women are spoiled for choice when it comes to players that have done it all.
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post #9 of 13 (permalink) Old May 1st, 2004, 04:31 PM
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another version from Bob Larson

Time on Target

The WTA keeps a nice pretty list of #1 players and the time they spent at #1. There are some very impressive numbers there: Steffi Graf, 378 weeks, or more than seven years. Martina Navratilova, 331 weeks, or six and a half years. Chris Evert, 262 weeks, or five years. Martina Hingis, 209 weeks, or four years. Monica Seles, 178 weeks, or three and a half years.

And yet, Navratilova compiled those 331 weeks over a career that actually lasted 22 years (and, in fact, she'll be earning a singles ranking again this summer, so you could argue it's longer). For more than two-thirds of her career, she was not #1.

You know us at Tennis News: We collect oddball statistics. So here is one we haven't seen elsewhere: Fraction of career at #1.

To begin with, let's summarize the total time spent at #1. This is through the end of Fed Cup, though it's quite sure that Justine Henin-Hardenne is going to stay #1 for quite a big longer. But we have to draw the line somewhere, and that was current at the time we wrote this. So: The numbers.

S. Williams.........57
V. Williams.........11

Which brings us to the question of how long each was an active player. This is more complicated than it sounds. We're going to do this by quarter-years (the best approximation we can really make), but even so, each player requires some explanation.

Steffi Graf turned pro at 13, playing her first Slams at the Australian and French Opens in 1983. (As an interesting footnote, it appears that Graf was the last active singles player to have played the Australian Open on grass.) She retired in August of 1999 shortly after her thirtieth birthday. We reckon her career as 16 and a half years, or 66 quarters.

Martina Navratilova actually turned pro before the WTA instituted rankings, making it a bit unfair to measure her by a rankings standard (though she certainly was not #1 at that early phase of her career). She played her first Slam at Roland Garros 1973, and her last -- so far -- at Wimbledon 1994 (and retired at the end of that year, even though she skipped the U. S. Open). In fairness, we should measure her career from the beginning of 1975, the earliest time at which results affected the official rankings (the first official WTA rankings were listed in November 1975). That's a full 20 years, or 80 quarters. We won't count her comeback, even though it appears to mean that Navratilova is going to achieve the astonishing feat of being ranked 30 years after she was first ranked.

Chris Evert, like Navratilova, was on the scene before the rankings were instituted; she in fact was the WTA's first-ever official #1. If we treat her as we treated Navratilova, she began her career at the beginning of 1975 and lasted until the end of 1989, 15 years or 60 quarters. (Though in fact she would have been #1 in 1974 as well, and began her career in late 1971. If we project back, it appears that Evert's number "should" have been about 320 weeks at #1 in a career of 74 quarters.)

Martina Hingis turned pro on October 14, 1994, two weeks after her fourteenth birthday. For commercial reasons, she didn't officially retire, but her last match was almost exactly eight years after she turned pro. She was thus an active player for 32 quarters. Of course, there is the complication that Hingis's career was cut short by injuries -- but so, arguably, was Graf's, and Austin's certainly was; we have to draw the line somewhere. In any case, Hingis's results followed the standard career path in miniature: apprenticeship, greatest success, decline. It's just that Hingis did it in half the time anyone else did.

Monica Seles turned pro in February 1989, and is still active, at least theoretically, though one begins to wonder if she'll be back. That's 15 years, or 60 quarters (and counting). But, of course, there is the stabbing. That makes things really complicated, because Seles was co-ranked for more than a year after she came back. And she was also #1 for a while after she was no longer playing. There is no good way to account for that; anything we do has to take an asterisk. We're going to be somewhat arbitrary and subtract seven quarters from her total. That gives her 53 "active" quarters.

Serena Williams turned pro in late 1997, and is still active with no interesting interruptions. Yes, she's been hurt a lot -- but so has everyone else. That's 27 quarters.

Lindsay Davenport turned pro just over eleven years ago, in February 1993, but had actually started playing Slams two years before that. We're going to assign her 50 quarters.

Tracy Austin played her first Slam in 1977, and her last -- prior to her abortive comeback in 1994 -- in 1983. Saying when she quit is complicated, but we're going to give her 26 quarters.

Jennifer Capriati turned pro just over 14 years ago. She of course missed several years, but that was based on her own behavior, not exterior factors. We give her 56 quarters.

Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario turned pro in mid-1985, but didn't play her first Slam main draw until 1987; we're going to consider her career as having started at the beginning of 1986 and ended at the end of 2002. That's 64 quarters.

Venus Williams formally turned pro at the same time as Hingis, in October 1994, but didn't start playing regularly until 1997. She did, however, play enough events to maintain pro status. We're going to split the difference and start her career from the beginning of 1996, and she's still going. So that's 33 quarters.

Kim Clijsters was still playing junior events well into 1998, but also started playing as a pro toward the end of the year. We'll start her as a pro at the beginning of 1999, giving her a total of 21 quarters.

Justine Henin-Hardenne officially turned pro at the start of 1999, so she too has 21 quarters.

With those numbers, we can set out to calculate the percentage of her career each player has spent at #1 (calculating each quarter as 13 weeks). Our initial guess, when we first did this list last year at this time, was that Graf would lead this list, with Hingis second. Wrong:

Player.........Wks #1..Qtrs as Pro....% as #1
S. Williams.......57.......27............16%
V. Williams.......11.......33.............3%

* If we use the figure cited above for Evert, 320 weeks
and 74 quarters, Evert's percentage is almost identical: 33%

Hingis's numbers may be considered a fluke because she retired so young (though we note that she lost the #1 ranking a year before she quit, and in terms of matches played, she had had a fairly full career; the question none of us can answer -- though we know far too many who insist they know the answer -- is whether she really "had to" quit, in which case she certainly could be compared at least to Austin, whose active career was even shorter). But we also note that, if Henin-Hardenne is to equal even Graf's numbers, she has to be #1 for the next 167 weeks, or three years and two months. And that's if she quits then and doesn't add more weeks as non-#1. If Serena were to get back to #1 in the fall (her first chance), she'd need to be on top for about 193 weeks, or more than three and a half years.

It will be quite a feat if either one can pull it off. If either wants to equal Hingis, she'll need about another year after that. Which would mean Henin-Hardenne would be 26 (at least), or Serena 27 to 28, by the time she reaches that mark. At which point she might even be thinking about retiring herself....

An equivalent calculation for the men is far harder; not only have the men had far more #1 players (including a couple, Marat Safin and Juan Carlos Ferrero, the ATP doesn't even exactly concede were #1), and not only do they no longer regularly supply lists of weeks at #1 -- but they aren't as clear about when men turned pro and retired. We'd have to break the column up into two parts to give us time to research it, and there is no obvious way to do that.

And then, too, when did Pete Sampras retire? It affects his percentage. As it is, Sampras has been 286 weeks, or five and a half years, at #1. From the start of 1988, when he played his first ATP matches, to the 2003 U. S. Open was 59 quarters. So if that was the end of his career, he spent 37% of his career at #1. But if you count by when he retired, it's 35%. A similar problem affects Patrick Rafter. And maybe Marcelo Rios. If you want something more accurate than that -- well, we'll figure out the answer once Rios figures out his plans.

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post #10 of 13 (permalink) Old May 1st, 2004, 04:35 PM
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Fein also said "Graf."
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post #11 of 13 (permalink) Old May 1st, 2004, 04:45 PM
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There are LIES, DAMN LIES and then there are STATISTICS

There are too many imponderables. That kind of statistic doesnt help. I dont think that there is one overwhelming dominant woman in recent tennis history.

So you make your own decision on who you think is best based on what you feel caounts more in someones achievements.
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post #12 of 13 (permalink) Old May 5th, 2004, 10:24 AM
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All very interesting! thanks

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post #13 of 13 (permalink) Old May 5th, 2004, 11:02 AM
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Navratilova is great too but she is still playing, many ppl find it quite offensive that granny is still there, although I do agree that "GRAF UNDOUBTEDLY IS the GREATEST" but may be we should give it a little more time, maybe a couple of years after Martinas retirement. Lets see how the history deals with it.
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