The Best of Her (But Not All) Time - Great Article by Steve Tignor
“Serena Williams: Love Her, Hate Her, She’s the Best Ever”. That’s the line that greeted us on last week’s post-Wimbledon issue of Sports Illustrated. It was a surprise in one sense. Serena, despite her continued dominance, has yet to match the career totals—the Slam wins, the tournament titles, the weeks at No. 1—of past greats like Margaret Court, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, and Chris Evert. In another sense, though, it wasn’t all that shocking. This is a magazine cover. As anyone who has ever read a fitness magazine and tried to get a “6 pack in 6 days” knows, the covers are all about exaggeration.
But once we’re inside the magazine, we can come back down to earth. Why does L. Jon Wertheim suddenly believe, now that Serena has won her fourth Wimbledon and 13th major, that she should be elevated above Court (24 Slams), Graf (22), Navratilova (18), and Evert (17)? Why not also say that her fellow Wimbledon champion, Rafael Nadal, is also the greatest ever, even though he lags behind Roger Federer in Slams? I respect Wertheim’s writing and trust his judgments on most occasions, but I can’t join him here. Maybe he pushed the envelope on this a little because it was a cover story. Or maybe this is what it takes to get tennis onto the cover of SI. Or maybe he just believes it. Let’s look at the arguments.
“Williams plays in a far more competitive and demanding era.”
The game is global now, there’s more money in it, and the women hit harder and play a more physical brand of tennis. But has that produced more Hall-of-Fame level players? We’ve spent the latter half of this decade bemoaning the lack of new blood at the top of the WTA—the only multiple Slam winner to turn pro after the year 2000 is Maria Sharapova. Court did win many Aussie Opens (11 in total) against weak competition, but Serena has won Slam finals against less-than-Olympian names like Safina, Jankovic, and Zvonareva. As far as the demanding part goes, it’s true that the sport is tougher on the body now and requires a high level of athleticism, but each of those former champions—Evert and Navrailova in particular—played more matches per season than Serena does.
The more important point, though, is that the percieved level of competition in every era is skewed by the level of dominance of the top player. If Graf had never existed, Gabriela Sabatini would likely have been a five-six-seven-time Slam winner rather than a one-timer. If Court had never existed, we’d be talking about Billie Jean King as the best of all time. And while Serena has been the best player of the last decade and of her era, she hasn’t dominated the best player not named Williams, Justine Henin. Serena is 8-6 overall against Henin, but 2-4 at the majors.
The bottom line is that in each era, the women we’ve mentioned took on the best competition in the world at that moment and raised themselves above it. That’s all you can ask.
“None of the others had to play her sister in a final.”
True, Venus is also an all-time great, and it’s a unique psychological struggle for Serena. But Court had King, Navratilova had to beat 17-time Slam winner Evert over and over, and Graf had to overcome Navratilova herself to begin her reign.
“She has also won 12 major women’s doubles titles, two major mixed titles, and two double gold medals.”
The Williams sisters will go down as one of the greatest doubles team of all time. But bringing doubles into this particular conversation isn't going to help her cause. Court won 19 doubles Slams and 19 mixed-doubles Slams. Navratilova won 177 doubles titles in total. As for the Olympics, Graf owns a singles gold.
“She’s been winning them since she was 17.”
Graf won her first Slam at 17, and her last at 29, Serena’s current age. There’s no doubt that Serena can win them for years to come, and her longevity could eventually make her a candidate for greatest player ever. But during her 20s she wasn’t as dominant as Graf. Steffi won her famous Golden Slam in 1988, but she also won three majors in a year on four other occasions. Since her Serena Slam in 2002-3, Williams has never won three in a season (that could change this year). Before last year, she hadn’t won two in a single season. But if you want to talk crazy dominance, nobody can match Navratilova in her prime. From 1981 to ’87, she went 432-14. You read it right: 432-14.
Incidentally, Graf and Serena played twice, and, if the WTA’s website is correct, split those matches by the same score, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5. Both matches occurred in 1999, Serena’s first big year, and Graf’s last. (See the end of their second match, in Indian Wells, here.)
“The most important stroke in tennis is the serve, and Williams’s is the most fearsome in women’s history.”
Agreed, Serena’s serve is the best ever, and if there were no other shots in tennis, she’d have the Goat title locked up. But by most measures Ivo Karlovic has the most devastating serve in men’s tennis at the moment. Should we ignore his results and hand him the No. 1 ranking every year? Plus, Graf and Navratilova also had the most effective serves of their eras.
“If you matched tennis’s female legends head-to-head—all at their best, with identical equipment—Williams wouldn’t just beat the others; she’d crush them.”
Serena would crush Court and Evert, I agree, and beat Graf and Navratilova most of the time. But I would also say that the 500th-ranked man on the ATP tour right now would beat Don Budge—at his best, with identical equipment—like a drum. Does that make No. 500 from 2010 a greater player and champion than Budge, or Tilden, or Gonzalez?
Every player, obviously, is a product of his or her era. The best player of any era has trained and designed her game to beat the opponents she has to face on the court—nothing more, nothing less. You can’t penalize Graf and Navratilova for not making themselves good enough in their primes to beat a hypothetical future opponent. If Serena had made her debut, say, three years after Graf’s debut, and Serena had started taking Slams from her, Steffi would have been forced to change her game to meet this challenge. We’ll never know how that would worked out, so all we can do to compare them is to look at their overall records during the times when they were playing. And as with the Federer-Nadal head-to-head argument, the fact that someone can beat another player doesn't make them "greater"—top players play to win tournaments, not beat certain individuals.
The same will be true when a young serve-and-volleying Russian starts racking up Slams 15 years from now. We won’t be able to look back and penalize Serena for not having made her game consistent or versatile enough to have beaten her.
Slam totals are what we generally go by to judge all-time greatness. There’s a vogue right now for saying that they shouldn’t matter so much, because the best players skipped the Aussie Open in the 70s and 80s. And it’s true, the Aussie was not really a major title for 20 years, and the “it’s only the Slams that matter” attitude didn’t get started until the Ivan Lendl era, when the top players became rich enough not to have to worry about anything other than prepping for and winning those four tournaments. But that doesn’t change the fact that from the earliest days of the sport, the Slams—which were each of the big tennis nation’s national championships—were the events that the players wanted to win most. That’s why they remain the benchmark.
But there are other markers of excellence. There’s time spent at No. 1: Graf finished eight seasons there, Navratilova seven. Williams has done it twice. There are total titles: Navratilova ended with 167, Graf 107; Williams has 37. There’s excellence on all surfaces: Serena has won all four majors at least once; Graf won all four at least four times (her signature achievement, IMO).
None of this is a knock on Serena. She’s the best of this generation and a tremendous athlete to watch. She’s also never been too concerned with the No. 1 ranking, or total titles, and she hasn’t had the relentless, long-term, week-to-week drive for dominance that characterized Graf and Navratilova. And as it stands now, Serena’s best years may be ahead of her. You can’t fully measure a career against the sport’s past until that career is over.
In a way, it’s only fair to Serena that we not jump the gun on her place in history. Next thing you know, in 10 years, we’ll be celebrating a young American champ as “Better than Serena ever was!” after she wins her fifth major. Sounds like a good line for a magazine cover.
21-Time Grand Slam Champion
6 AO ('03, '05, '07, '09, '10, '15) 3 FO ('02, '13, '15)
6 WBN ('02, '03, '09, '10, '12, '15) 6 USO ('99, '02, '08, '12, '13, '14)