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View Full Version : The Best of Her (But Not All) Time - Great Article by Steve Tignor


serenafan08
Jul 15th, 2010, 07:24 PM
“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.

Olórin
Jul 15th, 2010, 07:32 PM
Source/Link please?

Although sensationalist, at least Wortheim got his facts right. Chris Evert, 17-time Grand Slam champ?
Thoughtful, but a bit muddled in places.

shoryuken
Jul 15th, 2010, 07:33 PM
Isn't Evert an 18 GS champion? Also Serena is 3-4 against JH in majors

omoruyi
Jul 15th, 2010, 07:53 PM
]aaaaaawwwww shucky, he done gone & said it now!... :unsure: ~ :scared:

the debate begins?...

but seriously, as long as the 'GOAT' is a myth, there is no harm in calling Serena it.

Shepster
Jul 15th, 2010, 07:59 PM
Next thing you know, in 10 years, we’ll be celebrating a young American champ ... after she wins her fifth major
Major wishful thinking :devil:

thrust
Jul 15th, 2010, 08:18 PM
Overall a fair, and accurate article. As great as Serena is, she has not yet matched the accomplishments of: Court, Graf, Navratilova, Wills-Moody, or Evert. Court and King played many more tournaments than today's players and they did bring along coaches, sports psychologists, or physical trainers. The couldn't afford them!

Donny
Jul 15th, 2010, 09:32 PM
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?

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.

He contradicts himself with these two statements.If not for Serena, Maria, Davenport, Mauresmo and Clijsters, could all be potential Hall of Fame locks.

serenafan08
Jul 15th, 2010, 09:43 PM
Source/Link please?

Although sensationalist, at least Wortheim got his facts right. Chris Evert, 17-time Grand Slam champ?
Thoughtful, but a bit muddled in places.

It was on tennis.com but now it's also on ESPN.com

http://espn.go.com/sports/tennis/blog/_/name/tennis/id/5383212/why-serena-greatest-ever-yet

MistyGrey
Jul 15th, 2010, 09:48 PM
He contradicts himself with these two statements.If not for Serena, Maria, Davenport, Mauresmo and Clijsters, could all be potential Hall of Fame locks.

He doesnt really.. He was talking about the players who turned pro after 2000. Besides, I think all these players are already locks for HOF, pretty much, specially Lindsay and Maria.

serenafan08
Jul 15th, 2010, 09:52 PM
Isn't Evert an 18 GS champion? Also Serena is 3-4 against JH in majors

But she's 1-0 in major finals. :D And anyways 13 majors > 7 majors regardless of head-to-head. JH isn't even in the conversation.

shoryuken
Jul 15th, 2010, 09:56 PM
But she's 1-0 in major finals. :D And anyways 13 majors > 7 majors regardless of head-to-head. JH isn't even in the conversation.

Oh yes of course :) I was just pointing out that the article made a mistake saying she was 2-4 when it's actually 3-4

Donny
Jul 15th, 2010, 09:57 PM
He doesnt really.. He was talking about the players who turned pro after 2000. Besides, I think all these players are already locks for HOF, pretty much, specially Lindsay and Maria.

To argue that Sabatini, a one slam winner, could have been an all time great if not for Graf, but refusing to do the same for Serena's rivals, smacks of bias. Critics do the same re Federer.

serenafan08
Jul 15th, 2010, 09:58 PM
Oh yes of course :) I was just pointing out that the article made a mistake saying she was 2-4 when it's actually 3-4

:lol: Haha my bad...I'll back off. I was like, why is JH being brought up? I'm not letting somebody trash my thread damnit! :angel: All is well.

miffedmax
Jul 15th, 2010, 09:58 PM
The whole GOAT conversation is pointless anyway.

shoryuken
Jul 15th, 2010, 09:59 PM
:lol: Haha my bad...I'll back off. I was like, why is JH being brought up? I'm not letting somebody trash my thread damnit! :angel: All is well.

NP I should have quoted the article LOL I love Serena

Mr.Sharapova
Jul 15th, 2010, 10:01 PM
I totally agree with this Article!!

terjw
Jul 15th, 2010, 10:02 PM
Very good article that I agree with. You can't really compare the greatest players from different eras since there were different problems to overcome. But you can have opinions and do it for fun.

One thing not stated was that when comparing greats - why do the greats of yesterday always have to be whisked forward in time and predicted how they would do now. It is my belief that Serena would very likely be greater than Graf, Nav, Evert, Court etc if they were born in this era. But if Serena had been born in their eras - whisked back in time - I think Serena would really struggle against the greats then. Serena's biggest strength is her serve. Imagine if she was playing in the days of wooden rackets.

Different eras - different problems.

Betten
Jul 15th, 2010, 10:04 PM
To argue that Sabatini, a one slam winner, could have been an all time great if not for Graf, but refusing to do the same for Serena's rivals, smacks of bias. Critics do the same re Federer.

He only states she would have won more slams. I guess you could make a similar argument for Venus though, since she did lose to Serena in four consecutive GS finals.

I always like Tignor's articles. Unlike those of, say Peter Bodo, he tries to stay fair and objective, and he usually succeeds.

The ESPN version of the article is better by the way - most errors have been corrected.

DefyingGravity
Jul 15th, 2010, 10:09 PM
The Serena-Henin debate for greatest of the generation is almost mirroring the Federer-Nadal debate.

If you take out the French Open meetings, then it's Serena at 3-2. That only proves that on Justine's best surface and Serena's worst, she's better than Serena. On anything else, they're even. In a neutral arena (let's call that Wimbledon), they're tied 1-1. At the U.S. Open, Serena got outplayed and the head to head is 1-0 Henin there.

But head to head doesn't matter. Nadal leads Federer by a pretty decent margin, and Federer is the greatest of all time.

Edit: Thanks for the correction.

Donny
Jul 15th, 2010, 10:12 PM
Very good article that I agree with. You can't really compare the greatest players from different eras since there were different problems to overcome. But you can have opinions and do it for fun.

One thing not stated was that when comparing greats - why do the greats of yesterday always have to be whisked forward in time and predicted how they would do now. It is my belief that Serena would very likely be greater than Graf, Nav, Evert, Court etc if they were born in this era. But if Serena had been born in their eras - whisked back in time - I think Serena would really struggle against the greats then. Serena's biggest strength is her serve. Imagine if she was playing in the days of wooden rackets.

Different eras - different problems.

It all depends on what you consider the better form of tennis. It'd be a bit like asking if Jordan would be as good if he played in the pre shot clock, pre three point shot era. Undoubtedly not, but I don't consider that kind of basketball to be as good as the modern game. That's why those changes were made in the first place.

shoryuken
Jul 15th, 2010, 10:17 PM
The Serena-Henin debate for greatest of the generation is almost mirroring the Federer-Nadal debate.

If you take out the French Open meetings, then it's tied at 2-2.

It would be 3-2 Serena. Serena beat her at US Open in 2001 7-5 6-0

spencercarlos
Jul 15th, 2010, 10:22 PM
Overall a fair, and accurate article. As great as Serena is, she has not yet matched the accomplishments of: Court, Graf, Navratilova, Wills-Moody, or Evert. Court and King played many more tournaments than today's players and they did bring along coaches, sports psychologists, or physical trainers. The couldn't afford them!
Serena not only that she does not match the GS singles record, but she is also incredibly low in the list in the other events won category. That includes YEC, and other events in general.

Miami is probably the only other place where Serena has excelled.

Shepster
Jul 15th, 2010, 10:26 PM
One thing not stated was that when comparing greats - why do the greats of yesterday always have to be whisked forward in time and predicted how they would do now. It is my belief that Serena would very likely be greater than Graf, Nav, Evert, Court etc if they were born in this era. But if Serena had been born in their eras - whisked back in time - I think Serena would really struggle against the greats then. Serena's biggest strength is her serve. Imagine if she was playing in the days of wooden rackets.

Different eras - different problems.
I always said on the men's side a few years ago "The idea of a clay court specialist like Nadal taking Sampras on the skiddy 90s grass to 5 sets is just as laughable as the idea of a serve on legs like Richard Krajicek beating Federer in straights on the slower, high bouncing grass of today - and both get their asses pwned by Borg on the 70s grass with wooden rackets".

The thing is Hingis was pretty much the last of the players to have initially used a wooden racket when learning to play. One thing I miss about the rain delays at wimbledon is some of the stuff they filled them with. They had Navratilova a few years ago illustrating how people nowadays can hit winners off the last string and have no idea of a sweet spot - the technique is totally different. Only those players of today with the most immaculate timing would have a/be able to adjust their technique to stand up to scrutiny prior to the mid-80s, and the girls from back then would have a power boost and ridiculous accuracy just with the change of equipment.

It works both ways though, Serena's serve is insane now, but I don't even want to contemplate what it would have been like in the early 90s with that grass to help it along :eek:.

Mixal
Jul 15th, 2010, 10:49 PM
Every player, obviously, is a product of his or her era.

It all comes down to this. I never understood GOAT obsession, especially in tennis. Serena is already one of the greatest and she can only go up, that's all it matters.

I think the point he was trying to make with Sabatini and others is that there would always be one player who is clearly better than the others, while today there would be a couple of players who are pretty much equally good.

The Serena-Henin debate for greatest of the generation is almost mirroring the Federer-Nadal debate.

I don't think this comparison is even close. F-N 7-14 (Nadal leads 10–2 on clay, Federer leads 2–1 on grass, they are tied (3–3) on hard courts), while Serena is 8-6.

Gdsimmons
Jul 15th, 2010, 10:55 PM
Good article. Serena is CLEARLY best right now and the best of her generation. No question. Is she the greatest ever? No. Im one of her biggest fans and I can accept that. But she is ONE of the greatest. Just not the greatest

spencercarlos
Jul 15th, 2010, 11:05 PM
Loved this part.
If Graf had never existed, Gabriela Sabatini would likely have been a five-six-seven-time Slam winner rather than a one-timer.

One of the greatest articles regarding this topic. :worship:

dsanders06
Jul 16th, 2010, 04:28 AM
Excellent article. :worship: You're not going to get a much higher-rated tennis writer than Tignor. As he says, Serena remains firmly in the second-tier of greats.

Volcana
Jul 16th, 2010, 04:42 AM
Thoughtful, but a bit muddled in places.The perfect answer.

Volcana
Jul 16th, 2010, 04:49 AM
Very good article that I agree with. You can't really compare the greatest players from different eras since there were different problems to overcome. But you can have opinions and do it for fun.

One thing not stated was that when comparing greats - why do the greats of yesterday always have to be whisked forward in time and predicted how they would do now. It is my belief that Serena would very likely be greater than Graf, Nav, Evert, Court etc if they were born in this era. But if Serena had been born in their eras - whisked back in time - I think Serena would really struggle against the greats then. Serena's biggest strength is her serve. Imagine if she was playing in the days of wooden rackets.

Different eras - different problems.Serena wouldn't have been allowed to play in a lot of places she's won in Margaret Court's era. Talk about a 'different problem'!!!

Serena's serve with wooden rackets wouldn't be as fearsome. But, OTOH, playing 75% of the tournament on grass..... Her serve would sure like that! Simple truth, the double-digit slam women were all among the very best athletes of their era. Move them around in time, and they'd still be competitve, because they's still be great athletes. Margaret Court wouldn't win 24 slams if she was born in 1980. But she's still be a better thinker, a better tactician, a better shotmaker, than 99% of the players today. And she could hit the ball damn hard with the glorified squash rackets they used in those days. She'd be, perhaps, at worst, Martina Hingis.

spencercarlos
Jul 16th, 2010, 06:16 AM
To argue that Sabatini, a one slam winner, could have been an all time great if not for Graf, but refusing to do the same for Serena's rivals, smacks of bias. Critics do the same re Federer.
Where does it say Sabatini would be "all time great" :confused:. At least for my concept all time greats are the most dominant players in the game.

Federer is GOAT by his own records. He hold the record of grand slams. He is one week shy of the weeks at #1. Held 3 grand slams in 3 different seasons (2004, 2006, 2007), won Wimbledon and the Usopen 5 years in a row, reached 20 of 23 Grand Slam finals, and reached 23 straight GS semis at least from 2004 to 2010, won like 60 events IMO... :worship: Do you think Serena even compares to something like this? :tape:

HRHoliviasmith
Jul 16th, 2010, 06:31 AM
Good article. Serena is CLEARLY best right now and the best of her generation. No question. Is she the greatest ever? No. Im one of her biggest fans and I can accept that. But she is ONE of the greatest. Just not the greatest

:worship::worship::worship:

MistyGrey
Jul 16th, 2010, 08:41 AM
To argue that Sabatini, a one slam winner, could have been an all time great if not for Graf, but refusing to do the same for Serena's rivals, smacks of bias. Critics do the same re Federer.

The thing is, Graf actually stopped Gaby from winning multiple slams. Take away Graf and Sabatini does end up with around 5,6 slams. She was a constant threat at every major from late 80s to early 90s, reaching the later stages consistently. Could say the same about Novotna, but to a lesser extent. Take away Serena, and I still dont see a lot of slams from players who turned pro after 2000. Maybe USO 2008 for Jankovic.

serenafan08
Jul 16th, 2010, 03:13 PM
The thing is, Graf actually stopped Gaby from winning multiple slams. Take away Graf and Sabatini does end up with around 5,6 slams. She was a constant threat at every major from late 80s to early 90s, reaching the later stages consistently. Could say the same about Novotna, but to a lesser extent. Take away Serena, and I still dont see a lot of slams from players who turned pro after 2000. Maybe USO 2008 for Jankovic.

Venus is the player that has suffered most because of Serena. She's 2-6 against Serena in major finals. Add those six to her seven majors now and she'd be the one with 13 Grand Slams. Now only would she have 13 majors, but she'd have 8 Wimbledons instead of 5, putting her up there with Graf and Navratilova.

kiwifan
Jul 16th, 2010, 03:25 PM
The whole GOAT conversation is pointless anyway.

Not if you're a Serena fan. :nerner:

It becomes an amusing pastime used to tweak the haters into a minor frenzy. :devil:

We remember quotes from the early days with a smile...a wicked smile...almost like old video of stuck up middle aged men attacking Rock n Roll in the 50s and 60s. ;)

It feels so good being on the correct side of history while having ample evidence of those on the wrong side.:p Almost worth enduring every insult...we were the dumb ones who didn't understand tennis/only cheered for them cuz they were black/won't be around for long...

...it is nice to be in that place where anything Serena does is icing on the cake...

...and it looks like she cares about the icing. :cool:

MistyGrey
Jul 16th, 2010, 03:36 PM
Venus is the player that has suffered most because of Serena. She's 2-6 against Serena in major finals. Add those six to her seven majors now and she'd be the one with 13 Grand Slams. Now only would she have 13 majors, but she'd have 8 Wimbledons instead of 5, putting her up there with Graf and Navratilova.

No question about that. But Venus is great as things stand. The writer was making a point about people who turned pro after 2000.Even if you remove Serena, you still only get one multiple GS champion from that generation of players.

ivanban
Jul 16th, 2010, 04:27 PM
I never understood why WS fans need to bring to GM every possible complimentary article and WS haters every negative article about them :weirdo:

disposablehero
Jul 16th, 2010, 05:04 PM
That`s pretty fair. At 29 she`s not really light years ahead of what Monica accomplished by 19 and a half.

serenafan08
Jul 16th, 2010, 08:21 PM
I never understood why WS fans need to bring to GM every possible complimentary article and WS haters every negative article about them :weirdo:

:shrug: I'm a Williams fan and I started the thread. I actually agree with it. Does that make me a hater? :rolleyes: She's not the GOAT, but she's the best of this generation by far.

fammmmedspin
Jul 16th, 2010, 09:06 PM
“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.

A pretty thorough demolition of Wertheim's non argument. You could add the argument Navratilova floated at Wimbledon which pointed out that Serena's success is unlike anyone elses as she is the only contender for GOAT who doesn't play a full tour schedule and hasn't backed up her GS wins with weeks at number one or tournament totals. She also made the point that GS were not always in the past seen as being as important as those other things - like being number one or being the YEC champion. She then made the point with Sue Barker that everyone in the older periods had to play more because prize money for GS wasn't as it is now. Wertheim is essentially comparing a GS specialist with people who played the tour because the rules, health of the tour and their finances meant they had to.
If you wanted to compare like with like you not only would have to set a level playing field on training, equipment, and experience but you would have to pick what ranking and seeding rules were being playing under and whether the financial incentives were ones that required people to play a lot outside GS or allowed them not to. You would have to decide whether everyone would be playing Serena's schedule or she would be playing under older rules that would penalise not playing. Put her against a Navratilova or Graf with games tailored to play her, with the same equipment and with everyone starting on a level playing field of fitness and match tiredness and I don't think its clear at all that Serena would beat them.
As for the assertion that tennis today is more competitive - it is - but the standard and or consistency of most of the top 20 is so low that this isn't a good thing. The point about even the nineties was that there were always players who could put up a good fight and win a GS final or who could take it close and who could do that over a decent period of years. The point about the 90s post peak Capriati, Davenport, Myskina, Clijsters and Henin is that hardly anyone but Serena can win a slam and the few that do tend to disolve down the rankings and cease being threats almost as soon as they do. In a one horse race, where the horse has also been resting up for only that race, there's often only going to be one winner