"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 such as 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 Men's Health and tried to get a "Six-pack in six days" knows, magazine covers are all about exaggeration.
But once we're inside the article, 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, Graf, Navratilova and Evert? Let's look at the arguments:
"Williams plays in a far more competitive and demanding era."
The game is more globalized than ever, 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. Yes, Court won many Aussie Opens against weak competition, but Serena has won Slam finals against some less-than-Olympian names: Safina, Jankovic, Zvonareva. As far as "demanding" goes, it's true that the sport is more physical now, but each of those former champions played more matches per season than Serena does now.
More important, though, is that the level of competition in every era is skewed by the level of dominance of the top player. If Graf had never existed, Gabriela Sabatini likely would have been a five-, six- or seven-time Slam winner rather than a one-timer. While Serena has been far and away the best player of the past decade and her era, she has not dominated the best player not named Williams, Justine Henin. Serena is 8-6 overall against Henin and just 2-4 at the majors. The bottom line: In each era, these women 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 Williams is also an all-time great, and it's a unique psychological struggle for Serena. But Navratilova had to beat 18-time Slam winner Evert over and over, while 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 doubles gold medals."
The Williams sisters will go down as one of the greatest doubles team of all time. But I don't think bringing doubles into this conversation is going to help her cause here. Court won 19 doubles Slams and 19 mixed Slams. Navratilova won 177 doubles titles in total. As for the Olympics, Graf owns a singles gold while Serena doesn't.
"She's been winning them since she was 17."
Graf won her first Slam at 17, and her last at 29, which is how old Serena will be in a few months. There's no doubt that Serena can win them for years to come, and her longevity could eventually make her the greatest player ever. But during her 20s she wasn't as dominant as Graf. Graf 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 2002-03, Williams has never won three in a season (which could change this year). Before last year, she hadn't won two in a single season.
"The most important stroke in tennis is the serve, and Williams' 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. Does that mean we should ignore his results and hand him the No. 1 ranking every year? Plus, Graf and Navratilova had the most effective serves of their eras.
"If you matched tennis' female legends head-to-head -- all at their best, with identical equipment -- Williams wouldn't just beat the others; she'd crush them."
The GOAT debate is an unfair discussion to begin with. Rod Laver said he had no clue how many Slams he had won when he retired; he never thought about it. But we don't need to make it any more unfair than it needs to be. Yes, Serena would crush Court and Evert (although I'm not sure about her demolishing Navratilova or Graf every time out), but I would also say that the 100th-ranked man right now could beat calendar-year Grand Slam winner Don Budge -- at his best, with identical equipment -- like a drum. Does that make No. 100 from 2010 a greater player and champion than Budge? Or Bill Tilden? Or Pancho 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. Just as 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 enough to beat her.
A few final items:
Slam totals are what we generally go by to judge all-time greatness. But there are other markers of dominance. There's time spent at No. 1: Graf finished eight seasons there; Williams has done it twice. There are total titles: Navratilova ended with 167; 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.
Let me finish by saying that none of this is a knock on Serena. She's the best of this generation and a tremendous athlete to watch. She has never been too concerned with the No. 1 ranking or total titles, and she hasn't shown the relentless, long-term, week-to-week drive for dominance that characterized Graf and Navratilova. 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 eighth major. It will be a good cover line then, just like it is now. But that doesn't mean it will be true.