What if ... Graf played Serena?
Editor's note: Our weeklong series of "What If …" scenarios are only hypothetical. We understand that a matchup of players from different generations comes with its share of things to take into consideration, such as the advancement of technology and the slowing of court surfaces in today's game. Some of these head-to-heads have an actual, albeit brief, history, while one player was winding down his or her career; thus, we're not taking those into consideration. For the sake of this series, we're assuming both parties are playing each other at their peak. It's just for fun, so enjoy and let us know who you think would win.
Matchup: Steffi Graf versus Serena Williams
Venue: Australian Open
Case for Steffi Graf: Of all the matchups this week, this might be the toughest to predict and the one that leads to the most consternation. It's like those fight-to-the-death debates between Superman and Batman. It's really about personal preference, meaning this battle for supremacy might never truly be settled.
Graf is one of the three greatest players of all time. There's no question about it. And for what it's worth, her career credentials suggest she could be the best, that is, if 22 Slams, 107 titles and 377 weeks as the world No. 1 mean anything. Those 107 titles, by the way, are more than twice as many as Serena has to date.
But their numbers at the Aussie Open are pretty even: Graf won four titles there and strung together a spectacular 47-6 career record. For Williams, she has five titles and a 54-7 record.
So what would separate the two Down Under? Even though Graf crushed her forehand with more punch than perhaps anyone who ever played, she would have a difficult time matching Serena's overall power. However, the slower courts at the Aussie Open today would help neutralize a lot of Serena's pace and allow Graf to leverage her athleticism, which was and still is second to no one's, not even Serena's. Playing against Serena in Oz would be a true test of endurance, and that's where Graf would have the edge.
For a three-year span at the Aussie Open (1988-1990), Graf lost a total of one set (one!). That also happened to coincide with one of the most dominant stretches of individual play in the history of the game. Graf won eight Slams in nine events and, in 1988, pulled off the Golden Slam, a spectacular feat that included winning all four majors and the Olympics. It was an unparalleled display of overwhelming opponents and assimilating to different venues and surfaces without a single slipup.
Graf was emotionless on the court, often aloof off it. There were no histrionics, no games. You would never, ever see on-court meltdowns like we've (famously) seen out of Serena. Graf was fiercely dedicated to her mission, the mission of winning.
Case for Serena Williams: Let's be honest here: When Rafael Nadal lost early at Wimbledon, were you completely shocked? And are you really all that surprised Roger Federer has made only one Slam semifinal this year? Probably not. But when Serena lost in the quarterfinals of the Aussie Open and the fourth round at Wimbledon, it felt like the Earth had shifted, if just a little.
That's how truly awesome Serena's past year has been. She had won 34 consecutive matches amid the best stretch of her career. She was, and is, expected to win every tournament she plays. When the US Open rolls around in a few weeks, name one player who you think has a legitimate shot at upsetting Serena? That doesn't mean she won't lose, but you might not want to wager your house or any other valuable treasures on it.
Yes, Serena lost to Sloane Stephens in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open this year, and she hasn't won Down Under since 2010 (she didn't play in 2011), but as a five-time champ, who wants to mess with her? And though Serena doesn't have the competition in today's game to rival what Graf would bring to the court, not one player has been able to beat the 16-time Slam champ consistently.
This includes power players like Venus Williams, who hasn't had a significant string of success against her sister since the outset of their careers in the late 90's/early 2000's, and stalwarts like Justine Henin, who had six wins over Serena, but four of which came on clay during an era when Serena wasn't expected to win on dirt.
Most great players seem to have some kind of kryptonite, whether it's a singular opponent, a surface or a style of play. If you look back at Serena's past couple of years, her losses have been mere aberrations: Sabine Lisicki on grass, Victoria Azarenka on hard courts, Virginie Razzano on clay and a just a handful more. In other words, it's fair to chalk these setbacks, which have been far and few, to her own poor play.
By now, most players who are Serena's age (31) are declining. But Serena? She's 80-7 since the beginning of 2011. That's kind of ridiculous when you think about it. Even with Graf at the pinnacle of her game, it's hard to believe she could handle the horsepower coming off Serena's racket -- especially the most prodigious serve the game has ever seen.
Brad Gilbert verdict: The thing that jumps out at me is that there have never been two greater athletes to play this game -- maybe in any sport. You're talking about arguably the greatest female athletes of the 20th century against the best of the 21st century.
Even though Steffi dominated on the hard courts, her chances of beating Serena with any kind of regularity would be on clay. But even then, it would be hard to defend Serena's power. To me, that would be a popcorn match; each would win five out of 10.
On any kind of faster court, it's still a great matchup of offense and movement, but with all that power from Serena, especially on the serve, she's a favorite.