In tennis, every great champion needs a foil
Don't hold Serena's dominance against her
Tennis is a game of rivalries: King-Court, Laver-Rosewall, Agassi-Sampras, Federer-Nadal, Chrissie-Martina. ...
Nobody talks about Bjorn Borg's 1980 Wimbledon title as much as the great Borg-John McEnroe final. Nor Roger Federer's '07 Wimbledon title, but rather the epic Federer-Rafael Nadal final.
Serena Williams only twice played Steffi Graf, the player whose modern-day record of 22 Grand Slam singles titles she is chasing. Those two matches came the same year (1999) in which Williams would win her first Grand Slam and Graf would win her last, and each beat the other once.
But any semblance of a real rivalry is largely left to our imaginations, which is the same that can be said for Williams' entire career.
Is it just a further sign of her greatness that she will no doubt retire without a player or two having consistently pushed her? Probably. Is it fair to knock her for being born too late to challenge Evert or Navratilova? Of course not. Just as it's not fair to use the horrific stabbing of Monica Seles in 1993 as a way to diminish Graf's legacy.
But the lack of a serious rival is still a void in Serena's career, most of the drama creations of her own making rather than of anyone across the net.
Her one shot at a great rivalry -- with sister Venus -- was complicated and ultimately diminished by the fact that the two are best friends as well as siblings. Serena leads the series 14-11, but arguably 10 of those matches were not competitive. After that, everything else is a stretch.
Serena vs. Maria Sharapova? All off-court stuff. On-court, it's 17-2 Serena. Caroline Wozniacki? It's 10-1 Serena. Victoria Azarenka was considered Williams' toughest challenger for a while, but Serena has beaten her in 15 of 18 meetings.
Sam Stosur has defeated Williams three times, once in the 2011 US Open final, but trails the series 8-3. Kim Clijsters faced Williams nine times and beat her in the 2002 Tour Championships and the 2009 US Open semis. That's it.
And then there was Martina Hingis, who did manage to go 6-7 against Serena. But Williams won two of their three meetings in Slams, with both victories coming in straight sets, including the '99 US Open final.
Just another sign of Serena's dominance? Clearly. But does it still feel like there's something missing from her career? No denying it.
It's a week with seven days, so that must mean it's time for an "Is Serena Williams as good as she seems?" debate. It doesn't feel like tennis season unless we're questioning the greatness of Serena at least once a week. At this point, the questions are getting rather predictable and boring.
Basing Serena's case for being the greatest of all time on the caliber of her peers is like judging a high-performance car on a go-kart track. Will you say the car wasn't fast enough because the other vehicles around it moved at a snail's pace? I think not. That's because greatness is greatness no matter the mediocrity that surrounds it.
Let's not be silly here, either. It's not like Serena plays against a bunch of scrubs. Her field consists of world-class tennis players who've studied the game their entire lives. Is it Serena's fault their skills are lacking in comparison with hers? Is it her fault they can't get on her level? Is it her fault she makes dominance look easy? No. Then why should her legacy suffer?
If we're using her competition to weaken her case for being the greatest of all time, why don't we go a step further with the crazy talk. Let's say Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert were better players because they didn't have the high-tech equipment Williams plays with. Or Serena can't be the greatest because she has more advanced training techniques available to her than players of the past did. Sounds crazy, right? That's how it sounds when the lack of rivalry conversation pops up.
Let's put it this way: What more can Serena do?
She's been the No. 1 tennis player in the world for 117 consecutive weeks, and for 241 weeks during her career. She's one of the most recognizable athletes, male or female, on the globe. She's a cultural icon. And she has passed Evert, Navratilova and Billie Jean King in Grand Slam titles. And she's still going. Four more major titles, and she will claim the all-time record, surpass Steffi Graf and hopefully silence the haters.
Then maybe, just maybe, we won't have to write another one of these columns for at least a month or two.