Serena has ideal blend of body and mind
Tennis great still has more work to do
In my spare time I like to read "Human Anatomy and Physiology." (NOT!) It's a study guide for pre-med students. On the cover of the seventh edition, you'll find Serena Williams. The book explains how the human body works at its simplest and most complex levels -- with a lot more in between that your doctor could explain far better than me.
Williams, who incidentally has been winning majors since I was in college, gracing the cover illustrates what most tennis fans and athletes understand: Serena's body functions at the highest levels. In her 20 years on the WTA Tour, her body has withstood the hard, grass and clay courts. And while the course guide doesn't say Serena has the perfect human body (in fact other athletes have graced the cover as well) it does intimate that it's rare to see the exceptional ability of the human body on display. Except, in Serena's case, we've been witnessing it for 20 years.
When I think of other female athletes who rival in dominance but not necessarily in duration, names like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Steffi Graf and Lisa Leslie come to mind. These women were the "firsts" in some category; they broke or hold records in their sport. But none of these women have what Serena Williams has. I'll tell you what "it" is in a moment, but first I'll share why I believe she is the most dominant athlete of all time.
As impressive as Williams' physical ability is, it's not as great as her mental ability. I was always told that if you want to be great, you must have amnesia. The greats all have the ability to fight and forget the mistake in order to make the next play.
Double fault? Next point. Forehand long? Next point. Down a break? Next point!
Serena's mental makeup helps her beat her opponent before she even gets on the court. She walks onto the court knowing she will win the match. Serena once said after she loses a match it's almost as if it didn't happen. Losing a match feels surreal. Can you imagine?
The only other athletes I know of who had that visible mental ability were Mike Tyson and Michael Jordan. At the height of Tyson's career, his opponents were terrified and you could see it in their eyes. The fight was always won mentally before physically. Jordan was known as the best mastermind and trash talker in the league. He would beat you with his mouth and mental game before he dropped 40!
Serena won her first singles major in 1999 and holds the most major singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles combined among active players, male or female. Her 36 major titles puts her fifth on the all-time list. If she wins the US Open next month she will complete a calendar Grand Slam. She will also tie Graf for the most Grand Slam singles titles won by a woman in the Open era with 22.
Serena's numbers are amazing, but I still tried to make the case for other athletes in other sports. But no one compared to Serena.
Remember I told you I would share what "it" is about Serena that makes her great? Well, what Serena has is simple -- the combination of body and mind.
Add to that her amazing level of success, and she simply is the greatest female athlete of all time.
Two issues immediately come to mind when we debate whether or not tennis star Serena Williams is the greatest female athlete ever.
First, by "greatest," do we mean most famous? Or most accomplished? Or something even more subjective: a measure of the person's actual athleticism? Or is it some mix of all of the above?
The second issue is that when this topic is broached in the mainstream media, it often reveals a dearth of working knowledge about women's sports history. That is especially the case, I think, in regard to women's team sports, which don't have especially long professional histories.
With the WNBA now in its 19th season, though, that is changing, at least in regard to basketball. Admittedly, that makes it difficult to judge the hoops legends of the past with those who've had a chance to play in the WNBA, because their opportunities and visibility were so dramatically different.
Taking all this into account, I'm not of the mindset to proclaim Williams as the "greatest female athlete ever" at this point -- although there is no doubt she is very high on my list.
But so are a handful of basketball players, including Diana Taurasi. Right now, I would put Taurasi at the top in hoops, based on many factors -- her ability to stockpile championships at every level (college, WNBA, overseas, international), her on-court versatility, and her reputation as one of the best teammates of all time.
Speaking of versatility, there's Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who was a basketball standout at UCLA, before launching one of the greatest careers in track and field history.
JJK competed in four Olympics, including her peak at the 1988 Seoul Games, when she took gold in both the heptathlon and the long jump. When it comes to sheer ability to do just about anything athletically, JJK had Babe Didrikson Zaharias cred (and, yes, the Babe is obviously also high on the "greatest-ever" list.)
Lindsey Vonn may be underrated because she has "only" one Olympic gold. But her World Cup success -- a much more accurate measure of a skier's ability and consistency -- puts her with the all-time Alpine greats.
Back to team sports, Mia Hamm stands out for her offensive wizardry on the pitch. Plus, she remains one of the most recognizable female athletes, even 11 years after her retirement. And in volleyball, Kerri Walsh Jennings has been a longtime superstar at both the indoor and sand games, teaming with Misty May-Treanor for three consecutive Olympic gold medals on the beach.
I know the point here is to debate the greatest, not compile a list of greats. But that's why I think you can't yet put Williams at the very top of women's sports history now. She's still asserting herself at the top of her own sport.
If Williams wins the US Open, she matches Steffi Graf with a calendar Grand Slam and with 22 major titles, two behind Margaret Court. Graf is still the only woman to have won at least four titles in all four majors, although if Williams wins another French Open, she'll match that, too.
In the end, picking right now for "greatest ever female athlete," I go with Joyner-Kersee. If Williams tops her on fame alone in most minds, so be it. But I still think Williams has a little more to accomplish for that designation.