Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Why Serena Williams is Not the Best Ever

By Brad Oremland

Less than six months ago, on the heels of her Australian Open win, I wrote that Serena Williams "now must be regarded among the very best women ever to play." That didn't seem particularly controversial to me at the time, but any shock value it may have boasted has certainly been deflated by the recent assertion, from Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim, that Williams is now the single greatest female player in history.

With all due respect to Wertheim, who several years ago was probably the best tennis writer on the planet, that's crazy. Not questionable, not silly, but laughable, totally untenable, and bat guano cray-cray.

Let me prove this. Serena is certainly an all-time great, but she's clearly still behind, say, Steffi Graf. It's not like these two played in radically different eras; they were contemporaries. Serena has won 13 Grand Slam singles titles. That's great, but Steffi won 22. Williams won the French Open only once, in 2002 and has never been as effective on clay as she was on other surfaces. Graf won every Slam at least four times and for years was the world's best player on every surface. Serena has held the top WTA ranking for 120 weeks. Graf held it for 377. Williams has won 37 singles titles, compared to 107 for Graf.

Look, if these numbers were close, maybe I could be persuaded that flukes, changes in the game, or even different priorities could account for the difference between them. But it's not close. Serena, as wonderfully as she has played, has not been as dominant as Graf was at her peak, has not been great as consistently, and has not been great for as long.

1) Serena has not been as dominant as Graf was at her peak.

Williams had her best year in 2002, when she put together 3/4 of her "Serena Slam," winning all four Grand Slam events in succession. Since then, she has won consecutive slams only once, and her dominance has never extended to clay. Serena is so good that she is a threat on any surface, but she has never been the best in the world on clay.

Graf's best year was obviously 1988, when she won a Grand Slam, actually stringing together five straight slams and eight out of nine (she was runner-up at the 1989 French Open). In the late-'80s and again following Monica Seles' stabbing, Graf was easily and indisputably the most dangerous female player in the world, on all surfaces.

2) Serena has not been great as consistently as Graf.

Williams won her first slam in 1999. Her next win came in 2002, when she absolutely dominated the women's game, taking five slams in 2002-03. Over the next three years, she won a single Slam, the 2005 Australian Open. In 2000, 2001, 2004, and 2006, she failed to win even one slam as a singles player. She did win slams in '07 and '08, a year and a half apart.

Graf won at least one slam for 10 years in a row, from 1987-96. She won at least three slams in a row five times (1988-89, 1989-90, 1993, 1995, 1996).

3) Serena has not been great for as long as Graf.

Steffi won singles titles at Roland Garros in 1987 and 1999, 12 years apart. Serena won her first slam, at the '99 US Open, less than 11 years ago, and didn't become a consistent winner until 2002, less than a decade past.

It is true that Williams has at least one advantage over Graf: she is a more accomplished doubles player. It's also true, though, that we haven't mentioned Graf's gold and silver Olympic medals as a singles player, compared to Serena's zero. On top of all this, I don't even believe Graf is the greatest women's player in history. I think Martina Navratilova is.

The argument for Williams rests on the assumption that the quality of tennis play has improved over time, and since Williams is the best now, she must be the best ever. That's true as far as it goes. I don't doubt that players are better now than ever before. That makes "best ever" arguments absurd, though. By that reasoning, Caroline Wozniacki is better than Margaret Court.

Graf was clearly the greatest player of her era, as reflected in her number of singles titles, slams, and weeks at number one. Williams does lead her contemporaries in slams, but she's sixth in singles titles (behind Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Venus Williams, and Justine Henin, and tied with Kim Clijsters). Serena also has fewer weeks with the top ranking than Hingis, and she's basically equal with Henin, despite the latter's retirement at a time she held the top ranking.

It would be ludicrous to pretend that Serena Williams is not a great player, among the greatest ever. It is equally absurd, though, to pretend that she has surpassed the likes of Graf and Navratilova to lay claim to the title of best ever.

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