Why Serena Williams is Not the Best Ever

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.

Comments and Conversation

July 28, 2010

Tennis fan:

Let’s be clear: Serena doesn’t have as many singles titles as Graf because she doesn’t care to. Tennis has never been her singular, absolute focus unlike Graf and Martina. She has gone long periods without playing, something that Graf never did, but can bounce back and dominate with frightening results. If Serena cared about being number one for the number of weeks as Graf, I am sure that she could achieve the numer. The reality is that it’s not as important to her and she’s always acknowledged it.

Lastly, Graf was superb; her tennis exceptional but let’s not forget, as Evert has articulated on numerous occassions, that her greatest competion — one who owned her until the stabbing — was weakened physically and mentally due to the trageday and, as such, she no longer had to contend with Seles. A little context is important, right?

July 28, 2010

Salah:

if Martina N. says # arent the only factor, do you think your opinion matters much?

July 28, 2010

Bob:

Ermmm hello? MONICA SELES… Navratilova has to be the best ever

July 28, 2010

Randall Keith Lolis:

Go, Serena, get well soon. Lets win some more in tennis, so you are and will stay the greatest.

July 28, 2010

beverley:

WILLIAMS FANS UNITE!!!!
Tennis Fan, your response just made my day. It was very well written!

July 28, 2010

Brad Oremland:

Tennis fan,

If you want to argue that Serena’s relative lack of titles is due to her commitment to other activities, that’s a reasonable point, but she hasn’t been skipping Slams to pursue acting. It seems like what you’re arguing is that Serena COULD have been the best ever if she was more committed to tennis, and that’s not the same thing as *being* the best.

Who knows what Monica Seles might have accomplished if she hadn’t been stabbed? Maybe Martina Hingis would be regarded as the best ever if racket techonology had never improved. Hey, Jackie Joyner-Kersee probably would have been an awesome tennis player if she cared to try. I’m giving credit for what Serena *is*, not what she might have been if she tried harder.

I’m not trying to down Serena Williams. She is a great player, clearly among the best all-time. But she hasn’t accomplished nearly as much as Court, Evert, Graf, Navratilova… she has lacked their consistency, and her dominance has never extended to clay. Serena is still the best player in the world, so I’m not saying she can’t move up the ranks, but to argue that she has already established herself as the greatest of all time, I think, is ludicrous. It’s a completely untenable position.

July 28, 2010

Tyron Harris:

I think that Jon Wertheim did Serena a great injustice. While he meant well to laud Serena for her prowess, even she herself does not say that she is the greatest of all time. Is she the greatest of this generation- without question. But even at Wimbledon, when Mary Carillo attempted to format Serena’s prospect to join the ranks of Martina, Steffi, and Chris, Serena immediately dismissed it. I just want her to keep playing and doing what she does best- dominate

July 28, 2010

chad:

Serena will never have the numbers that Graf has to be considered the best by sheer numbers, furthermore she’s not even close to chris evert, martina and margaret court. However, if you consider complete strokes, forehand backhand, serve, return, volleys etc., Serena is definitely the best ever. Graf had a weakness, which was the backhand side. Serena doesn’t really have a weakness in her game and her serve is the best ever in women’s tennis. Another point to consider is that in 91 and 92, Graf was being flat out beaten by Monica Seles, who was Graf’s biggest competition. The only reason why Graf had a second period of dominance was not bc her game got better, like Serena’s game did, but bc her biggest competition was taken out of the game by a lunatic that wanted to see Graf back at No. 1.

July 29, 2010

alex:

Um seriously?
First of all, this phrase, “Since then, she has never won consecutive slams,” is wrong. She won the 2008 US Open and 2009 Australian.
Second, this sentence doesn’t make grammatical sense: “Serena has not been great as consistently as Graf.”
Third, this sentence is without proper context: “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.” The USTA didn’t allow Serena to play in 2000. In 2004 she was injured. Thus, her only time playing was in 2008, when she cared more about winning the US Open, which started right after and which she did win.

Also, Serena’s career was seriously affected by Yetunde’s murder. As a friend of hers, I know that from 2004 to 2006 she was not the same person and lost focus in tennis due to trying to understand this horrible event in her life. Venus experienced a similar pain.

Lastly, consider her record in grand slam finals. 13 and 3. This is phenomenal and shows how great she was when she was playing at her peak. By the way, two of these three loses were to Venus, the second best player of this generation.

July 29, 2010

TimE:

Mr write some fact not just your mind..

Serena did won two gran slam in the raw 2008 US open and 2009 Australian Open so put some facts Ok.. we all know you trying to rush Serena

you have to be Tennis legant to do that

July 29, 2010

Dionte Brown:

Lets be clear when Steffi Graf played she had no competition thats y she was so dominate. look at todays players Serena, Venus, Justine, Jelena, Kim Clijsters, Sam Stouser, Maria Sharapova, caroline Wozniaki, elena Dementieva, na li, zheng jie, nadia petrova, victora A, svetlana k, and many more great players. this era is a lot tougher than when steffi played now steffi has more slams and titles, but she didnt have to work as hard as Serena and all of these ladies have to. she won them easy.

Dont get me started on Martina N. She was not that good. she sliced every shot. he is annoying to watch. sure she was good for her time but most def not the best.

Monica Seles is also a great player. She was the only woman that challenged Steffi she she came in she was like a bull o the court.

Serena is in my opinion the best. She may not have as many titles but she is dominating this year. 2 slams and maybe one more. shes not the best on clay but she always makes it far in the tournament (the QF)

August 1, 2010

Brad Oremland:

Chad,

You raise some interesting points, though I don’t agree that even by the criteria you outlined “Serena is definitely the best ever”, and I don’t agree about Seles and Graf. From 91-92, when you say “Graf was being flat out beaten by Monica Seles”, Graf went 3-1 against Seles and won two Slams.

If that was the low point of her prime — which I agree it was — I think she was still doing pretty well. What happened to Seles was a tragedy, but to assume that Graf wouldn’t have been a great player otherwise is a huge leap.


Alex,

You’re right about the ‘08 US Open and ‘09 Australian. The article has been corrected.

Your grammar skills, however, are very much in question — there’s nothing wrong with that phrase — and the rest of your comment is arguing that Serena *could have been* great, not that she was. I’m trying to evaluate players on what they actually *did*, not on what might have happened in an alternate universe where things went differently.

It’s debatable, I think, that Venus is the 2nd-greatest player of this generation. I might argue for Henin or Hingis. It’s close. They’re all terrific.


Dionte,

Some might argue that Graf had *more* competition than Serena: Navrátilová, Evert, Seles, Hingis, Sanchez-Vicario… You prefer today’s players, obviously, but I don’t think it’s at all apparent that Serena has faced tougher competition.

Graf and Serena actually have eight common opponents who have held the #1 ranking: Martina Hingis, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, Amélie Mauresmo, Kim Clijsters, Jennifer Capriati, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, and Venus Williams. Against those players, Graf was 70-24 (.745) and Serena is 64-36 (.640).

Graf and Serena also played each other twice, with each winning once. Altogether Graf is 134-45 (.749) against current Hall of Famers. I don’t see any objective reason to believe that Williams has played better against top opponents than Graf, or faced stiffer competition. In fact, the available evidence seems to suggest otherwise.

Thanks for reading, everyone.

August 1, 2010

pov:

@TimE,
Instead of spending your time focused on Serena Williams it’d probably benefit you to get some books and learn proper English.

August 1, 2010

Alex:

No comparison whatsoever. The best ever are this almost-untouchable group: Graf, Navratilova, Evert, Court, Connelly, Seles - and some might even leave out Seles, although she did a lot in that short span of time from 90-93.

As for Serena, she doesn’t have the tough and DIVERSE competition that Graf and Navratilova had in their respective eras. Today you just have cookie-cutter tennis due to too much racquet technology and overhitting-complex (many say when the williams retire, tennis will stop being held hostage and the real talent, style and tactic will be present on tour again), but anytime before the late 90s, you had to really be prepared to face almost different styles and tactics on the court with each opponent. Serena just has racquet technology and her serve on her side. Look closely and you’ll see she hardly has tactic, dimensions, fundamentals of tennis - REAL tennis. In-between points you can see she is clearly without the aura of a real champion or even athlete. Fitness is nil.

August 3, 2010

Drew pagliari:

Bottom line: Greatest Talent ever = Serena
Greatest Unfulfilled Talent ever = maybe Venus
Greatest Player Ever = probably Martina Nav
And lets not forget Helen Wills Moody and Suzzane Lenghlen back in the day.

Look, its real hard to say who’s the greatest ever, but you have to look at the numbers. We arent talking fh,bh, volley, serve - etc. That’s subjective and a forever debate. And I put that in the category of talent. Physically there’s been no players in history even close to the pure physical ability of both of the sisters. And honestly Im not sure Venus doesnt have an edge over Serena because of her amazing length and yet still retaining her speed and grace. But Serena’s made more of her gifts. You could see that happening when she was young and reading her notes in between points - very serious about being the best she can be.

IMO, what hurt the sisters more than their lack of touranments was their lack of real coaching once they got older. Its scary to think how good they could have been with great footwork, second serves, point construction , etc. Then they might have won more tournaments and slams and definitely been recognized as the greatest ever.

But its not over yet. Serena still moves amazingly fast after all the years and I swear Venus has had some new coaching of late. Better footwork than Ive ever seen from her and a better second serve FINALLY! Maybe with a few breaks she hasnt had all year she will take this years US Open and reassert her own dominance.

August 5, 2010

Eva:

drew, you seriously need to watch some tennis videos of players from the great 90s era, even from before that. Like what many here are saying, look at the technique, the point construction, the tactic, the fitness and movements. You have the best coming from the 90s (up to 1996) and before that because of being truly complete players and simply the definition of tennis. Serena doesn’t have it nor the conduct and aura. Even today, you can see the huge difference between a Justine, Sam Stosur (rare complete players now) and Serena. that is why I agree with how too much is on the equipment for the past decade or so. It doesn’t take a genius to see the huge differences.

August 18, 2010

yosup:

Steffi Graf’s career stats are mind boggling. 31 Grand Slam finals … and she won 22 of those.

Serena Williams gave women’s tennis some extra respect considering she probably served faster than some men on the pro tour.

But, no one can spank forehands hard and flat the way Steffi Graf could. That shot (when she’s on her tip toes and spanking down on a forehand cross court) has got to be one of the most beautiful and effective shots in tennis.

Steffi was a tactician on the court playing with extreme urgency. She was all business in how she paced herself through each point. It’s too bad women don’t play 5 set matches, because some of those matches were way too short for the fans to enjoy.

Serena’s game is power obviously. But you have to be in the right position to belt out her kind of groundstrokes. Steffi always cranked up the pressure on her opponents. She never played a finnesse game like a Hingis or Evert.

Steffi hands down. The only thing working for Serena is her 1st serve setting up the points. If she was consistent with the 1st serve, you’ve got a game. Otherwise, I see Steffi dictating the play right from the first shot she hits.

For those arguing Steffi’s competition was weak, the same logic must apply to Federer. No one can take their names off the Grand Slam trophies. What’s done is done.

If anything … women’s tennis overall just hasn’t been very competitive. Most of the points are a few floaters, a few short shots, a few safe shots, and a few shots belted with the fricken annoying grunt that every single chick seems to scream these days. I just can’t handle watching much of it anymore - esp. Sharapova and Serena. Is it really that necessary to scream those shreaks on EVERY shot? I luv Sharapova, but I just deal with the noise.

Steffi played women’s tennis with a men’s tennis attitude. She got on the court quickly. And just simply took care of business like no other.

Chris Evert … Martina Navratilova … truly greats in women’s tennis lore. But, Steffi will always be set apart for me. I just luv’d her approach to the game. Efficient, smart, and unrelenting / unforgiving.

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