Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Who is the Best Female Tennis Player of All-Time?

By Brad Oremland

Three years ago, I wrote a column declaring that Serena Williams was not the best ever to play women's tennis. Since then, she has won three Slams in singles, another in doubles, and Olympic gold medals in both singles and doubles. She has reclaimed the WTA No. 1 ranking, nearly 50% ahead of second-place Victoria Azarenka, and is the oldest woman in the Open Era to hold the top rank. Is it time to declare that Williams now is the finest women's tennis champion in history?

In my mind, there are three players who merit serious consideration as the Greatest Of All Time: Williams, Martina Navratilova, and Steffi Graf. That's not intended to slight Margaret Court or Chris Evert, or champions who precede the Open Era, like Suzanne Lenglen and Mo Connolly. They were all great players. But when you're talking about the best ever, I believe it's down to those three.

In that article from 2010, I compared Serena specifically to Steffi Graf. I don't intend to reprint every argument I made at the time, but here's the key paragraph:

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.

The statistical gap has narrowed, though Graf is still far ahead. Even now, Graf has won six more singles Slams and more than twice as many tournaments. She held the WTA's top ranking for almost three times as long as Williams.

There are four main arguments that Serena's proponents use to rate her ahead of Graf:

1. Serena has interests outside of the sport, and at times when she probably could have been the best in the world, she wasn't playing very much tennis.

2. Serena is a fantastic doubles player, with 13 Grand Slam victories and 3 Olympic gold medals.

3. The quality of play is higher now than ever before.

4. The stabbing of Monica Seles inflated Graf's résumé by removing her greatest competition.

I am largely unmoved by the first point. It is true that there were times when Serena Williams was the best player in the world, and statistics might lead you to think otherwise. It's appropriate to take that into consideration, but the effect is small. This is mostly a "what might have been" argument, and we're not talking about who could have been the best. Maybe Seles, if she hadn't been attacked. Maybe Babe Didrikson Zaharias, if she'd taken up the sport. Let's stick to what happened. The stats don't fully reflect Serena's dominance, fine. That doesn't make up for 6 Slams and 4 years at No. 1.

The second point, however, is significant. In modern tennis, we tend to ignore doubles. None of the top men play doubles any more, except occasionally at the national level. Even most of the top women don't make a serious commitment to doubles any more. Serena and Venus Williams play doubles regularly, and Serena doesn't duck out to focus on her singles matches. Graf won a doubles title at Wimbledon, with Gabriela Sabatini. Venus and Serena have won Wimbledon five times, and every other Slam at least twice.

As to the third contention, that players today are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, I'm sure it's true. I know some fans dislike the evolution in style of play, but necessity is the mother of invention. That said, this point is meaningless in a "best of all time" debate. It turns "best ever" into "best right now." According to that line of thinking, the second-best player of all time is probably Maria Sharapova. That's obviously not what we mean in a GOAT conversation.

It's impossible to know what Monica Seles might have accomplished without the attack that derailed her career. When the incident occurred, Seles was the best player in the world. She had won four of the last five Slams, and seven of the last nine. Following the stabbing, Steffi Graf won the next four Slams in a row.

Graf was a tremendous player. Seles won 9 Slams in her career, but Graf won 9 Slams before Seles won her first, and she won another 11 after the stabbing. In their careers, Graf went 10-5 against Seles, including 6-4 before the assault on Seles. To suggest that Graf would have been a lesser player without the attack is unfair, but if we're just looking at Graf's statistics, it's crazy to think they'd be as impressive if Seles' career had proceeded more naturally.

Both Williams and Graf have awesome résumés. Williams at her best has always seemed unbeatable. Graf once won five Slams in a row. Williams is the most accomplished singles player of her generation and the greatest doubles player. Graf won every Slam at least four times. Serena won a U.S. Open 13 years after her first title there. Steffi won the French 12 years apart.

But we haven't yet considered Martina Navrátilová. We'll go beyond statistics, of course, but let's begin with a chart. All figures below apply to singles play only, examining Match Wins, Tournament Titles, Slams, and Weeks at No. 1.

Chart

Navratilova won almost as many matches as Graf and Williams combined, and won more tournaments than the two combined. Martina has an even better doubles record than Serena, including 177 titles and 31 majors, plus 10 major titles in mixed doubles.

All top players are incredible athletes, but probably no one in the history of women's has physically distinguished herself from peers the way Navratilova did. Martina had a well-rounded game, but with her fitness and strength, she is perhaps the player best equipped to transcend eras and racket technology. Navratilova and Chris Evert dominated the late 1970s and most of the '80s, but if Martina had played in today's game, with modern rackets, there's every reason to believe she'd still be the best player in the game, barring perhaps Serena.

One of the most difficult aspects of a GOAT debate in tennis involves estimating the quality of competition. The women's field is probably deeper now than ever before, and in that sense, Serena has faced the toughest competition. The world No. 6, and No. 8, and No. 10 are better in Serena's era than they were when Steffi and Martina were in their primes. On the other hand, Williams has never had to face a transcendent rival like Evert or Seles. From 1982-87, Evert and Navratilova won 20 out of 23 slams. From 1988-93, Graf and Monica Seles won 21 of 24. Between Wimbledon in '86 and the Australian Open in 1990, Navratilova and Graf won 13 out of 15 slams. These were legends, consistently battling each other.

Serena's never had that one historic competitor to test her. Martina Hingis won her last Slam before Williams won her first. Sister Venus had her best years from 2000-01, before Serena reached her peak. Justine Henin's best years (2003-07) coincided with Serena's worst. Maria Sharapova has won all four majors, but never within a year of each other. She's been a good player for a long time, but never that unbeatable No. 1. They're all great players, easy Hall of Famers, but none of the same caliber as Evert, or Seles at her peak.

The way Serena rolls into a tournament and mercilessly dispatches talented opponents like Sara Errani and Sharapova awes fans. Serena on her good days is probably the best player in the history of women's tennis. But she's always been up and down. In the men's game, Roger Federer's consistency — illustrated by his unbelievable record of reaching Semi-Finals — sets him apart as much as anything. The consistency isn't there for Williams, who is nearly as unpredictable as she is dominant, and whose playing schedule is often sparse.

It feels unfair to revise Graf's legacy according to the "what-ifs" of the injury that derailed Monica Seles. It wasn't Graf's fault, and she can't be blamed for continuing to play well following the attack on a rival. But it's impossible to evaluate Graf's legacy without wondering what her career might look like if tennis security had been better in 1993. And unlike Navratilova and Williams, Graf's doubles legacy is pretty thin.

Women's tennis has been graced with exceptional champions. I haven't even mentioned Billie Jean King, or Kim Clijsters, or half a dozen others. But in trying to distinguish the best of all time, the single greatest champion in history, my choice is Martina Navratilova. She won her first Slam in 1978, and remained a top-10 singles player through 1994. She won every Slam in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. She won Wimbledon 800 times. She held the No. 1 ranking for a total of six years despite a prime that overlapped with those of both Evert and Graf. She holds significant records like most singles titles (167) and most doubles titles (177) in the Open Era.

Serena Williams is still active, and she's the best player in the world. If the next three years are anything like the last three, this piece will require revision. But right now, and without intending to disrespect any of the sport's great champions, Navratilova is the greatest.

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