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

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.

Comments and Conversation

June 13, 2013

Curtis:

Of COURSE it’s Martina Navratilova.

Graf’s almost non-existent doubles resume puts het number 3, in my opinion. She was the greatest of her era…but she also had extremely good doubles players in her era. This is a fact that she unfortunately did not take advantage of. More doubles slams for Graf would have really helped to counter the fact that Seles’ stabbing helped her singles career.

As for Serena, I think she knew she needed a well-rounded resume to put her in the discussion, and it’s finally paying off. I believe that Serena will do everything to leave little to no doubt that she is the GOAT before she retires, but as it stands right now, she is 2nd for me…and only to the original Martina.

June 16, 2013

hot shot:

come off it! Graf was and still is the best singles player ever. Her speed, ability to attack and defend at exactly the appropriate time, her intelligent and cool demeanour, the cleverest mix of lob and drop shot as well as the greatest shot ever in the women’s game - yes the forehand, mean she would beat any of the others even at their peaks,

June 17, 2013

Brad Oremland:

Graf didn’t consistently beat Monica Seles at her peak, so I don’t think it’s at all obvious that she’d outperform Martina Navratilova and Serena Williams. When Martina was at her peak — let’s say 1985-87 — she went 7-3 against Graf.

June 18, 2013

leigh verity:

Definiteley Graf. She really did have the full game, was the most naturally gifted female player EVER. Serena is playing in a very soft era - she has benefitted from Hingis/Henin/Clijsters all having very short careers. Navratilova was brilliant on the fast courts, but Steffi surpassed her in 88 and onwards. She literally blasted Martina off the court even at Wimbledon in those scintialating finals. I can honestly say I have never seen such skill, power, speed, tactical ability as when Steffi took to the court. I think we are forgetting just how mind blowing she was

June 18, 2013

Barry:

Best ever is Steffi Graf from Germany. The Americans don’t like it. Fully agree-she managed to win on all surfaces so much and stay number for the most by a year and about five years longer than Serena. Steffi was always incredible - clearly can’t say this about Serena who has had more ups and downs than a helter skelter!
I dismiss martina, brad, because she was poor from the baseline. With faster racquets, she would lose in much earlier rounds these days. Graf on the other hand, would have coped with the speed because she was the greatest ATHLETE the game has witnessed.
Come back Steffi!!!!!!!

June 18, 2013

victoria:

Steffi for me.
She always reigned supreme, whatever the surface, whatever traumas she was going through, whatever the opposition
You can’t say that about Serena who is too patchy (not making the French semis for a decade is MASSIVE).
Martina N didn’t have a good groundstroke, although she was very competent at the net
Like the point Leigh about Steffi being the most gracious - she is so humble and almost unaware of her incredible career

June 18, 2013

Mark:

Sorry I didn’t mean so many posts. The post comment was lagging. I respect everyone’s opinion and it’s fun to debate. They are all awesome tennis players and great role-models for my daughters.

June 19, 2013

tom delters:

Yep, I;m completely in the Steffi camp too.
She was incredible throughout her career on every surface, hence why she was number 1 by so many more weeks than even Navratilova.
Have always though the Williams story was as much about ego as results - even now Serena is 5 years shy of Steffi at the number 1 position. It’s not just about about Grand Slams….people are using that statistic only because it brings her into the argument. Serena’s main rivals have all retired so young-yes Henin and Clijsters and Hingis.
I too have never seen another female with the complete game that Steffi had. More importantly, when she was down in a game, that’s when the topspin backhand came out, that’s when the backhand overhead stop volley came out. She was truly incredible

June 21, 2013

Brad Oremland:

I don’t have a problem with the idea that Steffi Graf was the greatest player ever, because that’s a reasonable position. But I do take issue with some of the arguments advanced on her behalf.

Several of you pointed out how well-rounded Steffi’s game was, and I think it’s easy, because Graf had so few weaknesses, to forget how dominant Navratilova and Williams could be. Serena has obvious holes in her game, but her strengths more than compensate for that, and at an age when Steffi Graf was retired, she’s the best player in the world.

Leigh, you wrote that “Navratilova was brilliant on the fast courts, but Steffi surpassed her in 88.” Well of course she did. Martina turned 32 that year. You’re comparing Graf in her prime to Navratilova when she was nearing retirement. I mean, Martina Hingis surpassed Graf in ‘97 and onwards.

Barry, I don’t understand how you can believe nationalism has anything to do with this. If you polled U.S. sports fans as to which of these three players they like most, I suspect Graf would win easily.

Tom, it sounds crazy, in 2013, to say that “the Williams story is as much about ego as results.” Serena Williams has won more Slams than any two women of her generation combined, and she’s the greatest doubles player of this era. I mean, do you watch tennis? She’s blowing people away. Clay is her worst surface, and she breezed through Roland Garros. On her good days she is unbeatable, and most of her days are good.

With regard to Steffi’s all-time lead in weeks at No. 1 … if a deranged fan had stabbed Chris Evert in 1981, or Graf in ‘88, how many more weeks would Navratilova have held the top ranking? When you talk about stats, I don’t think you can dismiss the impact of the attack on Monica Seles.

Graf has a fair argument as the greatest of all time, and there’s no need to slant the court in her favor. Thanks for reading, everyone.

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