How does Serena compare to other tennis greats?

This is a guest post written by John Bullock of Ad Court Ramble.

Serena

Comparing players from different eras is a near impossible task with little to no tangible reward… but we do it anyway. I imagine part of it stems from pride (“My generation is the best!”) but also there is something about hypothetical scenarios that really seems to grab at our psyche. So rather than dismiss this kind of comparison out of hand, i’m going to embrace it. She may be the greatest women’s tennis player of her generation, but how does Serena compare against other tennis greats?

How Does Serena Compare to Other Women’s Greats

Now I realise that in order to make this kind of comparison, I first have to make declarations about who the greatest women’s tennis players are. I’ve gone with the obvious ones to be safe, but a brief note on Venus Williams. Serena’s sister is undoubtedly one of the best of her generation. There’s no sense in comparing her here, however, because she plays alongside Serena. We don’t need to consider a hypothetical “who’s the best” when we can objectively look at the stats.

So, though we’re essentially comparing Serena to a different time, it makes life a little easier that some of our legends shared an era. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova may not have mirrored each other, but there was significant overlaps in their impressive careers. They each won eighteen Slams, a few short of the twenty two that Serena has managed. So far. But Slams were not always the be-all and end-all of tennis success that they seem to be today.

There is a more telling stat, however. Take Steffi for example; she won 107 titles in her career; 36 more than Serena currently has. Now you may want to point out that Serena is still going. It’s a valid point. But I would counter with the fact that Serena has been going for fifteen years, which is three years longer than Steffi’s career. Full marks for longevity, but it takes some of the shine off of that superior Slam record. It’s a similar picture for Chris Evert, who also ended her career after twelve years. In her case, however, the total number of titles was a whopping 154.

It would be tempting to give Serena a pass based on the competition she has faced. Her span of dominance started at a time when Martina Hingis was around, and has endured through the likes of her sister, Sharapova, and Wozniacki. However, when you remember that Evert, Graf, and Navratilova all played around the same time, that theory loses its validity.

So what point am I making? It’s really easy to look at Serena’s dominance of her era, compare her Slam count to former greats, and just assume she’s the greatest ever. Look a little deeper, however, and it’s not so clear cut. Serena is undoubtedly one of the greatest women’s tennis players of all time, but it is a debatable issue.

But what about the men? How does Serena compare when you consider the whole pantheon of tennis.

How Does Serena Compare to Men’s Great Tennis Players

Again, for the sake of simplicity, we’re going to stick to a few obvious choices. Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, and Roy Emerson. Debates on whether Nadal or Djokovic are better than Federer, or whether Agassi was the better player in Sampras’ day are substantial enough to deserve their own post.

Federer is a hard one to compare. While Serena has faced some stiff competition during her career, it’s hard to argue that it’s been anywhere near the level of the contemporary men’s tour. Few sports have seen periods of dominance similar to that shown by the “Big Four” in recent years. But at the same time, each member of the Big Four has had the other three to compete with. By comparison, the stiffest enduring challenge of Serena’s career has come from her sister, Venus.

It seems futile comparing numbers (Slam victories, titles won, etc) as the men’s game is an entirely different animal. Serena has won more Slams than any male player ever. As has Steffi Graf, for that matter. Serena has matched the men’s record for most Wimbledon titles with seven (though falls short of the women’s record of nine), she has won Olympic gold in singles and doubles, and she recently became the oldest player to hold a number one ranking at just shy of 35 years old. Among her peers, she has enjoyed a run of success that fewโ€”if anyโ€”men have matched on paper. But it’s not an apples to apples comparison.

What Do I Think?

I will stick my neck out and say that I do think Serena Williams can justifiably be called the greatest women’s tennis player of all time. I think that the margin by which she may be considered as such is far narrower than many think, however. As for the greatest tennis player of all time, i’m not so sure. One of Serena’s big advantages is a raw, natural athleticism that elevates her above many of her opponents. Such is her physical ability that she would be more than a match for most of the men’s tour.

But if athleticism were removed from the equation, would she still be beating all comers?

Her ability with a tennis racket is undeniable, but could she beat a Federer or a Graf on pure skill alone? I’m not so sure. This is not intended as an attempt to detract from her legacy. The same argument could be made against Nadal; take away the physical aspect of his game and he’s a far less successful player. Such statements are usually useless. Murray could be a ten-time Slam winner if he had the right mentality. Kyrgios could be number one in a few years if he sorted his attitude out. A player is the sum of their parts, and we can only judge them as such. But the unavoidable biological differences between the genders mean that men typically have a physical advantage over women, so it would be unfair to Serena to attempt to compare her to men in every aspect. Racket skill is the great equaliser.

So how does Serena compare to other tennis greats? As the whole package, I believe she would be able to triumph against any of the greats in women’s tennis on her day.

And most of the men, too.

What do you think?

21 thoughts on “How does Serena compare to other tennis greats?

    • Serena herself has said that you can’t meaningfully compare different eras, but I would be interested to see what would happen if, for instance, Serena at her peak were to play Billie Jean King at hers, on grass with both players using wooden rackets (which Billie Jean used throughout her career), or if Roger Federer were to play Bjorn Borg, again with both at their peak and with wooden rackets. I’m assuming both Roger and Serena had time to acclimatise to the different equipment.

      However, apart from the handful of players right at the the top of the game, about whom there will probably always be some room for discussion, I think the position is a lot clearer; the game has got a lot more competitive in recent years and the standard on the tour as a whole has improved considerably over the years and especially the decades.

      For example, when Virginia Wade won the Australian Open in 1972 she was competing in a field of just 32 players, as opposed to 128 as it is nowadays, because many players didn’t want to travel out to Melbourne to compete so close to Christmas and the New Year (the AO was earlier in the year than it is now). Also, the early rounds at Wimbledon used to be pretty much a cakewalk for the top players and, unlike now, it was rare for them to meet any real opposition in the first week.

      Nowadays, as Maria has said there are no easy early rounds in big tournaments any more, because there are so many more very good players than there used to be.

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      • It’s true that you can’t meaningfully compare eras. I tried my best to level the playing field by removing the physical aspect (modern players are simply better athletes) but it’s all just hypothetical best-guess regardless.

        It’s fun, though.

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  1. One thing that never gets mentioned when comparing Serena to past greats is the immense pressure of social media and the internet now. We’ve already seen with both the ATP and the WTA that younger players just can’t handle suddenly having such intense scrutiny, and Grand Slam winners like Ivanovic, Muguruza and Kvitova have talked about how difficult it has been to continue to just play your game with all the added media focus and commitments. Graf and Navratilova and Evert never had that. They didn’t have to endure their personal lives being splayed for all the world to see. They didn’t have the coverage that the sports has now.
    It’s always questioned how Serena would fare had she been playing in Martina’s era or Steffi’s area. But really, how would either one of those women fare in todays game? Mentally and physically it’s just a whole other level.

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    • As for comparing her to men, I kind of wish she’d stop making it an issue. Mentally I think she’s a bigger champion than Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Sampras, Borg or Laver… but she’s handicap in the sense that men genetically are faster, stronger, taller.

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      • The social media aspect is an interesting one. Serena does have more to cope with in that respect. Then again, for all Serena’s talk of sexism in the game, she undoubtedly has it better than a Billy Jean King, so how would Serena have handled that?

        I tried to get around the physical aspect when comparing to men (and past women where Serena would have the overwhelming advantage) by focusing on skill rather than all-round game. But I would argue the mentality aspect re: men. She may well be a greater champion mentally than any male player, but I don’t think it’s a given. If there had been a Nadal to Serena’s Federer, or an Agassi to Serena’s Sampras, we’d have a better yard stick. As it is Serena hasn’t faced the the level of rivalry that we’ve regularly seen in the men’s game.

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      • Very good points. I’d say that Henin and Sharapova were her Nadal and Djokovic though personally. People discount the Maria rivalry because of how one sided it has become, but until recently Masha has always brought it to Serena, who has played the best tennis of her career to squash her at every opportunity.

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    • Maria always says that (“Serena plays her best tennis against me”) but does Serena really play better against her than she does against Simona, Petra, Garbine, Madison or Angie – other players whom she knows could beat her if she wasn’t at her best? I’m not convinced on that score.

      She absolutely crushed Carla on two of the occasions they played (at the 2013 US Open, and at the final in Miami in 2015), despite the fact that Carla’s never looked like beating her at any of the times I’ve seen them play each other, and the same with Elena Vesnina in the semifinal at Wimbledon this year.

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      • Yeah I’m going to stand by that. The way Serena has completely KO’d Maria in the past two Aus Open matches they played, where Sharapova was actually playing some lights out tennis and Serena was thundering down aces and coming up with magic. Then there was the win from match point down in 2006 (?). And probably the most dominant match she’s EVER played was that Gold medal match at the Olympics.
        I’d say Sharapova, Azarenka and Henin are the three who really push Serena to play her grade A best. Halep would be next I guess.

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      • I believe she plays a mentally tough game against Maria, and unfortunately she’s got Sharapova sussed out ever since their fateful Wimbledon encounter. Helped by the fact that Maria hasnt changed one bit, basically, since then. It makes Serena look good, and rightfully so given her talent. It’s like the Nadal monkey on Federer’s back when they play each other. I think beating Serena even in her retiring years ( a non peak Serena)would mean something to special to her. Obviously, I dont thing they are on each others xmas gift list.

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    • I agree totally Andrew, and I think this is why Petra felt she needed to say she would “need some privacy” to get over her hand injury; the media and especially social media pressure is so intense now. A player gets drunk at a party (as Ula Radwanska did last year) and someone takes a compromising or embarrassing picture of them and posts it on a tennis forum, and everyone who follows women’s tennis knows about it the next day.

      There’s also a good deal of strenuous personal abuse of players on social media now, as players like Heather Watson and Nicole Gibbs have mentioned recently. There was that horrible incident at Charleston this year where some idiot thought they’d heard Caro Garcia make a racially charged insult against her opponent, Irina Begu (or said they did) and mentioned it on Tennis Forum, another idiot wrote about it for a Romanian news channel seemingly without making any effort at all to check the story, and Caroline found herself being viciously abused on Facebook as a result.

      I don’t know what the answer is, except to say that in an ideal world anyone who tells someone who’s done them no harm to “get cancer and die horribly” (a comment Heather said she’s had to put up with) should be denied access to the Internet for a minimum of six months.

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      • Yeah I completely agree. You missed out the most horrible example, Svitolina received death threats on twitter when she was in Moscow from someone claiming to know which hotel she was staying in.
        I guess it’s always happened- hate letters and such- but now its on a larger scale and as you said, the world can see whats being written and be swayed by potentially fake or slanderous comments.
        Hell, it’s the core reason Hillary Clinton lost the presidency…

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  2. On the argument of GOATs, I have abias for players with a doubles pedigree as well. Imo, doubles and mixed doubles, speaks more to the players character as well being a team sport. Having proved herself in that aspect and given her background life (social context) of her beginnings, it gives her an extra edge. But yes, this will always be subjective. For me at this given time (t)= now she is the greatest. Personally, I dont like the comparison to the men, there are intrinsic differences.

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  3. I agree to some extent that it’s hard to compare all the greats for several reasons.

    I see Navratilova as the best tennis player of all times male or female, considering her immense success in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles.

    As far as singles is concerned I see Serena as the best of all times, to me it’s a shame that most people only see the physical aspect of Serena’s game, I think she has great hands and is extremely skilled. I think Serena at her best will easily beat Graf at her best.

    I dont think Graf would have reached 22 if Seles was not stabbed. Evert had said that if somebody had stabbed Navratilova then she would have won more slams as well.

    Serena is the GOAT! As far as Serena’s biggest rivals are concerned then Henin is probably number 1, Azarenka would be next, I also think Hingis gave Serena good competition in her earlier days. I dont see Sharapova as her biggest rival at all, Serena owns Sharapova. I dont count Venus as her biggest rival because in my personal opinion those matches were always pre-decided.

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