This is a guest post written by John Bullock of Ad Court Ramble.
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 few—if any—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?