Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - The Best of Her (But Not All) Time
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The Best of Her (But Not All) Time 07/15/2010 - 11:42 AM

Sw “Serena Williams: Love Her, Hate Her, She’s the Best Ever”. That’s the line that greeted us on the cover of last week’s post-Wimbledon issue of Sports Illustrated. It was a surprise in one sense. Serena, despite her continued dominance, has yet to match the career totals—the Slam wins, the tournament titles, the weeks at No. 1—of past greats like Margaret Court, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, and Chris Evert. In another sense, though, it wasn’t all that shocking. This is a magazine cover. As anyone who has ever read a fitness magazine and tried to get a “6 pack in 6 days” knows, covers are all about exaggeration.

But once we’re inside the magazine, we can come back down to earth. Why does L. Jon Wertheim suddenly believe, now that Serena has won her fourth Wimbledon and 13th major, that she should be elevated above Court (24 Slams), Graf (22), Navratilova (18), and Evert (18)? Why not also say that her fellow Wimbledon champion, Rafael Nadal, is also the greatest ever, even though he lags behind Roger Federer in Slams? I respect Wertheim’s writing and trust his judgments on most occasions, but I can’t join him here. Maybe he pushed the envelope on this a little because it was a cover story. Or maybe this is what it takes to get tennis onto the cover of SI in the first place. Or maybe he just believes it. Let’s look at the arguments.

“Williams plays in a far more competitive and demanding era.”

The game is global now, there’s more money in it, and the women hit harder and play a more physical brand of tennis. But has that produced more Hall-of-Fame level players? We’ve spent the latter half of this decade bemoaning the lack of new blood at the top of the WTA—the only multiple Slam winner to turn pro after the year 2000 is Maria Sharapova. Court did win many Aussie Opens (11 in total) against weak competition, but Serena has won Slam finals against less-than-Olympian names like Safina, Jankovic, and Zvonareva. As far as the demanding part goes, it’s true that the sport is tougher on the body now and requires a high level of athleticism, but each of those former champions—Evert and Navrailova in particular—played more matches per season than Serena does.

The more important point, though, is that the perceived level of competition in every era is skewed by the level of dominance of the top player. If Graf had never existed, Gabriela Sabatini would likely have been a five-six-seven-time Slam winner rather than a one-timer. If Court had never existed, we’d be talking about Billie Jean King as the best of all time. And while Serena has been the best player of the last decade and of her era, she hasn’t dominated the best player not named Williams, Justine Henin. Serena is 8-6 overall against Henin, but 2-4 at the majors.

The bottom line is that in each era, the women we’ve mentioned took on the best competition in the world at that moment and raised themselves above it. That’s all you can ask.

“None of the others had to play her sister in a final.”

True, Venus is also an all-time great, and it’s a unique psychological struggle for Serena. But Court had King, Navratilova had to beat 17-time Slam winner Evert over and over, and Graf had to overcome Navratilova herself to begin her reign.

“She has also won 12 major women’s doubles titles, two major mixed titles, and two double gold medals.”

The Williams sisters will go down as one of the greatest doubles team of all time. But bringing doubles into this particular conversation isn't going to help her cause. Court won 19 doubles Slams and 19 mixed-doubles Slams. Navratilova won 177 doubles titles in total. As for the Olympics, Graf owns a singles gold.

“She’s been winning them since she was 17.”

Graf won her first Slam at 17, and her last at 29, Serena’s current age. There’s no doubt that Serena can win them for years to come, and her longevity could eventually make her a candidate for greatest player ever. But during her 20s she wasn’t as dominant as Graf. Steffi won her famous Golden Slam in 1988, but she also won three majors in a year on four other occasions. Since her Serena Slam in 2002-3, Williams has never won three in a season (that could change this year). Before last year, she hadn’t won two in a single season. But if you want to talk crazy dominance, nobody can match Navratilova in her prime. From 1981 to ’87, she went 432-14. You read it right: 432-14.

Incidentally, Graf and Serena played twice, and, if the WTA’s website is correct, split those matches by the same score, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5. Both matches occurred in 1999, Serena’s first big year, and Graf’s last. (See the end of their second match, in Indian Wells, here.)

“The most important stroke in tennis is the serve, and Williams’s is the most fearsome in women’s history.”

Agreed, Serena’s serve is the best ever, and if there were no other shots in tennis, she’d have the Goat title locked up. But by most measures Ivo Karlovic has the most devastating serve in men’s tennis at the moment. Should we ignore his results and hand him the No. 1 ranking every year? Plus, Graf and Navratilova also had the most effective serves of their eras.

“If you matched tennis’s female legends head-to-head—all at their best, with identical equipment—Williams wouldn’t just beat the others; she’d crush them.”

Serena would crush Court and Evert, I agree, and beat Graf and Navratilova most of the time. But I would also say that the 500th-ranked man on the ATP tour right now would beat Don Budge—at his best, with identical equipment—like a drum. Does that make No. 500 from 2010 a greater player and champion than Budge, or Tilden, or Gonzalez?

Every player, obviously, is a product of his or her era. The best player of any era has trained and designed her game to beat the opponents she has to face on the court—nothing more, nothing less. You can’t penalize Graf and Navratilova for not making themselves good enough in their primes to beat a hypothetical future opponent. If Serena had made her debut, say, three years after Graf’s debut, and Serena had started taking Slams from her, Steffi would have been forced to change her game to meet this challenge. We’ll never know how that would worked out, so all we can do to compare them is to look at their overall records during the times when they were playing. And as with the Federer-Nadal head-to-head argument, the fact that someone can beat another player doesn't make them "greater"—top players play to win tournaments, not beat certain individuals.

The same will be true when a young serve-and-volleying Russian starts racking up Slams 15 years from now. We won’t be able to look back and penalize Serena for not having made her game consistent or versatile enough to have beaten her.


Slam totals are what we generally go by to judge all-time greatness. There’s a vogue right now for saying that they shouldn’t matter so much, because the best players skipped the Aussie Open in the 70s and 80s. And it’s true, the Aussie was not really a major title for 20 years, and the “it’s only the Slams that matter” attitude didn’t get started until the Ivan Lendl era, when the top players became rich enough not to have to worry about anything other than prepping for and winning those four tournaments. But that doesn’t change the fact that from the earliest days of the sport, the Slams—which were each of the big tennis nation’s national championships—were the events that the players wanted to win most. That’s why they remain the benchmark.

But there are other markers of excellence. There’s time spent at No. 1: Graf finished eight seasons there, Navratilova seven. Williams has done it twice. There are total titles: Navratilova ended with 167, Graf 107; Williams has 37. There’s excellence on all surfaces: Serena has won all four majors at least once; Graf won all four at least four times (her signature achievement, IMO). 

None of this is a knock on Serena. She’s the best of this generation and a tremendous athlete to watch. She’s also never been too concerned with the No. 1 ranking, or total titles, and she hasn’t had the relentless, long-term, week-to-week drive for dominance that characterized Graf and Navratilova. And as it stands now, Serena’s best years may be ahead of her. You can’t fully measure a career against the sport’s past until that career is over.

In a way, it’s only fair to Serena that we not jump the gun on her place in history. Next thing you know, in 10 years, we’ll be celebrating a young American champ as “Better than Serena ever was!” after she wins her fifth major. Sounds like a good line for a magazine cover.

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Posted by hautboiskid 07/15/2010 at 12:00 PM

"You can’t penalize Graf and Navratilova for not making themselves good enough in their primes to beat a hypothetical future opponent."

I think that sums it up best.

Posted by pov 07/15/2010 at 12:03 PM

While I agree that at this point Serena Williams is not the GOAT there is an oops in your analysis. Safina, Jankovic, and Zvonareva are far from weak competition. They're all - especially Jankovic - fairly solid top 5 players.

On the other hand one could also say that getting to play her sister in the finals was a huge advantage for Serena Williams. As much as many want to think that the subconscious sibling psychology plays no matter in their meetings, that isn't the case. If they were estranged and hardly knew each other - I think the results in those finals may have been very different.

That said - good article yet again. Write a book will ya.

Posted by wonbok lee 07/15/2010 at 12:13 PM

great write! a rational look at the tennis scene which makes not only a lot of sense but has to be so right.

Posted by Rodrigo Guidolin 07/15/2010 at 12:17 PM

Thanks steve, but there is no chance that I could ever beat Budge, Tilden or Gonzalez if we played with their gear. I think you're overestimating how much athleticism means on the tennis court and underestimating those champions' talents. Not fair dude.

The rest of your analysis I liked.

Posted by Mike 07/15/2010 at 12:17 PM

Great post, Steve ... fair, balanced, and honest. I agree, 100%.

Though I'm not sure Serena would have beaten the past champions using their equipment ... a great deal of her success is due to her power compared to the rest of the field, which she wouldn't be able to duplicate using a wooden racket, on slower surfaces, etc. IMHO. We also don't know how good any of them would be if they had access to the fitness training, nutrition, and equipment of today.

As an American and a Tennis Fan ... the Williams sisters have done us proud on both counts in a dramatic way ... but I think we're a little premature comparing either of them to the best of all time ... already.

Posted by ni 07/15/2010 at 12:19 PM

Um... Evert won 18 Grand Slam single titles, not 17. Your lack of basic trivia and respect for several players such as Jankovic etc makes this article irrelevant.

Posted by org 07/15/2010 at 12:23 PM

Serena had to face some incredibly tough players through her first period of dominance, mainly Venus, Davenport, Capriati, Hingis, Henin, Clijsters, Seles etc. None of the other great payers had to face so many quality players at one time.

Posted by wonbok lee 07/15/2010 at 12:31 PM

also, a lot of hyperbolic talk on federer's demise needs to be looked at in more realistic, analytical terms. i saw him play many times including semi,& final at AU open this year. i felt there was not a hole to drill for his opponents in his game with great execution. how can a man lose his motivation and technique and fitness and talent in a mere 5 months ?
the new write revealed at wertheim's bag tells us he saw 'federer grimacing, grabbing his back and muttering to himself' at the practice before a match. now he is bashed for volunteering his injury excuse after the 1/4 loss. what does an honest man do when the reporters are going to draw sympathetic faces and discuss his age..decline..etc when he knows darn well his back was the culprit. just pretend to charade along with the serious 'discussions' to keep on being polite !! i admire his tennis playing and all other good tennis and do not root for any particular player. i also enjoy the speculations the journalists go through trying to predict the future. but let's make some sense first !!!

Posted by tmfan 07/15/2010 at 12:32 PM

This is such a great article and, as always, well written and well researched. Serena is better now than she ever has been. She is certainly more committed. Will this last, or will something better come around to amuse her more? When she is at her best there is no player out there now who could beat her, including and especially her sister. It's the women's field that is the problem. That Safina, Jankovic, and Zvonareva are good players is not a question, but they are certainly not great players and definitely not in the same league as Serena who would need to have an "off" day to be beaten by them. If Maria really gets back to where she was, she would certainly be a contender, but until strong, consistent women players, with an all round game come along, Serena will continue to dominate and will eventually rack up those numbers.

Posted by JJB 07/15/2010 at 12:36 PM

@Ni, it was one small factual mistake (and not grossly off), so the article is by no means irrelevant.

I agree with most of Steve's analysis. Serena is not even on the same scale in terms of years at #1 and total titles. Federer at the same age has almost twice as many total titles. And even Nadal, who is almost five years younger, has more titles.

It's not adequate for a player to say "slams are all that matter". That statement is usually made by someone who is only doing well in slams and not in any of the other ways. Nor is it adequate for anyone to say "she could do better in those other tournaments, she just chooses not to". If that's really the case, then it's her own fault and still a strike against being the GOAT.

I agree with Mike that the past champions would hold their own against Serena. Besides the pure talent, they have what so many of the current WTA players do not have: mental toughness to block out missed opportunities and play points one at a time.

Posted by tk 07/15/2010 at 12:37 PM


I could not read the SI cover, did it actually say "lover her" or is it a typo?

Posted by ks 07/15/2010 at 12:39 PM

Steve, all valid points.

While judging the greatness of a player, longevity is important, but it is also possible that a player's 'level' of play in one year could be greater than another player's level of pay over five years. The former attained a higher level for a shorter period of time, but the latter attained a comparatively speaking a lower level but maintained it over a longer time period.

Of course, it is difficult to come up with a time frame. If it is for the duration of only one match, then of course it could be construed as an aberration that the said player could never repeat. If the time period is for one year, then at least the said player had a great run of play for a decent number of matches.

Posted by Account Deleted 07/15/2010 at 12:43 PM

You are being much too kind to Jon Wertheim. I think this is one instance when he boiled over and lost all his marbles (am I mixing metaphors?). When Serena matches Evert and Navratilova (correction: Evert also had 18 single slams), then she really is a contender. Until she does that, then Graf remains the GOAT in women's tennis (Court won 11 of her 24 at her home slam, the Australian Open, which was then played on grass). I think Wertheim just wanted to sell more SI magazine copies. And maybe fire up women's tennis in the U.S.A. which, without the Williams sisters, seems to have hit rock bottom...

Posted by CPM 07/15/2010 at 12:45 PM

I take Wertheim at his word when he says he's calling Serena the GOAT because that's what he genuinely believes, and not because it'll help him sell magazines. But granting that bit of interpretive charity means withholding another: such a sensationalist motive makes the most sense of his argument; the quality of his given reasons, as I follow them, are conspicuously lacking (for pretty much all the reasons you mention).

The real signal of the weakness of his argument is that, in the end, it comes down to "I know it when I see it." He'll make an effort at rebutting the glaring achievement deficit Serena suffers vis-a-vis Navratilova & Graf, but one gets the sense his heart's just not in it. He all but says: "Who are you going to believe: records, or my lying eyes?"

Of course achievements & records are not necessarily sufficient to answering GOAT-type questions -- but only because nothing's sufficient to answer them. But achievements are the best proxy we have, precisely because our eyes *do* lie ... well, they don't lie, of course, but their testimony does have an annoying habit of being tendentiously misinterpreted. Serena, the stats tell us, isn't as dominant a player as Graf or Navratilova -- but has any player, male or female, acted out dominance quite so well? The quality of her play is undeniably excellent (for the most part), and everyone agrees about that serve; but all the performance elements -- the screams, the glares, the attitude -- adds a little something to the *image* we get of her relative dominance, no?

On the balance, I think Wertheim's in the grip of enthusiasm. Serena thumped the field in impressive fashion, gave another signal that she's in it to dominate (the Slams, anyway), and I think he felt enthusiasm about her game and her place in the history of the sport. That's fine. Sports writers should be enthusiastic. But they've got to temper it, too, with some analytical rigor -- otherwise they're just fans with a bigger audience. I don't think Wertheim brought enough of that rigor to bear.

Posted by Jass32 07/15/2010 at 12:46 PM

GOAT discussion is somewhat hypothetical. I do believe we can single out the best player in a given era. Rest of the arguments are just simply conjectures.

Martina was clearly the best of her era, same for Steffi and now Serena. but in the case of Steffi Graf, we carelessly forget how Seles snatched number 1 ranking from Graf when Graf was at her prime. Steffi really got lucky with Monica's stabbing and then went on to romp in GS tiltles without facing significant competition. Monica was pretty much plundering through on all surfaces other than grass when her career was foced to stop short. There is no way Steffi would end up with 22 grand slams if Monica was allowed to play during her best years.

Just for the sake of GOAT argument, I think it is not just the number of grand slam titles but the head-to-head is also an extremely important figure of merit. Also should be taken into consideration, the quality of the competition faced by the GOAT candidate. And realistically we should evaluate only the retired players for GOAT candidacy.

One thing is for certain though, the GOAT has to be clearly the best player in his/her era. If you continuously get hammered in grand slams by someone else in your era, you cannot be GOAT, it is that simple. Tennis is a one-on-one sport and hence H2H records cannot be foolishly ignored.

Posted by Jay 07/15/2010 at 12:47 PM

Steve, I agree with most of what you've written. Lets appreciate players today, and wait until the end of their careers to figure out where they fit in the pantheon of all-time greats.

One thing I don't agree with, though, is "But that doesn’t change the fact that from the earliest days of the sport, the Slams—which were each of the big tennis nation’s national championships—were the events that the players wanted to win most. That’s why they remain the benchmark."

Why would Rod Laver have skipped the majors (for what, 7 yrs.?) if he had known that ultimately his career would have been judged upon his performance at the majors? The fact is that many of the greatest players chose to earn a living playing tennis (making them ineligible to play the majors during the pre-Open era), rather than compete at the majors.

Prior to the late stages of Sampras' career, I don't remember anyone calling Don Budge the GOAT, based on his record number of majors.

Posted by 1963USCtennis 07/15/2010 at 12:48 PM

"And as with the Federer-Nadal head-to-head argument, the fact that someone can beat another player doesn't make them "greater"—top players play to win tournaments, not beat certain individuals.

the head to head has been basically IN finals; so this point is mute. Don't know why you would even bring this up to a conversation about Serena.

And again, this point undermines the basic fact of every rivalry or tournament; you want to decide who is best in the club, or city... up to numero UNO

So if a player climbs up to number 2, and challenges then dethrones number one; who is the best player of the two?

"crowning" someone as the best of all time is a very tricky situation.

Posted by Ryan 07/15/2010 at 12:48 PM

Steve touched on it, but the biggest factor for me here is clear: the greatest woman ever does not win only one French Open. Period.

Posted by Greener Grass 07/15/2010 at 12:48 PM

Steve, Chrissy won 18 Slams..her and Martina are tied at 18.

Posted by Mike 07/15/2010 at 01:18 PM

How the heck does the Fedal H2H take over a thread based on a post about Serena? Do doubters always feel the need to prove themselves?

Would be nice if we could stay on topic for at least the first page of comments. :(

Posted by mwu 07/15/2010 at 01:19 PM

Not sure if Wertheim addressed this issue in his piece, but I'd also add that Serena's results on clay are pretty tepid compared with the other all-time greats. She won the French in 2002 made the semis in 2003 and hasn't made it past the quarterfinals since.

She missed two years due to injury and family tragedy, which could be taken into account, but the women's GOAT shouldn't choke against Srebotnik and Kuznetsova and Stosur in consecutive years on clay.

(Yes, Serena, I'm looking at your titles.)

Posted by Sam 07/15/2010 at 01:38 PM

Nice one Steve. The headline should have read: "Love her, hate her, might be the best ever" and may be in future, we can say the best ever when she is done achieving what she is suppossed to. The other problem I have is, no one was even discussing this topic before, so how did make to the cover of SI.

Posted by PeeJayKay 07/15/2010 at 01:44 PM

Thanks Steve Tignor! This is brilliantly thought out, beautifully written and, most important, altogether accessible to neophyte and 8-weeks-a-year Slam Fan and diehard.

Serena is clearly now in in the upper tier of that rarefied zone inhabited by the following other players... Tier 1: Navratilova, Graf, Evert Tier 2: Court, King, Seles (Wills Moody and Connolly emeritus).

With all due respect to Wertheim, I don't think GOAT is a valid topic as it relates to Serena. If (when?)she wins 3 or 4 or 5 of the next 13 Slams (through end of 2013 season), then I think she surpasses Evert and closely tailgates Navratilova and Graf. They are clearly the best singles players ever, although Martina unarguably has the most accomplished career of any male or female. Martina's ability to win against top 3 players and make consistent final-4 Slam singles appearances (while racking up dubs Slams, too) well into her 30s might give her the edge. I also wonder how much longer the Sisters W will play doubles after this season.

SW probably won't ever again dominate a single season (Slams AND top tier stops) in the way Graf and Navratilova did from 83-96, and as she herself did in 2002 and 2003. Bottom line: Her Slam excellence and ability to motivate for them with any sort of (well-spun) lead-up scenario are brilliant and unparalleled. If you had to pick "The Natural", WTA version, no one else comes close except Navratilova. Martina could win a portion of the baseline points against Graf and Evert, but against Serena she would have to approach as often as possible deep and down the middle and make a ton of terrific first volleys from around the T, or Becker-style on Serena's down-the-line efforts. Martina would have trouble passing Serena if she decided to change things up, and would have trouble lobbing effectively what with Serena's pace and timing. Perhaps this rings truest: Serena edges Martina on all-court prowess.

Posted by Neveah 07/15/2010 at 02:01 PM

Good Read Steve:)

I will wait for Serena to retire before I call her the greatest but I think 6 majors is definitely not out of the question.

Posted by PeeJayKay 07/15/2010 at 02:03 PM

forgotten points: 1-Henin, win another Slam or 2 and you're probably in Tier 2... 2-SW has the highest percentage of inexplicable losses of any all-time great

Posted by Daniel 07/15/2010 at 02:22 PM

Who knows if Serena is the greatest ever. Personally, it doesn't matter that much to me, and I suspect it doesn't to Serena, Evert, Graf, Navratilova, etc., either, except that each was always trying to be the best when they played.

I do think it's true that Slams are an inaccurate way to measure greatest, just like any single statistic is. The most meaningless, IMO, is years ranked #1, given that the ranking system is a concoction of the tour aimed and forcing the athletes to overplay that is only loosely based on who has been the best player of the year. Back when the tour was less grueling, it was probably a closely way to measure which was the best player, but not any more.

Posted by Nik 07/15/2010 at 02:23 PM

To some extent, the era that Graf played in, and more so the era that Evert and Navratilova played in had more variety than what we see today. For example, how many women on tour know how to hit an effective volley, or a slice, or an approach shot? Henin is the closest we have to "variety" in the women's game - the rest of the field are just baseline bashers. Serena does not have to think on her feet as much as the prior generations did. She is mentally tougher than most of the field, but that alone does not a GOAT make.

People have mixed opinions about this - but I feel as if it is important to carry yourself well on the court. The best champions should be held to standard of basic sportsmanship - and certainly players of the past, such as Graf and Evert, have those attributes. What they all share in common with Serena is a bull-headedness, strong competitive desire and tremendous athleticism. What they don't share is discrediting opponents routinely after a loss, threatening line judges, excessive shrieking and gamesmanship. To me, that accounts for something. Being a great champion - especially being called the GREATEST ever, requires you to also be a great sports-person.

Posted by Chris 07/15/2010 at 02:24 PM

Good piece. Of course Serena's the best ever, in the sense that the game and its athletes evolve and are superior to previous generations. And whoever's tops in the next generation will be better than Serena. So it really comes down to player records when you're comparing people in different generations.

I like to ask myself this question: if Graf, Navritilova or Evert had developed their games as part of this generation, would they be as good as Serena? I think the answer is unquestionably yes. They're all incredible champions and athletes and would have been successful in any generation.

Posted by Doug 07/15/2010 at 02:42 PM

Another correction - Serena is 3-4 against Henin in majors

Posted by FED FRED 07/15/2010 at 02:51 PM

FED would destroy SERENA in a head to head match.

He even has more Espy's.

FED is our GOAT....

Posted by Charlie Mueller 07/15/2010 at 02:55 PM

Of course she is not the best of all time. She surpassed BJK in slams, but BJK played the Australian only a couple times and the French rarely as well- she certainly would have picked up several more titles if she played either regularly (the Autralian was on grass then- her favorite surface). Graf lost the competition of Seles, who would have racked up many more titles, probably at Graf's expense, if not stabbed.

Dominance week in and week out: Navratilova, Court, Graf, Evert, King, Seles, each went on absolute tears during their peaks. Serena had one tear during her Serena slam period-even then she was not as dominant as any of the others when they went through opponents for 6-12 months at a rip in straight sets.

She has to get her numbers up to the Evert/Navratilova level to be in contention. And yeah, lots of depth in the women's game now, but not a lot of real great champions until Henin gets her game back, and if Clisters and Sharapova do as well.

Posted by BrooklynNY 07/15/2010 at 03:07 PM

@Ryan "Steve touched on it, but the biggest factor for me here is clear: the greatest woman ever does not win only one French Open. Period."

This is funny, because I bet you think 1 time french open champion Roger Federer is the greatest ever?

Thanks Steve, for writing this article. I saw this magazine on stands in Penn Station and chuckled.
Steffi Graf is my pick.

But in all seriousness, I think this obsession with 'best ever' is ruining the game. Seriously, John McEnroe's commentary at this point solely consists of "this is the best ever, that is the best ever, Fed's slice is best ever, Serena serve, Novak's defense'.

Its just appalling at this stage.

Posted by PDT 07/15/2010 at 03:21 PM

You know who or what your core readers are. You threw them a bone and they are chewing on it. Serena could win 100 GS and "some people" would not be willing to call her the greatest. Although from what I read of Wertheim, courageous Wertheim, he distinguishes between the "greatest" and the "best", as I do. I think Martina is the greatest(after Seles went down Graf had no competition at all) and Serena is by far the best. Now chew on that.

Posted by Thomas Warren 07/15/2010 at 03:38 PM

Well, I stopped listening to Steve's analysis on a lot of things because he has been so off the mark to try to get a competitive writing edge on his far superior colleagues such as Bodo. I disagree with this analysis and werthiem was correct about Serena for the simple fact that the competition was no where as near as competitive when Graf, Navrat, Evert were around.

Graf starting to lose when Seles came on board is a projection of how many slams she wouldn't have won if Graf's countrymen wouldn't have stabbed Seles.

Today anyone being able to win a slam or gun down the big guns on the WTA tour is a testament to how hard the women are working and Serena has been able to hold most of them off because she has developed shots that are hard for the already tough field to compete with. Serena cannot be linked as the greatest of all time now but she definitely has done more for tennis than win tourneys like boring Graf did. She has personality, star power, and the needed advantage to make women's tennis the most interesting women's sport on the planet and that in itself makes her the GOAT...

Posted by gabos 07/15/2010 at 03:45 PM

I agree with Steve's (Tignor) analysis in all respects but one: Wertheim is an awful writer, and his judgment is usually wrong.

Posted by lilscot 07/15/2010 at 03:45 PM

Great piece Steve. While I am a big Serena fan it's too soon to call her the GOAT just yet, in my hunble opinion. Can she be, or will she be? Of course. She would already be there if she had stayed totally committed to the tour like she has this past year, or like she did a few years ago. But, choosing to have a life outside tennis should not be a criticism of her either.

Serena's not just a complete player, she's a complete person with many dimensions. There's no doubt in my mind that if she had focused solely on tennis she would already have at least the 18 Slams of my original favourite Chrissy, and Martina, and maybe more.

I love watching her play, I love her fighting spirit, and I even don't mind the few "princess" moments she's had over the years. By even her own family's accounts she was spoiled by the rest of her family growing up as she was the youngest. But that's just all part of what makes Serena Serena.

GOAT as far as ability and fierceness? Absolutely. But GOAT as far as the record books go? Not yet.

Posted by gabos 07/15/2010 at 03:49 PM

And BTW, kudos to whoever took the time to log in as the actual 500 player in the world, Rodrigo Guidolin.

Posted by mike 07/15/2010 at 03:49 PM

great post, steve. i agree 100 percent. wertheim's trying to sell magazines on that one. but hey, a tennis player on si is a tennis player on si so i cant begrudge him too much. now if he actually believes that...

Posted by Fin 07/15/2010 at 03:50 PM

Well written, Steve. I can´t believe some people thinks Jankovic is a tough opponent in GS final. She is a dream draw. One of the worst former world #1 players. When Jankovic was #1 the level of women´s tennis was lower than ever.
Serena is not the best ever and she will never be either...Serena (like Henin, Schiavone, Stosur and the other men) will have to join ATP for their looks and then it will be impossible to win even a match...

Posted by mike 07/15/2010 at 03:53 PM

oh, and i think the players of the 70s and 80s where the australian open wasnt a real slam (cmon, it was played right before christmas and can you imagine the air travel back then?) should be given some slack. borg and mcenroe i could easily imagine having at least 2 more ao's in their belt each since it was on grass and they were winning everything else. borg then would have had 14+ majors. imo, borg and fed are the greatest of all time. on the women's side, id give it a tie to graff and martina.

Posted by CPM 07/15/2010 at 03:56 PM

PDT -- ahh, the race card bluff; classic maneuver. Not as obvious a red herring as actually playing it, but achieves the same effect of putting the critics on the defensive. Well, nonsense. Those of us who think Wertheim's gone off the rails on this have pretty consistently said that Serena's not *yet* in this conversation. What's the harm in waiting for her to get 5 more slams before slathering on the honorifics? Since she's the best ever, reaching those heights -- if not surpassing them -- is just a matter of time, no?

And, well, you give no argument for why Serena's the "best" as opposed to the "greatest" -- and if you did, I'm guessing it'd look like Wertheim's: you know it when you see it. Plus maybe some presentist nonsense about how now's always better than then, so if Serena's now, QED. Uh huh. In other words, you ain't got jack.
Thomas Warren -- "the simple fact that the competition was no where as near as competitive when Graf, Navrat, Evert were around"? More presentist nonsense.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 07/15/2010 at 03:56 PM

I honestly think, Steve, that you greatly underestimate the athleticism and skills of Billie Jean King, Margaret Court and Don Budge. I had the pleasure to witness Margaret COurt at the end of her career, and Billie Jean King in the latter stages of hers, and they both moved extremely well and had beautiful, flowing serves and could hit with any spin desired. They also were agile attackers with superb volleys. Give either of them today's equipment and training, and put them on hard courts more often than on grass, and they'd have developed big serves and great passing shots. And what can one say about Don Budge? The guy played with a 14 oz. club, yet had the smoothest footwork and strngest backhand seen for decades. Many still think it was the best single stoke ever.

To say that Serena Williams would "crush" Court and King, and that Budge wouldn't get past the top-500 ranked player today is to ignore the facts surrounding sports' greatest practitioners - they are winners, and their drive to be the best knows few, if any, bounds.

Frankly, I'm surpirsed with this post. :-((

Posted by KCWill 07/15/2010 at 04:01 PM

I am not the biggest Serena fan, but I really do try to take the bias out when evaluating her game.

However, I do believe being the GOAT does involve a level of sportsmanship that she sometimes lacks. I had to put that out there.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 07/15/2010 at 04:08 PM

Don't know if the poster at 12:17 PM is really who he says he is, but the 500th ranked player on the ATP singles tour does happen to be a Brazilian player named Rodrigo Guidolin.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 07/15/2010 at 04:11 PM

Nik, your 2:23 PM post says it all, and far better than I could have. Thank you.

Posted by AB 07/15/2010 at 04:18 PM

I think Serena's intelligence is about average for an American, her narcissism above-average (even) for an American, and she's a tennis savant and fierce competitor. That she's all these things and sometimes seems loony tunes in no way detracts from the GOAT discussion.

I do not think she has to equal the GS count of Court to be the GOAT, but she does have to get closer to Graf & Navritilova. Comparisons are specious. By the way, Navritilova has had some success at mixed doubles. That means she can handle some smoked serves. I would not be so quick to dismiss her ability to deal with the Serena Serve.

In order to learn to play a specific style, power and speed, you have to experience it. Once your eyes and reflexes get used to the ball coming a certain way, you learn to adapt your response. Nav's winning longevity speaks to her adaptability.

Serena has a couple years to go before according her the GOAT handle. But she's certainly the main contender by far in this era.

Posted by bebe 07/15/2010 at 04:22 PM

This has to be the most pointless tennis debate I've seen in some time. Serena is a great player, of that there's no doubt -- but including her in the GOAT discussion at this point in time is an insult to the women who actually earned a spot in that debate (namely Court, Evert, Graf and Navratilova).

If she can best any of those four women in any one area -- weeks at #1, tournaments won, Grand Slams won, winning a calendar-year Grand Slam, winning each GS multiple times -- not to mention all of them, *then* she deserves to be included in the debate, but at this point I don't see that happening.

Posted by real tennis fan 07/15/2010 at 04:27 PM

@Nik re your 2:23, I cant believe you are accusing Serena of gamesmanship? And the "threatening linesman" comment thrown out as if Serena has made a habit of doing this throughout her entire career. Serena has been on the best behaved, most professional players on the WTA tour during her career. One unfortunate incident in which she crossed a line and let herself down does not negate all that went before and since. Serena is just as much a Great Champion as Graf or Evert in the all the ways that matter.

Posted by reckoner 07/15/2010 at 04:35 PM

somehow i expected to see don imus in the comments post... j/k

Posted by joe 07/15/2010 at 05:06 PM

Not surprising that you would disagree with Wortheim on this one. :/

Posted by Jay 07/15/2010 at 05:06 PM

@Brooklyn: Well said! This obsession with "the greatest ever" and insistence that the only tournaments that really matter are the major 4 is detrimental to both tours. We complain when the best players skip out on their tour obligations, but then the commentators, fans and scribes are telling them that their careers will be assessed only on their results at the big 4.

I give Connors credit for winning 109 tournaments, if only 7 or eight of them are majors. to me it means that he played his heart out everywhere, and did not save himself for the majors.

Posted by joe 07/15/2010 at 05:09 PM

Martina Navratilova said something along the lines of it's not just about the number of slams its about the talent.. if you base it off of that then yes Serena is the best.

Posted by Vijay 07/15/2010 at 05:18 PM

I agree with this article that it is very premature to consider Serena as greatest ever. It is so glaring that it becomes quite obvious the headline is being use for sensationalism and selling magazines. She needs to at least win another French Open, or reach a couple of French finals, to get anywhere close to greatest.
Also, Steve brings up a terrific fact that there is no multi slam winner who turned pro after 2000 except Sharapova. That shows that modern training is based purely on hard hitting and not proper technique and attacking mindset. Nicole Vaidisova is the prime exhibit for this problem. So assuming that players of today can easily go back in time to beat players of past purely due to athleticism is idiotic.
The games of past players was based on pure technique and harmony of motion which brought out maximum output with concentration on minimal effort. Today's game is based on swinging the co-poly strung racket as fast as possible. If you gave a modern racket to Don Budge or even Tilden, they'd be hitting 130 mph bombs of serves, just 'cause their technique and harmony of movement was far superior.
As such, I think Serena's technique doesn't measure up anywhere close to those of Steffi, Martina, or even Seles. To me it appears she uses her upper body a lot plough through the ball with a nano-tech, karophite, ultra-basalt wonder of a machination in her hand. But, if she was in a past era, she would have put in more effort to perfect her technique.
So, a champ is a champ in any era. The only way to declare her the greatest, to me, is when she wins 18+ slams with 2+ French Opens.

Posted by jeff 07/15/2010 at 05:27 PM

Chris won 18 slams...not 17

Posted by james 07/15/2010 at 05:28 PM

in addition to everything PeeJayKay said;

well i always think her rivalry against clijsters.. they are 6 to 6 head to head, but clijsters won the past 4.. i dont even think she should be even thought as the GOAT compared to the tier one's.. shes not decimating every player on the tour as tier one players have..

Posted by Kw 07/15/2010 at 05:34 PM

there's a difference between greatest and most accomplished

Posted by catrice 07/15/2010 at 05:35 PM

While I maintain that these "debates" on the greatest are just a waste of time....I agree totally with those who scoff at the reasoning a few have put out that she is not due to ONE French Open. Please! Those same people thought Sampras (with NONE) and Federer, whom just got one, were the greatest without it. Did Bjorn ever win the U.S. Open? Again, love her or hate her, Serena has stated repeatedly she is not chasing numbers and I believe her (especially based on how much she plays), so if she doesn't care,why do other people get worked up? Steve T and L Jon whatever are entitled to their opinion, just as those who don't agree are entitled to theirs. Why can't players be the "best of their time" instead of this useless greatest of all time?

Serena (nor Venus)started playing a full schedule as young as the others. Serena has also missed several majors. Be it right or wrong, the same opportunities (or you may call them "distractions") were not available to those other players years ago. Who knows what different choices would have been made? The game has become more physical than it once was, training is different, the schedule, the equipment, on and on. That is way it is crazy to try and compare. Whether people choose to see it that way or not, tennis is a job, and in some ways the players have a right to decide how much and how often they want to play and commit to it. I don't think any more or less of the player that plays 22 tournaments a year than someone whom plays 12. Are they not like independent contractors of a fashion?
As for "character" the best way to show your displeasure is to not watch the player, or buy anything they endorse. I know if we did that for every athlete, actor, politician, etc it would be pretty difficult to survive. I often wonder if people spent as much time on their own behavior, morals, etc as they do judging and watching people they don't even know if the world would be a friendly place? I wonder also how those same people feel about the Kobe Bryants, Lebron James, Pete Rose and many other athletes whose attitude and behavior is "questionable?"

Posted by Kw 07/15/2010 at 05:37 PM

Brilliant post by PDT on pg. 3

Posted by lillie mae 07/15/2010 at 05:40 PM

I think she greatest and give her what is, not because you do not like as person, maybe she do not like you as person. look the girl is great and can play tennis you are jealous.

Posted by Carvin 07/15/2010 at 05:56 PM

She is the best ever period. Guys if all the greats playe in the same era, its gonna be Serena who will come out at the top. JUst see the IW finals between Graf and Serena, An experience tennis player who is at the verge of her career vs the unexperience tennis player who is yet to prove that she can be the best. point by point Graf was outrun, out hit, out ace and out played by serena. Graf could easily win the match, she had beaten Serena once and she can beat her again considering the experiences in tennis, experience alone can win the whole thing, but Serena was able to figure it out how to beat her.Just think about if they both played when they are at their peak. Serena will blow Graf away, graf has a winning H2H record against Martina and cris so just think about it. What made Serena the best is that she knows how to beat here opponent, So let say, if she plays in Cris time using a wooden racket, dont you think Serena cant figure it out how to beat Cris? Give me a break, the writer of SI doesnt end up by saying that Serena is the best ever based on SLAMs won, but the execution and how good she is on the court. Besides Serena among the all time great has the best mind conditioning, she never gives not until she shake hands at the net. We can question her dedication in playing tennis and her outside interest that keot her from winning, but if Serena has only the dedication of MArtina who played tennis day in day out, wouldnt you think she can win more than 200 tournaments? int he end, the GOAT debate will not end up on 1)how many Slams you won (because they need to consider different eras and situations)2)how many title you won, 3) the racket they used (because each era has differnt kinds) but on how she played the game, Just like martina Said its not about how many slams you won its about how to play the game, and for me Serena is the one, and Stefi is closely second.

Posted by Northern boy 07/15/2010 at 06:07 PM

One thing I think a lot of us tend to underestimate is consistency. The great players, Graf, Martina, the human metronomic backbaoard that was Evert, as well as Nadal, play very very low error tennis. The reality is that the player with the fewest errors usually wins a tennis match.

Serena, with very few exceptions, has shown that if you can hang with her from the baseline she will cough up errors. Case in point was the infamous Clijsters match, which was the 2nd best match of the year in terms of quality. Clijsters won the large majority of points lasting longer than 4 shots because her great defense enabled her to keep the point alive. Serena was playing extremely well, but Clijsters was steadier on the day.

My point, then, is that I think it's foolish to assume that Serena would romp over Evert, Seles, Graf and Navratilova, especially given homogenous conditions. The supposition that the SI author makes is that all those past players should be forced to step up to use today's equipment and play today's game. But who's to say Serena would be a dominant player in a previous era using wooden racquets?

Also, a point that gets made a lot is to use one match, such as Serena's demolishing of Sharapova in the 2007 AO final, to say that 'Serena at her best is unbeatable'. Well that's true of a lot of players. Look at Aravane Rezai and how hard and devastatingly she hits the ball - she hit Venus off the court in the Madrid final, and could do the same to Serena if she were 'at her best'. Does that mean Rezai is the best player ever? Of course not.

No one's begrudging Serena the best serve ever, though this is again a product of equipment as much as physicality. But she's won several of her last Grand Slams in a 2-3 year period where her competition was mediocre at best.

Posted by Ryan 07/15/2010 at 06:10 PM

@BrooklynNY You'll note the not insignificant qualifer "woman" in my statement. You even copied-and-pasted it yourself.

Posted by jeff 07/15/2010 at 06:10 PM

Just a few things to consider: Between Sept. 71-June of 83 Chris reached at least the semi's of the 34 grand singles events she entered,between 72-89 never ranked below #4,won 125 consecutive matches on clay spanning a 6 yr run, Ranked #1 or #2 between 74-86,played in 34 GS finals,won 7 French(most ever),won US open 6 times 3 straight years without losing a set & won at least 1 GS title 13 yrs in a row. If she had not skipped the French open for 3yrs when she was #1 & the Australian open for 5yrs I am sure she would have more than 18GS titles. And last but not least has the highest winning % of anyone,man or women who has ever played,.900.

When Serena get these type of #'s then she can be considered GOAT

Posted by Northern boy 07/15/2010 at 06:12 PM

Thomas Warren - you think Bodo is better than Tignor? You're insane. Full stop.

Posted by Mandeep Ghuman 07/15/2010 at 06:21 PM

Good piece. Instinctively, I believe Serena would come on top of any inter-era match ups. That is because of her mental toughness. When she decides to win, she invariably wins.

However, it is unwise to declare her the GOAT on an SI cover story. It is immature to indulge in such rankings. In general, American magazines (e.g. Time, Newsweek, etc.) love to compare and rank things in order to sell copies. People love to consume such stories. Dispassionate presentation and analysis of news is sorely lacking in the most popular media in the States.

Posted by Jay 07/15/2010 at 06:31 PM

Federer: 16 majors/62 titles
Sampras: 13 majors/64 titles
Agassi: 8 majors/60 titles
Connors: 8 majors/109 titles
Borg: 11 majors/63 titles
Lendl: 8 majors/94 titles
Laver: 11 majors/40 atp titles (+ 150 additional)
Nadal: 8 majors/41 titles
McEnroe: 7 majors/77 titles

Court: 24 majors/92 titles
Navratilova: 18 majors/167 titles
Evert: 18 majors/157 titles
Graf: 22 majors/102 titles
Serena: 13 majors/37 titles
Seles: 9 majors/53 titles
Venus: 7 majors/43 titles
Henin: 7 majors/43 titles
Clijsters: 2 majors/37 titles

I love Serena, but are we willing to say that the best women's tennis has to offer can, near the end of her career, have won less than 25% of the tournaments won by another all-time great, less than 50% of several other all-time greats, and is less overall than two other contemporary major winners? I fear that we are encouraging players to become Slam specialists.

When you look that the number of tournaments won by previous champs, both men and women, you can tell which ones dominated the tour, and which ones dominated the majors. Amongst the women, Court, Graf, Navratilova and Evert dominated the tour, and for a period, the majors. None of today's greatest females, even if they increase their major numbers, can claim to have dominated the tour as consistently as past greats.

Thats not to say that Serena is not the most talented to have played the game. Having had the greatest career is another matter.

Posted by Northern boy 07/15/2010 at 06:31 PM

Great point made earlier btw:

By the way, Navritilova has had some success at mixed doubles. That means she can handle some smoked serves. I would not be so quick to dismiss her ability to deal with the Serena Serve.

Very true - Martina won the mixed doubles USO at age 49!! (2006 I think?) So she can handle the hardest serves of the present day.

Also, in Martina's 167 singles and 177 doubles titles, Evert's 157 and Graf's 107, Connor's singles 109 titles stand alone by a LONG way.

Serena has only 37. Not only is this less than a quarter of Martina and Evert's total and less than half of Graf's, but she's tied for 13th place all time with Kim Clijsters in the singles category, and in 25th place if you add doubles titles.

Navratilova, Evert, Graf, Court, Goolagong, King, Davenport, Wade, Seles, Hingis, Henin and Venus have all won more titles than Serena.

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 07/15/2010 at 06:33 PM

Steve Thanks for the post.Having watched Serena live many times and the recent time bieng the final at this years AO the one thing I am enthralled with her is her "presence".

To me regardless of the outstanding attributes she has as a tennis player.When she comes on court their is a formdible presence about her.

I believe players on the ATP like Roger for has has this same presence.The joke around the locker room was he won the match against his oppoenet before both players come on court.The same can also be applied to Rafa.

Serena is a true champion in every sense of the word.She has the winning mentality.Once she makes up her mind that is it.She is still highly competitive after all these years.Her love of the game is there for all to see.She has had her fair share of injuries in the past and has come back like the champion that she is.She too has been critised for playing when she feels like it.Hey she has earnt her stripes as far as I am concerned.At this stage of her career she is playing smart and picks her tournaments and then as we have seen this year has already won 2 GS tournaments.I think we are all lucky she is still playing she could easy just hang up her racquet.I also think her other off court interests has kept her in the game.Hey you cant live and breathe tennis 24/7.

To me she has the best serve in womens tennis.I love the way she picks her spots.Her kicker serve as well is great.You cant compare her to the mens game that is just totally unfair.She has even come out and said she would not beat a male player.

Lets not go back to the Bobby Riggs game please.Thank you very much lol!.Though credit to Billy Jean King.

I feel if Serena can keep healthy and her love for the game is still intact who know how many GS titles she will have before she hangs up her racquet.

For me personally I hope she still sticks around for some years at least.

Posted by Jay 07/15/2010 at 06:34 PM

@Northern boy: We're channeling.

Posted by Northern boy 07/15/2010 at 06:35 PM

btw is anyone else shocked that Chris Evert only has 7 doubles titles to Martina's 177?

Posted by Northern boy 07/15/2010 at 06:37 PM

Indeed Jay - hats off

Posted by Marc 07/15/2010 at 06:38 PM

Exciting to watch play. Great tennis played and surely more to come...
But GOAT... not yet!

Posted by Corrie 07/15/2010 at 06:44 PM

I agree that there's too much "best ever", "greatest ever" thrown around these days like confetti. We're all the victims of short termism and we're in no postion to judge a player who's still playing compared to other retired champions. We totally lack historical perspective.

We've a host of great champions, past and present, in tennis - the current ones draw the crowds, which is what is needed. Why not leave it at that.

Posted by ks 07/15/2010 at 07:04 PM

Steve, the points that you make against Wertheim's article are justified, but a few questions/points.

Did you not write an article once mentioning that there is a continuum between the great players from different eras? I believe you also mentioned a few examples like Laver playing Borg pretty close, then Borg and Lendl playing close matches. Ok, Borg led Lendl 6-2 in their head to head, but Borg was in his peak and Lendl did improve later on. Lendl then had close matches with Sampras.

Anyways, point is, if the closeness in matches between great players - is it limited to only players in the open era? Or players from prior eras as well?

It is very difficult to say, but to state that a 500th ranked player from today's era can crush a top player from the previous era - not sure about that one.

Posted by Sammy 07/15/2010 at 07:13 PM

Very well written, Steve. No hyperbole, exaggeration or attention-getting headlines; just a fair level-headed analysis backed by undisputed facts. When I read Jon Wertheim article where he unceremoniously bestowed the GOAT title on Serena, I wanted to write him and say exactly what you said in this paragraph (though maybe not quite as eloquently):

"Every player, obviously, is a product of his or her era. The best player of any era has trained and designed her game to beat the opponents she has to face on the court -- nothing more, nothing less. You can't penalize Graf and Navratilova for not making themselves good enough in their primes to beat a hypothetical future opponent. Just as when a young serve-and-volleying Russian starts racking up Slams 15 years from now, we won't be able to look back and penalize Serena for not having made her game consistent enough to beat her."

This brilliantly summarizes all that's wrong with John Wertheim's argument that Serena would crush icons of the game like Graf (the true GOAT, imo) and Navratilova. Simply put, if, say, Graf started out playing tennis in Serena's generation, she would have developed her game to neutralize Serena's strong points while tweaking her own devastating arsenal of shots to inflict maximum damage to Serena's game. I don't see Serena "crushing" her at all under those circumstances, far from it. In fact, I'd give Graf the upper hand.

Posted by George Robinson 07/15/2010 at 07:38 PM

Serena is the greatest player of all times .Tennis people is very different now what game are you looking at.Those players years ago was to small ,slow and too weak to even have a chance to compete in todays womens game.

Posted by TheMightyFunk 07/15/2010 at 07:43 PM

ah...just what I like - A race I have no goat in - I can just kick back, throw my feet on the coffee table and enjoy the debate with no risk of dark hair turning gray... have at it folks! :)

Posted by Thomas Warren 07/15/2010 at 08:05 PM

The great thing about this debate is that Serena is still healthy and playing. Even if she plays 3 or 4 more years...max 16 slams...I betcha she can win at least 6 more! Great Serena...forget those small tourneys. She and Venus shouldn't hurt themselves for a country who really don't support them like other countries support their players. I think the US Open is so disgusting for rooting for out-of-country opponents when they play the WS.

I am glad they are not playing to win the heart of spoiled American brats. They are playing for their greatness!

Posted by wilson75 07/15/2010 at 08:08 PM

Just like Wertheim's question to Federer after his @ wimbledon flopped so does he argument declaring Serena the GOAT. I'm a Serena fan but how could she be the greatest when she only has 37 singles titles and not even a gold medal. That means she only has 24 non-slam titles.

Posted by M.J. 07/15/2010 at 08:18 PM

Funny how you keep throwing in Graf to diminish Serena's accomplishments, yet you don't acknowledge how Graf wouldn't have had nearly as many slams without someone taking the young woman who was owning her on a regular basis out (Seles). "Graf had to overcome Navratilova herself to begin her reign" Yes, she had to overcome the old guard, but what about overcoming the greatest threat in her generation (Seles)? Nope, free pass on that one. Very convenient oversight to make your arguments seem so strong...

Posted by FED FRED 07/15/2010 at 08:21 PM

Serena Cannot beat FED....

Don't you idiots get it...
FED is the GOAT...The best of all time.

Serena is a minor player in the all powerful FED EX Universe.

Take the US Open Roger. You are Superman.

Posted by newenglander 07/15/2010 at 08:31 PM

seles (pre stabbing)is continually underrated. i give her a better chance against serena than all of the above listed greats. her ground game, particularly those angles generated with flat shots, plus the rockets down the line, would give serena trouble. obviously, no one knows for sure but her absolutely awesome baseline game (which dominated graf) pre stabbing would be a force in any generation.

Posted by geekgirl 07/15/2010 at 08:32 PM

Serena has always cherry-picked her events, reserving her best stuff for the slams. By all accounts, Serena is usually the one to beat at any of the Slams, but I think her performance has been less than inspired at the lesser tour events and the 37 career titles stat proves it. How do you explain that inconsistency? I'd say it's one of three things: 1.) she's intentionally tanking to save herself for the slams, or 2.) She is inconsistent with her conditioning and she often loses when she's not in top shape, or 3.) she loses because her motivation is low for the lesser tour events. In any case, the inconsistency in her results makes her a questionable choice for the title of GOAT. She had the talent to get there, but not the motivation and consistency.

Posted by tre 07/15/2010 at 09:12 PM

This debate is senseless. The other greats have said that Serena is the greatest. Do you hear me? These are the people you're debating about and they consider SERENA to be the greatest. Why are you wasting your time arguing over this. You have no idea what it takes to be a great player, so how can you even postulate about Serena not being the greatest. The true greats of tennis have their own formula to calculate greatness and it's no secret.

Just accept it. In the eyes of Great, Serena's the greatest!!! That should be enough.

Posted by 07/15/2010 at 09:19 PM

Not even top 5, let alone goat.

Posted by Jason 07/15/2010 at 09:22 PM

Who cares !!!!

Posted by Jason 07/15/2010 at 09:23 PM

Who cares !!!! who is the prettest one.
Can we fix all the national problems first.

Posted by grumpy 07/15/2010 at 09:43 PM

sorry, but Suzanne Lenglen was the best; another era, i know, but still; i know; i was there.

Posted by PeeJayKay 07/15/2010 at 09:43 PM

James... thanks for noticing my post... intersting stat vs. Chamapgne Kimmy :) which leads me to Jay's list of majors/titles... if you include Kim on that list, then Lindsay Davenport also surely goes on that list... 3 major titles and about as many tourney wins as Seles (mid-fifties total I think). Bunches of GS finals and semifinals. Doubles prowess. Her win in '05 vs. Kim at RG. Cleanest striker of a big ball ever... oh.. sorry... got off topic ;)

Posted by LILLY 07/15/2010 at 09:45 PM

What a disappointment! Serena is one of the greatest and in case you didn't know let me explain. The rules were changed in the WTA when Serena AND VENUS ENTERED THE GAME. Martina, Billie Jean, Evert, and Graf played by different rules which means that they did not have to play in as many tournaments and GRAND SLAMS WERE GRAND SLAMS. This article is totally unfortunate. I make no apologies and I want to thank Serena for her beauty yes, BEAUTY!, honor and commitment to the sport. You are a true treasure to African American women. We love you Serena and we know the truth!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by grumpy 07/15/2010 at 09:46 PM

sorry, but Suzanne Lenglen was the greatest ever to set foot on a court; another era, i know, but still; i know, i was there.

Posted by LILLY 07/15/2010 at 09:53 PM

Don't hate! win a Grand Slam!!!!!!

Posted by jarlie 07/15/2010 at 09:56 PM

every players are best in their own era......every person has different game.....there lot of factors affect their game...

Posted by Kim 07/15/2010 at 10:00 PM

Steve, you deserve a big thums up. Great article. Here is another major issues, Ok for Serena not to win at minors as she brings the best at majors (re-inforced this when he was answering a question about Serena winning less minors). If Wertheim thinks that commitment to minor tournaments does not have to do anything as long as the best ever is saving herself for the biggest slams, thats sends a wrong signal to all the junior players. Tennis thrives on these minor tournaments except for the 4 cities where the majors are played and I do care whether the best ever plays her heart out when she plays the minors because that is what a regular tennis fan can afford. Why do I care to waste my worthy dollars on a tennis tournament when the best ever does not even care to participate and when she does, does not even care to play her best at minors as would not help her resume to be the best ever anyway? But as a tennis fan, I do want the player considered the best ever to give the best day in and day out at each tournament, not just majors like Steffi, Martina and Chris did. I don't care if they have the best serve or best backhand or forehand or physically, the strongest ever.

Posted by Kim 07/15/2010 at 10:03 PM

Sorry, should include Seles/BJK/Court and many more players, just mentioned above three as Wertheim said Serena will crush Graf/Navratilova/Evert.

Posted by Geellis 07/15/2010 at 10:07 PM

Interesting discussion. I've been talking about this subject since I saw the Wertheim piece. I tend to agree with Wertheim (and Steve seems to support the contention as well) that Serena beats all of the other GOAT contenders if they're all playing today with the same equipment. Furthermore, I'm not as sold as others here seem to be that the previous greats could simply "will" themselves to be faster, stronger, more agile, more athletic etc. if the competition required it of them. I think that's a rather fatuously democratic oversimplification of what it takes to be a great athlete. Sure, there's a lot of work involved. But how often do you hear an announcer (sometimes erroneously) or former player say "you can't teach that"? The point is, the timing of a Davydenko (one of my fav players to watch), for example, is not simply something a player can add to their repertoire because it seems like that's what the tour is demanding. That's just silly. If players, even great players, could simply morph their games based upon the requirements of beating their chief rivals, you'd see Fed with a better H2H v. Nadal; you would not have seen the incursion Seles made into Graf's dominance, etc. So, to think that Court, Graf, or Navratilova could simply will themselves the skills necessary to beat Serena (i.e., the power, the speed, the timing, etc.) is just a bunch of silliness. If one could do this, the greatest players would simply never lose (and certainly not lose repeatedly to anyone). But, alas, it's just not that simple. Most often, with very few exceptions, you're stuck with the basic game, and more importantly raw skills (again, the things like speed, power, agility, athleticism), you have and, minus small tweaks (in your game tactics), it's either sufficient or not. And for this reason, I think it fair to dismiss the suggestion that the Court's and Graf's etc. could morph these raw athletic skills as necessary to match the raw (i.e., natural) skills of Serena.

Posted by Geellis 07/15/2010 at 10:10 PM

I agree with you. I think Seles probably would be the toughest of the past greats for Serena for pretty much the reasons you stated. Unfortunately, the stabbing and subsequent two year hiatus really did take the wind out of her GOAT consideration. What a pity (even though I was a HUGE Graf fan).

Posted by ToddMichael 07/15/2010 at 10:18 PM

Serena is the greatest of this era but does not have enough majors or records to even begin the argument of comparing her to Graf or Navratilova. Check back in five years and we can see if there is an argument. Untill then she is and will remain a top five or top ten on the greatest list...but not on the short list.

Posted by Geellis (Chris Evert Speaks) 07/15/2010 at 10:18 PM

Quotes from Chris' letter to Serena

"Just a couple of years ago, when you were fully committed to the game, you showed the athleticism, shot-making, and competitive desire to become the greatest player ever. Many besides myself shared the same sentiment. You won five of the six Grand Slams you entered over the 2002 and 2003 seasons and looked utterly dominant in the process. Then you got sidetracked with injuries, pet projects, and indifference and have won only one major in the last seven you’ve played. I find those results hard to fathom. You’re simply too good not to be winning two Grand Slam titles a year. You’re still only 24, well within your prime."

"I offer this only as advice, not criticism, from someone with experience. If you’re completely happy with the way your life is, then crumple up this letter and throw it away. I wish you nothing but luck and success in all your pursuits. Just remember that you have in front of you an opportunity of the rarest kind—to become the greatest ever at something.

I hope you make the most of it."

and for those who think Court, Evert, Navratilova etc. could simply "will" themselves to be the equal to Serena, Evert also wrote:

"Perhaps the reason I feel so strongly about this is because I wasn’t blessed with the physical gifts you possess."

You can read the letter in it's entirety at

Posted by jula 07/15/2010 at 10:28 PM

You may be able to say that Serena has more power and a better serve compared to all of the other greats she is being compared to (who apparently had a much easier era to play in), but if you were to compare her personality and sportsmanship to those same greats, Serena would be last on every list. She is a bully and is not able to win or lose gracefully. Last year's US Open, which everyone seems to turn a blind eye to, demonstrates this in its most honest and blatant form.

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