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 aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 07/16/2010 at 05:26 PM

Interesting point

Well I was a player that used the good old racquets with gut strings may I add.

I found them easier to play a volley.

Since switching to the new power smaller head racquets one can easily feel the more power.Though it did take some adjustment with the serve and volley.

Though if one is a good volley player new racquets dont inhibit that at all.

For example Nadal and also Sam Stosur used the "new strings" on their racquets today giving them extra top spin.

I for one dont think these 2 players could go back with the good old fashioned racquets for starters.

I would love to see Rod Laver in action today with these new racquets? When you are a great shotmaker like Rod was I feel he could have adjusted perfectly.

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 07/16/2010 at 05:31 PM

By the way I used to play

In the good old fashioned Dunlop Volley shoes as well lol!

Just taking a trip down memeory lane.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 07/16/2010 at 05:39 PM

Geelis:

You are somebody who has the gall to argue S.Williams is the GOAT when she has five less majors singles titles and over 900 less singles match wins than Martina Navratilova, and has a far less distinguished doubles record than Navratilova.

So, if you believe that you have any credibility with anyone who understands tennis and has the ability to adequately publish said understanding, good luck to you.

As far as Wertheim is concerned, that guy repeatedly commits factual errors to print. So, I don't take that guy all that seriously.

Getting back to Williams threatening the official at last year's U.S. Open and threatening Martinez Sanchez at last year's Roland Garros, those are the two most disgraceful events I've ever seen on any professional women's tour in over thirty years of following said tours.

Keep on prattling away. Good luck in convincing anyone who has a clue.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 07/16/2010 at 06:09 PM

Another Wertheim "gem," from a "Tennis Mailbag" dated July 14, 2010:

"Some of you are hung up on Federer's losing record against Nadal. Others (self included) feel as though it's a misleading stat."

What is "misleading" about Federer's losing record against Rafa?

Federer has played 21 matches against Rafa, lost 14 and won 7.

What is misleading about that statistic?

Federer has met Rafa 8 times in majors, lost 6 and won 2.

What is misleading about that statistic?

When Federer met Rafa in the 2008 Roland Garros finals; Rafa steamrolled Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0.

What is misleading about that score?

Posted by manuelsantanafan 07/16/2010 at 06:11 PM

Another Wertheim "gem," from a "Tennis Mailbag" dated July 14, 2010:

"Some of you are hung up on Federer's losing record against Nadal. Others (self included) feel as though it's a misleading stat."

What is "misleading" about Federer's losing record against Rafa?

Federer has played 21 matches against Rafa, lost 14 and won 7.

What is misleading about that statistic?

Federer has met Rafa 8 times in majors, lost 6 and won 2.

What is misleading about that statistic?

When Federer met Rafa in the 2008 Roland Garros finals; Rafa steamrolled Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0.

What is misleading about that score?

Posted by Tim (Outlaw the Moonball!) 07/16/2010 at 06:27 PM

msf, are u singing that song again? my goodness, what part of even Rafa saying that most of the matches have been on clay dont you seem to be able to grasp? Even Rafa says the head to head is skewed towards clay results, but this horse has left the stable as they say lol

Posted by Tim (Outlaw the Moonball!) 07/16/2010 at 06:28 PM

maybe if Rafa's record at the US Open was as good as Fed's at the French Open, we'd have a whole new slant on this... Rafa's rewarded for failure on hard, while Fed is punished for success on clay...

Posted by manuelsantanafan 07/16/2010 at 06:51 PM

Tim:

Say:

(1) Federer had not made as many clay finals and not taken so many obligatory beatdowns from Rafa; and

(2) Rafa had reached a couple of U.S. Open finals against Federer and split those finals, as Rafa has other hard court matches he's had with Federer.

In that counterfactual world, Federer would have a less abysmal H2H record against Rafa.

But, then Federer may not have held the No. 1 ranking as many weeks as he has.

That a more palatable bowl of gruel for you?

Posted by Aube,Venus Williams is a doll!!! 07/16/2010 at 08:41 PM

The only one thing I'm sure about this whole discussion is that Serena could care less who the GOAT is,by the way, recently at WIMBLEDON when Mary Carillo was trying to corrupt her in wanting to chase Evert,Navratilova and the Great Steffi that I love,she asked her to stop and made it clear to her she's doing what she's doing for herself and she's very happy where she's at.What amazes me, in this discussion though is how people are so hateful to just state the facts they believe strongly in,if you believe Serena is not good for such and such reason,more power to you!but why do you have to say it with such hatred that only unveils really what type of human being you are?!I can agree with all messengers in here, but the messages do not have to be filled with hatred and arrogance and at times sheer racism,Geez!!!
When I think of bad people I think about rapists,pedophiles,killers and so on,not SERENA JEMEKA WILLIAMS!!!
She sure is my BEST TENNIS PLAYER EVER,period!!!

Posted by Geellis 07/16/2010 at 11:24 PM

@msf
I've actually argued something slightly more nuanced and in line with what wertheim argued. if you'd taken the time to read my posts instead of just responding with your non-intelligible garbage, you'd have gotten the point. Our point is not that Serena is the greatest champion of all time, especially if that moniker is measured by GS titles. Our contention is that Serena is the best player of all time and would beat all of the other GOAT contenders at GS finals on a regular (though of course not 100%) basis. That's where this discussion began. If you'd read one piece of it, you'd know that we ceded the GOAT as measured by GS long ago.

Posted by Tim (Outlaw the Moonball!) 07/16/2010 at 11:52 PM

msf, u just gotta get over the H2H thing, even Rafa says its misleading and the only time I even bother to think about it is when people bring it up as some ladder to GOAT hood... why should anyone have a winning head to head with Rafa on clay, when he's the best clay courter and everyone knows it? its a small piece of a very large pie, for most people anyway

re Serena, i totally agree...

Posted by Assel 07/17/2010 at 06:24 AM

Steffi is the GOAT

Posted by lilscot 07/17/2010 at 06:34 AM

It's so amazing how some people are so obsessed with Roger/Rafa wars that they will even turn a post about someone else into their same tired old argument.

Geesh, Rafa is my hero but even I think there is more to tennis than just these two guys. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this a post about Serena? At least show her the respect and decency of not letting yet another post sink down into the depths of the Fedal wars, yet again.

Was just checking in to see if it was safe to come back yet. Got my answer.

Posted by Tran 07/17/2010 at 09:34 AM

Your arguments are absolutely correct. I, however, do not need to read them in order to declare the mentioned magazine cover is laughable.

Posted by !Whatthedeuce? 07/17/2010 at 09:55 AM

Everyone makes great points about GOAT debate. GOAT single year is undoubtedly Graf "88. Some great veterans were still at a competitive level and some of the new generation were coming on , but none more convincingly than Graf. Having said that, I would love to see a match with both in their primes (even in equipment and training, diet opportunities etc) between Seles and Serena. It would be loud and vicious and entertaining, no?

Posted by !Whatthedeuce? 07/17/2010 at 10:01 AM

BTW Steve, congratulations on 9 and counting pages of opinion. For all of those who say they don't like this debate, it certainly does spark conversation. And as you stated, that's what Wertheim was trying to do...I wonder how that issue did sales-wise?

Posted by Neveah 07/17/2010 at 11:51 AM

Northern boy 07/16/2010 at 03:40 PM
Oh Sam Elin - wrong post.

Put Aravane Rezai at her best against Serena and she blows Serena off the court - no one hits the ball as hard as she does. It's all relative. CONSISTENCY - that's the part that everyone forgets. It's silly to think that Serena would have a winning record against Graf throughout her career.

LMAO! You really need to lay off the Rezai Kool-aid because you sound dilusional. Serena doesn't hit the ball as hard as she's capable.

Posted by berkee 07/17/2010 at 06:56 PM

Graf won every major at least 4 times. Often she had to go through Navratilova, Sabatini, Seles, Sanchez-Vicario and Pierce to get the title. Steffi, Martina and Chrissie all played alot more tournaments than Serena. Serena comes in well rested from not playing and wins; what would her record be if she actually played a full schedule. Serena, best of all time, hell no.

Posted by Blair 07/17/2010 at 07:33 PM

Steve,
You said in the article that serena has a head-to-head of 2-4 against henin in the grand slams, which I am going to assume is correct. however, the 2007 season(french, wimbie, and USO) serena and henin clashed in the quaterfinals in each. this was a year that serena was coming back from injuries and other personal issues. so yes, it says 2-4 in favor of henin, but if serena was at her best it may be 5-1 in grand slams and 11-3 for a total head-to-head.
i am however not saying that williams is the best ever, but she is by far mentally tougher than henin, as well as, 99% of the wta players of her generation.

Posted by Rocky lapidus 07/17/2010 at 08:04 PM

Tignor:"...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..."

Yeah, but Safina, Jankovic and Zvonareva, two of whom have been no 1 and the third has been fairly described as a top five talent, would have absolutely crushed Court. The players are better athletes, now, and less subject to the nonsense regarding "lady-like" behaviour that I believed greatly constricted the female athletes of the past and still, to some extent, affect them, today.

And, the argument regarding weak competition: Please, you've got multiple slam winners: Henin, Venus, Hingis, Capriati, Clijsters, Sharapova, Kuzenetseva and a bunch of one timers. Everyone hits hard and moves better than all but the very elite of the all timers list.

Plus, Wertheim cinches it for me when he puts the el primo intimidator of her time, Navratilova up against Serena at the pregame handshake. Serena would have dwarfed her and blown Navy's mind, right there.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 07/17/2010 at 09:35 PM

Court was a natural lefthander who played righthanded because of poor coaching when she was a child.

Nevertheless, Court was considered the best athlete in women's tennis during her long era.

So to say that anyone in today's game, including the Williams Sisters, are better athletes than Court was is ludicrous.

Part of being a great athlete is being durable.

Safina, S.Williams, and V.Williams are the antitheses of durability.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 07/17/2010 at 09:41 PM

Hard to "blow anyone's mind" when sitting on the sidelines, S.Williams' favorite location.

In light of the fact that Navratilova played over 1000 more matches than the often-injured S.Williams, the latter's opportunity to intimidate Navratilova would not have been that frequent.

One doesn't win or become the GOAT by sitting on one's ass.

Posted by berkee 07/18/2010 at 03:05 AM

And guess who's out for most of the summer and will most likely reappear at the US Open. Serena

Posted by wilson75 07/18/2010 at 09:58 AM

Given the news that Serena is out for the summer due to surgery, I'm less inclined to believe that she's going to win the US Open this year.

Posted by Neveah 07/18/2010 at 02:45 PM

As we all know, Serena has the ability to turn it up when she needs to at Majors. Unlike ANYONE else, so doubt her at your own peril.:) Get well Serena, they must the taste of Crow.;)

Posted by Neveah 07/18/2010 at 02:47 PM

Oops,meant "must LOVE the taste of Crow".

Posted by ilovetennis 07/18/2010 at 03:45 PM

In she had to play her sister part, Evert has won 18 not 17 slams

Posted by Adam 07/18/2010 at 05:19 PM

Serena is not GOAT yet, Steffi Graf is.

On the men's side Federer is GOAT.

Posted by wilson75 07/18/2010 at 06:02 PM

Just as it's said that Federer can't expect to turn on a switch at slams, the same applies for Serena. She will be coming off surgery and I don't think that she will be able to play at top level at USO.

Posted by Neveah 07/18/2010 at 06:48 PM

I don't want to say anything negative about Federer but he is not Serena. His fans thought he was going to be able to flick a switch LIKE Serena but it wasn't to be. She hasn't been at top level a few times before and I still recall her lifting that trophy on Sunday.;)

Posted by Happy 07/18/2010 at 07:36 PM

Love the Serena serve!

Serena is definitely the WTA GOAT when it comes to blogger comments. NO other female player gets the playback on the blogs like a topic related to Serena. Prove me wrong!

Posted by manuelsantanafan 07/18/2010 at 07:47 PM

"I don't want to say anything negative about Federer but he is not Serena."

That's for sure.

Federer holds the men's record for majors singles titles.

S.Williams is fifth or sixth on the list of women holding majors singles titles.

Federer has won 701 matches on the ATP tour, a much tougher tour than the WTA tour.

S.Williams has won less than 500 matches on the WTA tour.

Federer is within one week of the ATP record for weeks as the No. 1 player.

S.Williams isn't close to holding the analogous WTA record.

Federer has repeatedly won the ATP's sportsmanship award.

S.Williams has been disqualified from a match for threatening a tennis official during that match and has also threatened another player (Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez) during a 2009 match at Roland Garros.

Yes, fortunately for Federer, he is not Serena.

Posted by Neveah 07/19/2010 at 12:01 AM

All I heard was Fed can turn it up at Majors,wait until RG....and then wait for Wimby... and now we are waiting until the USOpen...He,unfortunately, is not Serena Williams mentally.:)
It makes jealous laptop bully's blood boil that she's so talented. I love it!!! hahaha

Posted by robert 07/21/2010 at 09:41 AM

if Serena would have started taking Slams from Steffi 3 years into Steffs reign, Hamburg would have ended that.

Posted by Juan_Antonio 07/26/2010 at 04:53 PM

I agree with Steve on the fact that Serena has not the numbers for the GOAT, yet regarding Graf comparisson, it must not be forgotten that Serena hasn't the benefit of having the best player stabbed by a fan of hers like Graf had.

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