COMMENTARY | Every time Serena Williams steps on a tennis court, you get the feeling she will either win or lose the match on her own and that her opponent will have no real say in the outcome.
Serena will either simply overpower the woman on the other side of the net, or she'll make enough mistakes to lose the match.
That's supremacy like no other woman has conveyed since Martina Navratilova dominated the early 1980s and Steffi Graf owned 1988. Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Monica Seles and others have had similar periods where they were just too good for everybody else. But they did so with more of a sense of outplaying people. With Serena, Martina and Steffi at their best, we're talking about outgunning people. It's the sense the match is over before it's even started.
At 32 years of age, it still feels that way with Serena Williams. She's got 17 grand slam singles titles and unless she runs into injury problems or simply loses interest in playing, she's likely to approach Margaret Court's all-time record of 24 if not surpass it. There's already talk of her being the greatest female player to ever swing a racquet.
Is that the case? Is Serena the best woman tennis player in history?
It's so difficult to measure such things. Advancing racquet technology has added so much more power to the game. How can anyone adequately measure players of the wood racquet era against the players of today? Who can deny the greatness of players such as Suzanne Lenglen, Maureen Connolly and Althea Gibson, all of whom were just as superior in their long-ago eras?
For the sake of argument, most pundits seem to measure the greatest of the greats beginning with the open era, which started in 1968 when professionals were first permitted to compete with amateurs at grand slam events. Court won 13 of her 24 grand slam singles titles before the open era, and doesn't seem to get much consideration in discussions about the best.
Graf won 22 grand slam titles from 1987 through 1999 and spent more weeks ranked as the world's top player than any other. Her numbers are hard to contest when it comes to the greatest argument. A lot of people also believe she benefited playing in an era when Navratilova and Evert were fading with age. Her greatest challenger, one who actually had overtaken her at the world's No. 1, Seles, was stabbed at a tournament in Hamburg, Germany, and was really never the same player after that.
I believe Navratilova is the comfortable choice. She began as a wonderfully talented teenager in the wood racquet era who struggled with her fitness and had difficulty controlling her emotions. She also had a hard time overcoming Evert in what would become one of the sport's great rivalries. Then in the early 1980s, she dedicated herself to fitness, her confidence soared and she became all but invincible.
She began dominating Evert, who still beat her often enough to maintain the public's keen interest in their matches. But it was clear who was superior on the court. Martina was physically stronger and had more weapons at her disposal. There really was nothing she couldn't do on the court. If she executed with any consistency, no other player had enough answers. She was in her 30s and her skills had declined just enough by the time Graf and Seles arrived on the scene to overtake her.
Serena Williams has shown no decline to this point. Maybe what separates her to this point is she really has had no measuring stick. Her sister Venus challenged her for a time in several slam finals, but not very seriously. It was the same for Justine Henin, Jennifer Caprioti and Kim Clijsters, but they did so only briefly and then were quickly out of the sport. Of late, Victoria Azarenka seems to be the only player capable of playing Serena on even terms in multiple matches. But the injury bug has prevented her from being in a challenging position often enough for us to determine if this can be a real rivalry.
Serena's biggest opponent has been her own body, which has broken down on several occasions and kept her off the tour for extended periods. When she's healthy, even reasonably healthy, she's still too much for any opponent almost all of the time. She has had individual matches where she's been inexplicably outplayed -- Samantha Stosur in the 2011 U.S. Open final and Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round at Wimbledon this year are good examples. But those moments are rare. Serena is currently No.1 and has won three of the last five grand slam titles.
She may wind up with more than 24 grand slam singles titles. She may very well be the best ever. But I believe Serena Williams needs a serious rival to cement that distinction. She's been challenged so seldom. It would be nice to see an Azarenka or another top player take it up a notch and take Williams to the limit more often. She needs more epic matches against a worthy opponent to bring out her best.
That's how you measure greatness.
Ted Williams lives in Emmaus, PA and is a lifetime tennis follower. He spent 20 years in print journalism, winning state and national awards.
- Sports & Recreation
- Serena Williams
- Martina Navratilova
- Chris Evert
- Monica Seles
- Steffi Graf