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Serena Williams: Great but Not the Greatest

By Alan Resnick / Detroit


One Last Twirl at the 2022 U.S. Open
One Last Twirl at the 2022 U.S. Open

Part of being a sports fan is engaging in endless debates about “Who’s on Mount Rushmore” or “Who was the greatest of all time?” (recently reduced to the acronym GOAT), in reference to a favorite team or player. While these arguments can pop up at any time, they tend to be most frequent and heated when a superstar athlete retires, as Serena Williams did at the recent U.S. Open tennis tournament.


Serena announced her intention to leave tennis and evolve toward other things in her life in an Aug. 9 Vogue essay. After winning two matches at the U.S. Open, she lost to Ajla Tomljanovic on Sept.3 in a thrilling three-set match.


Serena was hailed by the television announcers covering her three matches as the GOAT. During the planned, choreographed, on-court celebration after Serena’s first match, Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” played as background music during a video montage. Television cameras cut to fans holding up signs with the word GOAT or a picture of one.


Martina Navratilova in her heyday
Martina Navratilova in her heyday

Serena has been a marvelous, spectacular, absolutely dominating tennis player, but she is not, in my humble opinion, the GOAT among female players. That designation would go to Martina Navratilova. My rationale is actually quite simple – Martina both won and lost to much better players in the major tennis tournaments than Serena.


Sports arguments about the GOAT are rooted in statistics. For tennis, the most-referenced measuring stick is the number of singles victories in the sport’s four major tournaments – Wimbledon, and the French, Australian, and U.S. Opens. Collectively, these are known as Grand Slam events.


Margaret Court in her prime
Margaret Court in her prime
Margaret Court in 2018
Margaret Court in 2018

Serena won 23 Grand Slam singles titles over her career. However, Australian Margaret Court holds the most major singles titles, 24, and did so playing seven less years than Serena. Additionally, Court won another 40 Grand Slam titles in doubles, 19 in women’s and 21 in mixed. And Court also had a baby in the midst of her career.


But many fans and tennis writers omit Court from their Mount Rushmore of the greatest female tennis players. One reason is that 13 of Court’s 24 major titles occurred before 1968, when the four major tournaments were open only to amateur players. The logic goes that the fields she played against were lesser because professionals were barred from these tournaments.


In a Sept. 4 interview in the Daily Telegraph, Court speculated that there is another reason her tennis achievements have been discounted. She posited that recent public statements of her faith have not been well-received by either the tennis community or the general public.


After retiring from the game in 1977, Court became associated with Pentecostalism, becoming a Christian minister in that denomination in 1991. She later founded Margaret Court Ministries. Court has since been associated with opposing same-sex marriage and making assorted homophobic comments.


For example, a bbc.com article last year reported that Court sparked widespread condemnation when in 2017 she said tennis was “full of lesbians” and that transgender children were the work of “the devil.” She has also said she would avoid flying on Australian airline Qantas ‘where possible’ in protest at its support of same-sex marriage.”

In comparison, Martina won 18 Grand Slam titles to Serena’s 23. And Martina lost 14 finals matches while Serena lost 10. But the number of major wins and losses only tells a portion of the story. Let’s dig down deeper to see who these two supremely talented athletes competed against in the four majors.

Chris Evert at the top of her game
Chris Evert at the top of her game
Evert and Navratilova - friends and rivals
Evert and Navratilova - friends and rivals

Martina battled Chris Evert (also with 18 Grand Slam titles) for a large portion of her career. In fact, the two of them were ranked the No. 1 female tennis player in the world for 592 (Martina 332, Chris 260) of the 615 weeks between Nov. 3, 1975 and Aug. 16, 1987. Astonishingly, there were only 23 weeks during this nearly 12 years that anyone else was ranked No. 1.

It is a staggering level of dominance in any sport for two players to be on top for more than a decade. It certainly compares to the rivalry of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer in the 1960s, and the tennis triumvirate of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer for the past 15 years. (Federer announced on Sept. 15 that he was retiring and played his final match on Sept. 23.)

During this time period, Martina defeated Chris for 10 of her 18 Grand Slam singles championships. And Martina lost in the finals three times to Chris. Later in her career, she lost to Steffi Graff (another all-time great with 22 major championships) in six Grand Slam finals matches. Graff was rated the No. 1 female player during these defeats.

Serena was ranked as the No. 1 female player for 319 weeks (not consecutively) from July 8, 2002 to May 14, 2017, a period of almost 15 years. Surely she would have been ranked No.1 for even longer if it had not been for an assortment of injuries as well as the birth of her daughter, Alexis Olympia.

But notably there were also 11 other players who achieved the No. 1 ranking during this 15-year period, including two who were each ranked No 1 for at least a year. And Serena’s sister, Venus, was ranked No.1 for 11 weeks during this same time period, all in 2002.

It’s hard to believe, but of the 33 Grand Slam finals matches in which she appeared, Serena only played two matches against opponents ranked as No. 1 at the time of the match. One was her sister, Venus, in the 2002 U.S. Open, and the other was Victoria Azarenka in the 2012 U.S. Open.

Most but not all of Serena’s other finals opponents had been or would eventually be ranked as No.1, but were not at time she played them in the finals of the four majors. More succinctly, Serena both beat and lost to a number of good, very good, and near-great players, but not Hall-of-Famers like Martina did.


Both Serena and Martina also played doubles in some Grand Slam events. The Williams sisters won 14 major doubles titles together. But Martina won 31 major women's doubles titles, and 10 major mixed doubles titles. The last of her doubles titles occurred one month short of her 50th birthday at the 2006 U.S. Open. She was also ranked as the No. 1 doubles player in the world for a period of over three years in the 1980s.

Serena and Martina in 2018
Serena and Martina in 2018

Statistics aside, both Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova are remarkable women. Both have compelling backstories that demonstrate courage and resilience.

Serena’s childhood was documented in the 2021 feature movie King Richard, starring Will Smith as Serena’s father, Richard. The family moved to Compton, Calif. at the time that city was developing a reputation for the type of gang violence depicted by local gangsta rap groups Compton’s Most Wanted and N.W.A.

Serena and Venus were home-schooled by their dad, and both he and his wife served as their daughters’ initial tennis coaches. The sisters learned the game on the public hard courts of the city until moving to Florida to attend a tennis academy. But Richard again became their coach when Serena was in ninth grade.

Martina grew up in equally challenging circumstances. She was born in Czechoslavakia, but fled in 1975 at age of 18 at the height of the Cold War. The Czech government denied her the right to compete in professional tennis in the United States, so Martina asked for political asylum after a loss in to Chris Evert in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. She was granted temporary residence and became a U.S. citizen in 1981. In 2008 Martina acquired Czech citizenship, thus becoming a dual citizen.


Both women have also had an enormous impact outside of tennis. Serena has served as a role model for young girls and women of color, showing them that it’s possible to do almost anything. She has been at the forefront of pushing for equal pay in tennis. And in March Serena announced the formation of a venture capital fund, Serena Ventures, designed to invest in company founders with what she calls “diverse points of view.”


Boxer Mike Tyson and Martina Navratilova at the 2022 U.S. Open
Boxer Mike Tyson and Martina Navratilova at the 2022 U.S. Open

Martina came out as a lesbian in 1981, just a little while after defecting. In 2011, Donna Lopiano, then executive director of the Women’s Sport Foundation said of her: “Martina was the first legitimate superstar who literally came out while she was a superstar. She exploded the barrier by putting it on the table. She basically said this part of my life doesn’t have anything to do with me as a tennis player. Judge me for who I am.” In 2000, Martina was the recipient of National Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian activist/lobbying group.


All said, I can’t really argue with anyone who, after reading this, still feels that Serena is the GOAT, or for that matter if it is Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, or Billie Jean King. It doesn’t really matter. I just consider myself fortunate to have been able to watch all of them play.


 





Alan Resnick is an industrial psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. He and his wife are sheltering at home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is passing the time by cooking, exercising, catching up on friends’ recommendations of must-see TV and writing.

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