In winning her 20th Grand Slam singles title, Serena Williams used the red clay of Roland-Garros to mold her most important legacy: Greatest Of All Time. But not just the best female tennis player of all time. Instead, Venus’ little sister cemented her status as the greatest female athlete of all time. Bold claim? Maybe, but lets start the discussion with a simple question: is there another female athlete whocould get three yards off tackle against the Dolphins? It might help that Serena is part owner of the Dolphins, but still, I think I would take my chances with her over any other female athlete outside Caitlyn Jenner.
Before Serena can be the greatest female athlete of all time, she has to be the greatest in her sport. Margaret Court is out because 13 of her record 24 Slam titles came before the Open Era; simply put, if you are not a full-time athlete it is not quite the same. Other than Margaret, three players could plausibly argue whether Serena is Queen of the Courts for all time: Graf (22 Grand Slam singles titles); Navratilova (18 Grand Slam singles titles) and Evert (also 18 Grand Slam singles titles). Each player was, for long stretches, the dominant force in the sport and each faced serious challenges. Graf and Williams own better percentage records in Grand Slams but those percentages reflect the fact that Navratilova and Evert had to deal with each other. Evert posted the best overall win percentage. Graf’s greatest rival should have been Monica Seles but the bizarre 1993 knife attack on Seles robbed us of the full brilliance of that rivalry and, in the process, probably added to Graf’s trophy case.
As close as the four women are in accomplishment, the edge goes to Williams. First, there is Williams’ longevity. Her wins have come over a 16-year period and she has won 7 0f the 14 slam events contested after she turned 30. The other three women combined to win five titles after turning 30. With her performance so far this year it seems likely that Serena will keep adding to her total.
Second, there is Serena’s unquestioned dominance–the closest to Williams during her era is Venus with just seven slam titles. Most think Martina has the edge on Chris but it was only slight (43-37 all time match record) and Seles was unquestionably the best in the world before her injury allowed Graf to reclaim that crown. To Graf’s credit, no one could pry the tiara from her for a long time but we still wonder “what if..?” Serena gets additional points for so clearly being the best of her time.
Third, there is the way Serena wins–a combination of power and speed unmatched in the annals of the game. While winning primarily from the baseline, Serena has the third-fastest recorded serve in history. At the heart of the argument is this idea: if Serena plays her A game, no one is going to beat her.
So, Queen of the Courts yes; but Queen of Everything? If not Serena, who? The traditional answers to that question have been Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Jackie-Joyner Kersee and Mia Hamm. To that list I woud add Lindsey Vonn. The fact distinguishing Williams from those women is Williams’ continuous competition schedule. Tennis is a year-round game; by contrast, excelling at the Olympics, World Cups or World Championships comes every two to four years. Lindsey has an annual schedule but only when it snows. The sheer amount of competitions Serena has won dwarfs the other women’s victories.
Beyond that factor, Mia played a team sport and Babe’s female competition was a miniscule fraction of that faced by modern female athletes. Lindsey operates in an arena where geography and expense limit the universe of potential winners. That leaves only Jackie and Serena as athletes who truly conquered the world. Between those two, longevity again provides the difference. Jackie was the best in the world at her craft from the 1988 Olympics through the 1993 World Championships, just five years. Serena has been at or near the top of the tennis world for 13 years and counting .
Put it all together and it spells one thing, G.O.A.T. When you tune in for Wimbledon, appreciate what you are watching.