Column: Williams slowly ending "greatest" debate
Great? Undoubtedly. Serena Williams' latest Grand Slam title, at the French Open, confirmed what tennis already knew. But greatest? That is still too early to say.
The new French Open champion has the most fearsome serve ever seen in women's tennis. The ace on the last point of Williams' 6-4, 6-4 victory in the final on Saturday zipped past Maria Sharapova at 198 kph (123 mph), more than fast enough to have earned a nasty speeding ticket had it been a car on the highway that runs by Roland Garros.
Digesting the disappointment of her 13th straight loss to Williams since 2004, Sharapova grimly noted that David Ferrer might not serve that hard when he plays Rafael Nadal in the men's final on Sunday.
And who in the pantheon of stars in women's tennis ever hit the ball more ferociously than Williams? Sharapova did as well as could be expected in defending herself against the flurry of forehands and backhands that spring off the racket that Williams wields like an axe. The intimidation starts even before the first ball is played, in the coin toss. Facing Sharapova across the net, Williams looked as though she might cleave open the Russian's famously blonde head, waving her racket up and down in a chopping motion, practicing her service motion.
Once hostilities commenced, Sharapova lasted exactly one hour longer than Williams' hapless semifinal opponent, Sara Errani, who was swatted aside 6-0, 6-1 in 46 minutes. In short, the Russian made a contest but not an epic of this match.
''She's doing what she's always done extremely well, but she's just doing it on a much more consistent level,'' Sharapova said. ''I know that's a pretty broad answer, but that speaks a lot.''
Would Chris Evert or Martina Navratilova, with her all-around mastery of tennis, have fared significantly better than Sharapova? Hard to say. Impossible to prove. What can be said with certainty is that Williams can bury the debate about her place in tennis' hierarchy by winning more titles.
She might play the most destructive, if not the most varied and interesting, tennis ever seen from a woman. She might be one of the best female athletes seen in any sport, not just tennis. But the argument-clincher is that Evert and Navratilova (both with 18), Helen Wills Moody (19), Steffi Graf (22) and Margaret Court (24) all won more Grand Slam singles titles than Williams. Her 16th major title gets Williams a step closer to reasonably being declared the most impressive female player ever, but she isn't there yet.
''We can have that debate if it makes you happy but it would be better if everyone agreed,'' said Patrick Mouratoglou, the French coach Williams turned to after her crushing first-round loss at Roland Garros a year ago. ''Now it's up to her to do what is necessary so there is no more debate.''
At 31, Williams has time. Navratilova was 33 when she won her ninth Wimbledon title in 1990. It may also be true that her timeouts from the grind of modern professional tennis over the years - because of injuries, interests outside the sport and because she didn't want to play every tournament - have saved her from being prematurely eroded physically and mentally. The 11 Grand Slam tournaments Williams has missed since playing her first, the 1998 Australian Open, can be seen as missed opportunities. Or maybe they're among the reasons Williams is still competing today, looking very fit and playing some of the best tennis of her career.
''The more you eat, the hungrier you get,'' said Mouratoglou. ''When you win, when you achieve the exceptional, you don't want it to stop and you keep doing what is necessary. I have trouble imagining her with less motivation.''
''She has complete control of her tennis and her fitness. She moves better than she did in recent years and she has exceptional athletic qualities. So as long she remains motivated, it can go on.''
That is her opponents' fault, too. Williams is the oldest No. 1 since tennis introduced computer rankings in 1975. That is a poor reflection on the younger generation of players, who really should be doing more to make her uncomfortable and their sport less predictable. If there was greater depth in women's tennis, Williams wouldn't be so dominant and Evert and Navratilova's Grand Slam marks wouldn't look so attainable for her. Graf and Court's totals still look out of reach, although Mouratoglou tried hard to not make it sound impossible.
''For Serena, nothing is out of reach. If she really wants something, it's very difficult to stop her,'' he said.
Since Williams last won the French Open in 2002, beating her sister, Venus, ticket holders to some finals at Roland Garros could have legitimately argued that they were ripped off, so poor was the show. This, at least, wasn't one of those. Fans got their money's worth, with the second-longest women's final at Roland Garros since 2001 and Sharapova playing well enough to demonstrate why she is ranked No. 2.
But Williams, more clearly than ever, is No. 1.
Although not yet of all time.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester