In my mind, and in the minds of many, Serena Williams is already the greatest women’s athlete in history. Bar none. Without a doubt. However you want to put it. But in making the case, Serena supporters come up against a small problem: Serena might not even be the greatest tennis player ever.
Because just when you start to make the case for Serena, you have to qualify her biggest accomplishments: She has the second-most Grand Slam singles titles. She has the third-most weeks at No. 1. She’s second in most consecutive weeks at No. 1. So, the obvious question is, who’s No. 1 and why isn’t she the best athlete?
You could have an hour-long discussion about how numbers like these don’t matter, but they in fact do. The same way it’s going to be hard to ever call Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic the greatest men’s players unless they pass Roger Federer’s 17 Slams, the pro-Steffi Graf (or Martina Navratilova) faction will always have that trump card — "Graf has more Slams."
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With that in mind, here’s how Serena silences the doubters:
After coming up short in Australia, Serena still needs two more Slam wins to surpass Steffi Graf.
When will Serena break the record: 2017 Australian Open.
Given that this year’s Australian Open has passed (with Serena losing in the final to Angelique Kerber), this means we predict only one more major title for the American this year. She could easily win two, though I’d be stunned if she won out — the French Open is going to be harder and harder for her to win as her career winds down (she’s "only" won it three times before as it is). But let’s give her a surprise loss at Wimbledon, followed by a lot of think-pieces about how she might be done, followed by her pulling a "Murray," winning gold at the Olympics and cruising to a U.S. Open win, just as Andy Murray did in 2012. That’ll give her 22 Slams, which she’ll then use to blow past Graf at the 2017 Australian Open.
But you’ll still have people saying Graf is better because her career was shorter (she retired at 30). Or that Margaret Court’s 24 Slams in the pre-Open era are more impressive, even though 11 of her Slams came in Australia when the world’s top players rarely traveled there. As for Graf, the opinion that her 22 Slams are better because they came in a more compressed timetable operates upon a number of fallacies.
First, it suggests a player should be penalized for having a longer career, which is absurd. That Serena can be No. 1 as she gets halfway from 30 to 40 is a testament to her tennis, not something that should be held against her. Longevity matters.
Second, at this moment, Serena has only played six more Slams than Graf (62 to 56), so it’s not as if she’s been taking advantage of dozens of extra starts at majors.
The third is most important. Without seeming like I’m bashing the phenomenal Graf (which I’m not, one could make an argument for her — I’d disagree, but you certainly could argue on her behalf), she was pretty much done winning majors at age 28. Here were her Grand Slam finishes from the start of 1997 onward, when she was halfway between her 27th and 28th birthdays: 4R, QF, A, A, A, A, 3R, 4R, QF, W, F. That’s 11 Slams, one win, two finals, four quarterfinals and four missed starts. Graf turned 30 just after winning the ’99 French Open. She’d retire one month later after losing the Wimbledon final, just at the start of the Williams era. In all, Graf won a single Slam after turning 28. Serena has won 10.
Of course, you could flip that to look at the beginning of her career and say Graf won nine Slams before turning 21 while Serena won four. I’ll take the late-half dominance though, as tennis in Graf’s day (even though it was just 15 years earlier) was infinitely different, with teenagers winning Slams with ease.
In the past two weeks Serena Williams, who is (and we can’t say this enough) 34 years old, just passed three straight years atop the WTA rankings and passed Martina Navratilova for second on this list. To pass Graf, Serena would have to go until Sept. 19 — basically until the end of the U.S. Open.
Serena could top Graf’s record run atop the rankings by late this year.
Her ability to do this will depend on three things: her own health, whether she has a drastically early exit in a Slam (the Razzano Conundrum, as I call it) and if another player can step up to make a run at the top spot, instead of the constant shuffling in the WTA’s top five that includes Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Aga Radwanska, Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka and Kerber. If the WTA were like the men’s side, with an established Big Four, I’d be less confident in Serena as there’d be an obvious candidate to replace her. As it is now, every week is a roller coaster and as long as Serena doesn’t experience any drastic lows this year, she should be OK.
It shouldn’t necessarily be that way. Halep, a former No. 2, is defending just 80 points at the French Open and Wimbledon, while Serena has 4,000 at stake. Halep made the final in Paris in 2014, so she can pick up major points there. But she also lost in the first round in Melbourne. With that potential swing of thousands of points, a No. 1 ranking would be there for the taking from an in-form Halep if Serena also slips. Instead, she’s 4-4 this year and 1-3 since her first tournament. She’s gone out in the first or second round in three of the last four majors after all. Thus the question becomes, can Halep put together just one good Slam? Thinking about passing Serena and grabbing No. 1 should be so far down her list of goals right now.
It’s a "Who do you trust more?" question. If you’re answer isn’t Serena, your last name is probably Halep. (Though I’d also say look out for Azarenka, although her ascendance might not come in time to knock off Serena before she breaks the record.)
What’s amazing about Serena’s current run is that when it began, she was just ahead of Justine Henin for most weeks at No. 1. That’s good company to be in, but hardly the tennis stratosphere. Now Serena is a year from passing Martina (very possible) and two years from passing Graf (less likely, but still on the table).
The truth is, the No. 1 thing is merely ammunition in the argument. It all starts with Slams and goes from there. So while it’s important Serena gets the most consecutive weeks at No. 1 and passes Martina on the list of all-time weeks (something that, if it happens, would likely go down in tandem, as Serena didn’t play after last year’s U.S. Open), she already has the resume of the best player ever. With two more Grand Slam wins and another year or two of being the most dominant force in tennis, even the biggest Graf fan won’t be able to deny that Serena Williams is the queen of women’s tennis and, as a result, all of sport.