Serena Williams is the best tennis player ever. So why isn’t her career the greatest?

Serena Williams, now the winner of the most Grand Slams in the history of professional tennis, is undisputedly the best player to ever step on the court. Her serve is one of the biggest weapons sports has ever seen. She hits with power and precision. Her athleticism keeps her in points and her footwork is vastly underrated, overshadowed by her strength. The only opponent she’s ever had trouble with is herself. Serena Williams is the most dominant tennis player ever, full stop. But does that mean she’s had the greatest career?

On its face it’s an odd question. If she’s the best, isn’t she inherently the greatest? Not necessarily. It depends on your criteria and definitions of the words.

There’s two ways to define the G.O.A.T.: Looking at play and figuring out who was subjectively best (that’s where you find debate in the men’s game; even if Roger Federer were to finish with a slightly better résumé than Rafael Nadal, there will be a compelling G.O.A.T. argument to make on Nadal’s behalf, especially if he wins Sunday night’s final) or looking at the stats and trying to make it objective. Serena obviously gets the nod on the first. Anyone who believes there’s been a player with as many all-around tennis attributes as Serena is either wrong or a liar.

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And now with Slam No. 23, Serena should have the stats down pat too, right? No. Assuming that makes the mistake of believing Grand Slams are the sole measure of a tennis player. They aren’t and never have been (see Federer and Nadal). Comparing players through eras actually tells a different story. (Not surprising given our insta-history, “everything is the greatest ever” sports analysis of today.)

Objectively, the five greatest players in modern tennis history are (in alphabetical order): Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Marina Navratilova, Monica Seles and Serena Williams. There’s no argument from anybody that Serena currently plays a brand of tennis with which the other greats of yesteryear would have only been familiar – meaning 2014 Serena probably would have given 1980 Chris Evert a double bagel. But that’s not what you debate when you say “who’s the best ever?” Babe Ruth would hit .050 in today’s Major Leagues while Mike Trout could go back to 1927 and probably hit 100 HRs. You’re looking for who was the best in their moment. Up until Serena, these were the four (ranked):

4) Monica Seles

What might have been. Seles brought Steffi Graf’s run of dominance to a halt when she won seven of the eight majors she entered prior to her stabbing. Peak Seles might be the greatest ever. But, alas, that day in Hamburg changed everything. Seles would only win one more major (which actually might have been more impressive in itself than the other eight she won).

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3) Steffi Graf

Graf won eight of nine majors at the end of the ’80s. Then, as mentioned above, Seles upended everything. Over the next 12 majors after Seles’ victory debut, Graf won just two. Post-stabbing, Graf immediately won the next four Slams and 10 of the next 15. That line of demarcation is why Graf can’t be considered the best ever. The Seles shutdown was just too important.

2) Chris Evert

She wasn’t Martina.

1) Martina Navratilova

Other than Bird-Magic, the athletes whose careers are most intertwined and automatically associated with each other are Chrissie and Martina. And it’s that rivalry, in which Martina had the upper-hand, that makes Navratilova’s tennis career the best ever. (Spoiler alert: Serena is at No. 2, in between Chrissie and Martina.)

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The quick résumé from Navratilova: 18 Slams, 32 Slam finals, 6 year-end No. 1 rankings, 19-straight years in the top five, 1,444 wins and 167 titles. Serena has her in the first category but Martina tops her in every other. Those last three numbers show a level of consistency and greatness the sport has ever seen.

Of course, the players didn’t treat their careers the same then as now. Serena might play 10-12 tournaments in some seasons. Martina would win 10-12 tournaments. Serena took her foot off the gas in the middle of her career while Martina was unbelievably consistent for 15 years. Serena geared her years toward Slams, while the breadth of a tennis schedule should still carry some weight. All these would be checkmarks in Martina’s column. She played more and won more. Serena’s pick-and-choose tournament selection and ensuring rest helped keep her fresh and it was a brilliant strategy. But, again, that’s not the question at hand. It’s who had the best career. It’s Martina and frankly not close given the differences in the games of 1977 and 2017.

A big one – probably the biggest – is that in Martina’a day, the biggest players from America (and other places) treated the Grand Slams differently. They simply didn’t go to the Australian Open all that often. They could play in the States, make some money and avoid the long trip to Australia for a tournament that wasn’t held in high esteem. Martina skipped the Australian Open seven times and the French five times. Evert played in Melbourne just five times in 18 years (she made the finals each time and won twice). She also skipped the French three times even though it was the tournament she dominated most. (World Team Tennis had come to overshadow the European clay-court season.) One star of the ’70s and ’80s once said that if he’d known then how majors would be the only way careers were to be evaluated today, they’d have gone to Melbourne more often. (I think that was John McEnroe but can’t find the attribution.)

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If Martina and Chris would’t have skipped a dozen tournaments, Serena still might chasing them.

Next, and biggest, is the level of competition. Navratilova had Evert (and others). Serena had herself.

Chrissie played Martina 80 times, the most frequent tennis rivalry in history. Navratilova was 10-4 in Grand Slam finals, 14-8 in Slam matches and 36-25 in overall finals. Evert had the edge on clay and in three-set matches while Martina owned every other category. The duo dominated the sport like none before or since. In the first half of the 1980s, Chris and Martina won 15 straight Slams and 21 of 24 (and one of them was in the final of the three majors they didn’t win). They were like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic rolled into one. Though they made each other better in rivalry, they almost certainly made each other worse in terms of numbers. If there were no Evert, how many Slams would Martina have won? 25? 30? Same goes for Evert? There’s more than numbers.

Serena’s competition can’t compare. She had Justine Henin for a few years and Venus for a few more. That’s it. Her level of competition paled in comparison to the stacked fields Martina and Chrissie used to play, namely themselves. Fourteen times the rivals played in Slam finals and 22 times overall in majors. Throw in the fact that Martina had Steffi and Monica at the tail-end of her career and they had other top-tier talent surrounding them and Serena’s level of competition looks like the minor leagues.

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She came up at a great time to dominate but without the competition that would provide her the greatest test. Henin dominated the sport during those years when Serena seemed disinterested, both due to injuries, outside interests and family issues. Kim Clijsters was a fine player and fun to watch and root for, but was hardly a worthy adversary.

And I love Venus Williams. She’s everything you could want in an athlete: fierce, competitive, elegant, intelligent and any other number of positive adjectives you could find in a thesaurus. Venus is grace personified. I hope she keeps playing until she’s 45 and wins another major. But Venus was an awesome player for exactly four seasons (2000-03). After that run, she remained a great grass-court player but was a mediocre on clay and merely a very good hard-court player. Excluding Wimbledon, here were Venus’s Grand Slam results from 2004-16: 36 starts, 2 semifinals, 9 quarterfinals, 23 first-week losses. Except for Wimbledon, she hasn’t been a threat to Serena in 13 years – which, by the way, is what made Saturday night so cool. They weren’t rivals, they were sisters thrust into a difficult, though groundbreaking, situation.

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That seems unfair. Serena won the matches that were in front of her. Should it be her fault she didn’t have a Chrissie or a Martina or a Steffi? Why would Serena be penalized for a situation entirely out of her control? (And it is entirely out of her control. The argument that her opponents are weak because she makes her opponents week doesn’t hold water for various reasons.) But flip the situation. Andy Roddick is surely punished because of a situation entirely out of his control – being born at the same time as Roger Federer. The American was just voted into the Hall of Fame (an easy decision) and has a Slam title so he’s hardly a tragic case.  But if The Fed had decided to play soccer, Roddick would won a handful of Slams and have been No. 1 for weeks on weeks on weeks. His legacy would be vastly different.

In that way, it’s acceptable, even essential, to factor in Serena’s competition, or lack thereof. Then you also look at the things she’s done that others haven’t: Serena gets major points for dominating into her mid-30s and posting a longevity not seen since Navratilova. She’s winning Slams at an age no one else has, though in an era where more 30-something tennis players (men and women) are able to prolong their careers thanks to improved training, diet and recovery. And I don’t care who’s in the field – two Grand Slams with seven wins is remarkable. (Not dropping a set en route to a Slam title at 35 years old ain’t bad either.)

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None of the facts/stats/comparisons discussed above change the fact that Serena Williams is the greatest to ever play the sport. They do, however, absolutely shape the opinion of how her career should be regarded. These are mostly frivolous distinctions – barroom debates among tennis fans and things to ponder when coming up with lists. But right now, even with title No. 23, Serena’s career, and those years of relative struggles and apathy and inconsistency, doesn’t stack up to Martina’s or, possibly, Chrissie’s.

In theory, there are certain numbers Serena could hit that would make this a moot point. (I don’t know – 26 Slams? 28? Another year-end No. 1?) As of now, at No. 23 and playing a  Slam-centric schedule at 35, the odds are against her. But hey, she’s still the greatest tennis player who ever lived. Are you going to count her out?

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