The moment I realized Serena Williams was not only in contention to being the greatest tennis player of all time, but most likely the best athlete—man or woman—in sports history, was January 27, 2007.
On that early Saturday morning at the wee hour of 3:30 a.m. ET, Williams captured her eighth Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open. What made her 6-1, 6-2 annihilation of No. 1 seed Maria Sharapova in straight sets incredible is Williams was ranked at No. 81 in the world. She had been regarded as “out of shape” by naysayers after losing in a previous tournament, following a six-month hiatus. Pat Cash—the winner of the men’s tournament of 1987 Wimbledon—wrote a column basically surmising that she’d never return back to the top, despite her wishes. That particular victory (for a lack of better words) shut them up—just as other wins did in the past and moving forward. She had truly established herself as a “Comeback Queen,” a core attribute amongst all G.O.A.T.s.
To be clear, it does become hard comparing different sports' athletes in different eras as the ultimate best. But then again, where’s the fun in not doing so? Especially when the top is nothing but black excellence!
We have our Muhammad Alis, our Michael Jordans, our LeBron Jameses, even our Venus Williamses. But there’s only one who can call herself Serena Williams. Until recently, both Williams Sisters were often neglected from the conversation of being the singular greatest athlete to ever exist. This may be due to the fact that they are women, who happen to compete in a sport that’s often perceived as boring or not as widespread like football, soccer, or basketball. The problem with this outlook is, just as Michael Jordan has done for basketball or Ali for boxing, both sisters reinvented the game of tennis as more of a thrilling spectator sport for the betterment of pop culture. With her charisma and nearly consistent domination, Serena happened to even pull ahead of her sister.
As a singles tennis star, she has managed to not only break records within her own field but win them as a one woman army, rather than on a team with other players. She’s an individual who has constantly battled mind games, racism, injuries, and personal strifes, while growing into the fierce competitor she’d become.
Her victory in the first round of the 2018 French Open earlier this week—the first grand slam she’s currently playing after giving birth—attests to her relentlessness and two-plus-decades longevity.
Usually as athletes get older, their gusto tends to let out, their peak years far behind them as the prospect of retirement looms. Serena Williams shows no signs of slowing down yet: She’s four years shy of 40, and now a mother who overcame a life-threatening pregnancy. She’s been competing professionally since 1995 at the age of 14, the Bell Challenge of Quebec (now named Coupe Banque Nationale) being her first. This rings close enough to a lyric from her bestie Beyoncé, “Since 15 in my stilettos, been strutting in this game”—albeit Bey is not an athlete, but one of the greatest entertainers of all time, and those stilettos for the tennis star were instead hair beads and a Wilson racket.
What’s more impressive about the matter is tennis players usually start competing professionally in their later teens, opting for Junior tournaments due to age eligibility restrictions. (An equivalent of this would be LeBron James being drafted straight from high school as the first overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft.) At 16, in 1997, Williams won her first professional match at the now-defunct Ameritech Cup Chicago. At that same tournament, she’d upset two Top 10 seeds, France’s Mary Pierce (No. 7, eight years professional with one Grand Slam title) and USA’s Monica Seles (No. 4, eight years professional with nine Grand Slam titles). Although she’d lose to Lindsay Davenport in the semis, the following year Williams scored a victory against the vet. She’d also win two mixed doubles titles at the 1998 Wimbledon and US Open, at just 17.
In 1999, she not only defeated Amélie Mauresmo in the latter’s home country to win the Open Gaz de France, but also 22 time Grand Slam champion Steffi Graf in a symbolic passing of the torch finals at the Evert Cup. Later that year, her and Venus would make history as the first ever all-sister final in WTA history at the Miami Masters. She claimed her first Grand Slam singles championship at that year’s US Open, defeating Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martínez, Seles, Davenport, and the world No. 1 Martina Hingis, becoming just the second black woman after Althea Gibson, in 1958, to win a Grand Slam.
What makes all of that monumental is the notion that Williams not only dominates today’s tennis world, but had done so in previous eras. Usually sports stars last through one (maybe two) eras of greats. At her start, she had defeated a slew of vets, practically as a rookie who had been trained by her father on the unkept courts of Compton, instead of prestigious tennis academies with legends as coaches and instructors.
As someone who watches tennis religiously, I’d say Williams has dominated about three different eras of stars (now in the fourth) in her 23-year professional career.
The first era being Steffi Graf’s retirement in 1999 up until Monica Seles’ in 2003 (Seles vs. Graf is considered one of tennis’ greatest rivalries). In that period, the best stars were the aforementioned, as well as Jennifer Capriati, Justine Henin-Hardenne, and of course her older sister, Venus. With all those players in mind, the norm to experience were all-Williams Sisters finals — whether in a Grand Slam or a top tier tournament.
Another reason why Serena is one of the greatest athletes to ever exist is because she had to best her biggest rival on multiple occasions, and unfortunately for her that was her own sister—someone she grew up practicing alongside, knowing her game the best. Furthermore, due to their joint dominance (and that of black women), they faced constant criticism including accusations of match fixing; slander for the beads in their hair being “too loud;” ridicule for their fashionable and expressive outfit choices in a rather bland world of looks; commentators believing they were too lazy in the game and lacked passion despite their constant winning; and derogatory racist remarks from audiences (none more notable than the 2001 Indian Wells incident).
Despite all of that, from 1999 to 2003, Serena won six Grand Slam singles titles, matching the number of doubles, and a gold medal for doubles at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She’d also complete her first Serena Slam, winning four consecutive Grand Slams against Venus—ultimately dethroning her for a first run as the World’s No. 1 player.
The second tennis era would be from about 2004 with the rise of the Russians Maria Sharapova (who would defeat her at the 2004 Wimbledon finals) and Svetlana Kuznetsova—to about 2011, with the Serbian takeover of Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, alongside Belarus’ Victoria Azarenka and China’s Li Na. Here, Williams would endure a series of surgeries and injuries, truly making experts question her place in tennis. Having to overcome that, as well as the murder of her sister Yetunde Price in 2003, it became imperative for her to change up her playing style due to the fresher talents adopting her signature technique.
Tennis is unlike any other sport; it’s more than running up and down a court or field to shoot a basket, score a touchdown, or ping-pong over a net. Although all of these sports are equally complex, strategically demanding, and grueling by their own rules, there’s more snobbery and elitism with tennis. It’s a chess game of mental deception, shot precision, and passive aggressive variations. There’s also the factor that professional tennis is played year round, unlike most sports which last through a shorter period of time. And, don’t forget about the variations of surfaces including clay, grass, carpet, and hard courts — all of which Williams has equally dominated by this point of her career.
While Williams had a more aggressive backhand and forehand stroke compared to the likes of Graf and Seles, the Sharapovas of the new era had that in addition to more defensive aim towards the court’s baselines. Williams had to adjust her opposition playing style to be more precise to go against that defensive strategy. In this wonky period for Williams, she still managed nine Grand Slam singles trophies, six Grand Slam doubles, and a doubles gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The third era, which is undoubtedly her best would run from 2012 to her last Grand Slam championship at the 2017 Australian Open. At this point she would outlast her prime rivals Henin, Clijsters, and Hingis, who all retired. Bouncing back from a life-threatening pulmonary embolism, Williams developed a sharper game, nearly perfecting her serve and finessing her baseline strokes.
On the other hand, she stayed clean from any doping scandals unlike her other “rival” Sharapova. The term rival being somewhat of an exaggeration, as their head-to-head is 19-2—the Russian scoring both her victories in 2004. And despite media bias and preference for Sharapova, Williams still persisted as the stronger and more honorable champion between the both, her shade unparalleled.
With new, younger talent emerging, Williams completed her second Serena Slam in 2015—only to be prevented from a Calendar Slam at the 2015 US Open semifinals. Still, in this era, she managed 10 Grand Slam championships in singles and two in doubles. At the 2012 London Olympics, she won both the singles and doubles gold. As she got older, her form was getting stronger and more precise—a rarity for tennis players, and most athletes who cross into their 30s.
At the 2017 Australian Open finals—ten years after I made my premature conclusion in the grand perspective of her career—Williams broke Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Grand Slam singles titles. That’s the most for men and women in the “open era” of tennis, topping Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, and Roger Federer. The overall of 24 by Margaret Court (13 of which came from a time when only a limited number of amateurs were allowed to compete at Grand Slams pre-1968) is just one title away from being tied, and two from being broken by Williams.
The tennis great is now in her fourth era of tennis: One that started after her maternity leave and almost a year without play, allowing for others to breakthrough and develop better skills. In that time period, her influence has been shown in Sloane Stephens, who won her first Major at the 2017 US Open, becoming only the fourth black woman to accomplish this feat in tennis history.
Who knows what’s in store for Williams as any and everything could happen. She continues pushing herself, not revealing what her end game will ultimately be for her career. With the 2018 French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open still waiting for conclusions, she’s got three chances this year to tie, break, or extend the most Slams record. There’s also sights on the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Maybe Williams doesn’t truly helm herself as the greatest athlete of all time like many of us have come to believe. Maybe she’s trying to push herself in that space, now having to outpace Federer’s 20 Majors, or possibly competing against LeBron James, who himself is technically far behind Bill Russell’s eleven NBA rings. Who knows, but only time will tell.
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