It was easy to be swept away by the tributes flowing towards Serena Williams in what was probably her last US Open, but will she be remembered as the greatest player of all time?
That was certainly the verdict from the New York crowd and the extravagant hype that heralded each of her three matches at the final Grand Slam event of 2022, but tennis historians will not be so quick to rush to judgment when crowning the greatest female tennis player of them all.
Such verdicts are always subjective and while there is no doubt that Serena and her sister Venus have long since been cultural icons as well as tennis greats, it is hard to say definitively that the younger of the two sisters is, indeed, the best player to set foot on a court.
The discussion over whether Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic should be hailed as the best is based around their numbers of Grand Slam wins, and weeks as world No.1 and on these statistics alone, Serena comes up short of her rivals.
Australian Margaret Court holds the record for the most Grand Slam wins, with Serena just one behind that total after coming up short in her most recent major finals.
There is no doubt that Court’s record is impressive, but her extreme views against the LGBTIQ community in recent times have somewhat overshadowed her achievements on court.
Any list of the game’s greats has to include Bille Jean King for so many reasons.
Many of the game’s top players didn’t play the Australian Open constantly in the 1970s and that explains, in part, why King only won one title Down Under and finished up with 12 majors in total.
When you throw in what she contributed to the sport of tennis, a legacy that continues to this day with the equal prize money on offer at majors driven by King’s passion for equality in the sport, her legacy is even greater than her achievements on a tennis court.
Next we focus on Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who enjoyed a compelling rivalry that included 80 matches between 1973 and 1988, 60 of which were finals. Navratilova won the overall head-to-head 43–37 and 36–24 in finals, while both won 18 Grand Slam singles titles.
Many will argue that these two great champions had longevity and an impact in tennis that matches that of Serena and her sister Venus, with a strong argument to be made that Navratilova moved the game into the modern era with her athleticism and professionalism. They are legacies that should never be forgotten.
In addition, Navratilova holds the record for most tournament wins in tennis history at 167, with Evert second on that list with 157 and Serena down in sixth place with 73 tournament victories.
“There are a lot of different measuring sticks,” Navratilova told Amazon last month. “It’s hard for me to talk about it completely objectively because we were playing under a different measuring stick during my time with Chris and myself.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 4, 2022
“The Australian Open wasn’t even important enough, and the money was so bad, we would make more money playing regular tournaments than going down to Australia. The majors became a huge measuring stick in the ’90s forward, but not back then.
“For sure, she is one of the greats for so many reasons, but you can have arguments for others to be there as well. Margaret Court, Billie Keane, Chrissie, me and, of course, Steffi Graf.”
A reference to the German great Graf adds an extra layer of complexity to this debate. This elegant Steffi held the world No.1 ranking for a record 377 weeks, won 22 Grand Slam titles and became the first player to win all four major titles and the Olympic gold medal in 1988. In addition, she is the only tennis player, male or female, to have won each major tournament at least four times.
Like Navratilova, Graf took the game to a new level with her power and class shining through as she dominated the game in the 1980s and she retired at the age of 30, when she was still No 3 in the world. Had she carried on, Steffi could have won more majors and comfortably overtaken Court’s Grand Slam record.
Only Martina Navratilova (1,442), Chris Evert (1,309) and Steffi Graf (900) have won more WTA-level matches than Serena Williams (858) in the Open Era.@serenawilliams | #ThankYouSerena pic.twitter.com/99dOoTVN14
— wta (@WTA) September 8, 2022
In addition, Graf achieved her success with humility and grace some of her rivals in the GOAT debate lacked and that should be a factor when deciding who deserves to be hailed as the greatest, as being a role model is all part of the story of the ultimate sporting icons.
While there is no doubt that Serena is the greatest of her era and a hugely significant figure in the history of tennis on so many levels, the tributes suggesting she stands alone as the greatest player to pick up a tennis racket may have been misplaced.
“Serena has got to be one of the greatest competitors to ever play the game,” said doubles legend Bob Bryan, in an interview with All Court Tennis Club in New York.
“She hates to lose. Every time she steps out there she finds that extra gear. It was the loudest match I’ve ever seen and she used the energy from the crowd. She rose to the occasion. She has not been playing well, but I thought for a set and a half she played great.
Greatness is measured on a variety of scales and whoever you feel deserves to come out on top, this debate will forever include the name of Serena Williams.