The Greatest, But Not the Best

In an interview earlier this week that engulfed the internet like wildfire, retired tennis great turned tennis commentator John McEnroe said that he believes that Serena Williams is “without question the greatest female player of all time.” He was then asked by the interviewer “why qualify it” in saying that she’s the best female player of all time rather than just simply the greatest? McEnroe’s response was that while Serena may be able to compete against elite men’s player on a day (he noted how strong her serve is) that he thought that if she played on the men’s tour she would be ranked “like 700th” in the world.

The fallout from this comment was remarkable, including the world’s 701st ranked men’s tennis player, Dmitry Tursunov, saying in a TV interview that he thinks he could beat Serena Williams. Some claimed McEnroe was being sexist, but a large portion of those who were upset were arguing that he simply might be wrong and that we’ll never know how Serena would do against elite male players. This is the argument that annoyed me most, and it was being promoted by people in sports media whose opinions I respect, including the crew of FiveThirtyEight’s sports podcast “Hot Takedown.” I’m not sure if those promoting this argument are doing so because they’d rather be wrong than appear sexist or if they honestly believe it. I’m not particularly interested in why this argument is so popular, just how bad it is.

More than anything, I think this is an argument about semantics, specifically if being the greatest and the best are the same thing. I would argue they are not. I believe Serena Williams to be the greatest tennis player of all time, but that arguing she is the best (or anywhere near it) is ludicrous.

Let’s start with the “best” part of this argument, because it is the simpler and shorter of the two. A few years ago, a men’s player named Karsten Braasch agreed to play against both Venus and Serena after they asserted they could beat any man outside the top 200. Braasch was ranked 203rd in the world at the time. These were friendly matches and only 1 set apiece, far different from the sexism-fueled spectacles of the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ matches organized by Bobby Riggs back in the 70s. Braasch won both sets handily, 6-1 over Serena and 6-2 over Venus.

I think this instance is instructive in the differences in men’s and women’s tennis. Serena may be able to hit a serve as hard as most men’s players. The pace of her groundstrokes and her swing speed may be similar as well. But I can tell you from experience that hitting the ball hard is not the secret to winning tennis matches. The most notable difference between men’s and women’s tennis is in lateral speed on the court: moving side to side to hit shots. As strong and she is, I would not describe Serena as quick. The thing is, she doesn’t need to be. Her combination of power and phenomenal shot placement over-match the majority of her opponents. This also allows her to rarely leave the baseline. The amount of points played at the net has been in a nosedive across professional tennis for years, in particular at the highest level of the women’s game. I would argue the dominance of Serena is at least partially responsible for this trend.

As a counter example to Serena’s style I would present Rafael Nadal, himself one of the greatest players of all time and without question the greatest clay court player the world has ever seen (and probably ever will). Nadal is not a particularly hard server (relatively speaking). His game has always relied far more on the spin of his shots than their speed. I can’t think of any player who can spin the ball in so many different ways (a variety certainly not seen in the women’s game in general or specifically in Serena’s). What is notable about his game is that he covers space on the court quicker than any player I’ve ever seen. He gets to shots when he seems assuredly left for dead. He’s phenomenal at transitioning from the baseline to the net and has incredible reflexes even by pro tennis standards. Not all men’s pros can move like Rafa, who personifies tennis at its most athletic, but if you want to win in the men’s game you have to be able to beat a player like Rafa.

I think the best way to transition from talking about ability to talking about greatness is to discuss the man who is, at least in my mind (and in many others’) the best tennis player of all time: Roger Federer. Federer has won 18 major titles, which is only made more impressive by the fact that his contemporaries have included Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Pete Sampras, and many other phenomenal players. He won his first major at the age of 21 at Wimbledon, dethroning Sampras as the king of the grass in the process; this year, at the age of 35, he beat Nadal to win the Australian open. No player in the history of the game has been able to compete at the sport’s highest level for such a long time and until such an age, except one: Serena Williams.

To both compare and admire the greatness of these players, let’s compare:

Serena Williams

Grand Slam Singles Titles: 23

7 Australian Open Singles Titles

3 French Open Singles Titles

7 Wimbledon Singles Titles

6 US Open Singles Titles

Grand Slam Doubles Titles: 14

4 Australian Open Doubles Titles

2 French Open Doubles Titles

6 Wimbledon Doubles Titles

2 US Open Doubles Titles

Mixed Doubles Grand Slam Titles: Wimbledon and US Open each once

4 Olympic Gold Medals (1 singles, 3 doubles)

 

Roger Federer

Grand Slam Singles Titles: 18

5 Australian Open Singles Titles

1 French Open Singles Title

7 Wimbledon Singles Titles

5 US Open Singles Titles

2 Olympic Medals (1 gold in doubles, 1 silver in singles)

Another important note to add is that while both have won the career Grand Slam (all 4 majors, Serena has done that 3 times over), Federer has never held all 4 titles at once, a feat Serena has accomplished twice. The only other players to achieve that multiple times are Rod Laver and Steffi Graf. It should be noted that throughout her career Serena has had a world class doubles partner: her sister. Early in their career, many thought that Venus was the better player, but injury and illness have curtailed a career that certainly could have rivaled that of her younger sister. Federer, meanwhile, has had to contend with better competition than Serena. That being said, Serena’s success on all surfaces as well as her comparative success since turning 30 (she has 9 major singles titles in her 30s compared to Federer’s 2) make up for that in my mind. She also won this year’s Australian Open while pregnant. The list above speaks for itself: despite Federer’s incredible career, on paper his accomplishments are far outpaced by Serena’s.

As good as Roger has been for so long, he does not define his section of the sport like Serena defines hers. Some argue that Federer is not the greatest men’s player of all time (Nadal, Laver, and Connors being the most frequently mentioned contenders) but you’ll struggle to find any tennis fan who would disagree that Serena is the greatest female player of all time. Federer has not dominated across all surfaces like Serena has, particularly on clay, where not only has he struggled at times but happens to have to play against Nadal (Federer won the 2009 French Open without having to play Nadal). Modern men’s tennis is defined by the intersection of the careers of many great players. Modern women’s tennis is defined by Serena.

I like to think of greatness as close to the same thing as “level of accomplishment.” Serena has accomplished more, both in terms of victories and in her stature within the sport, than any other player male or female. It also allows us to compare players from different eras even though players in all sports have become more athletic over time.

Now, if at this point you think the distinction I’m making between “best” and “greatest” is silly, consider the sport of swimming, Olympic swimming in particular. Michael Phelps is, in my opinion, unarguably the greatest Olympian of all time. The man has won 23 gold medals (and 28 medals in total) over the span of 5 Olympics, including going 8-0 in Beijing in 2008. No athlete has ever more deserved to be called super-human. However, what if 15 years from now Katie Ledecky has passed Phelps for the most gold medals won by a single Olympian (she has 5, he had 6 at her age)? We would marvel at the feat, especially knowing it was Phelps she was up against. She would, rightly, be crowned the greatest Olympian and Olympic swimmer of all time. It would not matter that her times in each even were slower than Phelps’s times. We would not celebrate this accomplishment any less, but we would all know who the “better” swimmer was. In Ledecky’s defense, she’s already putting up times that rival her male counterparts (she wouldn’t win but she’d be competitive in some events) so I should give her credit where it’s due.

I don’t look at the argument for Serena being the greatest of all time any differently. I know that if she and Roger Federer were to play a match that he would win easily, but I don’t think that in any way lessens what Serena has accomplished or what she has meant to the sport.

There is speculation given her current pregnancy that we have seen the last of Serena Williams, particularly at her age. But if you were to ask me who I would bet on to win the Australian Open next January, I wouldn’t think twice. Greatness knows no bounds.

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