Tennis Prose



Best Ever: BJK Says Serena Can Be GOAT

Serena Williams had a Hall of Fame cheerleader during her run to the Australian Open and Wimbledon titles this year — Billie Jean King.

When Williams wrapped up 6-3, 6-2, conquest of Vera Zvonareva to capture her 13th career Grand Slam title at Wimbledon on Saturday, she passed King for sixth place on the all-time list and thanked her former Fed Cup and Olympic coach for inspiring her.

“This one is very special,” Williams said. “This is number 13 for me and it’s just amazing to be among such great people and to be sixth on the all-time list is great. (Billie Jean) told me to pass her and so that’s really inspiring. Honestly, I just wanted to get to 13 — it’s my lucky number.”

Williams, who celebrates her 29th birthday on September 26th, may well be playing the best tennis of her career, which means if she stays healthy, fit and focused, she has a strong shot of surpassing Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (18 majors apiece) to become No. 1 on the list of American major singles champions and make a run at Steffi Graf’s mark of 22 career Grand Slam singles titles though Margaret Court’s record of 24 singles majors seems safe.

King is convinced Serena will continue to climb the list and believes Williams has the ability to conclude her career as the Greatest Of All Time.

“I think it’s great.  I think her next goal now should be to beat Chris and Martina’s 18 singles (majors), then thereafter she can go on to Steffi Graf (22 majors),” King told the media in Tuesday’s conference call to promote this season of World TeamTennis. “There’s no reason Serena Williams shouldn’t be the greatest woman player that’s ever played.”

King calls Navratilova the best singles, doubles and mixed doubles player and cites Graf as the greatest singles player, for now, but believes Serena, who will celebrate her 29th birthday on September 26th, can take the game to new levels.

“Every generation I think gets better usually,” King said. “Up to this time the greatest singles, doubles and mixed player has been Martina Navratilova. I think the greatest singles player up to this time has been Graf.  There’s no reason that Serena can’t surpass some goals of people.”

Successfully defending her Wimbledon crown to raise the Rosewater Dish for the fourth time, Williams’ real rivals are the game’s greatest champions, including King and Navratilova, who watched the final from the royal box. Williams’ 13th major title moves her one ahead of King for sixth place on the all-time list behind Margaret Court (24), Graf (22), Helen Wills Moody (19) and Evert and Navratilova (18 apiece).

The growth of tennis as a global game makes sustained success even more difficult today, King said.

“Sports are a microcosm of society. It just shows how much more competition there is in the world,” King said.  “When I was playing, we didn’t have to compete against everybody in the world.  Now it’s a truly global sport, so the competition’s much greater, just like it is for our children in every other area, whether it be in science or technology or whatever you talk about. So we have to work that much harder.  We have to get kids who are eager.  We have to get good athletes in our sport if we’re going to win globally.”

Why is Williams playing some of the best tennis of her career now?

Essentially, she’s streamlined her schedule to the point where it’s all about the majors.  Williams beat Justine Henin to win her fifth Australian Open title in January then sat out three months citing a left knee injury.  She has limited her investment of time and energy into regular Tour events  in order to peak for the majors. Since the start of 2009, Williams has won five tournament titles and four of them have been Grand Slams (two Australian Open and two Wimbledon crowns) with her lone Tour victory the season-ending WTA Tour Championships last fall.

The other point is Williams has grown into a better match player at this stage of her career. She hits with more topspin off her groundstrokes than when she broke through to win the 1999 US Open and that margin for error means fewer errors. She owns the best serve in the history of women’s tennis, whipping a Wimbledon women’s record 89 aces during the fortnight (to put that number in perspective, Venus Williams had the second-most aces at Wimbledon with 30).

She’s also put more of an effort into off-court training, which takes strain off her surgically-repaired knees and means she can take breaks from tennis and still come back and contend for majors.

Williams played Kim Clijsters last night before a world-record crowd of 35,681 at King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels, Belgium.  The exhibition shattered the record for most spectators at a tennis match set at the famed 1973 Battle of the Sexes match between King and Bobby Riggs held at the Houston Astrodome. That match drew 30,492 fans.

Numbers are part of the dilemma in assessing Serena’s place among the game’s greats. In her 15-year career, she’s “only” won 37 titles. To put that in perspective, Lindsay Davenport, who turned pro two years before Serena, has 55 career championships.  Yet, Williams has shown a proclivity for quality over quantity: her 13-3 record in Grand Slam finals is one of the best in history for any woman who has won 10 or more majors.

A tennis historian friend of mine and I recently had a debate over Williams’ place in history. He told me he does not even rank her in the top 5 of all time, putting Suzanne Lenglen ahead of her. Suzanne Lenglen! Didn’t she drink brandy on changeovers, play in a skirt almost as long as a gown and basically beat the same four or five people over and over to accumulate majors?

If you’re going to play that kind of numbers game, then here’s a number that somehow often gets overlooked when it comes to Williams’ place in history: 6.8 billion. that’s the United Nations estimate for the world’s population.

Why does that matter? Because pre-Open Era, tennis was a country club sport that was only available to a select few. For that reason, it’s absurd to suggest Lenglen is a better player than Williams when Lenglen was facing a player population about the size of Weehawken. There was still a color barrier in place then as well so you’re going to tell me Lenglen is better than Williams simply because she compiled more numbers?

Today’s tennis is truly a global game with nations like Russia boasting the Wimbledon finalist, China offering two of the four Australian Open semifinalists and women from Bulgaria and the Czech Republic reaching the Wimbledon final four.

It’s an exercise in futility to compare pre-Open Era champions to Open Era for a number of reasons — the evolution of equipment, the change in surfaces, the fact that professionals could not play majors in the pre Open Era and the advances in nutrition, training and athleticism. But to tell me Serena doesn’t belong in Lenglen’s class because she didn’t win as many titles is just plain nuts. You can’t sacrifice common sense at the alter of the record book if you want to get to any sound truth.

The way I view it is you have the elite Grand Slam champions who have both dominated eras and compiled major championships  — Margaret Court, Graf, Evert, Navratilova, King — then you have players like Monica Seles and Serena who do not have the consistency or compilation of championships  (in Seles’ case because she was the victim of a madman’s stabbing, in Serena’s because of apathy/outside career pursuits and the knee surgery) but yet they still dominated for periods of time and even more importantly than short-term dominance they changed the way the sport was played.
This is why I believe Serena belongs at least in the conversation of all-time greats, even if she never wins another major.

Before Serena you had players who could dominant on serve (Court, Navratilova, Graf at Wimbledon) and you had players who could dominate off the return (Evert, in terms of unrelenting consistency of making every return and Seles in terms of sheer explosiveness of the return).

But never before in the history of women’s tennis have you had a woman who can dominate a major match off both serve and return as Serena does at her best.

She’s revolutionized the game in that way in that even now who else in woman’s tennis can do what she does?

Justine Henin cannot dominate a match with her serve.   Maria Sharapova’s serve, once a weapon, has been a bit of a mess since her shoulder surgery offering double digit double faults, in some matches.   Clijsters has a good serve when it is clicking but she cannot dominant a match with it (see her loss to Zvonareva at Wimbledon) and Sam Stosur has arguably the best kick serve in women’s tennis but her backhand return is a sometimes a weak chip.

Look at recent World No. 1 players — Jankovic, Ivanovic, Safina, Sharapova, Henin — who among them can do what Serena does?

My point is you cannot quantify Serena’s importance based on numbers of majors won.  She will likely not touch Court’s record and may not reach Graf either though I believe  she can and will win 20 if she’s healthy and stays fit and focused.

The fascinating aspect of Williams’ career, which has offered both long layoffs and spikes of complete dominance, is that you never know what’s coming next. She could go on and win six majors in the next two years or she could opt to take eight months off. She has not been nearly as consistent as the women ahead of her on the all-time list, which is one reason why some struggle to put her legacy in context.

Two things on that point: 1. Her career is not over yet and given the fact a Williams sister has won nine of the last 11 Wimbledon titles and Serena has won five Australian Opens, you have to consider her favorites for those two majors as long as she plays. 2. I don’t believe tennis historians will truly be able to place her career in context until 10 years after she’s retired because we’ll have to see if any woman who comes after her can dominate as she has.

If Williams gets to 20 majors you could make a strong case she is the greatest of all time given the fact she’s won the career Grand Slam in both singles and doubles, collected two Olympic gold medals in doubles, played for a Fed Cup championship team and topped the world rankings in singles and doubles. Actually, you could make that case for her as GOAT right now, given her 13-3 career record in major finals and the fact that her game is more explosive than any elite champion who came before her including Margaret Court (24 singles majors), Graf, Navratilova and Evert.

Of course there is no definitive answer though it’s often fun to imagine the stylistic clash of champions meeting at their best.

Regardless of where you stand on the GOAT, I will say Williams, at her best and on her best day, is the best woman player I’ve ever seen.

Spare me the cracks about “poor technique” and “shoddy footwork.” Please. You can’t serve in excess of 125, hit kick, slice and flat serves off the same toss, rifle returns into the corners and take a swing volley out of the air, below the net height and crush it for a winner, unless you have sound technique and racquet skills. And you don’t win 13 of her 16 major finals unless you can reproduce those shots beneath the burden of big match pressure over and over again. If that isn’t a testament to technique, then what are you watching?

Ultimately, of course, there is no definitive answer to the Great Debate, which makes it fun to argue. And I can live with people promoting Graf or Navratilova or Court as their personal GOAT —  just don’t tell me Lenglen is better than Williams or I’ll be the one drinking brandy on changeovers.

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  • michelle lilting · July 12, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    Dear Mr. Pagliaro,

    Bless you for that accurate, commonsense, ultimately humorous take on the obvious.Your FRIEND the “historian” is the one nipping on “the sauce.” LOL Serena Williams’ consummate skills (which helped make for 89 ACES at Wimbledon) are unparelleled. Serena is clearly the best who has ever lived. Were it not for her dear sister’s untimely death, and the blatant cheating of officials ( remember U.S. Open with J.Capriati?) and even of RIVALS ( J. Henin at that infamous French Open) and the evil racism she has faced (like that at Indian Wells AND the aforementioned U.S. Open with crazy “official” Maria Alves and French Open), Serena Williams would have ALREADY won more majors! Add those facts this one: Past generations played a lot more on natural surfaces like grass that were not as hard on the body. That is one reason for more injuries today with all the play on hardcourts and the like. Billie Jean King said that if there were as many grass court tournies today as they were when she played, Serena and Venus would have many more titles already! Amazing!

  • Scoop Malinowski · July 12, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    That is one helluva convincing argument, excellent. Serena is the best, ain’t no doubt about it. It’s just a matter of time before she overtakes the records of Martina and Graf. Like McFadden & Whitehead sang, ‘Ain’t no stoppin her now.’



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