Serena Williams bows out as one of the greats – but other champions will share her throne
As Serena Williams bowed out of the US Open amid gushing tributes and waves of global emotion, you could have been forgiven for believing she is the only player worthy of consideration when the definitive list of all-time greats is compiled.
Yet such a rush to judgement would be will only be made by those who don’t appreciate the great history of our sport.
It might be hard to believe this after witnessing the endless tributes to one of the game’s all-time greats in New York over the last few days, but there was tennis before Serena and a select handful of the champions that went before her invented the tennis throne so many are now rushing to hand to the younger of the Williams tennis sisters.
For starters, Australian Margaret Court still holds the record for the most Grand Slam wins, with her total of 24 challenged by Serena in recent years, but never surpassed.
Court’s record in majors suggests she deserves to be considered among the game’s greats, but that is before we get to the great Billie Jean King.
Defining the greatness on their Grand Slam trophy haul may be a justifiable argument in the modern game, yet many top players didn’t play the Australian Open constantly in the 1970s and that explains, in part, why King only won one title in the opening major of the tennis year and ended up with 12 titles.
Yet what she contributed to the sport of tennis is a legacy that continues to this day, with the equal prize money collected by men and women in major tournaments and Billie Jean has her fingerprints all over.
We next get to 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.
“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 Jean, Chrissie, me and, of course, Steffi Graf.”
Introducing Steffi Graf to this debate adds to the complexity.
This elegant German 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.
In addition, Graf achieved her success with humility and grace others who went before her and came after her lacked, which is a factor when deciding who deserves to be hailed as the greatest.
While there is no doubt that Serena is the greatest of her era and a hugely significant figure in the history of tennis for so many reasons, don’t let the tributes blur the reality that this outgoing champion is merely one of the greatest players to have ever picked up a racket.
Serena exits tennis as a cultural icon, a game changer on so many levels, but in pure sporting terms, others deserve to be considered as tennis greats alongside her.
So it is thank you to Serena… and thanks also to the greats who helped to invent the stage she made her own.
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