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I said it: Serena Williams is game's greatest ever

Did you really says Serena is the GOAT in this week's Sports Illustrated?--Jeff H., New York

• So I'm prepared for the onslaught of hate mail, but I stand by that. Let me first say that, much as we enjoy these discussions, they have the unfortunate (and unintended) effect of diminishing the achievements of truly great players,legends of the sport. So bear in mind: None of this is intended to disrespect the other candidates. At some level, too, this comes down to semantics. As long as the definition of "GOAT" is not standardized, we're going to disagree.

But, paraphrasing what I wrote in the magazine, here's my take on Serena: strip away the nonsense -- the controversies and the drama and the fines and the sore losing -- and she's the best ever. Is Serena the most accomplished? Well, no. She has 13 career majors now, which still trails Chris Evert (18), Martina Navratilova (18), Helen Wills Moody (19), Steffi Graf (22) and Margaret Court (24). But few consider Margaret Court the GOAT, which means there are other factors beyond the raw numbers. How was the competition? How long did they play? What were their X-factor contributions? Qualitatively, how good were they?

So here's my case for Serena: She's now won 13 Grand Slams spanning more than a decade (and she's still going). Mostly because of the quirks of a ranking system that induces the field to (over)play, she hasn't always been No. 1. Yet, for a big chunk of her career, she's been top dog and everyone has known it. While clay is her worst surface, she's won each of the four majors. Her record in doubles in phenomenal. She's won Olympic gold. She's won year-end championships.

Evert and Navratilova, you say, both would have won many more titles, were it not for the existence of the other. OK, but how many more Slams would Serena have won if she didn't have to face her sister, infinitely weirder than a non-blood-related rival? Serena is playing during a "soft" period in tennis history, you say, as evidenced by her winning Wimbledon without being tested. I disagree. Serena has often had to go through the best to win (Davenport, Sharapova, Venus, Henin). Is, say, Vera Zvonareva, really a worse player than the Helena Sukovas or Zina Garrisons that other contenders often faced in finals?

Serena has the most fearsome serve -- i.e. the most important stroke -- in women's tennis history, and it would be the case even if everyone used the same technology. (She uses natural gut strings by the way.) She is the best athlete in women's tennis history, likely the fastest and the strongest. And she competes as well as any athlete -- not tennis player; athlete -- you'll ever come across.

But here's where I really feel strongly: Head-to-head, on a neutral surface (i.e. hard courts), everyone at their best, I can't help feeling that she crushes the other legends. Sacrilege, I know. But spark up of video of other players, watch where their balls land in the court or how hard they serve or how they move and then consider Serena's game. She would blow through Evert. She wouldn't allow Navratilova (who looks like a pixie next to Serena) a chance to attack. She would tee off on Graf's slice. Again, this isn't to disrespect the others; it's progress. But I think it counts for a lot that no one has ever played tennis at a higher level than Serena has. (It's the same reason, incidentally, that I was early to pronounce Federer the male GOAT. You just know watching him that no one has played better tennis qualitatively and surely that has to count for something.)

The big knock on Serena is her wavering commitment and sparse schedule. But that, too, needs to be reassessed. At a time when tennis has never been a) more physical and b) more global, it's not realistic to expect her to play 18 events a year. And considering the fate of her contemporaries (leaving aside the one who was hospitalized for an OD, we've had retirements, unretirements, burnouts and fast fades), Serena's approach to scheduling and "outside interests" made a lot of sense in retrospect.

I realize that Serena is incredibly polarizing. Sometimes, she gets a raw deal from the establishment. Other times, she brings it on herself. I realize that for some of you, her outburst at the U.S. Open last year, will always disqualify her from "greatest anything" consideration. I also realize that, as long as she's still playing, it may be silly to make a declarative statement one way or the other. But I think in the end, the preening and the Indian Wells fiasco, and the "lying and fabricating," and the Mariana Alves controversy, and the boots and the catsuit and, even the 2009 U.S. Open are reduced to footnotes. And we're left with the portrait of the Greatest Ever. Until the next one comes along.

Just in case Zvonareva was worried that people would forget about her crying jags, she turned in a command performance during the women's doubles final. On that note -- and considering how close the talent is right now among players not named Serena -- how many ranking spots do you think her fragile mental game has cost her in her career?--Chris, Otsego, Minn.

• The flip side: She's clearly an emotional sort, fired with perfectionist instincts. If she weren't so intense, she wouldn't cry and bang her racket. She might also not be a Top 10 player. A former pro who will go nameless raised an interesting point: Does it not degrade women's tennis that a top pro is so prone to tears? I'm not buying that. First, I can think of a prominent male pro who's also prone to waterworks. Second, at least she gives a s---. I'd be more concerned if her attitude conveyed indifference.

End of American dominance yet Serena wins. I've seen this in a lot of places. This goes deeper than tennis.--Mike, N.J.

• This is hearsay, but one prominent broadcaster allegedly said something to the effect: "Vania King won the doubles so at least the U.S. didn't get totally shut out!" Hmmm. Just because you don't play Fed Cup you don't count as American? That can't be it.

Leander Paes won his sixth mixed doubles Slam at Wimbledon this year. Along with his six men's doubles Slams and an Olympic singles bronze, what do you think of his chances to get into the Tennis Hall of Fame?--Haresh Ramchandani, Mumbai, India

• Again, we need the doubles wing. Hard to imagine inducting him alongside the likes of an Agassi. But much the same way Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva are in this year, I could see inducting Paes on his doubles credentials.

Which of the following Grand Slam Records held by Roger Federer do you think that Nadal will break by the end of his career? Most Grand Slams (16), most Grand Slam finals (22), most consecutive Grand Slam finals reached (10), most consecutive Grand Slam semifinals reached (23), most seasons winning at least 3 Grand Slams (3), most seasons winning at least 2 Grand Slams (5), most seasons reaching the finals of all four Grand Slams (3), most seasons reaching the semifinals of all four Grand Slams (5)?--Gregory Mathews, Milwaukee, Wisc.

• We can have the hypothetical discussion -- and I'll be the first to admit it's fun -- but I think so much of it depends on Nadal's knees. They hold up and, sure, he has a real chance. If not, obviously it's a different story. As a rule of thumb, I think anything with a "consecutive" is a non-starter. For a guy who's never been to the U.S. Open final -- mostly because his tires are awfully bald come late summer -- it's hard to see him winning all four Majors in a calendar year. If I had to guess I'd predict: he comes to close Federer (who might not be done winning, himself) but doesn't catch him in the end. Yes, Nadal can win on any surface. Yes, he's only 24. But his health just looms too large.

Is Soderling the new James Blake?--Tina Myers, Sacramento

• Not sure what this means. Soderling has rabbit ears?

Finally, a mainstream news source not letting him off lightly; a justifiably scathing review of Federer's disgraceful interview from the Sydney Morning Herald.--Harvey, Sydney, Australia

• Ouch. And here's another take from my colleague Bruce Jenkins.

Funny, the Federer-philes feel he's being unjustifiably crucified. (I haven't gotten this much crazed hate mail since I took issue with the No. 15 jacket.) The Federer-phobes are still convinced he's getting a pass and players likes of Serena would never have gotten so lightly. And the mail continues to come in.

Again, I didn't think Federer was at his best after that Wimbledon loss. This wasn't a Tuesday loss in Monte Carlo; this was a Wimbledon quarterfinal. Berdych, a longtime head case, played a huge match and won it convincingly. Give him his due. And do so without the medical chart. After her loss the day before, Venus Williams was asked about her health. Know what she said? "I don't talk about my injuries. Ever."

At the same time, Federer's human. One substandard episode doesn't undo a decade of decency and class. Let's chalk it up to a bad day and move on.

How about some props for Dick Norman of Belgium. The 39-year-old reached the doubles semis beating the Bryan brothers on the way.--Sergio Rabago, Mexico City

• Props. It's like a flame-haired Kimiko Date Krumm.

What does Federer need to win more matches and titles and at least one more Slam in the next three or four years: a) new full-time coach, b) high-tech racket, c) sports psychologist, d) another set of twins, e) an epiphany-inducing string of humiliating first-round losses in ATP 250 tournaments (heaven forbid)?--Peter Vincent Quetulio, Dagupan City, Philippines

• One more Slam? We're talking about a guy who, even after his recent disappointments, has won four of the past eight! I don't think the coach is an issue. I think he could use a big, more modern racket. The sports psychologist is interesting, since a lot of these losses have come because a failure to convert opportunities, which hadn't been an issue in the past.

You promote the Suicide Pool but do you play it yourself?--Natasha, Toronto

• I do. Do I succeed? Not so much. Not like Kendra Baisinger, anyway.

As a longtime Williams fan, I am just wondering what has happened to Venus? Since Serena started winning her many Slams, Venus seems to have dropped off mentally? Any ideas where she is headed at 30?--Madhur, England

• Good question. Another theme from this year's Wimbledon: Serena has really distanced herself from her sister. For all the casual fans who think of them as a bloc, consider that Serena has now won nearly twice as many Slam singles titles as her big sister. (Chalk still another up one for Richard Williams.) Venus is a young 30. She's still plenty athletic and there's not a ton of mileage on the tires. On the right surface (grass and a fast hard court) she could still be a factor. But I wonder how motivated she is right now. She's in a weird place where she's done plenty of winning but isn't chasing history the way Serena is. She has plenty of money and other interests. What really is her motivation? I see bits like this and I worry.

I appreciate your Tweets and short articles throughout each major, and I especially look forward to each grand slam wrap-up article. But, really, no mention of the somersault!?--Bess Jacobson, Des Moines, Iowa

For those who missed it.

• A suggestion that Andy Murrayhead to Vegas?

• Sad Chris Evert update.

• Congrats to Leo Spielberger on his birth. May this be the first of many Google hits.

• While John Isner is easing back into it in Athens, Ga., nice to see Nicolas Mahut winning in Newport.

• We'll give the Haiku contest a few more days.

Here's an interview with author Nic Brown, who last week released Doubles, a tennis-themed novel.

Here's Serena.

Have a good week everyone!

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