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Case for Serena Williams as greatest player ever not closed yet

Two things came to mind last week when colleague Jon Wertheim deemed Serena Williams the greatest female player of all time. First, that I hadn't heard it mentioned before, at least among the sport's most respected observers, and certainly not with such conviction. Secondly -- and not surprisingly -- Jon's claim made a great deal of sense.

Release your imagination and picture any of the all-time greats on the opposite side of the net. Why wouldn't Serena win? Her talent, track record and competitive nature are just that compelling.

Still, I find it troubling to declare her the No. 1 beyond debate.

My initial thought was to dream up a mythical tournament, each of the great players in her prime, using wooden rackets -- or even today's technology, if you prefer. That idea was properly shot down by Joel Drucker, the author/columnist/historian who follows the game as closely as anyone. "A fun topic for some," he says, "but how many more hits would Bach have had if he'd had a Moog synthesizer? What if James Joyce had an iPhone? In tennis, technique has altered so much in recent years -- largely for the better. Does Laver get to be a totally different player with today's racket? Who is he then? If we took Nadal back to a 1960s racket, he surely wouldn't hit the ball the same way."

A constant behind-the-scenes presence in television, Drucker co-produced a Tennis Channel bit in which Wertheim stated his case. "While I see it, I absolutely don't buy it, at least not yet," he said. "The point isn't to determine if Serena would beat Martina, Graf or even Court, but to see how truly great she is in her era. "

Drucker takes into account three factors:

"Performance: Not just Slams won, but years finished as the No. 1 player, and significant events such as Fed Cup and big-time tournaments such as Miami, Indian Wells and the season-ending championships. Serena does pretty well here, but 13 Slams ain't 18 (Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova), much less 22 (Steffi Graf). Even if you look beyond the computer, as I see it, Serena only finished the year as the world's best two times: 2002 and '09. Martina did that six times, Graf six, Evert at least five.

"Dominance: How consistently and frequently was this player the dominator? I want to see sustained dominance a la Navratilova, Graf and Evert -- week in, week out.

"Longevity: Did you do it over a long period of time? Serena's doing great in this category, having now won Slams in three different decades. But let's see where she's at by the end of 2012. Four or five more Slams, a couple more years at No. 1 -- maybe she gets there."

From my standpoint, it's bothersome to list Serena as the greatest athlete the game has ever seen. Billie Jean King was a phenomenal athlete who could have played any sport. Steffi Graf had the look of a 400-meter runner and was definitely faster than Serena on court. Martina is another fabulous all-around athlete, and unlike Serena, she showed it in every conceivable way. As for the claim that Serena would dismantle Navratilova's net game and render it useless -- I'm heading out for a sandwich now. I know Martina is in awe of Serena's power and court presence, but just as I can't rule out Rod Laver in any conversation regarding men's tennis, Navratilova's total command of the game was just too magnificent to dimiss.

In terms of competitors, I wouldn't rank anyone higher than Serena, but I can't imagine Evert losing a battle of nerves to anyone. Similarly, Billie Jean competed like crazy and stood up to perhaps the greatest pressure a female tennis player ever encountered, facing Bobby Riggs in that Battle of the Sexes match in 1973 (other than changing the entire face of women's sports, it wasn't all that significant).

So many great champions had to overcome massive obstacles. King was up against long-held stereotypes and, later on, fierce resentment upon the realization that she was gay. Navratilova was the very definition of bravery and will power, whether it was defecting from Czechoslovakia to America, chiseling down a pudgy frame, or proudly announcing her sexuality to the world.

Such standards of courage are deeply relevant in women's sports, and Serena stakes a mighty claim of her own. Having bypassed the junior-tennis grind at the insistence of her father, she and her sister were black girls walking defiantly into a very white, skeptical world, negotiating mine fields well-sheltered from the public. Also, how many times have you watched a sibling try to emulate the rousing success of an older sister or brother? Almost invariably, he or she takes a different path, just for the sake of sanity. Serena emerged from Venus' shadow as her own person, and we see her now as a superior player when viewed historically.

Would I change anything about Serena? Not from the standpoint of attitude or lifestyle. I'm on record (in the San Francisco Chronicle) as defending the sisters at every turn, dating back to Venus' professional debut in 1994. I even sided with Serena when she went off on lineswoman Shino Tsurubuchi at last year's U.S. Open, although I would have edited her language a bit (that was just an absurd call, period, at such a crucial stage of an important match).

But if a mythical tournament ever took place -- call it the Afterlife Invitational -- I'd tell Serena to honor the sport's integrity. She shrieks and screams only for effect, when things get a little tense, and that's inexcusable. Martina (who quite accurately calls it cheating) wouldn't stand for it, and I have a feeling Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills Moody wouldn't be too thrilled, either.

Above all, here's my biggest problem with the best-ever argument: Serena is a prisoner of her era. Navratilova had so little influence on future generations, as the young Serena and her contemporaries became baseline specialists, almost without exception. If Serena had grown up as an all-court artist who had long since perfected volleys, lobs, drop shots, topspin and slice -- my goodness, we wouldn't even be having this debate. I think people question her historical status partly because today's game is so relentlessly tedious.

"When I was growing up, everyone had their own style," Martina Hingis said recently. "Now it looks very much the same, the hard hitting. They just don't teach it any more."

I'd love to have seen Serena enter her prime in the early '90s, going against Graf, Navratilova, Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati, Gabriela Sabatini and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, but it's not as if the Williams era is full of stiffs. Unquestionably, there are more solid young players lurking in the earlier rounds than ever before. But Serena seldom has to think her way through a match, as least in the traditional sense, and that's hardly her fault. She's up against people who play exactly the same way, and a disturbing number of them are emotionally fragile, mentally crushed by Serena before the match even begins. I'm not at all discounting what Maria Sharapova, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and a few others mean to the game, but stylistically, Serena rarely has to make an adjustment of any kind. Given that everyone has ball-striking ability, the key element is desire -- and Serena just thrashes everyone in that category.

For another opinion, I turned to Steve Flink, a formidable journalistic presence for some 40 years and a writer/editor at the late, great World Tennis Magazine from 1974 through '91. I quote him directly, via e-mail:

"I respect Jon Wertheim a lot and understand why he thinks Serena has already done enough to be considered the best ever, but I don't agree. Serena needs to at least equal Navratilova and Evert with 18 majors, and I would even make the case that she would need to get very close or equal to Graf's 22 majors. To be the greatest of all-time requires a record of longtime achievement and consistency.

"Graf won at least one major for 10 years in a row and won every Grand Slam event at least four times," Flink went on. "Navratilova won her first major in '78 and her last in '90, and was up near the top of the sport for that entire stretch. Evert holds the all-time record for men and women by winning at least one Grand Slam event for 13 years in a row.

"Now, let's look at Serena. She, like Navratilova, has won majors in three consecutive decades, taking her first Grand Slam title at the U.S .Open in '99 and winning her latest at the Australian and Wimbledon this year. She has won all of the majors in her career. But she needs to build up her numbers. Winning 13 majors is impressive, but at the two biggest events -- Wimbledon and the U.S. Open -- she has not scaled the heights on a level with many other all-time greats. Graf won seven Wimbledon singles titles and five U.S. Opens; Navratilova won Wimbledon nine times and took four U.S. Opens. Serena at the moment has four Wimbledon singles crowns and three at the U.S. Open. Five of her Slam championships were at the Australian Open and she has won the French Open once.

"So far in her career, Serena has finished only two years at No. 1 in the world, which is not much for a player of her immense stature. She finished two years in a row outside the top 10, at No. 11 in 2005 and No. 95 the following year. So the way I look at it, she has some admirable sides to her record with the career Grand Slam and her almost unparalleled big-match prowess. Serena has won 13 of the 16 Grand Slam finals she has played. I simply believe she needs to keep amassing majors for the next three or four years, pass Evert and Navratilova, and then we can reassess where she belongs. I still think Graf is the best of all time, with Navratilova a close No. 2.

"I understand the argument that Serena could step out on a court in a time warp and beat anyone who has ever played the game on a surface other than clay. At her best, she is almost unstoppable on a medium to fast court, and her serve is the best of all time without a doubt. But she has been streaky and unreliable at times, almost indifferent. That is no longer the case, but she needs to make up for lost time. And to balance the argument that she could beat anyone in an all-time tournament with everyone available, I believe a champion is a champion in any era, and would inevitably make the technical adjustments to thrive no matter when he or she played. So I could easily see players like Navratilova with her attacking game and Graf with her speed and blockbuster forehand reworking their games in other ways and competing with Serena under those circumstances.

"Another quick point," wrote Flink. "I am convinced that a close examination of a player's record is the best way to look at this debate. For instance, I believe firmly that Pete Sampras would have beaten Roger Federer in a series of matches on hard courts and grass, no matter how slow the grass may be at Wimbledon these days. I feel his imposing serve-and-volley game and his big-match temperament would have stymied Federer in many ways. But once Federer won the French Open last year for a career Grand Slam, and then moved ahead of Sampras by winning his 15th major at Wimbledon, I did not hesitate to call Federer the best of all time, despite my feelings on how they would have fared head-to-head. It is similar with Serena. You can argue that she has the power, the serve and the athleticism to beat any top player in history on anything but clay. But records prove more than projections, and Serena has not amassed the victories yet that she needs."

As I look back on major tournaments I've had the privilege of covering, I can so easily see Flink, Drucker and Wertheim among the cluster of international journalists, right along with Bud Collins, Philippe Bouin, Tom Tebbutt and many others, a collective encyclopedia of tennis knowledge. Wertheim hit on a real gem here, a topic worthy of everyone's attention. It's nice to know that Serena hasn't quite finished dispensing evidence.

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