Two things came to mind last week when colleague
Release your imagination and picture any of the all-time greats on the opposite side of the net. Why
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
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 (
"Dominance: How consistently and frequently was this player
"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.
In terms of competitors, I wouldn't rank anyone
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
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
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
"When I was growing up, everyone had their own style,"
I'd love to have seen Serena enter her prime in the early '90s, going against Graf, Navratilova,
For another opinion, I turned to
"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
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