Wednesday July 14th, 2010

Most of the mail this week both rebutted and supported my suggestion that Serena Williams is the GOAT of women's tennis. As usual, lop off 10 percent of the responses from both extremes, and we have a civil, engaging discussion. Some recurring themes:

"This pronouncement smacks of the 'recency' effect and gives the short shrift to history." I think there's validity there. The other candidates played years ago -- decades ago, in some cases -- and will always look overmatched compared to the stars of today. Babe Ruth would look laughable on the baseball diamond today. A good college runner can better Roger Bannister's mile time. George Mikan would get eaten alive in today's NBA. That's just progress. But shouldn't that be a consideration?

"You're not taking equipment and modern amenities into account." It's obviously impossible to control for this. But Serena is an interesting case, here. As persnickety as, say, Roger Federer is about his equipment, Serena is nonchalant about her tools. Her racket is not particularly souped up. (Another time, remind me to tell you a funny story about this.) She's one of the few players who uses natural gut string. She claims not to lift weights. There's also a misconception about technology: The light frames and the Luxilon accord more of an advantage to the smaller players. A big server could clock the ball with a frying pan (or a Jack Kramer model.) The retrievers and baseliners are the ones who really benefit. If Serena played in the 1970s when everyone used wood, I suspect she'd be even more of a force.

"Wittingly or unwittingly, you have started a topic for conversation on the net and I feel sorry for the players involved. Lots of bashing and unnecessary comparisons being made. Graf being bashed by Serena's and Seles' fans and Serena by fans of old-time tennis. Do we really need to do this? Can't we just say that BJK/Court/Graf/Naratilova/Seles/Evert/Williams sisters are the cream of female tennis since you said yourself that it does not matter how many Grand Slams are won?" I agree that an unfortunate component of this is the diminishing of truly great athletes. I was struck by this when we debated Federer/Sampras/Laver. After reading some of the posters, you'd think Laver was a two-bit hack unfit to feed balls to Ms. Nussbaum at the country club. Let's not lose sight of the fact we're discussing the elite of the elite. That said, I think it's natural to discuss/wonder about the "greatest ever." We do this all the time in other contexts, too. Was Abe Lincoln a better president than FDR? Was Athens under Pericles a better society than Eisenhower America? Sure it's ultimately unanswerable, but it's still a fun and potentially instructive exercise.

"We need to define our terms." Agree and disagree. Sure, if we could come up with a standard definition of "GOAT" it would be helpful. But even if we agree on the basic criteria and how much weight to accord each, there are still so much subjectivity. Some of you are hung up on Federer's losing record against Nadal. Others (self included) feel as though it's a misleading stat. Some of you are quick to note that the "Seles situation" taints Graf's achievements and disqualifies her from GOAT contention. Others (and I fall into this camp) feel as though "you play the hand you're dealt" and it's unfair to punish her. We can come up with some basic parameters. Quantity of titles. Quality of play. Record against rivals. Longevity of career. "Plus factors," such as doubles titles. Contributions to the sport. It leaves plenty open for debate.

"You just did this to sell magazines and generate controversy." Not at all. Feel free to disagree with me, but know that this was done authentically. During Wimbledon, I was debating with my seatmate whose tennis knowledge takes a back seat to no one's. His take was that it's still premature to anoint Serena, but he did concede that there's a valid discussion to be had. He threw history at me. I kept coming with this: "I have to trust me eyes. She's won 13 of these puppies now and has done so playing at an unprecedented level."

"How could you glorify such a poor sport?" Again, it's a question of weight. Does Serena's chronic sore losing or the foot-fault meltdown make her difficult to like (and impossible to defend) sometimes? Sure. But to what extent does it undercut her achievements? I tend to side with Philip of Helsinki who writes: "Couldn't care less about the outbursts. It's competition for crying out loud. Her substance is what matters: the interaction between her mobility (not her strength, but it has enabled her to develop and deepen her other weapons), mental fortitude, and stroke mechanics (yes, her serve is incredible and she just knocks opponents off the baseline with her penetrating power widening the possibility for the low, short angled precision baseline strokes). I think her game is beautiful and effective."

Anyway, with a plea a) to keep things civil and b) remember that none of this is meant to diminish legends, I'm happy to continue discussing...

I'm not willing to say Serena is the best ever, not in the face of Martina Navratilova's mind-boggling list of achievements, but I still applaud you for making a point that is too often overlooked. Serena Williams is the best singles and doubles player in the world, a feat we haven't seen since Navratilova. In an era where the conventional wisdom is that singles players should focus on their individual game so as to avoid unnecessary injuries during a tournament, Serena Williams has played far more often than anyone but her sister. This single fact, in my mind, elevates Serena above Graf (she's actually won more majors, 27 all told) and Evert, who won doubles majors but not nearly as many as Serena. The fact that she plays in the Open Era elevates her above Court and Helen Wills Moody. Only Navratilova, with her 59 major titles, eclipses Serena Williams. --Joshua, Portland, Ore.

• Thanks. I don't accord quite so much weight to doubles. But I think Josh's letter is interesting insofar as it shows how different fans value different factors. Also, another point in Serena's favor: She's on the verge of earning a "box set" the major trophies -- singles, doubles and mixed at all four Slams.

Serena as GOAT?!?! I did not think you would fall into the tunnel-vision American hubris. Steffi won a Golden Slam and 22 Slams. Don't think Serena will ever reach there. Steffi's final slam was beating then-No. 1 Martina Hingis, 12 years removed from her first Slam, proving her longevity. With Seles, Hingis, Martina, Evert and Sanchez-Vicario, her competiton was top notch. Of course, Steffi did that all with total class, some thing most American players, especially Serena, are challenged with. You have totally lost it, your only redemption has been calling Fed the GOAT. --Sri Sambamurthy, Short Hills, N.J.

• For the record, race and ethnicity came up a lot and it cut both ways. If Serena weren't American, no one would consider her the GOAT. This is just political correctness run amok. No wait, if only she were blonde and blue-eyed, this discussion would be closed.

My wife and I were lucky enough to attend Wimbledon this year. Didn't see any of the finals live but while watching Serena I told my wife the same thing you wrote, Serena is the GOAT and I gave her the same reasons you wrote. Therefore you are correct in your analysis. Well done. --Eric Pattison, Indianapolis

• That's Hoosier logic right there. Eric raises a good point: Watching Serena is like watching hockey. It's appreciably more gripping in person than on television.

Steffi Graf: 107 titles, 88.7 percent career winning percentage. Serena Williams: 37 titles, 82.4 percent career winning percentage. You are usually spot on, but here you are suffering from the recency effect. Thanks. --Bob Dumbacher, Atlanta, Georgia

• No question Serena's play at run-of-the-mill events drops considerably from her play at majors (hence the lower winning percentage). And no question this is a point against her. But how much weight do we really accord the titles in Tokyo and Hilton Head and the like?

How can Serena be a GOAT when she loses an exhibition to Kim Clijsters. The score was not even close nor did it even go three sets -- the standard "I'll let you win one and I win one and we decide it in the third round" courtesy did not even happen! I remember in the early '90s when Capriati won an exhibition in two sets. Seles went berserk that she lost in two sets. No one briefed Capriati about the courtesy and Seles always won her exhibitions in the third set, or if she lost would have really battled it out. I thought champions never give in or up their reputation ever. Granted Serena just won Wimbledon and is playing to a Belgian crowd. Hardly seems fair or smart of Serena to compromise her greatness even in exhibitions if she really is so good. Maybe she can have GOAT with an asterisk on the side for her laziness when it doesn't count. Seems more fitting! --Matt, Toronto

• Serena, days removed from Wimbledon, loses an exhibition in Clijsters' home country. I'm not sure I'd read too much into that. Let's move on...

Being a baseball fan, and with the obsession with pitch counts now, do you think a long match like Isner-Mahut poses a injury risk? Both during the match and with aftereffects? --Michael, El Cerrito, Calif.

• This was discussed at Wimbledon as well. Would these guys go the way of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior? (A baseball reference for our overseas readers.) Happily it looks like the answer is "no." Mahut played capably in Newport last week. I spoke with Isner a few days ago and he reported to be fine, hitting the practice court at the University of Georgia -- he did not interview for the vacant A.D. position -- and planning to return for the new ATP event in Atlanta.

Inasmuch as there was a whole lot of physical deterioration -- remember, Mahut played a long doubles match in the days that followed -- I suspect the grass had a lot to do with it. As long as those guys played, the points were short.

Visited Wimbledon for the first time, had tickets for Court 1, amazing place. Thought you might be interested to know that I attended Federer's practice prior to his match and he was grabbing his back and muttering to himself throughout it. --Sophia, Glyndebourne

• Very interesting. Thanks. And if any you have observations/tips like this in the future, feel free to pass it on!

I was shocked when Justine Henin was upset in the fourth round in Paris. Is it possible that Justine took TOO much time away from the court? Missing over a good year seems to have set her back. I kind of think it is like Monica Seles' situation; when she missed those two years she was never the same after, which almost seems to be the same situation that Justine is in. --Keith J., Minneapolis, Minn.

• Seles' situation was so sadly unique, I'm reluctant use it for any analogies. I think some of Henin's problem has been her approach. Her great virtue in Career 1.0 was her variety. The "completeness" of her game was her great weapon. The baseline-a-trons saw her attacking and mixing up pace and junking up one ball and then zapping the next and her opponents were thrown. The Justine I've seen in 2010 is trying mostly to prove she can slug with the sluggers. And the results have been humbling.

How about recognition, praise and admiration to Martina for showing up every day of the French and Wimbledon tournaments to do her job while she continued her cancer treatments? Serena may be your GOAT for her tennis skills, but I think Martina should be GOAT for courage and class. --Shar, Lancaster, Ohio

• Amen.

I read somewhere that Rafa is not paying his uncle Toni for being his coach. Is this true? If this is true, it speaks for the Nadal's family being so affluent in Spain. Keep up the good work. Vamos. --Lily Ignacio, Clearwater, Fla.

• As a of a year ago, anyway, Toni was not paid a salary by Nadal. Instead his brother (Rafael's father) gave him a share of the family business. Toni rightfully felt it was demeaning to be on his nephew's payroll. "Our business went well so I don't need money. When Rafael's father say to me, 'No, no, no, you must be paid,' I said, 'No, I don't want to receive money from him because I want to be the chief. If I receive money, maybe he is chief.' And this way, when I want to go, I go. I am never going to carry Rafael's bag, because I am on the same level -- no, not same level. A little higher."

Just to point out: In your post you said Roger hasn't been off the show court since 2003. WRONG. He played on Court 1 this year in Round 2. And apparently he also played in Court 1 in 2007 against Delpo (that is according to Roger). --LLKR, London

• By show court, I meant Centre Court or Court 1. While we're at it, the "show courts" at the U.S. Open are Arthur Ashe, Louis Armstrong and the Grandstand. In Australia, we're talking about Rod Laver Arena and Vodaphone/Hysense. And in Paris we're talking Chatrier and Suzanne Lenglen.

The Queen has watched American Pie? Seriously!? --Eduardo Gigante, Sao Paulo

• She watched it in band camp. (Roddick was kidding.)

Yes, we know the Fed is having a hard time. Downfall, retirement, blah blah blah. But has it been noted that the person that he lost to in both quarterfinals went on to at least make it to the final of the tournament? --Joe, Dallas

• That just meant the opponent won his next match (Soderling def. Berdych; Berdych def. Djokovic) and then lost in the final.

• Anonymous notes: "Steffi Graf in Barilla ad circa early 1990s. Interesting that she answers the phone in the ad as 'Stefanie' even back then."

• Congrats Tyler Lucas Moglen. May you grow up to beat your dad.

• On July 14, Billie Jean King will join First Lady Michelle Obama to lead local Washington youth in a QuickStart tennis clinic on the White House South Lawn.

• "I Remember Arthur Ashe: Memories of a True Tennis Pioneer and Champion of Social Causes by the People Who Knew Him" is a timely book that further pays tribute to this athlete, not through mere biography, but rather through anecdotes from those closest to him. The book, edited by sportswriter Mike Towle, is a collection of firsthand accounts by friends, colleagues, coaches, journalists and others acquainted with Ashe in any number of ways.

• This week's unsolicited book recommendation: "Blood, Sweat and Chalk" by Tim Layden.

Ari Miller of Santa Monica, Calif., notes that over the past 10 weeks, Nadal has racked up 7045 rankings points.

Caleb Vester of Sikeston, Mo., asks: "Is it me or, does Spain's David Villa look like Novak Djokovic?"

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