"Best ever" arguments generally hit a roadblock in tennis, usually about the refined modern equipment that makes wooden rackets and gut strings so dramatically obsolete. So let's stay in the present and ask this question: Is Serena Williams challenging Roger Federer as the best player of this generation? And could she soon own that distinction all by herself?
It has reached the point where even the most cynical insiders view Williams with reverence, at once startled and blown away by her utter dominance on court. That's how it was with Federer at his best, a time when so many sporting legends -- from Rod Laver to Tiger Woods -- sat courtside to grasp the full measure of his greatness.
Recent memory tends to be the sharpest, focusing on Williams' 91-4 record over the past 14 months and another astounding performance from Rafael Nadal at the French Open. Federer appears to be in gradual retreat -- certainly no shock, by any reasonable standard -- while Williams might be playing the best tennis of her life. In that sense, these two 31-year-old players seem to be headed in opposite directions. But let's take a measured, long-view approach to the argument. I think a strong case could be made for either.
Breaking it down by categories:
• The numbers. Before you start wondering if Nadal should be the man in this conversation, remember that between the 2003 Wimbledon and the 2010 Australian Open, Federer won 16 of the 27 majors. That's astounding, especially considering the ever-burgeoning globalization that has brought such depth to the men's tour. Federer is also working on a streak of 36 consecutive quarterfinals in the majors, and as colleague Jon Wertheim noted, only five other players even competed in all of those tournaments. Federer's numbers require a separate book, something to last through the ages, ideally crafted by fountain pen on seasoned parchment paper.
Williams can't match that brand of consistency, and, in fact, became known (often scorned) for missing tournaments over the years. Some felt she was too easily lured by distractions, but in retrospect, her multifaceted life kept her fresh and motivated. Her decisions were vital to her longevity. She has won each of the majors at least twice -- no other active player can make that claim, man or woman -- and with a total of 16, she looks like a cinch to pass Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (18 each) and perhaps even make a run at Steffi Graf's 22.
• The competition. Scanning the list of Federer's final victims in majors over the years, names such as Lleyton Hewitt, Mark Philippoussis, Robin Soderling, Marcos Baghdatis, Fernando Gonzalez and Andy Roddick appear -- each an exceptional player, but falling short of the caliber Federer faces today in Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Still, it's worth recalling Federer's absolute mastery in those days, fashioning a set of tools that would have dismantled anyone. Roddick's game fairly screamed "Wimbledon champion," yet he could never get past Federer. The purity of Andre Agassi's ball-striking was the stuff of legend, but I'll never forget his reaction after the 2005 U.S. Open final, when Federer won a tense third-set tiebreaker and then closed out Agassi with a 6-1 fourth set.
"There's nowhere to go," Agassi said. "Every shot you make has a sort of urgency to it. With other guys there's a safety zone, there's a way, even with Pete [Sampras]. But anything you do, Roger potentially has an answer for. He plays the game in a very special way. I haven't seen it before. It's crazy."
For Williams, the toughest challenges came early -- starting with the formidable Martina Hingis, outclassed by the 17-year-old Serena in the 1999 U.S. Open final. Serena had to deal with Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters, Hingis, Justine Henin, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and her own sister Venus, each of whom held the No. 1 ranking and did so fiercely, as opposed to the flighty Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki in contemporary times.
While Federer confronts the frightening proposition of easing toward retirement against Nadal, Djokovic and maybe a half-dozen big hitters capable of taking him down at any time, Serena has no rivals, no worthy challengers. If she won the next four majors without losing a set, no one would be the slightest bit surprised.
• Technique. While everyone takes note of Serena's serve, universally acclaimed as the best ever, has any female player been so devastatingly effective with the two-handed backhand? Evert could match her for accuracy (particularly impressive in the wooden-racket days), but Serena's power is a modern-day marvel. She can be a bit erratic with the forehand, but seldom alarmingly so, and she has great feel around the net. Other players might be quicker around the court, but Serena has kept herself remarkably fit and agile. In short: She has no weakness.
Then there's Federer, and let's face it, he's a cut above everyone -- maybe ever. What Agassi, Laver, Sampras and Bjorn Borg (among others) have admired so greatly was Federer's elegance, grace and anticipation, especially on points absolutely crucial to his survival in a match. It all seemed so effortless for him, and I'm sure he would resent that past-tense reference. He still brings the A-game on his best days.
• Intangibles. In terms of what to expect at any given time, they couldn't be more opposite. Federer was a force at every major, guaranteed, never losing his temper beyond a snarl or a growl, quite properly aloof as the master of all he surveyed. Williams could be hurt, dealing with personal issues, absent altogether or playing in an unbridled fury, to the point of inexcusable meltdowns at the U.S. Opens of 2009 (against Kim Clijsters) and 2011 (Samantha Stosur).
On the other hand, Serena's doubles record sends her even farther into the historical stratosphere. It could be argued that she and Venus formed the greatest women's team of all time, and they've got the Grand Slam trophies to prove it. Federer has a magical touch around the net and could have reached the heights (I'd love to see Federer and a chosen partner take on Bob and Mike Bryan), but he simply didn't care that much about doubles -- not enough to routinely pack it into his schedule.
Here, perhaps, is the most significant intangible of all: Serena grew up with a big sister who was making tremendous inroads in the sport, a worldwide role model and all-conquering player at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Serena always described herself as the more temperamental, unreliable sister, given to wild flights of fancy, all of which could have undermined her talent, not to mention the fact that she unconditionally loved Venus and savored the many years they lived together. For Serena to rise to such heights, in the sport so many felt would pass her by, is one of the great athletic feats of our time.
• Conclusion. Not a clear call. If pressed, I'd go with Federer's 16 majors in 27 tries as the essential piece of information. Serena just reached 16, and she played her first Grand Slam tournament 15 years ago. But it feels as if Serena has reached Federer's level, just in terms of how she is viewed by the other players. And by all accounts, there is much more to come. Let "best of their generation" have a men's and women's division, and see how it looks five years from now.
A few parting thoughts on the French Open ...
• NBC made a vital and refreshing decision on Sunday, showing extensive replays of the lunatic who stormed onto the court and ignited a small fire with his burning flare during the French Open men's final. It's customary for networks to ignore such intrusions, and NBC did so at the outset, but this was a serious matter -- combining real danger with an appalling breach of security -- that demanded public exposure.
• Tennis TV at its worst: Imagine trying to experience the Nadal-Djokovic semifinal match as a West Coast viewer. First, you needed to know that Tennis Channel had contractual rights to the first semifinal, that it started live at 4 a.m. PT, and if you set your DVR only for that four-hour window (and not the next show on the program), you missed most of the fifth set. As that four-hour time slot expired, Ted Robinson and John McEnroe mysteriously signed off the air, handing it over to Brett Haber and Justin Gimelstob, for it was time to hustle over to the NBC booth.
Big problem, though: It was 8 a.m., and NBC wasn't coming on until 11 a.m., thanks to its decision to air the Today show and tape-delay its West Coast coverage. If you stayed with Tennis Channel, you could at least see the finish. But if you woke up with the assumption that Nadal-Djokovic would be on NBC -- and why wouldn't you think that? -- you tuned in at 11 a.m. and saw Nadal signing autographs in his victory celebration. You'd get only the Jo-Wilfried Tsonga-David Ferrer match on NBC, and that was also a joke, because in real time, Ferrer already had a 4-1 lead in the third set.
It's never a good thing when networks air a major event at their own convenience, not the viewers', and it happens with frightening regularity in this sport.
• Can't say I've ever done this before while watching a tennis match: Hitting the mute button during all of the action between Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, then turning it back up for the commentary between points.
• Lamentable, but right in character: ESPN, which makes a big deal about its Grand Slam coverage, showed one point of the Nadal-Djokovic match on its final SportsCenter on Sunday night, 45 minutes into the show -- match point, of course. (Another point, Nadal's "tweener," made "Top Plays" at the 54-minute mark.)
• It's the shot nobody else can hit: Nadal's flat, cross-court backhand bullet from behind the baseline, often on the run, never while moving forward. "Where does he get the power?" McEnroe wondered, joining a cast of thousands. Nadal uncorked one of these for a winner in the tense, final game against Djokovic, putting his signature on a great match.
• I wish more young players would watch Serena's economical, relatively low service toss. It puts her right in rhythm with forward motion, cutting down the elements (such as wind) and allowing maximum power. The absurdly high toss runs rampant on the WTA Tour, turning players into statues as they wait for the ball to come down. How could this possibly be beneficial? And who coaches such a thing?
• And finally, thanks to the retired Roddick for this tweet, after the John Isner-Tommy Haas marathon: "Earth to tennis ... Please implement 5th-set breaker. Better drama. Easier to schedule for TV and the game has just become too physical."