Roundtable: Taking stock of Serena Williams on her 30th birthday

Publish date:

1. Is Serena Williams the best women's player of all time?

S.L. Price: Nope. Yes, she's great, the most dominant player of her age, with probably the best serve of all time. But her dominance has come in a weak age, and is complicated by the fact that her chief rival -- whom she beat in six of her 13 major finals -- was her unquestionably formidable, yet unquestionably related, sister Venus. More important, though, is the question of greatness itself.

For me, you've got to be great at a sustained level for a long time, not just dominant when you are fit and able to play. The sport's history is rife with on-their-best-day players -- ask any oldster about Lew Hoad in his healthy prime -- so I give the nod to Steffi Graf, who won each major at least four times, completed a Golden Grand Slam in 1988 and finished with 22 major singles titles. Tennis is the one sport that, because of so many historical factors that discount the tyranny of mere numbers, should and does allow for such a subjective view of "The Greatest"; after all, some believe that Pancho Gonzalez, with just two major titles to his name, was the best ever. But I'll go with Graf.

Jon Wertheim: Most accomplished? No. Even accounting for the increased depth of the field, the doubles success and the Olympic gold, etc., it's hard to make an empirical case that Serena's career accomplishments surpass those of Graf, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. (Though we should note that Serena is still going strong here: She's won 13 majors -- spanning more than a decade -- and I suspect still has more winning in her.)

Best? Here's where I think there's at least a conversation to be had. Qualitatively, I maintain that no female player has performed at a higher level. Optional homework: Spark up YouTube. Then watch some of Serena's matches. Then watch some of the other candidates play. It's like comparing Albert Pujols to Rogers Hornsby, Tiger Woods to Sam Snead. It's barely the same sport. This will sound sacrilegious and is not meant to diminish the other candidates, but -- even accounting for everything from technology to training and more Gatorade flavors -- I firmly believe that Serena would beat any comers head-to-head. Surely that counts for something.

Classic photos of Serena and Venus Williams

Bruce Jenkins: There's no question that in a mythical tournament, each player in her prime, Serena could beat anyone who ever lived. But we deal here in reality, and I rate her No. 5 at best. Graf won 22 majors to Serena's 13, she was just as fearsome to the opposition in her day, she was superior as an all-surface player (six French Open titles to Serena's one) and she was a better athlete. Navratilova won 18 majors and had an infinitely superior all-around game. Evert (18) competed just as hard as Serena, and with more class. I also give a nod to Billie Jean King (12 majors, plus 27 more in doubles) for athleticism, impact and for basically inventing the women's pro tour. All four of them had the benefit of stiffer competition than what Serena has faced over the years, and all of them devoted their lives 100 percent to tennis. It's too bad we didn't see more of Serena, on the biggest stages, against the likes of Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova. But she still has time to improve her historical standing.

Richard Deitsch: I wish you had asked me an easier question, like who was the best James Bond (Sean Connery, of course). For me, there's only three candidates for the top spot: Graf, Navratilova and Serena. Each has an argument: Steffi won the most majors (22) among the three, Martina owns the career titles mark (122) and Serena has the best single stroke (her serve) and has dominated the best depth of competition. One big metric that favors Martina and Steffi is end-of-the-year finishes, which reflects sustained dominance. Graf finished the year No. 1 eight times, Navratilova seven. Serena finished the year as the world's best only two times: 2002 and '09. I know my pal Bruce Jenkins and others argue that the era of Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati, Gabriela Sabatini and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario is better than the 2000s lot, but Serena has had to defeat much better players in early rounds than Graf and Navratilova, and I'd argue that Henin, Hingis and Clijsters were tougher foes than Steffi's crew. In the end, I think I put Graf at No. 1 and Martina and Serena as 1A. But if all three played head-to-head in their prime, I think all could win, depending on the surface and the day.

Courtney Nguyen: Is Serena the best woman to ever pick up a racket and play tennis? I'd say yes if you were to base it purely on her level of play. Her power combined with her movement can't be matched historically. But that's not typically how these questions are measured. To be at the top you have to consistently prove you're the best in your era, and that's measured by Slam wins. She's still fourth in the Open era with 13 major titles, behind Graf, Evert and Navratilova.

Bryan Armen Graham: The three greatest women's players of all time are (in reverse chronological order): Serena, Graf and Navratilova. The problems inherent to comparing greatness across eras make it impossible to place one ahead of the other two. I don't know if there's ever been a player better than Serena, but a prime Steffi and/or Martina are no worse than her equal.

2. What's the most impressive part of her game?

Price: Her serve, her ability to round into form after such long absences, her competitive zeal.

Wertheim: To me, it's mental. Sure, there are occasional lapses, not least her most recent match. But overall, I can't recall an athlete (never mind a tennis player) who consistently competes at her level, ritually bringing out her best at the most critical junctures, fighting through rough patches and (cliché alert) simply refusing to lose. If tennis had better metrics, we'd be able to furnish an actual number. But anecdotally, how many times have we seen Serena trail in a set and then -- as if simply toggling a switch -- dial in her strokes, take advantage of some jitters across the net, come back and then close out the match? There are players who serve just as hard, hit forehands and backhands, as well, run just as fast. No one competes like she does. Not even close.

Jenkins: Serena has the best first serve the game has ever seen, her groundstrokes rank with the very best, and without needing to speak a word, she carries an element of intimidation that defeats many opponents before they even take the court. I find her movement nothing short of astonishing, considering that she's gained a considerable bit of weight over the years. She's done whatever it takes to stay on top.

Deitsch: The most impressive part of Serena's game is her steel to win. No player in my lifetime has been better at channeling her best when the moment calls for it. Obviously, in terms of strokes, she has the best first serve in the history of the game. Like Graf and Navratilova, she has a pathological disgust for losing.

Nguyen: Her ability to flip a switch seemingly at any time. Her will to win is legendary -- whether it's fighting off debilitating cramps to defeat Daniela Hantuchova at Wimbledon in 2007, or winning the Australian Open that same year despite coming in unseeded and out of shape. How many times have we seen her struggle through a match only to almost "decide" she wants to win and kick her game up another level? In a non-contact sport, Serena seems to have the ability to break her opponents' will. It never ceases to amaze me.

Graham: Mental toughness and intimidation are central to her legacy, but Serena's accurate, overpowering first serve (128 mph at last year's French Open!) and weapons-grade forehand are nothing to scoff at. When it's all clicking, Serena can seem unbeatable.

3. How much longer will she play, and how many more Grand Slams can she win?

Price: I see Serena going another two years, and winning -- at most -- three more Slam titles. Time, and the attendant injuries, will make each comeback harder and tougher to pull off. Ask Henin and Clijsters.

Wertheim: The Williams family -- Serena, particularly -- has mocked conventional tennis thinking and tested our capacity for surprise. She could retire tomorrow to open a karaoke bar and it wouldn't be shocking. She could play (and win) into her late-30s and it wouldn't be shocking either. The guess here is that a) she plays at least three or four more years and b) will win a few more big prizes. She may be 30, but she doesn't have 30 years' worth of tennis mileage on her, not with her scheduling, her various injury breaks and her relatively scant travel. While she may lose a step, her power shows no sign of diminishing. And did you catch the remarks of her opponents in New York? Playing against her is "painful." Yes, more than a full decade into this gig, Serena still holds a psychological edge over the field. Why retire?

The biggest factor in her longevity is, of course, motivation. While Serena has always had "outside interests," she has also reached the inevitable conclusion that, while she might enjoy acting/designing/Portuguese, her true talent is hitting a yellow ball over the net with more force and accuracy than any other woman on the planet. And that, finally, is the engine the drives everything else.

Jenkins: Before Venus went public with her illness, the sisters were talking about riding into the sunset together, at some undetermined time. Now that Venus' future is so much in doubt, Serena will take her own path -- and as much as she loves the celebrity lifestyle, she gets the Hollywood treatment because of her tennis. I think she loves the game more than many suspect. I see her playing three more years, but sporadically, and winning five more Slams.

Deitsch: I think Serena plays three more years and wins three more Slams, giving her a final total of 16.

Nguyen: This is always a dangerous question with Serena, because who would have thought she and her sister would be playing past 30 in the first place? But they manage their schedules well (much to the chagrin of the WTA) and they gear up for the Slams and nothing else. I could see her playing through two more Olympics and winning three more Slams. Her serve will always make her a favorite at Wimbledon if she's healthy, and it will still take a monumental effort from the field to stop her at the other Slams. Lest people forget, Serena was untouchable at the U.S. Open until the final, and had Samantha Stosur played even a tick below her form from that night, Serena very well could have been the champion. All that is to say that at 30, she's still capable of playing at a dominant level for a sustained amount of time. The only question is whether she wants to. I was disappointed to see her withdraw from Tokyo and possibly Beijing. It would have been a tremendous statement to tear through the Asian/Europe swing and qualify for the Year-End-Championships. But who am I to question her scheduling decisions? It's worked for her so far.

Graham: Serena will play at least another five years and win three (or more) majors. Yes, she's 30, but she's averaged around only nine tournaments per season and the lack of mileage will pay off as she nears the end of her career -- ultimate validation for a limited scheduling policy that drew criticism for years.

4. Has she tarnished her legacy and public perception with high-profile outbursts?

Price: Sure. But so did John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pancho Gonzalez, Andre Agassi and countless others. The fact is, tennis is a stunningly forgiving sport, secretly in love with its misbehaving children, its appalling rogues; how else to explain Johnny Mac's evolution into the sport's avuncular gramps? Also, it's clear that Roger Federer's sometimes off-putting arrogance is part of the formula that makes him special; something about tennis allows a player's worst qualities to be a key part of what makes him or her great. Those outbursts are the flip side of the competitive fire that we all find so compelling and admirable, and I suspect that she could never have one without the other.

Wertheim: Yes, sadly. And even more sadly, I don't think Serena realizes the damage she's done. She's not quite Barry Bonds, but she also doesn't enjoy the respect and affection accorded her big sister who, of course, doesn't have nearly as impressive a tennis résumé. A player of her background and achievements should not be polarizing; she should be universally revered. And this, obviously, isn't the case. We can point fingers and ask unpleasant questions, but even Serena's most ardent fans admit that she can be her own worst enemy here. For better or worse, in tennis -- as in most sports -- history/legacy takes personality and "good of the game" contributions into account. This works to the benefit of some and the detriment of others. And Serena will probably pay a price for her outbursts, her mistreatment of her fans, her off-putting behavior.

On the other hand, I see Serena as precisely the type of player whose legacy will grow in retirement. Hers is a remarkable narrative, and with some detachment and time, it's easy to see this becoming a real sports legend. In X years, what will endure? A fit of pique against an official? A dubious withdrawal from a tournament? An ungracious remark? Or a family from Compton, Calif., that came to rule tennis? Also, in tennis, there is vast potential for image rehabilitation that can extend well into retirement (see: McEnroe, John). Given how smart and personable Serena can be when willing, she could very well win back fans for many years to come.

Jenkins: Without question. Just when it seemed her reputation might be cleared, she stepped right back into the gutter at the U.S. Open. Maybe I'm in the minority, but I think she was right on the two incidents that tarnish her name. You don't call a foot fault in that situation (the '09 Open), and you play a let on that crucial point against Stosur. But that's no excuse for Serena's response. Would there have been less commotion over her verbal assaults if she were a man, and especially a white man? Absolutely. Andy Roddick has made a career of vicious, inappropriate remarks to chair umpires. But the fact remains that Serena has done great damage to her legacy. Mention her right now, at season's end, and a typical fan's reaction would be disgust.

Deitsch: Yes, but it doesn't transcend her tennis. Serena can be a bully and at times she's been given a free ride by a Tour that needs her more than she needs it. Her actions at her last two U.S. Opens are a part of her story -- and a deplorable one -- and people will factor it in when they judge her career. I think "tarnished" is too strong a word. She'll always be able to sell her name in the marketplace and tennis fans will also recognize her achievements. But the bad behavior is a part of her history.

Nguyen: Absolutely. In the age of YouTube, it's impossible to ignore the fact that casual tennis fans (or the public at large) have been inundated with videos of Serena's outbursts. For every video showing her lifting a trophy, there is another one of her shaking a racket at an umpire. That's her public image now. On one hand, it's completely unfair to Serena, who for years was an outstanding citizen when it came to her on-court behavior. People don't remember the number of times she's been wronged on the court, whether it be in the infamous Capriati match or "The Hand" incident against Henin. Instead, she's now known as the hot-headed bully who has no problem threatening and insulting umpires.

On the other hand, Serena should know better. While these types of outbursts may be forgivable at the beginning of her career, chalked up to immaturity, fans are less understanding now. That said, if she keeps playing, she'll have some time to fix these image problems. As we've seen in other sports, winning makes people forgive and forget pretty darn quick.

Graham: "I'm, like, drama. And I don't want to be drama," Williams said at Roland Garros in 2009. "I'm like one of those girls on a reality show that has all the drama, and everyone in the house hates them because no matter what they do, like, drama follows them. I don't want to be that girl." Do the outbursts undercut her public perception? Probably, but it's what makes Serena Serena. Besides, didn't we laud McEnroe and Connors for similarly churlish behavior?

5. What are her most notable overall contributions and hindrances to the game of tennis?

Price: In one sense, Serena has been the anchor of quality of an otherwise lackluster age. She's also been a trail blazer for African-American talent -- and, remember, she and her sister arrived in the wake of Capriati's burnout; the two of them brought a wide-ranging interest in the world to the Tour, and the idea that a woman could and should indulge interests outside the game to stay psychologically healthy. Her refusal to play in South Carolina during the 2000 Confederate flag flap showed that the activist tennis player wasn't a dead idea. Her behavior? At times: egregious. But overall, she's proved to be a great asset to the sport.

Wertheim: Hindrance? What's a hindrance, anyway? It's hard for me to say that Serena has "hindered" tennis in any way. Is she the epitome of sportsmanship? No. Are there other players, starting with Venus, I'd prefer for my young daughter to emulate? Yes. But let's step back here and reflect on this remarkable story. Here's an athlete from an unlikely background who's brought a new level of athleticism and power and speed to tennis. She's played on her terms, a model of independence, causing many to question tennis conventional wisdom. While her contemporaries have quit or burned out, she's been at the top for more than a decade. She's brought color and passion and celebrity and complexity and controversy and relevance. Inasmuch as she still splinters public opinion, at least people care. One shudders to think about the state of the women's game, especially in the U.S., when she departs. That says a lot about her contributions. She just turned 30. Here's to many more.

Jenkins: Like Venus, Serena does a lot of work behind the scenes without asking for any credit. She has spread the good word of tennis worldwide, working with kids and trying to get more young African-American players involved. In that sense, she is a role model to more people than a lot of her critics could imagine. I also think she's an infinitely nicer person, deep down, than some of her on-court displays would indicate. Then again, she's Serena, a person for whom there is no clear-cut identity. By ignoring so many lesser tournaments, and withdrawing from countless more, she sets an appalling example to players on the way up. She gives the distinct impression that she can call her own shots, and there's not a thing anyone -- the Tour, the fans, the media, the tournament directors -- can do about it. I guess it's kind of cool, if you're Serena. Under the public microscope, not so much.

Deitsch: Her impact is undeniable, from her race to her style to the story of how she and Venus shunned the traditional junior tournament route to become champions. She redefined the dominance of the power player and brought new people into the sport. There are those who will argue that had she competed more and been more focused on tennis, she would have easily been the greatest of all time. Impossible to answer, and I'm a fan of choosing your own path for your athletic career. Her demeanor on the court at times -- and the Tour's failure to corral it -- is part of her legacy and not for the better. Still, we're talking about an all-timer here, and someone who will never be forgotten in the sport.

Nguyen: Serena changed the sport. Along with her sister, she brought a new level of athleticism and intensity. She didn't just kick it up a notch; she elevated it to another stratosphere, and the rest of the field has been left trying to keep up. In doing so, those other players stressed their bodies and their minds and yet no one has been able to truly match her level over the long haul.

Graham: Tactically, Serena (and Venus) raised the bar from an athleticism standpoint, upping the attacking ante without compromising defensive play. On a larger scale, the Williamses' contribution is obvious: They built on the progress made by Althea Gibson, Zina Garrison and others to show that minorities can not only play tennis but also succeed at the highest levels (while demonstrating a proven alternative to the traditional academy route).