Roundtable: Taking stock of Serena Williams on her 30th birthday
Serena Williams ranks with Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova in the GOAT debate
Her first serve is the best the game has ever seen and her will to win is unrivaled
With sister Venus, Serena has elevated the women's game to its highest levels
Serena Williams celebrates her 30th birthday on Monday, so we asked SI.com's tennis writers to assess her career and contributions to the sport.
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.
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.
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