In honor of her 30th birthday, SI.com asked its formidable stable of tennis writers to assess the career and the legacy of Serena William, which is extremely difficult to judge, far more so than her predecessors. On one hand Serena has been near or at the top of the women’s game since 1999. She has won 13 major titles, which puts her the 4th most successful women’s champion in the Open Era and 6th all time. Even when Serena’s ranking plummeted, everyone knew she was the best, and those pretenders (Sharapova, Henin, Clijsters) benefited more from Serena’s poor form than from their own superiority. The last time that Serena actually was not the best player in the world–never mind the rankings–was a decade ago when her sister Venus was.
Nevertheless, for all her accomplishments, Serena is something of an underachiever. The truth is that Serena could have done so much more. (One once could have made the same charge against Venus, but having found out that she was plagued by an undiagnosed chronic illness for the past half decade or so, her decline makes more sense now. If anything, she overachieved.) In the era of the so-called Big Babes, Serena was the strongest, fastest, and most athletic Big Babe of all. Her serve is one of the game’s best ever if not the best, and her mental tenacity is rivaled only by Graf and Navratilova.
Serena is unquestionably the best of her era. Also unquestionable is that each era is better than all preceding ones it if only because success builds upon itself and athletic training only gets more advanced. Following that logic, yes Serena is the greatest to ever play the game. However, most of the SI writers do not use that logic. Nor do the fans who argue about such things. In truth, that’s how it should be because players from previous eras should not be penalized for being older. The true standard is the way an athlete dominates her or his own era, and this is why Serena has underachieved. Compare her to Graf and Navratilova who absolutely dominated their respective eras, and we see what Serena could have done. (Having said that, it boggles my mind that anyone believes that this is a lesser era in terms of tennis talent. As though the days of tennis when only two women dominated the entire field is shows greater player depth. I’m looking at you, Bruce Jenkins. You should know better.) Because Serena could have accomplished so much more on the court than she did, the majority of SI’s writers hesitate to put her above either Graf or Navratilova.
I think that is a fair assessment. Serena at her best is second to no one, but Serena is not often at her best, distracted by outside interests, most infamously an acting career. The same cannot be said for the other greats of the women’s game, which is why they accomplished so much more. What is remarkable is that even as a potential underachiever Serena is still among the most accomplished women of all time, just behind Court, Graf, Wills, Navratilova, and Evert. On the flip side, I cannot imagine any other woman in history being as distracted as Serena and still accomplishing as much. It is a testament to her talent, skill, and athleticism. It’s why in tennis history she is sui generis.