Graf-esque (esque and fjord need more uses)
Samantha Stosur put together a comprehensive win against the most dominant female player since the Graf-Seles Era. She did it by hitting big forehands and serves, moving well, being fit, and slicing her backhand. Sound like anyone else? Sure Sam can hit a two handed topspin drive, but she sliced the ball a lot to keep it low and take pace off of the ball in a match between arguably the two most powerful players in women’s tennis. However, her game had a Steffi Graf flavor to it versus Serena Williams in her 6-2, 6-3 victory.
GOAT – Wertheim 15 Months Later
I will make it clear that Jon Wertheim is my favorite current tennis writer and his work on a weekly basis is a great service to tennis fans. He correctly divides any GOAT debate into two separate but related questions regarding qualitative and quantitative results. Wertheim admitted that Serena trailed many players in accomplishments, but that Serena was qualitatively the GOAT for women’s tennis.
I think the qualitative argument can be made about any solid number 1 in the men’s game. One would have to update for advances in off court training, sports medicine, and equipment to allow champions from the past to compete with today’s top players. Is the same true for Serena Williams?
To Be Blunt – No
Serena Williams is one of the top tier female players of all-time. However, quantitatively she still trails Graf, Navratilova, Evert and Court. If doubles gets a serious nod, Serena gains some on Graf and Evert, but she falls further behind Navratilova, Court and King. Still, the qualitative argument runs into a problem when one considers how Sam Stosur beat Serena Williams.
If Stosur could defeat Serena with clutch serving, a big forehand, good movement, strong fitness and a slice backhand, couldn’t Steffi Graf in her prime execute that same strategy versus Serena Williams? It might take Steffi some time to adjust to Serena’s power, but Steffi had Olympic sprinter speed during her prime. Steffi also developed a strong serve after her 1987 Wimbledon final loss to Navratilova. Steffi was mentally tougher during her prime than any player Serena currently faces in women’s tennis. That adds up in my mind to Steffi being able to play a higher level of qualitative tennis than Serena Williams has reached.
Counter Factual Time – An Updated Graf
Even if Steffi Graf without any updating likely played at a level better than Serena, what would Steffi’s game look like if she played now? If Steffi Graf’s knees and thumb were given today’s advances in surgical techniques and physical therapy, she likely would have maintained her top speed and stamina deeper into her career. If Steffi had today’s strings, her slice backhand might be used less often as generating topspin would be easier. Mixing up her backhand spins would make the famous Steffi-slice more effective as a player could not bank on seeing it 95% of the time. Finally, Steffi’s serve and forehand would benefit from today’s major string advances and modest racket advances. All in all, Steffi with today’s technology would be a dominating number 1 because of her skill set, her athleticism and her dedication to tennis. Steffi would not take breaks in her focus and that would allow for her to put up similar numbers to those she put up in the 80′s and 90′s. This is no slight to Serena who is a legitimate top pantheon champion in tennis history, but Steffi Graf is the GOAT unless doubles gets serious consideration.
Post Script – Stosur Going Forward
I am hesitant to predict big things for Stosur because many first time slam winners in the women’s game look poised to be consistent performers on tour only to fade back into the pack for one reason or another. However, Stosur is fit and strong. She is not super young at 27, but aside from Serena, is there a power player who moves or serves as well as Stosur? Her biggest drawback has been mental toughness. This is a big IF in my mind, but if Stosur plays with fewer nerves than she did prior to winning a major, she can win several more slams. I think Stosur is the favorite at next year’s French Open and should be among the favorites at the other three slams in 2012. Stosur should win at least one slam in 2012 so long as success reduces her nerves while not causing her to lose motivation.