Serena as the GOAT? Depends

Serena Williams has won so many big prizes and played tennis at such an exceptionally high level that GOAT questions arise whenever she is close to adding another major title.  I recently, tried to clarify some of the issues surrounding the men’s GOAT debate by offering three lenses for viewing the problem.  I think these categories are also helpful for assessing Serena’s GOAT standing.  Here they are in case you don’t want to click and read that post:

  1. Who is the most decorated player ever?
  2. Who posted the most consistent results over a long period of time?
  3. Who played tennis at the highest level?

No, No and Yes

That is the short way I would answer the GOAT questions if they are posed about Serena Williams.  Here is a longer breakdown:

Graf is the most decorated of the Open Era

In terms of Serena’s accomplishments, she is in the top 5.  Margaret Court has 24 major singles titles, Steffi Graf has 22, Martina Navratilova has 18, Chris Evert has 18 and Serena has 16.  In terms of who is most decorated, Serena is in the mix and still an active player contending for majors whereas the 4 players ahead of her are retired.  Also, Serena has 4 Olympic gold medals (3 in doubles and 1 in singles).  Steffi is the only player ahead of her in slams whose career coincided in any serious manner with the era of Olympic tennis.  Steffi has 1 gold in singles, 1 silver in singles, and 1 bronze in doubles (plus a gold in the 1984 demonstration sport).  Serena has more and better medals overall, but in singles Steffi has a gold and silver so Serena is not gaining a great deal in this category. Court won 13 of her 24 majors against amateurs before the Open Era so Steffi’s 22 seems like the benchmark for me.  Serena is likely to catch and pass Navratilova and Evert’s mark of 18 majors and she has a shot at Steffi’s 22.  She’s not the GOAT yet in this category, but I would not count her out of becoming the most decorated player in women’s history.

Martina and others had fewer lapses in their careers

Consistency is the area where Serena is most hurt.  She has had stages of her career in which her ranking dropped and has had other stages in which she did not play terribly often even if not suffering from a major injury.  Even 2013, an incredibly consistent year across the board for Serena, has seen her results not be as strong at the slams as was typical of say Graf in her heyday.  Serena won the French Open and is in the US Open final, but lost in the Australian Open quarterfinal round and the round of 16 at Wimbledon.  Graf reached every Grand Slam final from the 1987 French Open through the 1990 French Open.  Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert could be penciled into the final four of many slams. The depth on the WTA is greater today, but the number of players who were willing to try to dominate the tour was higher in the past.  Evert, Navratilova, Graf, and Seles were all willing to try to be a dominant #1. Serena has done that at times, but even she went through phases where dominating the tour was not a priority.  Venus and Henin dominated the tour for patches during Serena’s career, but for how long?

“A winner from the back court! You don’t see that very often.” Uh …


In terms of level of play, Serena is likely playing tennis at a level that players from previous eras did not reach.  We can enter into fun thought experiments about what Graf’s game would have been like with polyester strings or how Martina would have played in today’s game if she came up with a more powerful racquet but on a tour where passing shots are more deadly.  Without adjusting players’ games from the recent past, Serena would win under most circumstances.  If one goes beyond the recent past, the hypothetical matches become more one-sided.  The CBS rain delay broadcast of famous tie-breaks from the US Open had announcers clamoring that Tracy Austin hitting a forehand winner from the baseline was rare.  If one did not beef up Tracy Austin’s serve and overall power, the tennis she played to win the US Open twice would simply be blown off the court by today’s top players.  Serena gets the GOAT vote for playing tennis at a level higher than others attained.

Where I would Rank Serena

Serena hitting great shots

Taking all of these three factors into account, I think Serena ranks ahead of Monica Seles.  I also think the entire tragedy surrounding Seles’ stabbing has to be taken into account, but I am not sure how that would work.  I think Serena has a pretty big lead over Chris Evert in terms of the level of tennis each achieved.  So I would rank the women’s GOAT contenders as

1.  Steffi Graf

2.  Martina Navratilova

3.  Serena Williams

4. Chris Evert

5. Monica Seles.

If Serena keeps winning, I think she can close the gap enough in terms of overall decoration, shore up her weakness of inconsistency over the years and extend her lead on highest level of play to make a case to be #1. I would be surprised if she does not pass Martina and move into the 2nd slot even if her results are scattered before she retires.  Serena to me will end up either first or second in the GOAT debates.  That is not a bad place to be and neither is the 3rd slot I see her occupying at the moment.


One Comment Add yours

  1. jane says:

    i’d even rank chris evert ahead of serena.

    but definitely martina and steffi – no contest.

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