She has the complete package

Serena’s 17th major at this year’s U.S. Open, where she dropped just 16 games in six matches before the final, was further evidence that weeks short of her 32nd birthday she is more formidable than ever, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Had Serena Williams walked away from tennis in 2010, when she cut her feet on glass and suffered life-threatening blood clots, or in 2012, when she imploded in the first round at Roland Garros, she would still have left behind a considerable legacy.

She would have been celebrated in farewell banquets for rising from poverty and conquering racial prejudice. She would have been remembered by fans of the game as a great, sometimes gracious, sometimes petulant, champion who when she really wanted it was unbeatable; only she didn’t seem to want it all the time. Her 13 Grand Slam titles will have appeared about right — despite the distractions, she was easily the best of her generation, just not the greatest ever.

But what Serena has done over the last year and a bit has forced a revision of her legacy. She ended 2012 with a cold, crushing authority: she won her fifth Wimbledon, her first Olympic singles gold, her fourth U.S. Open, and her third season-ending championship. She was especially dominant at the Olympics, giving up a mere four games in beating Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.

She had two shock defeats in the majors in 2013, to Sloane Stephens in Australia and Sabine Lisicki in Wimbledon. But she won the one she craved — her second Roland Garros crown in 12 attempts. In terms of legacy building, the triumph in Paris and the season on clay that had preceded it were as significant as the second half of 2012.

Although she completed the Career Grand Slam at 21, she had done little through the years to dispel the suspicion that she was vulnerable on clay. But this year, she went unbeaten on dirt, looking every bit as masterful as she often does on faster surfaces; if anything, she was more impressive, for clay allowed her to show off her ability to patiently work a rally, to defend, to drop shot, to grind. This isn’t to suggest her power was dulled — while the clay absorbed some of it, there was enough to go around.

Serena’s 17th major at this year’s U.S. Open, where she dropped just 16 games in six matches before the final, was further evidence that weeks short of her 32nd birthday she is more formidable than ever. There was a sense of her career coming full circle: Flushing Meadows was where it all began in 1999 when a 17-year-old Serena defeated Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martinez, Mary Pierce, Lindsay Davenport, and Martina Hingis en route to her first major. The final against Azarenka, a rematch of last year’s title clash, had Serena doing what she does best. Against an opponent eight years her junior and nearly as steely-willed, Serena fought the gusts of wind, reorganised her technique, calmed her mind, and recruited her best at the crunch.

Including her fifth U.S. Open crown, Serena has won four of the last six Grand Slams. Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou, who she hired as coach after the Paris defeat, has played a part in the turnaround, which has seen Serena run up a 98-5 win-loss record. “She asked me what I thought about her game,” said Mouratoglou. “The first thing that I told her was that she was hitting the shots being out of balance. She was missing power because of that. So, that was a priority. She said, ‘Ok, I want to work on it.’”

Work began and Mouratoglou found that Serena “really wanted it”. “She’s working like she's 19 years old and wants to win her first Grand Slam. How many players, being 32 (sic), have the same appetite, especially after winning so many Grand Slams? Serena is really different mentally,” he said. Serena has used the pain of defeat as motivation before — rivals are most wary when she is hurting from a loss — but to do it in her 30s, after being written off, is to stand apart even from the elite.

No surprise then that she is increasingly being considered the greatest female player of all time. Chris Evert, who has questioned Serena’s commitment on previous occasions, said, “She doesn’t have the greatest record, Margaret Court does, Steffi Graf has a better record, and Serena’s the first to admit that. But nobody has had a game like Serena’s. Nobody has had the power and the shots and the serve and the complete package that she has so she’s the best tennis player.” Billie Jean King and Azarenka agreed, as in the past have John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova.

Is it true though? Several have made the case that qualitatively she has been the best ever for a long time. Evert’s comments are the essence of the qualitative argument. But with advancements in racquet and string technology, in nutrition, training and recovery, there isn’t an even field for comparison. Assuming each of them at their peaks, on any surface, it’s impossible to imagine Evert or Graf beating Serena from the backcourt or for that matter Court or Navratilova doing it from the net; but fascinating as the exercise is, is it relevant?

There hasn’t been a serve-and-volleyer to rival Court, King or Navratilova, but would they have played this way had they been born and coached in this era? Or would Graf have been allowed the luxury of developing the backhand slice as a staple on the higher-bouncing hard-courts of the present day? Tennis from 15 years ago seems vastly slower, so what of Helen Wills Moody, unbeatable in the 1920s and ‘30s?

A statistical comparison of the greats of each era appears less arbitrary than a qualitative one. Few will quibble with the following parameters: majors won for a sense of overall success, the percentage of major finals won for an indication of big-match nerve, career win-loss records for an estimate of consistency over time, and head-to-head records against the best of their time for an idea of supremacy.

There are a couple of complications. There’s the issue of depth in quality — was it thicker at the top but thinner thereafter between the 1960s and the 1990s compared to now? Did the greats find it easier to make the final stages back then, but once there discover the contenders more evenly matched than today? Then there’s the question of peaks — for instance, does a Navratilova victory over Graf in 1986, when the German had yet to break through, count for less than one later? And given their 12-year age difference, what does a 9-9 head-to-head record indicate?

But from accounts of the time, read with the understanding that there are no definitive answers, these matters can be resolved — not to everyone’s approval, but well enough to satisfy the high standards of this magazine. The parameters (see Statistics) sift Court, Graf, Wills Moody, Evert, Navratilova, and Serena from the rest.

There hasn’t been a statistically more dominant tennis player than Wills Moody, who won 19 of the 22 Grand Slams she was healthy to play in; she defaulted on two other occasions because of an appendectomy. She also won a singles Olympic gold. But she played at a time when the women’s game hadn’t much competitive depth: Suzanne Lenglen, who had ruled the previous generation, beat the 20-year-old in a tight match at Cannes and on her father’s advice avoided Wills Moody thereafter. Given how much more difficult it has become to win majors, it’s tough putting Wills Moody at the top; but her exceptional record demands she be asterisked in.

Court has a lot going for her — more Grand Slams than anyone, the second-best record in major finals, the best career win percentage. She had a 22-10 record against her closest rival, Billie Jean King, and winning records against nearly everyone else except a very young Evert. What goes against her is the fact that 11 of her 24 majors came in Australia at a time when most top players didn’t make the trip there. Her performance at Wimbledon, the premier Grand Slam, isn’t as stellar as the others’: although she nearly always made at least the quarterfinals, she won it only thrice.

Many in the tennis community consider Graf the greatest ever because she is the only player to win each of majors at least four times — her 22 titles are seen as more legitimate than Court’s 24. Her record in finals isn’t as good as Wills Moody, Court or Serena’s, but it’s still a creditable 71 per cent. Graf moreover hasn’t a losing head-to-head record against any Grand Slam champion.

The only reservation to Graf being acknowledged as the best of all time is what befell the rival who had threatened to eclipse her. When Monica Seles was stabbed in early 1993, she had won seven of the nine previous Grand Slams. Graf won the other two. Seles had Graf’s measure and a clear mental edge: after three defeats as a 16 year-old, she won four of the next seven matches — pertinently, three of four major finals

At that point, Graf had 11 Grand Slam titles, Seles eight. Had the stabbing not happened, Graf at the very least will have had to share championships with Seles, like Navratilova and Evert did. Navratilova edged the rivalry 43-37, fighting back after being dominated early in their series. Evert reached 34 major finals, Navratilova 32. But because they so often cancelled the other out, they both ended up with only 18 majors. Their rivalry can claim to be the greatest of all time, but it cost them, Evert more than Navratilova, the individual claim.

Navratilova, had she retired at close to her peak at age 31 in 1987, would have ended with 17 majors (26 finals), with winning records against Evert and Graf. In choosing to play on, she showed she could compete on level terms with the next generation, but it dimmed the aura of invincibility that surrounded her between 1982 and 1987.

It’s in this regard that Serena really shines. She ticks all the other boxes — she isn’t significantly short of the Grand Slam record, she closes out big finals, and over a 14-year span she has bettered every other rival and subjected most of them. She mightn’t have had a long stretch of concentrated control, but it was because she didn’t commit to a full calendar. But remarkably she’s doing it now — in terms of majors won after 30 she has no equal. Graf played just the one before retiring, losing a Wimbledon final to Davenport; Evert won two of 16; Navratilova three of 19.

Court comes closest, with three in eight and she did this after a break for having a child. Serena, with four and no signs that it will stop anytime soon, is making up for the time lost when she was younger. There hasn’t been a greater player in the game’s history.