Indian Wells, 1999. The blurs on one side of the court feature purple-pink-white beaded plaits, while a golden no-frills ponytail is about all you can see at the other end. The 17-year-old with the funky hairdo is showing off a masterful display of shotmaking and power in this final, but her competition, Steffi Graf, isn’t exactly a slouch the veteran champion of 106 titles is racing to the lobs, as forehands and serves rain down on her from the youngster’s precocious racquet.
As is the order of the universe at large, age gives way to youth, 3-6, 6-3, 5-7. Serena Williams jumps up and down on the spot before running to the net and acknowledging a player whose achievements were perhaps already in her line of sight. The Grand Slam chasm between them at that time was a vast 21, which would become 22 at the end of 1999, with the German’s final major at the French Open. Sixteen years on, the difference has been whittled down to three, after the American’s latest Australian Open trophy in 2015. The greatest-of-all-time (GOAT) debate, while much more fiercely argued when it is male tennis players in the fray, would do well to cast a glance WTA-side as well.
For all its talk of forehands, backhands and technique, tennis discussions very often get reduced to a numbers game. Talking about singles alone, Serena has a bunch of statistics boldly stating her case: six Australian Opens, two at Roland Garros, five on Wimbledon’s grass and six at Flushing Meadows. The Olympic gold is among her winnings, as are five trophies from the year-ending WTA championships. The first time she became World No 1 was on July 8, 2002, and February 18, 2013, marked her return to the pinnacle for the sixth time, a feat that made her the oldest top-ranked player in the history of the WTA. And, just consider this — among active players, both on the ATP and the WTA tours, she holds the maximum number of Slams when singles, doubles and mixed doubles are all taken into account, with the 34 in her corner putting her seventh on the all-time list.
The GOAT label, however, isn’t one to be bandied about lightly. Apart from Serena, the millennials who make up the women’s top ten at present aren’t even challenging for elbow room in the discussion. Those who dispute the Californian’s claim instead sermonise about heavyweights such as Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Margaret Court and the most unblemished of them all: Graf. A question mark can be raised against Court, who won only 11 out of her 24 Slams in the Open Era, and 12 out of the 24 in the then-hardly breached region of Australia, her home turf. Evert did win 18 singles Slams, but she also lost in 16 finals and has no Olympic medals to her name. Navratilova, meanwhile, lost in 14 finals on the way to her final tally of 18 singles Slams. The Olympic medal is missing from her resume as well, although her continued winning presence on tour at the age of 58, despite the doubles asterisk, is extremely commendable.
Stretching the lens further back, a group of pre-Open Era players match up to Serena on numbers alone. The 1920s featured American Helen Wills Moody and her nerves of steel; she would go on to win 19 singles Slams as well as a gold medal at the Olympics. Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly, also from the US, dropped only one set in the nine major finals she was in before the age of 20, but an unfortunate broken leg ended her career before she fulfilled her promise.
The Graf spectre, though, is never far from any GOAT discussion featuring Serena. With 22 singles Slams before injuries made her walk away at age 30, Fraulein Forehand will always inspire talk of her signature shot and extremely astute footwork, not to mention the fact that she had inarguably the greatest tennis season of all time by winning a Golden Slam — all four majors and the Seoul Olympic gold, in 1988. The champion herself has no doubt that Serena will top her tally someday. In a 2013 online interview with ESPN, Graf says, “Her body has been holding up quite well. She’s so strong and has such a powerful game. I can easily see her pass all of our records. I don’t see the competition catching up with her at all.”
Extend the discussion to beyond numbers, and, perhaps, the American gets a slight edge in other aspects. Her life isn’t consumed by tennis, and neither has she pretended it has ever been so. The present era of brand management and lightning-quick consumption has made the gift of the gab practically a requirement for an all-round champion, and Serena has played her part, as graceful competitor, as provocateur, as dissenter, but eventually as an eminently winsome personality. She has a long list of pop culture appearances in a range of TV shows, from The Simpsons to Keeping up With the Kardashians. She owns a designer label and has a signature line of handbags and jewellery. Along with sister Venus, she is part-owner of an NFL team, the Miami Dolphins. Her charity work extends from funding a school in Kenya to breast cancer campaigns and fundraising for the Haiti earthquake victims.
Serena’s insistence on getting her fix of extracurricular activities has been derided by some, who argue that it detracts from her focus on the craft she is known for, but the opposite view is just as legitimate: that her command of the Tour becomes all the more impressive in the light of her living-it-up existence. On the flipside, her would-be nonchalance is a pointer to the lack of quality in women’s tennis currently, which features far too many one-time wonders and undeserving world No 1s, compared to eras gone by.
Can Serena compare to the other, more prominent honorary GOAT of this era: Roger Federer? Their respective win-loss records stand at 692-120 and 1002-228 as of February 23, 2015, giving her a better win percentage. At 19, her singles Slam count is higher than the 17 that belong to Federer. In terms of weeks spent at No 1, Federer holds the record at 302, way ahead of Serena’s 229, with his ability to be more consistent health-wise being the reason for him racking up a greater match count. Compare the two on the basis of performances against their closest rivals, though, and Serena’s the one taking a victory lap. Her head-to-head against Maria Sharapova is 16-2, while Federer trails Rafael Nadal 10-23. The title count between the women is 65-34 in favour of Serena, while the difference between Federer and Nadal is a mere 19, at 83-64. The most revealing stat, though, is the Slam match-up; Serena’s dominance in this regard cannot be questioned, neither can her 6-1 lead over the Siberian. Meanwhile, it is the Spaniard who has proved his mettle on the big stage, with a 9-2 lead over his Swiss adversary. But, is this enough to give Serena the crown of the greatest player ever, regardless of gender? “I don’t know if it’s fair,” said Patrick McEnroe, in 2013. “But, it’s reality.”
The lady herself will have no talk along these lines, though. In an appearance on the The Late Show with David Letterman in 2013, the battle-of-the-sexes question is put forth and Serena leaves everyone in no doubt about where her thoughts on the matter lie. “Andy [Murray] has been joking with me and saying we should play a match, but I tell him, ‘Andy, are you kidding me?’ I feel that men’s tennis and women’s tennis are almost two completely different sports. If Andy and I were to play, he would beat me 6-0, 6-0 in five, six, maybe ten minutes. The men are a lot faster, they serve harder, they hit harder. I love to play women’s tennis. I only want to play girls.”
There have been unkind and offensive remarks on the physique of the Williams sisters, some that have made it to the mainstream media, but many unofficial circles, particularly on the internet, continue to speculate on the matter. Russian tennis chief Shamil Tarpischev was made to apologise after he referred to them as the “Williams brothers” and said they were “scary” to look at. Sexism is rampant in women’s sport, and tennis is not spared any punches. The Williams’ power game, with its screaming serves and crashing strokes, doesn’t tick any femininity boxes, but why should it? Just how much is “too much” till a woman athlete is deemed to be “like a man”?
An uglier element, and one with far more baggage, is the racism that the Williams family say they have endured. Richard Williams has gone on record to say that the racial comments of other parents made him stop sending Serena and Venus to junior tournaments when the former was 10 years old. At the 2001 edition of the event in Indian Wells, the same place Serena had beaten Graf two years previously, the clamours of “match-fixing” beat the family down. Venus pulled out of the semifinal against Serena, which gave rise to claims that Richard had told her to do so. He later added that there were several at the stadium who referred to him as “nigger”.
The boos and jeers continued while Serena played in the final against Kim Clijsters, and the proceedings so upset the sisters that they boycotted the tournament from the next year on. In a 2015 announcement, however, Serena announced her return to Indian Wells, saying she had grown as a person and a player and led herself to heal the hurt she had felt that day.
In fact, Serena says, she has surprised herself. “I really, really didn’t expect to win. I didn’t expect to be here this long. I was walking down the hall yesterday and I was thinking, wow, I’m still in the tournament. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to the final here or the semifinal. It’s been a long time coming. I was just really, really elated to have an opportunity to walk out on the final match,” she told reporters in her post-match interview after defeating Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final.
A dream and a racquet. That’s the champion’s modest summation of all the armoury she had at her disposal as a scrawny under-10, looking up in awe at the bigger kids around her wielding their racquets. Serena, at 33, isn’t quite done yet, and it’ll be a while before she is in the “former player” bracket. She rolls her eyes every time “Steffi’s 22” is put to her in an interview, but you know she wants it. The GOAT question will always follow every feat of hers, and why should that be a bad thing?