Serena Williams once was asked if there was any player out there whom she feared.
“Yeh,” she said, “Roger Federer.”
We are talking about a tennis superpower here. Gifted, fiery, relentless and justly self-confident. For years — and especially now with Williams’ stated intention of riding off into the sunset after this month’s U.S. Open — the question (albeit hypothetical) regards Williams’ possible status as the greatest tennis player in history. Without necessarily including the “female” qualifier.
It is a sports cliché to traffic in such definitive statements, a fool’s errand to compare eras, especially in what might be the sport most transformed over the decades because of advanced off-court training and revolutionary equipment. (Baseball, for instance, has stuck with wooden bats. Not tennis.)
So it’s all conjecture. But Williams’ 23 titles in Grand Slam events are more than any male player can claim. Rafael Nadal has 22, Novak Djokovic 21, Federer 20. And while the record is 24 by Australian Margaret Court, that total includes 11 wins at Court’s home Slam during a time when top American and European players regularly skipped the grueling trip to Melbourne.
If Williams, who will turn 41 weeks after this year’s Open commences, somehow were to conjure a 24th trophy, she would become the oldest — male or female — ever to win a major title. (Aussie Ken Rosewall, who also benefitted from players’ limited participation at his nation’s Slam, was 37 when he won the last of his 12 major championships in 1972.)
But here’s the deal with Williams: Beyond the current discussion of the gender handicap, her career having been interrupted by pregnancy, and aside from the reality that she hasn’t captured a major since 2017 while the wave of younger talent continues to storm the ramparts, there were roughly two solid decades when it was difficult to fathom how anyone besides Williams ever prevailed in a women’s major.
She has said that she probably should have 30 Slam titles by now and the record bears her out. Since her first Slam appearance 24 years ago, she has missed 18 major tournaments because of various injuries and health issues. She won one Australian Open while some 20 pounds overweight, another while pregnant. Twice in her career, she completed what she coined the “Serena Slam” — winning all four majors in succession — just not in a calendar year.
She has said that “I haven’t lost many matches where the player was playing unbelievably good. Usually, when I lose, it’s because I’m playing unbelievable bad.” A bit self-serving, but true.
The surgical tennis-otomies Williams repeatedly performed on opponents in the biggest matches were so skillfully precise that spectators’ focus typically fell almost entirely on her. On her powerful serve, her paint-the-line backhand, her cracking crosscourt forehand.
Though primarily a baseliner, she always played territorially, moving a step or two into the court as the rallies went on, ready to pounce. When she lost a point, it typically was a product of her aggressively missing wide or long. So often, the opponent was just…there.
It was Williams’ own occasionally uncontrolled passion that cost her at times: Her profane outburst, offering to shove the ball down a diminutive lineswoman’s throat over a foot-fault call, cost her a championship match point in the 2009 Open against Kim Clijsters; her premature celebratory shout in the 2011 Open final against Samantha Stosur resulted in the loss of a crucial game point; her rant against the chair umpire over a penalty point for illegal coaching led to her 2019 Open loss to Naomi Osaka.
In terms of dominating her peers, Williams’ consecutive weeks atop the women’s rankings is a record 186 (equaling Steffi Graf’s previous total). OK, Federer was the №1 male for 237 straight weeks. Maybe someone for Williams to fear.
She acknowledged a diminished interest in the tour beyond the majors, passing on plenty of lesser events, and the result is that others have won far more career titles than Williams’ 73 — Martina Navratilova with 167, Chris Evert with 154, Graf with 107. But, as the credits roll on the Williams tennis story, it seems appropriate to recall a quote by Larry Scott when he was CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association earlier in the 2000s: “Being a champion is one thing. But being a superstar is another.”