Commentary: Serena Williams Makes Her Case for Greatest Women’s Player Ever

Serena Williams, winning the 2013 French Open and leading a robust tennis career, is simply the best.

She is simply the best. What else can I say about Serena Williams, the greatest tennis player ever?

Oh, I know, Williams, fresh from winning the 2013 French Open, trails Margaret Court as the women’s tennis player with the most Grand Slam titles. Williams’ 16 titles can’t match Court’s 24. Nor does Williams’ total stand No. 2 on the all-time women’s list for most Slams; Steffi Graf is there with 22. But is the number of Grand Slam titles the soul measure of greatness or should you let your eyes judge?

I’m going to rely on my eyes.

I watched Graf’s career. I watched Chris Evert’s career. I watched Martina Navratilova’s career. All three are in the discussion of greatest women’s player ever. So is Court, whose career predated my fascination with professional women’s sports.

Yet in seeing all of these brilliant women play tennis, in looking at their strengths and dissecting their weaknesses, none of them can equal the sheer power that Williams brings to the court. And power is what today’s tennis is all about.

We see that in the men’s game, where the best players have big serves and hard, accurate ground strokes. But they combine their raw power with the ability to cover the court and to handle the big points, a test of a player’s nerve more than anything else.

What women’s player has ever handled the big point better than Serena Williams? What women’s player has ever brought the physicality that she has to the game? What women’s player is any more elegant to watch than Serena Williams?

She is beauty in motion. Not her physical beauty, though it compares with any woman who has ever graced a center court. In this context, Williams’ beauty is a reflection of something built well — of art meeting artistry, if that makes sense to anybody. Her game is built around that sort of beauty.

To watch Serena Williams when she’s in her flow is to listen to Tina Turner sing “Simply the Best,” which sounds to me like the anthem for Williams, the world's No. 1 again. You almost don’t notice how well she does it until somebody, maybe a friend or some person in the media, points it out: Did you see that?

I’ve rolled that question around in my mind since I looked at Williams and how her game has matured in the past year. At 31, an age when an athlete is seeing the end of her career and not the high point of it, Williams is playing her best, as she proved during past two weeks on the red clay courts of Roland Garros.

She was unbeatable. In defeating Maria Sharapova in straight sets Saturday, Williams hit shot after shot that kissed the white lines. Her penetrating ground strokes pinned Sharapova to the baseline; and athleticism allowed Williams to run down shots that she had no business retrieving.

Yet that’s what great athletes do; they excel on a big stage.

Williams has had a year on big stages — a career, in fact, on big stages. Along the way, she has had to endure critics who wondered why she, a Black woman, was often injured, why she didn’t win more, why she didn’t play with the finesse of a Justine Henin or an Evert.

Like her gifted sister Venus, Serena Williams has played the game her way — played the game on her terms, not on anybody else’s. And what have her results been?

A tennis career that has surely made her simply the best. 

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(Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

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