Serena Williams says goodbye as one of the greats – but other champions will share her throne

Serena Williams Photo credit: PA Images

Serena Williams Photo credit: PA Images

As Serena Williams bid farewell to the US Open amid lavish tributes and waves of global emotion, one might have thought she was the only player worthy of consideration when the final list of all-time greats is compiled.

But such a hasty judgment would only be made by those who do not appreciate the great history of our sport.

It might be hard to believe after witnessing the endless tributes paid to one of the game’s all-time greats in New York over the past few days, but there was tennis before Serena and a handful of select champions who went before they invented tennis has throne so many now rush to hand the younger of the Williams tennis sisters.

For starters, Australia’s Margaret Court still holds the record for most Grand Slam wins, with a total of 24 wins, which Serena has challenged but never surpassed in recent years.

Court’s record in majors suggests she deserves to be ranked among the greats of the game, but that’s before we get to the great Billie Jean King.

Defining the size of their Grand Slam trophies may be a valid argument in the modern game, but many top players didn’t play the Australian Open consistently in the 1970s, and that partly explains why King only got one in the opening Title won major of the tennis year, ending with 12 titles.

However, what she brought to the sport of tennis is a legacy that continues to this day, with the same prize money that men and women collect at major tournaments, and Billie Jean has her fingerprints all over it.

Next we come to Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who had a convincing rivalry between 1973 and 1988 that spanned 80 games, 60 of which were playoffs. Navratilova won the entire head-to-head in the final, 43-37 and 36-24, while both won 18 Grand Slam singles titles.

Many will argue that these two great champions had a longevity and impact in tennis to rival that of Serena and her sister Venus, with a strong argument that Navratilova brought the game into the modern age with her athleticism and professionalism. They are legacies that should never be forgotten.

Additionally, Navratilova holds the record for most tournament wins in tennis history with 167, with Evert being second on that list with 157 and Serena sixth with 73 tournament wins.

“There are many different yardsticks,” Navratilova told Amazon last month. “It’s hard for me to be totally objective about it because we played under different standards during my time with Chris and I.

“The Australian Open wasn’t even important enough and the money was so bad that we would make more money playing regular tournaments than going to Australia. The majors became a huge benchmark for the future in the ’90s, but not then.

“Sure, she’s one of the greats for so many reasons, but you can have arguments that others should be there too. Margaret Court, Billie Keane, Chrissie, myself and of course Steffi Graf.”

Steffi Graf’s introduction to this debate adds to the complexity.

This elegant German held the world No. 1 ranking for 377 weeks, won 22 Grand Slam titles and was the first player to win all four major titles and the Olympic gold medal in 1988. In addition, she is the only tennis player, male or female, to have won every major tournament at least four times.

Like Navrativola, Graf took the game to new heights with her power and class as she dominated the game in the 1980s and retired at the age of 30 when she was still world No. 3. Had she continued, Steffi could have won more Majors and easily surpassed Court’s Grand Slam record.

Additionally, Graf achieved her success with humility and grace that others who went before her and came after her lacked, which is a factor in deciding who deserves to be hailed as the greatest.

While there is no doubt that Serena is the greatest of her era for so many reasons and a hugely significant figure in tennis history, don’t let the honors blur the reality that this outgoing champion is just one of the greatest players one can ever have picked up a bat.

Serena is leaving tennis as a cultural icon, a game changer on so many levels, but in purely sporting terms, others deserve to be considered tennis greats alongside her.

So thanks to Serena… and thanks also to the greats who helped invent the stage that she’s made her own.

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