In 1999, a teenager with braids won her first Grand Slam tournament at the US Open. In 2015, that same woman won her 21st Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. She is currently the reigning champ of each and every Grand Slam tournament, an unbelievable feat that has become synonymous with her name. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I am talking about Serena Williams.
Serena’s recent Wimbledon victory over Muguruza- in consecutive sets- was her 21st Grand Slam title, one shy of tying Steffi Graff for most in the modern era and three behind Margaret Court for most all-time. Judging by how she dominated at Wimbledon, as well as the French Open and Australian Open earlier this year, it is very likely that we will see Serena pass both Graff and Court over the next few years. It is almost universally accepted that Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time. But maybe it is time we start talking about Serena Williams as one of the most dominant athletes of our generation, if not ever.
Let’s look at the stats.
- Turned pro in 1995.
- Won her first major in 1999.
- Gained #1 ranking for the first time in 2002.
- Has won the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and US Open six times each, making her the only tennis player- male or female- to win at least six times in three of the four major tournaments.
- The fourth major, the French Open, has named Serena its Champion three times.
- Twice in her career she has simultaneously held the title for each major, a feat that is now called a “Serena Slam”.
- She has won 21 majors in 16 years.
- And an Olympic Gold medal.
- Her total prize money- over 72.5 million- is most of any female tennis player, and fourth amongst all tennis players.
Maria Sharapova has arguably been the second best female tennis player during Serena’s career. She turned pro in 2001 and was ranked #1 in the world by 2005. Serena is 18-2 against Sharapova.
Serena has also dominated doubles; she and her sister Venus are a perfect 13-0 in Grand Slam finals and have won three Olympic Gold medals.
But what is most impressive is that Serena is playing some of her best and most impressive tennis right now. At 33. 20 years into her career. Instead of slowing down, Serena has aged like a fine wine, only getting better. Since January 1, Serena is 39-1. She has won each major in 2015, and may become only the second female tennis player ever to win all four majors in a single calendar year if she wins the US Open later this summer.
Since winning her first major in 1999, there have only been 5 years (2000, 2001, 2004, 2006, 2011) in which Serena did not win at least one major. She’s the paradigm of consistent athletic dominance at the highest level.
Where else have we seen this?
Not men’s tennis. Roger Federer has won 17 major titles since turning pro in 1998, but 17 is not 21. And he has never had a “Serena Slam”. Neither has Sampras nor Nadal nor Agassi.
Baseball? The only type of prolonged success seems to come from pitchers or Derek Jeter. Nolan Ryan led the MLB in strikeouts eleven times between ‘72 and ‘90. Roger Clemens won seven Cy Young awards, his first in 1986 and his last one in 2004- but that could have more to do with alleged PED usage than pure ability. And Jeter was an All-Star in fourteen of his final sixteen seasons. Consistently excellent, yes. But dominant over their competition like Serena has been? Not quite.
Football careers almost never last long enough to see players dominate a league for as long as Serena has dominated the court. Montana, Elway, Brady, and Manning have all enjoyed lengthy careers at the top. But none of these QBs have won more than four Lombardi trophies.
Since FIFA started naming a World Player of the Year in 1991, Brazil’s Ronaldo and France’s Zinedine Zidane (remember the headbutt?!) have each won the award three times, tied for most. I am almost certain Serena would have won tennis’s World Player of the Year (if there was such a thing) much more than three times already.
Michael Phelps was probably the world’s most greatest athlete from 2006 through 2012. In the swimming world, he was (and still very much is) a deity. But his superiority in the water was only unquestioned for six years tops. There is already a new crop of swimmers ruling the waters, poised to be ‘the next Phelps’. His sheer dominance certainly matches Serena’s, but it is the longevity that he lacks. Serena has been doing it for over a decade, Phelps lasted about half that time.
The closest comparisons are found on a different court. Not the tennis court, but the basketball court. If any ballers can compare to Serena, its MJ or Bill Russell. Russell won eleven rings in thirteen years. Not quite the breadth of Serena’s reign, but those numbers speak for themself. And MJ, the unquestioned GOAT who led the Bulls to two separate three-peats, deserves all the praise. But seventeen years after he was drafted, Jordan was losing to father time in a Wizards jersey. Serena hasn’t had a Wizards period.
And then there’s Tiger. Who took over golf and sat at the top, untouched by the competition, for over a decade. But his legacy will surely come with an asterisk, murmurs of infidelity, and golf clubs through car windows. It is hard to find a quicker and harder fall from the top than Tiger’s. Not many people mention Woods as one of today’s best golfers. And rightfully so.
In the world of sports, nobody wins as often as Serena does or for as long as Serena has. Nobody. The ‘greatest athlete of all time’ conversation has always been a boy’s club, and it is hard to argue that Serena’s exclusion from most of these talks has nothing to do with her gender. Or her race for that matter. But next time you mention Jordan, Jeter, or Gretzky, don’t forget Serena. The record books sure won’t.