BECK: Why Federer, Graf still ahead of Serena

— by Chris Beck —

Serena Williams and Roger Federer are both 35 and coming off wins at the Australian Open, stirring debate over who is the greatest of all time. Most fans assume Federer is the greatest. His Australian Open win, at age 35, extends his slam lead over Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic 18 to 14 to 12. To set this record, Federer had to play Nadal eight times in slam finals, Djokovic four times, and Andy Murray thrice. No easy achievement.

Williams might break all records by the time she puts her racquet down. In a spectacular 20-year career, Serena’s won 85 percent of her 913 singles matches on the way to 23 Grand Slam singles titles, edging Steffi Graf’s 22, an Open era mark that seemed unsurpassable not long ago. Australia’s Margaret Court retired in 1977 with 24 singles titles, but 11 came at the Australian Open when many top players didn’t travel to Melbourne, and tournament fields were smaller then.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that men and women are lumped into one sport known as “tennis”, and that the greatest player can be chosen from among all male and female tennis players.

Serena’s had an easier road than Roger. Serena had to face her sister Venus (with seven Grand Slam singles titles) nine times in slam finals. Serena also had to face Russian-American Maria Sharapova (five titles) four times; Martina Hingis (five titles) once; and Lindsay Davenport (three titles) once. Serena has lost slam finals to Sam Stosur, Angelique Kerber, and Garbiñe Muguruza, who have four majors between them.

In 28 slam final appearances, Federer has lost to three players: Juan Martin del Potro at the US Open; Djokovic at Melbourne, Wimbledon and New York; and Rafa in all four majors except New York. In other words, the trio who stopped Federer have won a total of 27 slams. Serena’s conquerers won only 16 majors.

Federer has excelled in a men’s tennis era that’s probably the most competitive in the game’s history. Serena has not. In fact, you could argue that Graf achieved more than Serena because Graf played in a more competitive era.

Graf lost nine finals to women who’ve won 40 majors. She lost twice to Martina Navratilova and thrice to Monica Seles — two of the top women ever. Serena, on the other hand, never had to beat a champion of the caliber of Navratilova or Chris Evert. Graf did it eight times, including five wins over Martina, two over Seles and one over Evert in 1988.

Thus it’s not even clear if Serena is the greatest player among her own gender, whereas Federer, after beating Nadal in Melbourne, has reaffirmed his status.

Next, let’s assume men and women could challenge each other in the same event. In 1973, a comical Bobby Riggs, at age 55, beat the top-ranked women’s player, Margaret Court, 6–2, 6–1 in California. He then lost the Battle of the Sexes match in Houston to Billie Jean King.

I doubt any man, age 55, could beat Serena in her current form. But many men and women claim that Serena would struggle against any male in the top 100. In her memoirs, Evert claimed her best form wasn’t good enough to beat many male college players, let alone touring pros. Kim Clijsters said she could barely get any points off her partner Lleyton Hewitt. Agassi, meanwhile, often quips that he wish he had Graf’s backhand.

Allen St. John in Forbes gave the “contest” between Federer and Williams to Serena after setting up six categories to judge them, awarding the edge to Serena in five of them. St. John writes that Federer cannot be considered the greatest because Nadal has dominated their career head-to-head matches, including winning six of their eight major finals. Federer is 7-9 verses Rafa on hard courts, 8-10 on grass, and 2-13 on clay. Nadal’s argument would have been stronger with a Melbourne 2017 victory. But Roger won, despite missing the latter half of 2016.

Even if Serena overtakes Court’s 24 titles, she would never beat Federer on any surface. She might not even get a game off Roger, Rafa, Novak or Andy.

We should appreciate Serena’s achievements coming out of Compton, California. But Serena and Roger are de facto playing in different sports. Men’s tennis is much deeper in talent and more physically taxing, often going to five sets over five hours. Making direct comparisons is bogus and unproductive, especially considering that Steffi Graf, in my opinion, is still the greatest women’s player ever.

(words copyright Chris Beck, all rights reserved)


(images copyright Christopher Johnson Globalite Media, all rights reserved)