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Is Serena Williams the greatest female tennis player of all time?

Manish Verma
08 Feb 2015, 11:13 IST
Serena Williams with her sixth Australian Open title

Serena Williams created further history in the 2015 Australian Open, winning her sixth Australian Open title and moving to second spot in the all time list of Grand Slam winners in the Open era. The only player ahead of her now is Steffi Graf with 22 titles. As she prepares for further onslaught on tennis records, let us analyse the impact Serena has had on women’s tennis.

Changed women’s tennis landscape completely

Serena entered the tennis scene in the late 1990s, when she and Venus Williams started their incredible journey. Women’s tennis in those times was celebrated by words like finesse, skill, touch and talent. Martina Hingis, the top tennis player at the time had great all round tennis skills and seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of past greats like Steffi Graff and Martina Navratilova.

That all changed with the Williams’ sisters. They hit the tennis ball very hard and simply overpowered most of their opponents. Women’s tennis became much more physical and a power game, from being one based on touch and finesse. In today’s times, even the average player is much stronger and there are not many easy draws any more. All these changes started with the Williams’ sisters.

Initial success

Serena won her first Grand Slam title when she won the US Open in 1999 beating the then world number one Hingis in the final. The following two years saw Venus winning four Slams and rising to top of women’s tennis. It looked like Venus will rule women’s tennis for a few years before Serena started her domination.

She won the French Open in 2002 and went on a winning spree afterwards, playing sublime and powerful tennis never seen before in women’s game. She went on to win four consecutive Grand Slam titles, a feat managed by few women in tennis history.

Her initial great run lasted from 2002 to 2004 when she won six Grand Slam titles. The power game employed by Williams uprooted talents like Hingis and Lindsay Davenport, who could not quite match up with her power and even Venus could not match up with Serena. She was like a freight train running roughshod over everyone.

Fight with injuries and other distractions

In the mid 2000s, there was a phase when her interest in tennis seemed to wane due to injury issues and interests on the fashion front. It coincided with the rise of Justine Henin as the top player, with Kim Clisters challenging her for the biggest titles. Serena’s mind did not fit into the tennis scheme of things and she looked like a spent force. It was later found out that she was suffering from depression issues. Towards 2006, Serena started making her comeback from the wilderness and won the 2006 Australian Open as an unseeded player. The period saw some great battle between her and Henin , arguably her greatest opponent.

Best serve ever

Serena possesses the best serve ever in women’s tennis history. She often uses this best weapon of hers to get out of difficult situations in matches. Her service motion is pure poetry and pleasing on the eyes. And she can pop them hard on both sides. Her toss is also deceptive and often opponents cannot predict early which side to go. All this makes her serve the best weapon ever in women’s tennis history.

Great power on both wings

Her groundstrokes possess great power as well as depth. She often takes the ball early and strikes it deep into the corners. Not many women in today’s game can withhold her power. Her offensive game is arguably the best ever in women’s tennis history.  Add to that, her defense is also mighty good and her foot speed enables her to get back a lot of difficult balls in play. All this makes her a very difficult player to beat.


Strong mind, tough under pressure

Serena is also tough under pressure. She has saved match points on way to winning Grand Slam titles on three occasions –  2003 Australian Open against Kim Clijsters, 2005 Australian Open against Maria Sharapova, and 2009 Wimbledon against Elena Dementieva. No other player, male or female has managed to come back from the brink of defeat so many times to emerge victorious in a Grand Slam. Her mental toughness and ability to play her best tennis on big points makes her a great champion.

Her competition has been tough through. When she began playing tennis, she had to beat Venus, Hingis and Davenport and later on Clisters and Henin in their respective primes. In the last few years, Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka have been top notch opponents. Serena has won 19 of the 23 Grand Slam finals she has played in, facing such top opposition in most of those finals.

Late career dominance

Serena regained her dominance on the women’s circuit in 2008 and has been on a Grand Salm winning spree since then. From 2008 September (when she won her third US Open title and ninth Grand Slam title), she was won 11 Grand Slam titles. She has been the no. 1 ranked player in the last two years and has dominated her opponents. The extent of her domination can be analysed by her head to head records against her top opposition, which reads 17-2 versus Sharapova and 15-3 versus Azarenka. No player has managed to even come close to her level during this period.

What the future holds?

Serena is already the greatest female tennis player of all time in the eyes of many. However breaking Steffi’s record of 22 will further strengthen her claim to the status of the female tennis G.O.A.T. If one goes by the determination she has shown in the last few years, it would be tough to bet against her breaking the record.

Only two women have won more Slams than her in tennis history, Graf and Margaret Court. Graf who had a tough time handling Monica Seles in the early 90s, benefitted from the unfortunate stabbing incident to Seles in 1993. Graf faced weak competition during 1993-96 and won around a dozen of her Grand Slams in that period. Court won most in 1960s, before the Open era and won 11 titles at the Aussie Open, where not all of the top players played at the time. Quality and depth of competition was weak for most of her reign on the top.

Serena clearly scores over both these greats on many aspects. Now the only question is whether she can seal the debate forever with the record. Her advanced age (33) may be a factor. However, the way she has fought injuries and fitness issues in recent years suggests that she is not one to go down without a fight.

By the time the dust settles on Serena’s career, she will be crowned the undisputed queen of women’s tennis history.

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