One look at this list, and it’s pretty easy to see what they each have in common: Muhammad Ali, Diego Maradona, Pelé, Michael Jordan, Usain Bolt, Jack Nicklaus, Sir Donald Bradman, Roger Federer.
Whenever the topic of who is the greatest sportsperson of all time comes up for discussion, these are the usual suspects. And there’s no denying that each and every one of them bestrode, or bestrides, their sport in a way most of their competitors have never come close to.
Of course, there’s something else they all share: gender. Traditionally, when we talk of sporting achievement at this level, no female athlete receives a mention – until, that is, recently. In an advertising campaign timed to coincide with the US Open tennis championships, the sportswear giant Nike threw a new name into the argument: Serena Williams.
The first reaction of most people when you concede publicly that Nike may have a point is one of derision and dismissal. “Serena, in the same class as Pelé? You’re mad!” But then, as they listen to the case for the American’s inclusion in such elite company, they begin to realise that it’s not such a preposterous notion after all.
Several characteristics define sporting greatness in an individual: domination, longevity, changing the game, and overcoming adversity; and – of course – the person must win the sport’s big prizes. Who can deny that in each of those categories Serena at least equals, and in many ways surpasses, the aforementioned men?
In terms of domination, Serena has quite simply “owned” her greatest rivals, to the point where even to suggest that there’s ever been any meaningful competition between them is stretching things.
Only two other players have held the No 1 spot more than twice over the past decade, Kim Clijsters and the now disgraced Maria Sharapova. Serena’s head-to-head record against the Belgian: 7-2. Against the Russian, she has been even more destructive: Sharapova hasn’t beaten Serena in 11 years – that’s 18 consecutive matches.
Arguably, only Bolt has proved to be so much better than the opponents he has had to face, and he doesn’t run against them nearly as often as Serena must face her rivals.
Longevity? Again, Serena is right there. She first became world No 1 at the age of 20; she’s now 34, and in the intervening years has held top spot an incredible six times, including for the past three and a half years, a run she will extend should she reach the final of this year’s US Open.
Federer held the record for winning the most matches of any pro tennis player, with 307. The reason I’m using past tense to mention that achievement is because Serena’s fourth-round victory, 6-2, 6-3 over Yaroslava Shvedova on Monday, meant she overtook the Swiss legend to become the “winningest” player of all time – male or female – with 308.
Furthermore, she is the only player to have won 10 grand slams in two consecutive decades. And, as anyone who has even a passing interest in the sport is aware, if Serena wins another grand slam tournament before she calls it quits, she will surpass the record for the most slam victories in the open era, an achievement she currently shares with Steffi Graff.
It doesn’t end there. Serena has redefined what a woman can do on a tennis court. She is more athletic than any other female player in history. She serves more accurately, and faster. She’s one of the most intelligent players to have ever played the sport. She hits the ball harder than anyone else ever has, and she suffers from fewer weaknesses to her game.
And then throw in her unbelievable comebacks from injury, the worst being when she was forced out of the sport for a year, 2010-2011, having suffered from a pulmonary embolism that left her “on her deathbed”. Because of her inactivity on the court, her ranking dropped to 175; a year later she was back at No 1. It’s hard to contest that she doesn’t deserves to be mentioned alongside the absolute best there has ever been.
But perhaps what is even more incredible, and the thing that truly elevates Serena to top spot, is that she has succeeded despite never having received the levels of support from her sport that any of the others on the list have from theirs. Pelé has been lauded since he was 17; in Argentina Maradona is regarded as a demigod; Ali (eventually) was loved, as is Bolt; Jordan is still revered, so are Bradman, Federer and Nicklaus. Not so Serena.
Probably because she is a black superstar in a previously predominantly white sport, she has had to tread that dirty road of the pioneer who is regarded as an impostor. In some circles, people would like nothing more than for the Williams sisters, Serena in particular, to pack up their rackets and go away – or at least stop winning everything in sight – and allow the sport to return to “normal”.
That she has redefined what normal means in a way that no other athlete ever has is perhaps why Serena Williams can justly be considered the greatest of all time.
First published in The Guardian