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Best in tennis ever? Serena is a slam dunk

Margaret Court’s prime passed before 1971, the first year women played professional tennis. She won three Grand Slam titles in 1973, giving her 24, and never won another. The summer of ’73 is remembered more for Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs in the made-for-TV “Battle of the Sexes” than anything else in tennis.

King was the name and face of her sport before she was dethroned by Chris Evert, who after 1973 won two slams in each of the next three seasons and at least one in 13 consecutive seasons. Evert was America’s tennis queen and had an intense rivalry with Martina Navratilova, who gained control and dominated the 1980s.

Navratilova was an ageless champion who was praised, and criticized, for her power and athleticism. She matched Evert with 18 career slams and won a record 1,442 matches before she walked away. Many doubted her greatness would be equaled before Steffi Graf won 22 major titles, a record for the modern era.

See, there was always a challenger coming up before Serena Williams arrived in the late 1990s and redefined the highest standard for tennis. We’re told to never say “never,” but there likely will never be a player who matches Serena after she puts the final topspin on her remarkable career.

Williams won her sixth Wimbledon title Saturday with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Garbine Muguruza. It was her 21st major title. She’s the only player in history to twice hold all four titles – the Serena Slam – and she did so 12 years apart. The average lifespan of a professional career is seven years. She’s playing her 19th full season.

You would have thought that she had run out of firsts, but Saturday marked the first time she held the first three Grand Slam titles in a year. If she wins the U.S. Open in September, she’ll join Maureen Connolly in 1953, Court in 1970 and Graf in 1988 as the only women to win the Grand Slam in the same season.

Is she the best ever, male or female? Yes.

Court dominated when the sport was less popular, was played by amateurs and had smaller fields. Eleven titles, or nearly half, came in the Australian Open on her home soil. She won five French Open titles, two more than Serena. Serena owns 12 combined titles in the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, four more than Court.

Navratilova, who had an 87-1 record in matches in a single season, won nine of her 18 major titles on grass. Serena won six titles each in the U.S. Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon. Her other three Grand Slam championships came on clay in the French Open, which she won last month.

Overall, she has won eight of the last 13 titles in Grand Slam events. She has a 21-4 career record in Grand Slam final matches and will take a 28-match winning streak in majors into the U.S. Open. She was shaky Saturday, played poorly by her standards for much of the match and still won in straight sets.

At age 33, she’s a tennis dinosaur. Three years ago, she ran into health problems and appeared to be inching toward retirement. Rather than slip away from the game and concentrate on other passions, such as fashion, she poured herself into the game and stormed back with her signature fury and competitiveness.

Now, she has made more than $70 million. It’s more than twice as much as Maria Sharapova, who is second on the all-time money list. Twenty-six majors are within reach if she maintains the commitment she made the last two seasons.

All this by a black woman who was bent on proving masculinity and femininity could co-exist while dominating a lily-white sport.

The most refreshing quality about Williams is that she appreciated her 21st title as if it were her first. She understood her place in sports and the world. She embraced her status as a role model who transcends race and gender. She’s not just an elite athlete or a woman or an African-American. She’s all of the above and more.

If she’s not the best player in the history of her sport, she could very well be the last great champion.

Look around.

Serena has no real threat to unseat her in the foreseeable future, nobody currently performing anywhere near her level. Even though she’s three major titles short of Court and one away from catching Graf, no player in history has matched her combination of power, speed, finesse and elegance.

It’s hard to fathom anyone winning 10 career majors in women’s tennis, let alone 20. Older sister Venus, who has seven slams in singles, is nearing the end of her career. Sharapova is next among active leaders with five. Victoria Azarenka, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Petra Kvitova each have two. Serena has 21.

She has an aggregate 37-7 career record against Kvitova, Simona Halep, Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki, who round out the top five in the world. Williams has an 18-2 career record against Sharapova, including the straight-set victory in the Wimbledon semifinals this year.

Sharapova hasn’t beaten Williams in nearly 11 years. Serena has beaten Venus more times (11) than anyone else has beaten Venus and hasn’t lost to her in a grand-slam event in seven years. Venus is the No. 2-ranked American on tour and was 16th overall. The third-ranked American was seven-year pro Madison Keys, 21st overall.

Williams is so good that she doesn’t even have a rival.

At an age in which most are long retired, she has a 39-1 record this season. When adding up variables such as longevity, major titles and success against talent and depth of competition, you would be hard pressed to find another athlete so separated from the field.

Certainly, none exist now.

Babe Ruth averaged 46.7 homers per season in the 1920s while players who combined for second-most averaged 31.3. Michael Phelps won 18 gold medals in swimming, twice as many as the next-highest winner, gymnast Larisa Latynina. Wayne Gretzky blew away the field while winning 10 scoring titles.

Tiger Woods supposedly was her standard, but Serena has trounced him on the back nine of their careers. He was unable to sustain greatness that carried him to 14 majors while she pushed forward. Tiger might never win another tournament. Serena is the favorite to win another major two months from today.

Now, on the cusp of matching Graf’s record for most slams in the modern era and sniffing Court’s mark for the most all time, it seems the only person who can stop Serena is Serena. She’s not slowing down anytime soon, and there are no challengers in sight who threaten to dethrone her.


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