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March 30, 2009
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||EXPLORE THE TENNIS NET:
Serena, Venus, and the Call to High Achievement
by Ray Bowers
Serena Williams captured her first Slam at age 17 at U.S. Open 1999. Seeded seventh, she worked her way through six matches, mainly three-setters, before overcoming former champion Martina Hingis in the final round. In the ten years since that day, Serena has been the top Slam-winner in women's tennis, having now captured a total of ten Slams including four consecutively in 2002-03.
But except during her "Serena Slam" of 2002-03, Serena's claim as world champion has seldom been clear-cut. Sometimes sidelined with persisting injuries, she always faced rivals who were her near-equals--Hingis and Davenport initially, plus recent champions attempting comebacks-- Seles, Capriati, Graf. Then came the young Belgians Henin and Clijsters, the endless Russkayas, and now the Serbian youths Ivanovic and Jankovic. Always too there was older sister Venus, herself now a seven-time slam winner. Now at age 27, Serena is once again atop the official rankings and, as champion of Australia 09, the only player with a chance of completing a classic Grand Slam in 2009.
Serena and Venus are probably the hardest-hitting champions ever seen in the women's game, regularly leaders in serving velocity and in aces served. Both are highly athletic, able to move swiftly to the corners to return an opponent's rocketry with yet firmer strokes of her own. Sometimes Serena seems out of sorts, unhappy with her inability to find her peak game, perhaps even unmotivated. At such times her energy, quickness, and shot preparation tend to fall off, especially in early rounds of tournaments against lower-ranked opponents. But when her competitive fire is stirred, as in close matches late in major events, Serena plays with a fury that must surely be intimidating to the player across the net. Venus too remains close to her best ever, having shown a mature kind of play in her victories late last year, perhaps a sustainable level for late-career success.
But if playing careers of the sisters are far from over, both have already achieved enough to claim leading places in tennis history. Here, our purpose is to assess where they now stand amid the pantheon of tennis history's past megastars, and we try also to assess their chances for climbing higher before their playing careers end.
GODDESSES OF THE PAST
Memories of watching the game's past champions in their years of greatness remain strong. Who could forget the powerful forehand of Steffi Graf, her sizzling slice off the backhand, her eagerness and quickness to the ball in order to create or attack open area across the net? How magnificent the determination and polite fury of tall, strong Margaret Smith Court, who for so long seemed in a class by herself. Strong are recollections of the unfamiliar grunting and two-handed power stroking of Monica Seles, the relentless pounding of Maureen Connally, who re-created the ways of Helen Wills Moody as ruler of back court, to be seen again in the career of Chris Evert. (I never watched Moody but remember radio broadcasts in her late career.) Indelible in the mind are the wonderful net attacking resolve of Navratilova and Billie Jean, and now the never-before-seen athleticism and power of Serena and Venus.
All the megastars just mentioned appear on everyone's list of the greatest players in tennis history. But finding agreement on their rank order is not so easy. For me, although each player's playing style and characteristic on-court ways linger, eyewitness memory is not strong enough for comparing greatness across the tennis generations. We are left to rely primarily, and here exclusively, on their record of competitive achievement. In short, in this exercise we measure tennis achievement, which accompanies but may differ somewhat from tennis greatness.
COUNTING SLAM TRIUMPHS
A convenient and powerful way of comparing achievement among the megastars is to count Slam triumphs.
Here are the all-time leaders in Slams won, as usually shown:
Margaret Smith Court, 24
Steffi Graf, 22
Helen Wills Moody, 19
Chris Evert, 18
Martina Navratilova, 18
Billie Jean King, 12
Serena Williams, 10
Maureen Connally, Monica Seles, each 9
Suzanne Lenglen, Molla Mallory, each 8
Venus Williams, Justine Henin, Evonne Goolagong, Maria Bueno, Dorothea Douglass Chambers, each 7
ADJUSTING THE SLAM COUNT
The list has an appealing simplicity, but there is also weakness. It is unquestionable that over tennis history, winning some Slams was a far lesser achievement than winning others. The quality of the 128-player international field of highly trained female athletes nowadays at Wimbledon, for example, is incomparably stronger than the pre-1900 Wimbledon entry lists, which typically consisted of a dozen or so ladies, all of them British.
Notice that in the above tally the venerated Suzanne Lenglen, who won Wimbledon and the French crowns six times each, is credited with not twelve but instead only eight Slam triumphs. Suzanne's four wins prior to 1925 at the French national tournament are excluded, inasmuch as non-French players could not compete until that year.
But similar adjustments are also needed for the other Slams, which in their early years went through similar evolutions where all or nearly all participants were home grown, whether British, American, or Australian. Thus in our examination here, we introduce adjustments comparable to those applied in Lenglen's example. First, we similarly exclude results in early years at Wimbledon, U.S. Nationals, and Australia. Also excluded are a few Slams of later years, reflecting extremely weak, non-international fields in certain periods. Thus among players listed above, Connally loses credit for winning Australia 1953, Smith Court for winning Australia 1961, and Goolagong for winning Australia 1976. (See Footnote 1.)
WIDENING THE INPUT DATA
Our next step is to expand the input data, seeking to improve our outcome while still keeping Slam-winning foremost. Here are the added categories and their weights. (Winning a Slam still counts 1.0)
--Extra bonus for career Grand Slam (winning all four Slams over a career ): 1.0
--Extra bonus for classic Grand Slam (winning all four Slams in a single calendar year): 1.0 in addition to the above 1.0 career Grand Slam bonus
--Runner-up in a Slam: 0.3
--Winning Olympics: 0.4
--Winning the annual year-end championship event: 0.4
--Grand Slam Cup: 0.2
--Next-higher tournament (Europe/America)
--Italian Open: 0.2
--MVP final round at Fed Cup (Wightman Cup when no Fed Cup): 0.2
--Indian Wells and Miami-Key Biscayne, each 0.1
--Member of a winning doubles or mixed pair at Slam: 0.1
--Winning a Slam earlier excluded here: 0.2
ERA OF SHAMATEURISM
In the era of "shamateur" tennis that existed for several decades prior to 1968, many--sometimes most--of the world's best male players were professionals, ineligible to compete in the great international events. A study like this one but of men's tennis would require adding in the many achievements of the excluded pros in their extensive competition among themselves--i.e., the likes of Tilden, Vines, Perry, and Budge, followed by Kramer, Gonzalez, Rosewall, and Laver.
But things were different in women's tennis. A few top women indeed left the organized international sport prior to 1968 to receive pay for their play--Lenglen, Alice Marble, Pauline Betz, and Althea Gibson. But in all these cases, the population of female pros was far too thin to permit meaningful championship competition. All four ceased pro tour tennis in a year or so. Thus there are no significant achievements by female professionals prior to 1968 requiring our addition to the data used here, and no need to downgrade the recorded amateur-sport achievements because the nominal champions were facing too few of the world's best.
THE TEMPORAL CORRECTION
Having weeded out the very weak Slam iterations and then added various other measures of achievement, we now make one other major correction. It is clear that the level of championship tennis has advanced over the years. More and more women of the world's populations have come to the game, and the level of health and nutrition among prospective athletes has improved greatly. The regularity where records have been broken in track and field events illustrates that some kind of correction based on passage of time is required here, one that gives greater weight to achievements in later years.
In computing our temporal correction, we here postulate that the current value of a given past achievement is proportional to the square root of the then-existing world population of female tennis players. Thus Serena's winning of Australia 09 is given full value in our exercise, Graf's triumphs in 1996 are reduced to .95 of their nominal value, those of Billie Jean King and Margaret Court in 1969 to .84, Lenglen's in winning Wimbledon 1925 to .61. (See Footnote 2.)
Here, then, is our final Top Ten, reached by starting with the all-time Slam count, then making our initial exclusions and introducing all the data sets listed above, and finally by making the temporal correction just described:
1. Steffi Graf, 28.48
2. Martina Navratilova, 26.98
3. Margaret Smith Court, 26.39
4. Chris Evert, 24.22
5. Billie Jean King, 14.76
6. Helen Wills Moody, 14.03
7. Serena Williams, 13.80
8. Monica Seles, 10.95
9. Venus Williams, 10.74
10. Evonne Goolagong, 9.91
INTERPRETING THE RESULT
The original list has changed considerably. We have a new leader, and the first four are grouped far ahead of the others. Owing largely to our temporal correction, Lenglen and Mallory are absent from the first ten, and Court and Moody have been lowered. Our expanding of the data base including doubles helps explain Navratilova's advance to second place and Court's decline. Evert rose by our recognition of Slam runner-up achievement. Graf soared from her 1988 Grand Slam bonus and from her five victories in the annual year-ending tournaments in New York.
Careers of longevity are advantaged by our approach, and stars are hurt who saw their careers shortened prematurely--Connally and Hingis by injury, Henin by voluntary retirement. The world wars cost players in many countries competitive opportunities, even as unknown others lost the chance to learn the game at crucial age.
Especially despoiling to the record was the stabbing in April 1993 of Monica Seles, who at age 19 had already won eight Slams and had for two years surpassed Graf as the world's #1 player. Seles would be sidelined for two years following the atrocity, and her later career would be marred by other injuries, while Graf returned to the top of the sport for several more years.
Meanwhile our method significantly diminished achievements prior to about 1920 and in the decades just after. The careers of Lenglen and Helen Wills Moody plainly witnessed the emergence of the modern era in women's tennis. But with fewer Slams and other events in which to compete, both Suzanne and Helen finish our computation at lower rank than their strongest admirers will like. This inequality of opportunity is offset here by the arguably mild dimension of the temporal correction.
But did the changes in the quality of tennis over the years really evolve in an orderly way? Surely there were ebbs and flows. Could it be that those who seemingly achieved the most here were those champions who competed in times when the closest opposition was relatively weak?
I think not. Note that for each great champion there was often a rival of nearly equal ability. Court and King were contemporaries and rivals, as were Navratilova and Evert, Graf and Seles, indeed Serena and Venus. It seems that the great champions were most likely to arise when there was heavy pressure from near-equal opposition, when the challenge was at highest level. We note no such pairs in the years following the world wars, for example, when the talent flow had been interrupted in many countries.
COMPARING SINGLE-YEAR ACHIEVEMENT
It is widely accepted that Steffi Graf's achievement in 1988, when she won all four Slams and the Olympics, represents the greatest one-year's performance in women's tennis history. Just behind are the Grand Slams by Maureen Connally in 1953 and Margaret Court Smith in 1970. Navratilova's year 1984 follows, when Martina achieved the ninth triple-Slam year in women's history, also won the year-ending Virginia Slims crown, and also joined Pam Shriver in achieving history's only Grand Slam by a women's doubles pair.
Serena Williams achieved comparable credentials in year 2002. Serena missed Australia 02 with an ankle injury but then won the year's other three Slams, beating Venus in all three finals. Serena's triumphs at Wimbledon and U.S. came without loss of a set. She also won at Rome on clay, and ended the year ranked at #1.
The record of face-to-face meetings generally mirrors the outline of our calculations. In those cases where the age difference was greater than ten years, we invariably find a point of transition, where the younger player achieved dominance, usually fairly early.
Our top two, Graf and Navratilova, were born nearly 13 years apart, Navratilova prior to Graf, but there was considerable career overlap. Navratilova won five of six meetings through the end of 1986, when Steffi was 17. The two split four matches in 1987, the year when Graf turned 18 and Martina 31. Thereafter Graf won six of eight. Overall, the record was 9-9. Meanwhile Chris Evert was nearly 15 years older than Graf. Of their 15 meetings Evert won the first six, Graf the last nine. The change came shortly before Steffi turned 17, Chris at nearly 32.
In what was probably history's greatest series, the consummate baseliner Evert met the consummate attacker Navratilova. Chris was the older by 22 months, but she won her first Slam much earlier than Martina and also retired younger. In their overlapping years of competition, Navratilova had the edge in their meetings, 43-37, as given in the trustworthy The Bud Collins History of Tennis. They met 22 times in Slam finals, Martina leading in that count 14-8. Chris led in Garros finals 3-2, played on her best surface, clay; Martina led in Wimbledon finals 7-2.
The above head-to-head comparisons pitted three of our top four--Graf, Navratilova, and Evert, largely vindicating our study's rank order among these three. Navratilova outdueled Evert, and Graf stands ahead of both others in view of Steffi's early precocity against the other two.
For testing the credentials of our top quartet's remaining member, Margaret Smith Court, we look at head-to-head outcomes between Court and fifth-place Billie Jean King. Court was the older by 16 months. The Collins History gives the lifetime edge to Margaret, 22-10. Court won three of their four meetings in Slam finals. The edge is clearly Margaret's, although against an unusual common opponent in 1973, Bobby Riggs, Margaret proved badly unprepared.
Of extreme interest is the head-to-head series between Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, who prior to her stabbing momentarily ended Steffi's reign. Steffi, who was nearly four years older than Monica, won their first three meetings, all prior to Monica's reaching age 16. After that Seles won four of their next seven, including three of four Slam finals. The stabbing then intervened. After Seles's return, Graf won four of their last five meetings, including in the U.S. Open finals of 1995 and 1996. Overall the leader was Graf by 10-5, including a record of 3-3 on clay, Monica's best surface. We observe that the head-to-head record indeed follows the data on overall achievement by the two superstars used in our study. What might have been, remains unanswerable.
Although Steffi was born more than a decade before Venus and Serena, her career overlapped briefly with the rise of the sisters. Graf won a very early meeting with a teen-aged Venus, but after that Steffi split with Venus 2-2 and Serena 1-1. In the only Slam meeting, Steffi defeated Venus in the quarters of Wimbledon 99, one year before Venus captured her first Slam there. It would seem that Steffi held her own against the rising sisters slightly better than did Evert or Navratilova in their early meetings against a very young Steffi.
THE RAYMOND LEE STUDY
About a year ago, tennis writer Raymond Lee analyzed his vast data, seeking to evaluate the greatness of the female superstars of tennis history--i.e., the same group studied here. Raymond heavily used data such as numbers of tournaments won and percentages of Slams won, along with general consideration of each player's on-court strengths and weaknesses.
In his final conclusions, Lee deemed the greatest to have been Lenglen from the pre-Open era, Navratilova from the Open era, and Smith Court from those whose career spanned both eras. In choosing Navratilova over Graf for the Open era, he was heavily influenced by the two years of Seles's domination over Graf prior to Monica's injury. He offered considerable discussion of the stabbing episode, along with various other considerations less fully treated here. (Footnote 3.)
GRAF or NAVRATILOVA AS #1?
As the 20th Century came to a close several years ago, I ventured to select a Pro Tennis Player of the Century. My choice then was Martina Navratilova, preferred over Steffi Graf and the many others discussed here, in recognition not only of Martina's playing achievements but also of her total commitment to the game, including team, doubles, and mixed play, how she returned to the court wars at advanced age in doubles, her attractive, aggressive style of play. Many of these less-tangible attributes entailed subjective evaluation, while in contrast the analysis here draws exclusively from measurable achievements.
I would still choose Navratilova over Graf if measuring greatness in the totality I used then. The difficulty over the Seles stabbing would further influence my judgment away from Graf, in agreement with Raymond Lee. But if tangible playing achievements, mainly in singles, are the only criterion, then I stand with our exercise in placing Graf at #1.
The six megastars who here stand ahead of Serena were scarcely finished in their careers upon reaching Serena's current age of 27.5. Their late-career success is seen here, measured by Slams won in singles.
--Graf, won 1 Slam after age 27.5, at age 30
--Navratilova, won 10 Slams after 27.5, last at age 33
--Smith Court, won 8 Slams after 27.5, last at age 31
--Evert, won 5 Slams after 27.5, last at age 31
--King, won 7 Slams after 27.5, last at age 32
--Wills Moody, won 3 Slams after 27.5, last at age 32
These late-career records seem amazing to current watchers, accustomed to seeing stars fade or retire early. The reduced playing longevity seen today could be attributable to the severe demands of playing regularly on paved courts. Might Serena and Venus prove immune to this trend?
Indeed, over the years Venus and Serena have limited their play, regularly taking the sidelines for physical and, apparently, mental refreshment. Could it be that in so doing, they have held down the physical wear paid as price for their achievements? If so, this circumstance would encourage their chances for strong late-career achievement.
Note also that the women's field currently seems momentarily weak. Henin retired last year, Sharapova's injury lingers, and the rise of the Serbian duet seems to have reached a plateau. Newer stars are at hand, mainly from eastern Europe and Russia, but none have convincingly overtaken the Old Guard. Certainly there is no player today who should be favored to defeat Serena at her current best. The doorway seems open.
What is sure is that the sisters emerge from our exercise comfortably inside our all-time first ten. Younger sister Serena needs only one more Slam to reach our fifth place. Despite what seem major outside distractions, Serena sometimes still displays her furious best, including in her winning of the last two Slams. Venus is meanwhile ninth, very close to eighth place.
A classic Grand Slam by Serena in 2009 would stir thoughts of a place in the top four. But the margins in our numbers seem to show that the very top position is all but out of reach. A late-career run close to Navratilova's would be required, seemingly impossible today. It would surely require a level of commitment by Serena beyond what has been seen in the past--a trimming down of some heft, a sustained mental focus that would maintain playing sharpness over extended seasons, a determination to overcome the slightest technical weaknesses that top coaching can detect meanwhile sharpening her impressive strengths.
Still, the fantasy is tantalizing.
FOOTNOTE 1: SLAM EXCLUSIONS
Excluded in our early adjustment to the Slam tally because of subpar and non-international fields are the following Slams:
--Australian (excluded to 1928), tally also excludes 1929-1948, 1951-1959, 1961, 1976, 1978-1979.
--French (excluded to 1925), tally also excludes 1938, 1976-1978
--Wimbledon (excluded to 1905)
--U.S. (excluded to 1915)
FOOTNOTE 2: TEMPORAL CORRECTION
We make today's female tennis population equal 1.00 and reduce that value by straight-line curve to reach zero in year 1874. (That was the year of lawn tennis's inception by copyright, 135 years ago.) For example, in year 1969 the population would be the fraction 95/135, where the numerator is the number of years from 1874 to 1969 and the denominator is the number of years from 1874 to 2009. The result is .704 (compared with today's population 1.0). Then, if distributions are standard, the ability of the extreme (i.e., very best) one or two players should be highest when the population is largest. The absolute margin of their greater ability, however, would be not directly proportionate to population size but instead a smaller amount. We thus take the square root of the population size .704 to reach the weight used here for achievements in 1969, or .839.
FOOTNOTE 3. LEE'S SURVEY
Raymond Lee's essay can be read at http://www.tennisweek.com/features/fullstory.sps?inewsid=6615906.
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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.
Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular
competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75
singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four
years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where
the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington
Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history
of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A
tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award
from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.
Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.