Serena Williams ready to put stamp on greatest female athletic career
By Christine Brennan, USA TODAY Sports
Fifteen years after she won her first U.S. Open singles title as a 17-year-old, Serena Williams will try to win her sixth on Sunday. If she does, if she defeats a rejuvenated Caroline Wozniacki to win the 18th Grand Slam singles title of her career, it will be time to pose a serious sports question:
Is Williams the greatest female athlete of all time?
Or, perhaps better said: Isn’t she already?
Williams has been at or near the top of her sport longer than almost any other athlete, male or female, has ever been at or near the top of his or hers. She has earned more prize money — over $56 million — than any female athlete, ever. She has been ranked No. 1 on six separate occasions, including now. She is the most recent player, man or woman, to hold all four Grand Slam singles titles simultaneously (she did it in 2002–03).
And this sport that she’s dominating? It’s the most competitive sport women play, with stellar athletes coming out of the woodwork all over the globe, something that just doesn’t happen (at least not yet) in most women’s sports.
Others certainly have dominated tennis. The names are legendary: Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King, among others.
But let’s look at the era in which Serena has been on top. It’s the most competitive time in the history of women’s tennis, with all due respect to the greats of the past and what they could (and couldn’t) do with their wooden rackets.
This is true of any women’s sport, actually. Due to the massive increase in interest, coaching, training and money in girls’ and women’s sports in the United States due to Title IX, today is the best, most competitive day in the history of every girls’ and women’s sport — until tomorrow.
So, at the most competitive time in the history of the most competitive women’s sport, Williams has been the most dominant player. For 15 years, from ages 17 to 32. Through injury and illness, some more mysterious than others. With an awe-inspiring physique and power that have set new standards for female athletes of today, and beyond. Through times of good sportsmanship — and bad. Against all comers, old and new, including her sister Venus, another one of the best there ever was, with seven Grand Slam singles titles herself.
I think I’m about to rest my case.
But first, a nod to the past.
In 1999, ESPN named its 100 greatest North American athletes of the 20th century. These were the female athletes appearing on the list: Babe Didrikson (10th place overall), Navratilova (19th), Jackie Joyner-Kersee (23rd), Wilma Rudolph (41st), Evert (50th), King (59th), Althea Gibson (65th) and Bonnie Blair (69th).
Full disclosure: I was an on-air participant in this series, but was not a voter who helped select the list. If I had been, I would have moved up Joyner-Kersee and King. Joyner-Kersee, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in the heptathlon and long jump, took on the East Germans and Soviets in their heyday and beat them at their own game, no small feat.
As for the pioneering King, without her legendary victory over Bobby Riggs in 1973, Title IX would have suffered far longer than it did from a lack of attention and implementation by our high schools and colleges.
In the 15 years since that list was compiled, more names have bubbled to the surface: Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Diana Taurasi, Annika Sorenstam, Missy Franklin and Gabby Douglas, to name a few.
Past and present, they’re all worthy, but none has so remarkably risen above her competition, time and again, as the best of them all, Serena Williams.