You can forgive Serena Williams for playing on past her fortieth birthday. After all, she has been marooned on 23 Grand Slam titles since 2017 – in the meantime, she has given birth to her first child and gone on to lose in four more finals. Serena has hinted that she will retire from tennis after the 2022 US Open, meaning that she will have just one more shot at drawing level with Margaret Court as the most decorated women’s player in history.
Rapidly approaching her 41st birthday, Williams will be a handful for anyone on home soil, although it seems increasingly likely that she will remain agonisingly shy of Court’s haul of 24 titles. Even if she does, Serena will forever be remembered as a titan of the sport. In amongst the major titles and four Olympic gold medals, she was one of the first African-American women – alongside sister Venus – to become a tennis star, inspiring the next generation of black women like Sloane Stephens and Coco Gauff to pick up their rackets.
On top of that, she became a key figure in the battle for gender parity in tennis, stridently arguing for equal prize money between men and women – a situation that is, still, yet to be resolved. It’s always difficult to compare sportspeople from different eras, but can we say with confidence that Serena Williams is the best female tennis player in history?
What Is the Open Era in Tennis?
The debate centres around how we measure Margaret Court’s achievements in the sport. With 24 singles, 19 doubles and 21 mixed doubles Grand Slam titles, you’re swimming against the tide if trying to argue that the Australian isn’t amongst the finest players ever to pick up a racket.
But it’s interesting to note that 13 of her 24 singles titles came during the amateur era of tennis – as the name suggests, Court was beating non-professional players who didn’t have the physical conditioning nor the high-tech equipment of the professional era.
That said, Court’s achievements are still mind-bogglingly good. Even after the advent of the Open Era in 1968, which allowed professionals to compete against amateurs for the first time, she went on to win eleven further major singles titles – including a stunning 1970, in which she won all four majors to complete the calendar Grand Slam.
In a career spanning 16 years, Court retired with a win ratio of 95% in the Australian Open, and would even win three Grand Slam titles after becoming a mother – almost unheard of in the sport. She may not have covered herself in glory with some of her comments since retirement, but Court has to be considered amongst the best players in history when you factor in the sheer number of doubles Grand Slams she won in addition to her singles haul.
But can she hold a torch to Serena, whose 37 Grand Slam wins (23 singles, 14 doubles) have all come in the open, professional era?
Why Serena Williams Is the Best in History
Just writing some of Serena’s greatest achievements in tennis down simply fails to do them justice. In 1999, aged just 17, Williams won her maiden Grand Slam titles, and her powerful groundstrokes and aggressive soundtrack when hitting the ball immediately identified her as an outlier in a sport which was, for the most part, still heavily reliant on craft and guile.
She beat the world number one (Martina Hingis) and two (Lindsay Davenport) on her way to that US Open title, and as if to really shout her emergence from the rooftops she and Venus would also win the doubles title that same weekend – becoming the first African-American women in the professional era to win a major.
Won a Grand Slam Every Year Between 2007 & 2017
Between 2007 and 2017, Serena won at least one Grand Slam title every year – the anomaly, 2011, saw her miss the Australian and French Opens through injury. And, she twice held all of the majors at once – first in 2003, when she beat Venus in the final of the Australian Open having demolished the women’s ranks in the French and US Open and Wimbledon the year prior.
She repeated the feat in 2015 when winning the first three Grand Slam events of the year to go with the US Open title he claimed in the late summer of 2014. Injuries waylaid Serena’s career between 2010 and 2012, and it’s noteworthy that she would find redemption at one of her happiest hunting grounds – Wimbledon. She prevailed twice at SW19 in 2012, first by clinching a fifth Wimbledon crown and then in winning her sole singles Olympic gold medal at the same venue later that year.
Victory Against Steffi Graf
Serena would surpass the then second-most decorated female tennis player, Steffi Graf, with victory at the 2017 Australian Open – doing so while eight weeks pregnant with her daughter. She may never go on to level Margaret Court’s Grand Slam haul, but somehow you expect Serena Williams’ legacy in tennis and sport in general to far outlast her achievements on the court.