The case for Serena Williams as greatest athlete of all time

By Tolly Taylor, Medill News Service
American Serena Williams returns the ball in her Womens Final match against Germany's Angelique Kerber at the 2016 Wimbledon Championships on July 9. Photo by Hugo Philpott/UPI
1 of 2 | American Serena Williams returns the ball in her Womens Final match against Germany's Angelique Kerber at the 2016 Wimbledon Championships on July 9. Photo by Hugo Philpott/UPI | License Photo

At Wimbledon last week, Serena Williams was asked what she thought about being "one of the greatest female athletes of all time." Her response: "I prefer the words 'one of the greatest athletes of all time.'"

That was two days before she won Wimbledon for the seventh time, tying the Open Era record (since 1968) for Grand Slam singles titles. The next day, she clinched her 14th Grand Slam doubles title.


Williams has been etching her place on the Mt. Rushmore of sports since she turned pro at 14 in 1995.

There's a slew of athletes to compare her with in the competition for greatest athlete. To make the cut, athletes must show a combination of dominance relative to peers, consistency, skill, grit and versatility. Icon or not, the final assessment is their athletic feats and nothing else.


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First, let's get her contemporaries out of the way. Her most accomplished peer over the last 10 years can't even be considered a rival—Maria Sharapova trails Williams 2-19 in their head-to-head and hasn't beaten the world No. 1 in more than a decade. Some rivalry.

Steffi Graf and Williams only overlapped for four years on the court, but that hasn't stopped the comparisons. Williams' victory over Angelique Kerber Saturday tied her with Graf at 22 Grand Slams, the most ever in the Open Era. Sure, Williams won't match Graf's best-ever 1988 season. Graf won all four grand slams and added a gold medal at the Olympics for good measure, tennis' only Golden Slam. Still, a single season, even a golden one, does not a career make. Graf's dominance wavered after nine years, while Williams shows no sign of slowing down after 20 years as a pro, and she's still the world's best at 34 years old.

If Williams' greatest weapon is her serve, Abby Wambach's is her head—literally. The former U.S. women's national soccer team captain owns the world record for international goals for both men and women with 184, and her preternatural ability to connect forehead to ball on crosses and corners helped her set that mark. Add her two Olympic gold medals and World Cup trophy, and she's clearly one of the best soccer players ever. But even if Wambach matches Williams' singles resume, there's Williams' doubles career to consider, and more importantly, the way she wins in doubles. Williams and her sister don't play many doubles tournaments besides the majors, and as a result, they're often unseeded. But it doesn't matter. The fearsome twosome have made 14 Grand Slam finals and haven't lost yet. Despite not specializing in doubles, the sisters are fifth all time on the Open Era women's slam list, and Serena's the main reason.


Roger Federer, a fellow 34-year-old who also tolerates constant chirping about his imminent decline, owns a men's-record 17 Grand Slam singles titles as well as an Olympic gold in doubles. He's one of five men in the Open era to win a career slam—winning each of the four majors at least once—and he's the only men's player to win five consecutive U.S. Open titles. But while Federer may well be the best men's player of all time, his Achilles heel in the debate remains Rafael Nadal, his greatest rival. The Spaniard has a 23-11 lead against the Swiss maestro, including a 9-2 record in Grand Slam matches.

Michael Jordan's resume is legendary, but here are a few of his accolades anyway. The former Chicago Bulls' star won six NBA championships, setting league records for highest career regular season scoring average and highest career playoff scoring average. There's a reason everyone wants to "be like Mike." Admittedly, Williams might need a few more slams to challenge "His Airness," but Williams' best argument for surpassing Jordan relies on what she still might do. Fair or not, Jordan's Bulls never dominated the NBA the way Bill Russell's Celtics did in the 1950s and 60s.


Muhammad Ali earned Olympic gold in 1960 before winning the WBA and WBC heavyweight titles in 1964, 1974 and 1978, retiring with a 56-5 record. "The People's Champion" beat most opponents before they even stepped in the ring with confidence-sapping trash talk, but if they came looking for a fight, his dancing feet, quick reflexes and rapid-fire punches put opponents on the mat. Viewed solely as a boxer, though, Ali never quite eclipsed Sugar Ray Robinson, who achieved a staggering 123-1 record during his first years in the ring.

Word is Williams has to beat Margaret Court's 24 majors to truly own the Grand Slam record, even though more than half of Court's slams came against amateurs before the Open Era.

If Williams does beat Court's mark, she can take her statement a step further and add another title to her resume – "Greatest."

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