Serena Williams, for long, has had to live in Steffi Graf’s shadow. Her achievements, on their own notwithstanding, most experts around the world needed her to win a 22nd Grand Slam title, to be called the greatest. Well, that is what the stats demanded.
Now that she has, this may be the best time to compare the two.
The stats of the two, if looked at in a hurry, might give the German a slight edge. Of course, Steffi has spent 377 weeks at No.1 in the rankings, while Serena has been there only for 300 weeks. And yes, Steffi Graf has won 107 career singles titles, as compared to the American’s 71.
Numbers though, can sometimes lie - at least at first glance.
Serena Williams and Steffi Graf have been equally consistent in the rankings over the span of their careers. Except in 2005-06, when she was suffering from recurring injuries and depression, and in 2011, when she was recovering from pulmonary embolism and hematoma, Serena has consistently been in the top 10, and is now the top-ranked player in the world. This is no mean feat, with the women’s circuit churning out talented players every year, and new challengers, with greater belief, taking on the world.
While Steffi achieved the ultimate accomplishment for a tennis player, the Golden Slam, the American has a ‘Serena Slam’ to her name. The way they have collected Grand Slam titles over the years though, is unique, with both of them following a different pattern.
Although Serena seems to have collected her major titles steadily, over the years, Steffi seems to have done it in short bursts. She won seven titles in two years, 1988-1989, three in 1993 and six in 1995-1996. These bursts, co-incidentally are the same periods when Monica Seles, Steffi’s biggest rival, was not around. Seles came onto the scene in 1988, and her first Grand Slam win was in 1990. The former Yugoslavian world No.1 was stabbed after the Australian Open in 1993, and only returned to the tour in 1995. Seles could never reach her best after that horrific incident, managing to win only one Grand Slam. Graf’s lack of titles after her 1999 French Open victory, was also at the same time Martina Hingis and Davenport were rising up the ranks.
Serena, on the other hand, seems to have done it more steadily. Though her first title was in 1999, she established herself beginning from 2002. The absence of Grand Slams in her kitty, again, is during the periods when she was unfit, mentally or physically.
The quality of a sportsperson, their greatness can only be truly measured by the calibre of the opposition they had to go against. Struggling to win intense battles, having to sweat for each victory, facing the ignominy of defeat, and then coming back stronger, is the mark of a true champion. Let us take a look at the total number of Grand Slam titles that their biggest contemporaries won. It is pointless considering Navratilova as Steffi’s rival, as she was past her prime by the time Steffi began to shine. Same with Steffi, as Serena’s contemporary.
It is clear that the quality of opposition that Serena had to face was much higher. Her contemporaries, leaving out one-slam wonders, won a whopping 35 major titles when Serena could not. Steffi’s rivals, meanwhile won a relatively miserly 21. Out of these, the majority of them, 9, again, were won by Monica Seles. What heights Seles would have reached if not for the stabbing incident is anyone’s guess, but that Steffi benfitted from her absence (for no fault of her own), is visible.
Serena had to fight against players who were also reaching their peak at the same time as her. Sister Venus Williams, Henin-Hardene, Kim Clijsters, and Maria Sharapova are only a few names on the long list.
The opposite can be argued, that Serena Williams wasn’t dominant enough as a player. But Monica Seles won six Grand Slams in two years, and Steffi had no answer to the Yugoslovian’s splendid form. Serena meanwhile, was constantly challenged by strong opposition. While she found herself regularly beating her sister after intial losses, she also brushed aside a number of players who were pegged to be her challengers. Sharapova can be shown as a prime example of it, winning only twice in their 21 encounters. Victoria Azarenka could only get the better of her 4 times, and Kvitova only once. The level of opposition Serena came up against was very high, but she managed to raise her game to match them, every time.
One major factor that stasmen, experts and fans seem to have conveniently ignored is the number of events that Serena has had to participate and win, alongside her 22 Grand Slam singles titles. She has 14 major doubles titles to her name, and 2 mixed doubles titles. All this, along with her grueling singles campaign. Steffi has only one doubles title, at Wimbledon in 1998, and one Olympic gold. Serena has four golds at the quadrennial event, including a 2012 singles gold at London.
Clearly, Serena has had to work harder to reach #22. She had to battle opponents of a higher order and also fatigue, not to mention the racist, sexist discrimination and the collective, unexplained hatred she had to go against.
On top of this, she does not appear to be stopping anytime soon. Serena Williams is 34, and time seems nowhere close to catching up with her. Serena may not be labelled as the greatest ever already, but if she wins one more Grand Slam, which seems inevitable, comparisons with the legendary Steffi Graf can be put in the backburner.
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