There are few things that magazines, websites and blogs like better than a good “who or what is the greatest” article. It gives writers the chance to inflict their opinions on others and inevitably provokes controversy and debate as readers chip in as to how the Ferrari Testarossa is a better supercar than the Lamborghini Diablo or why Daniel Craig will never be as good a James Bond as Sean Connery.
When it comes to sport, the debate ratchets up a notch. Comparing the top achievers from different sports is difficult enough, but when you are also talking about different eras, it becomes an exercise in the futile. Still, even in a top ten in no particular order, there are certain names you are certain to see. These might include Joe Montana, Pele, Usain Bolt, Michael Schumacher, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Mohammed Ali and Michael Jordan to name just a few.
Different people from different eras with very little in common, right? Well, not exactly. Look at that list again and there is one fundamental thing they all share. In short, there’s a complete absence of female representation. In some ways, that is not surprising, not because women are any less talented in sport but because, for so many years, women’s sport has lagged behind the men in terms of spectator support, media coverage and funding. You need only look at the pay gaps between the top male and female players to see it. In soccer, for example, the top male player earns around 100 times more than his female counterpart, while in boxing, the difference between Saul Alvarez and Katie Taylor’s top pay days is a factor of almost 1000.
Yet there is one sport in which the divide, while still present, is far less pronounced. Over recent years, women’s tennis has attracted higher viewing figures than the men’s game. In part, that’s due to the nature of the serve producing fewer aces, more rallies and therefore a better spectacle. But it is also due to the pioneering and inspirational nature of one woman who has been at the top of the game for two decades and fully deserves a place on any all time list you can think of.
A legend of the game
Before we even consider anything else, let’s look at Serena Williams in purely sporting terms. Having turned pro at the age of 15, she has been on the professional tour since October 1995, almost a quarter of a century. Tennis players of either sex typically peak in their mid to late 20s and are past their best at 30, yet at age 38, Serena is still ranked in the top 10.
To put it bluntly, Serena has owned women’s tennis for two decades, and you have to feel a little sorry for other pros who have been unfortunate enough to be on the circuit in the Serena era. There are only two other players that have managed to grasp the number one spot more than twice during Serena’s dominance. One is Kim Clijsters and the other Maria Sharapova.
The latter seemed set to embark on a period of her own domination, yet over a 16 year period, Sharapova has won only three of her 23 professional encounters with Williams. Indeed, aside from one walkover last year when Williams had to pull out of the French Open, it’s been an incredible 15 years since Sharapova last beat Williams at the JP Morgan Chase Open in 2004 – that’s a run of 19 defeats for the Russian.
As for out and out victories, Serena is also comfortably at the top of the pile. By winning the Australian Open in 2017, she took her grand slam tally to 23 to go one ahead of Steffi Graf. Not only was she 35 years of age, but it later emerged that she was eight to nine weeks pregnant at the time. Her record also puts her comfortably ahead of the most successful male tennis star, Roger Federer, who has 20 grand slam titles to his name.
Achieving greatness in sport, or in any discipline, often takes more than skill and talent, however. It is this extra factor that catapults Serena to more than just a sporting legend and makes her an inspiration to girls and women across the globe.
Beating the opposition is one thing, but when your fiercest rival also happens to be your big sister, it adds a whole new dimension. Yet Serena and Venus’ dominance did not go down well in all circles. Until they arrived on the scene there was an embarrassing lack of non-white pros on the circuit, male or female, and both faced both casual and sometimes overt racial abuse on their journey to the top.
This culminated in the India Wells fiasco in 2001, when Venus withdrew from the semi final at short notice, citing a knee injury, to effectively allow her sister a free pass to the final. Media speculation that this had been orchestrated by Venus and Serena’s father Richard Williams led to booing from the crowd that took on ugly racist overtones. As recently as this year, the racial slurs have continued, including some outrageously obnoxious comments from a Romanian TV presenter.
Both sisters’ determination to inject their own style into their tennis has also attracted criticism. Their choice of clothing and accessories that added expression to the somewhat staid world of tennis whites resulted in frequent and very personal attacks from media commentators.
21st century influencer
As well as coming through this adversity with a world leading record and her head held high, Serena’s determination to do things her way has also earned her place as one of the biggest style icons to emerge from the world of sport.
On top of her many sponsorship and endorsement deals, both Puma and Nike have released special product lines bearing her name. In 2004, Serena released her own jewelry brand, Aneres, and last year, she launched the Serena clothing line.
Yet her influence goes way beyond fashion. Serena has proved that anything is possible. Even now, in the twilight of her career, she shows that same determination that has been core to her success, and this is what makes her one of the most influential women of our generation.