Serena Williams sounded off this week about race and gender issues in sports. In an interview with rapper Common for ESPN’s “The Undefeated” Williams claimed, “if I were a man, I would have 100 percent been considered the greatest ever a long time ago.” The funny part about her comment is that Williams isn’t even the greatest tennis player of all time for a woman. The more I think about it, the more I think that it’s a title that should go to Monica Seles.
There is a major bias in sports debating where whoever is contemporary gets some disproportionate consideration for being the Greatest of All Time (i.e.,. the GOAT). Something like that happened in the NBA with Kobe Bryant. In five years time it would not surprise me if Steph Curry or Lebron James was lauded as the greatest ever for reasons largely having to do with them being fresh in the public’s mind. In this way Serena, as the GOAT for women’s tennis, is going to be fashionable as her career winds down.
When the greatest-ever lists are compiled invariably career stats are looked at, and titles get counted. Those stats are certainly a big part of the debating, but there’s plenty of room for intuition in my opinion. Anyone that doesn’t do more than just count isn’t invoking anything significant into the debate.
But counting is a fair starting point and when it comes to Monica Seles, let’s count to eight and then lets count to nineteen, because Seles had eight Grand Slam titles before she was 20. The best 19-year-old right now is probably Belinda Bencic, yet she hasn’t made one Grand Slam semifinal to date. Seles, the day she turned 20, had already won eight Grand Slams outright.
Seles, in her late teens, was generally beating Steffi Graf, the player that was considered to be the No. 1 women’s player in ESPN’s list from last summer. But any tennis fan who remembers the spring of 1993 will remember what happened shortly after Seles beat Graf in the 1993 Australian Open final. A knife-wielding pro-Steffi fan literally stabbed Seles in the back. Great or not, everyone has a breaking point, and Seles’ career would never be the same for mental and physical reasons despite one more major win after a long recovery.
Serena Williams came on the scene in the late 1990s, winning one piddly Grand Slam title at the 1999 US Open before she turned 20. Williams early career achievements also saw titles at the 2002 US Open, Wimbledon 2002 and 2003, the 2002 French Open, and the 2003 Australian Open. Those are all tournaments that Monica Seles, who was born in 1973, might have won if not for the effects of the stabbing changing her.
You can’t enter the GOAT debate without addressing that stabbing. In fact, anyone who is ‘agnostic’ about Monica Seles as the greatest ever isn’t a serious part of the debate. If counting titles was all it took, then your average nacho eater, drunk at the pub, would be able to answer the GOAT question.
From a tennis point of view, an attack like the one on Seles – or Petra Kvitova – is more of a tragedy than missed time from a tennis injury. Players can actually curtail the latter with proper nutrition, hydration, and training timetables. But getting stabbed in the back or, in Kvitova’s case, the hand is out of the blue and not reflective on a player’s abilities. Tennis analysts should, therefore, control for such occurrences in their conclusions regarding the GOAT.
On that matter, I don’t doubt for a split second that Seles would easily have something like 15 to 20 Grand Slams if not for the stabbing. She was a total tennis ascetic who was starting to beat Graf consistently. I actually think Seles gets to 25 majors if not for the stabbing and that she takes away some early-career Slams from Serena Williams and plenty of late-career Slams from Graf. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Seles wins a major as late as 35 years old in the parallel universe where she doesn’t get stabbed.
Some sports ‘pundits’ out there will say that you can’t go into a parallel universe, but you can only analyze what happens. If these ‘pundits’ are pro-Serena then let’s review what Serena herself said on the matter: “if I were a man,” she said, “I would have 100 percent been considered the greatest ever a long time ago.”
Serena is the one that wants to play the parallel-universe game where she’s a man, not a woman. She’s the one claiming what would happen if the world was different than it is. So how about going into a parallel universe where Seles doesn’t get stabbed? Serena and her fans don’t want to go there because the conclusions are threatening. Seles had EIGHT Grand Slams when she was NINETEEN. That’s a freaky total for that age, and it wasn’t due to weak competition with Graf still in her prime.
If the stabbing didn’t break Seles, then I think Serena would have 18 or less Grand Slams right now, and Steffi finishes about the same with Seles holding 23+. If Serena wants to talk about a parallel universe, then she can start by talking about that one. Serena’s career totals benefited from a freak attack in the middle of a tennis match from a crazed fan. It made young-Serena’s draws a little fluffier to not have to battle the Seles we saw in the early 1990s, the greatest tennis that certainly I’ve ever seen.
Seles didn’t retire after the stabbing, in fact she went 1-4 against Serena. But that attack changed her for the worse, and I think it allowed Williams to bloom early. That early blooming still was nowhere near what Seles did. I’ll say that Williams as the GOAT isn’t a terrible opinion, but I really think it’s a simple one for people that don’t think too hard.