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Monday, September 9, 2013

Rare Air

Serena Williams, the number WTA one ranked women’s tennis player in the world, defeated #2 ranked Victoria Azarenka in the U.S. Open Finals in three sets to win her second Grand Slam singles event this year and the 17th of her career. Williams has been on a tear during the past two calendar years that the sports world has not seen in about 10 years, when Tigers Woods was running away with the PGA Tour, seemingly light years away from the pack. 

Williams has nine total singles tournament wins in 2013. She has four Grand Slam singles titles since 2012 and six (count them…SIX) in the last four calendar years. She has also been a Grand Slam singles runner-up four times in her career, last at the 2011 U.S. Open, twice losing a Grand Slam Final to her older sister, Venus Williams.  

Williams, right, rubbed out the next best player on the planet, Azarenka, left. That drop-off from #1 to #2 looks steep at the moment! 1

Nine days out of ten, this blog will comment on one of the five following categories of sports: the NFL, the NBA, MLB, college football, and college basketball. I am not a tennis enthusiast. I am a casual fan at best. I’ve taken a few whacks at ball with a racket with friends at recreational facilities. 

I couldn’t tell you any of the technical strategies in the game. I know the names of most of the past greats of the last 30 years but could not rattle off one defining moment by the year and event. Regarding tennis, I probably fit the profile of the typical American sports fan. Like you, I am a fan of sports and, probably like you, I am captivated by excellence. 

My garden-variety sports fan knowledge is significant because even to guys like me, the resume of Serena Williams, who turns 32 at the end of this month, is staggering. Noticing her overpowering dominance of her sport is unavoidable. Williams’ run of the last two years has vaulted her into the discussion about the greatest women’s tennis player(s) of all-time.

Maria sharapova: another one bites the dust at this year's French Open. 2

In a sport whose superstars are most dominant around age 25, Serena has been on the “wrong side” of that milestone. It makes her vanquishing of very formidable opponents, like the 24-year-old Azarenka, more spectacular. In a sport nearly void of American stars (especially among the men) and dominated by Eastern Europeans, Williams has kept the Red, White, and Blue at the top of the tennis mountain.

Among the Big Two country club sports, golf and tennis, much of the media attention has been focused on Woods, who is dominating all of the tournaments except for the big ones. If I never hear about Woods chasing down Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major tournament wins before Woods actually wins another major tournament, it will be too soon. Meanwhile, Williams probably need to expand her trophy room if she continues to perform anywhere near the level at which she has throughout this decade. 

Williams is currently sixth all-time among women’s tennis players for Grand Slam tournaments won (fourth all-time since the open era began in 1968), one short of International Tennis Hall of Famers Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Margaret Court is the all-time leader at 24 and Steffi Graf is the all-time Open Era leader at 22. I see nothing short of a debilitating injury to preclude Williams from eclipsing all of these milestones. Excellence in sports goes beyond the numbers, but should Williams play for another five years and win Grand Slam titles at the pace at which see has done so over the last four year, she would surpass Court with room to spare (Roger Federer is the men’s all-time leader with 17 Grand Slam singles titles).

Agnieszka Radwanska got the plate from the kiddie table at Wimbledon in 2012. 3

Taking athleticism, longevity, and winning into account, I do not think it is too soon to begin debating whether or not Williams is the greatest women’s player of all-time. People with more tennis knowledge than I have could craft compelling arguments for either side. Williams is in a rare position for an all-time great American athlete in any sport: she has an opportunity to erase any reasonable doubts.

Serena Williams vs Seffi Graf? Sports fans don't have a time machine, but most of us can count. That torch might be passed without argument. 4
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