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What If Serena Williams Had Faced Tougher Rivals?

Aug 26, 2015

Always, the ever-tantalizing, ever-impossible discussion in every sport revolves around who's the greatest player ever. It's so difficult trying to compare champions from different eras, but it's a constant party game and especially in vogue now, as Serena Williams prepares to try to win the U.S. Open. Doing so would not only give her the first tennis Grand Slam since Steffi Graf won in 1988 but would give Williams her 22 major titles, tying Graf at the top of the tree.

Now, there are a lot of variables in these analyses, but the one that always intrigues me is not "How intrinsically good is the candidate for glory?" but "What was the level of her or his competition?"

I would submit, for example, that Muhammad Ali is usually rated above Joe Louis because Ali had to dramatically prove himself against another superb fighter, "Smokin' Joe" Frazier, while Louis went about his business beating up a succession of what were collectively known as "the bums of the month."

So, too, Serena. I'd be less of a gentleman to call a lot of her victims in Grand Slam finals the "bumettes" of the month, but case in point: If Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova — both of whom won 18 Slams — hadn't been contemporaries, at their best together, how many more Grand Slams could one or the other have won?

Click the audio link above to hear Deford's take on Serena Williams securing a spot in sports history.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The world's greatest tennis players are preparing for the U.S. Open, and our commentator Frank Deford is thinking about one player who could make history.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: Always the ever-tantalizing, ever-impossible discussion in every sport revolves around who's the greatest player ever. It's so difficult trying to compare champions from different eras, but it's a constant party game and especially in vogue now as Serena Williams prepares to try and win the U.S. Open, which would not only give her the first tennis Grand Slam since Steffi Graf won in 1988, but would give Williams her 22nd major title, tieing Graf at the top of the tree.

Now, there's a lot of variables in these analyses, but the one that always intrigues me is not how intrinsically good is the candidate for glory but what was the level of her or his competition? I would submit, for example, that Muhammad Ali is usually rated above Joe Louis because Ali had to dramatically prove himself against another superb fighter, Smokin' Joe Frazier, while Louis went about his business beating up a succession of what were known collectively as the bums of the month.

In a curiously contradictory way, it almost makes Ali better that Frazier beat him in one of their three epic wars.

Tiger Woods's fade these past few years has pretty much ended the debate about whether he deserved to be rated above Jack Nicklaus. But I always thought that Nicklaus was even better than his record because he had to contend with a succession of absolutely superb rivals - Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson - while Woods never had such superior opponents.

So to Serena, I'd be less of a gentleman to call a lot of her victims in Grand Slam finals the bumettes of the month. But case in point - if Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova - both of whom won 18 Slams - if they hadn't been contemporaries at their best together, how many more Grand Slams could one or the other have won? And Graf, whose record Williams is chasing. Monica Seles was absolutely dominating the game before she was stabbed by a crazy Graf fan. Only then did Steffi start winning titles again. Otherwise, it might be Seles's record, not Graf's, that Williams is trying to eclipse.

Of course, modern athletes are invariably stronger and more finely conditioned and in a sport like tennis have more advanced equipment than their forebears. If Serena, with her superb 21st century body, could be taken back in time, what old-fashioned champion could even begin to combat her? Still, I wish she'd had her Smokin' Joe, her Tom Watson, to stand in her path, to bring out even greater excellence under pressure.

Indisputably, whether or not she wins the Grand Slam, Serena's the most talented women's player ever. But does that make her the greatest champion? Sports history is not just all that you've done, but who you've done it to.

INSKEEP: That's Frank Deford, overpowering his generation of sports commentators most Wednesdays right here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.