I remember way back when people actually thought there were any real rivals for Serena Williams in women’s tennis. Way, way back when there was still some question as to whether Serena could ever truly be better than her older sister Venus.
When they realized she had no true rival in the modern sense, they started comparing her to the all-time greats; Stephi Graff, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King.
Then, when Serena started smashing through tournament records, you had male commentators like John McEnroe proverbially jumping out the window to say how they could beat her.
When it was revealed that her quasi-rival Maria Sharapova was making more in endorsements than Williams, Serena just put her head down and kept winning. Honestly, it’s like they’re elevating Sharapova by even mentioning her in the same breath as Serena.
But a rivalry imparts some kind of competition.
For Serena, there really is no competition as she is 18-2 against her supposed “rival” Sharapova.
Every once in a while, an athlete comes along that is so physically outside of the norm that we have to make exceptions for them in our mind.
For LeBron James, there will always be those who say he’s supposed to be dominant because of his size and power. People make allotments for Cam Newton's physical attributes and durability. Oftentimes, the amazing accomplishments of athletes like Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal are downgraded because of their physical attributes. They literally tower over and overshadow the competition.
But one wonders, what else they could possibly say about Serena? All she does is win, dance and cash checks as the all-time leader among women’s tennis players of all-time, with $74 million in earnings.
She is 16-11 versus Venus, 7-6 versus Martina Hingis, 8-6 versus Justine Henin and 10-7 versus Jennifer Capriati. All of these rivalries started early in Williams’ career, and of them all, only Venus is still playing at Grand Slam events. Serena hasn’t lost to any of her so-called rivals in five years.
Today we find her hot on the heels of winning yet another Grand Slam after defeating Agnieszka Radwanska in straight sets and I am fast being indoctrinated in the belief that it is bad taste to even postulate whether any woman in the game of tennis can compare.
With a record of 741-123 (85.76 %) in her career, Serena is beyond reproach among her peers.
Powerful, explosive and fiery, Serena Williams is, barring a Super Bowl win by Cam Newton, the blackest champion in all of professional sports. Not aesthetically, but culturally.
Perhaps that’s the reason why her African-American fan base, one that would rarely be watching tennis otherwise, flock to see her play live and tune in to see how bad of a beating she will give her opponents when she's overseas.
Through it all, Williams has maintained her dignity, her decorum and her competitive fervor. At 30 years old, most tennis players would begin showing a noticeable drop off in physical ability. Not Serena.
Billie Jean King won her last singles Grand Slam in 1974 at the age of 31, Steffi Graf won her last Grand Slam (The French Open) in 1990 at 30.
Here Serena is at an age where many of the greatest names in her sport were already retired and we find her still cruising along as if she’s in her prime. The word "Incredible" is a huge understatement.
On Saturday, she aims to win her 22nd Grand Slam as she faces off against Angelique Kerber in the Australian Open, which would tie her for second all-time with Stefi Graff at 22. Williams is 5-1 versus Kerber.
There are those that say she is the greatest women's tennis player ever. Others think she has an argument to be the greatest tennis player ever, male or female, period.
But when are we going to truly start placing her in the proper context as the greatest individual athlete of the 21st century?