Less than two months ago, ESPN celebrated the 40th anniversary of Title IX by ranking the 40 greatest female athletes of the past 40 years. Coming in at number ten was Serena Williams, trailing only Steffi Graf, Nadia Comaneci, Chris Evert, Bonnie Blair, Lisa Leslie, Annika Sorenstam, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Martina Navratilova and, at number one, Mia Hamm. Of that list, Williams is the sixth highest American if Navratilova is included (she has dual citizenship with the Czech Republic and has competed as a citizen of both countries).
Only 42 days after Hamm's name was unveiled, the question begs to be asked: Has she been surpassed by Serena Williams?
Williams has certainly made the case that she belongs higher on the list. Since the list was published, she took home two Wimbledon titles, the women's singles and women's doubles crowns. Including singles, doubles and mixed doubles, this raises her all-time Grand Slam championship count to 29, seven more than Chris Evert, but far behind Martina Navratilova's astonishing 59.
Williams has twice before ascended the Olympic medal podium, once in Sydney and once in Beijing, to collect her gold for women's doubles. She has yet to win an individual gold at the Olympics. Most recently in Beijing, she was bounced out by Elena Dementieva of Russia in the quarterfinals.
In her attempt to win her first individual gold, Williams is off to an outstanding start in London. She beat eighth-seeded Caroline Wozniacki (6-0, 6-3), then dismissed top-seeded Victoria Azarenka (6-1, 6-2). Tomorrow she will face her arch-rival Maria Sharapova, winner of this year's French Open. She is also still in the running for her third doubles gold.
A gold medal for Serena would put her ahead of Maria Sharapova as the top women's tennis player of 2012, at least until the U.S. Open. That would mean that she's been one of the top players in her sport for 14 years, and the most dominant player for the past decade.
By comparison, Bonnie Blair only dominated her sport for six years and Jackie Joyner-Kersee for between four and eight years. Mia Hamm, who was one of the top soccer players in the world for over a decade, can boast similar length of supremacy to Williams. Navratilova was only at the top of the singles' game for nine years, but was a top doubles player for 16 years and a top mixed doubles player for more than three decades.
It is a tough challenge to compare athletes across different sports. When ESPN named their Top 100 Athletes of the 20th Century, their top ten athletes represented nine different sports—if men's and women's sports are counted separately and the tricky case of Jim Thorpe is ignored—and truthfully any could have credibly been put at the top of the list. Can anyone confidently say that Michael Jordan was greater than Jack Nicklaus, Wayne Gretzky or Jesse Owens?
What can be said with certainty is that Serena Williams has dominated women's tennis like no one since Martina Navratilova, with only Chris Evert posing a serious challenge. Serena is still playing at the top of her game, and as she continues to add hardware to her trophy case, she is making a stronger and stronger case that she is the top female American athlete of all-time. An Olympic gold in the singles game would only add to that legacy, and push her even closer to the top spot by the time of the 50th anniversary of Title IX.