There are a lot of things we know for sure about Serena Williams.
She is one of the most famous female athletes in the world. She earned more money on the court in 2013 than any woman in the history of sports.
Her tennis career is already legendary. In singles alone, she's won 17 Grand Slams, an Olympic gold medal, and 57 titles. In doubles, she has 13 Grand Slams—all with her sister Venus, three gold medals and 22 titles.
There is no doubt she's the best player on the WTA Tour right now. As shown below by SI.com's Courtney Nguyen, her serve alone puts her in a category all by herself.
But one debate remains: Is Serena the best player ever?
It's a conversation that's been raging about Serena for years, one that used to be prefaced by phrases such as, "Perhaps if she dedicated herself to the sport more, she could be." But Serena's impressive rededication to the sport since her life-threatening pulmonary embolism in 2011 has certainly added validity to her candidacy.
Since coming back onto the tour in in June of 2011, Serena has gone 158-11 with 20 titles and four majors. The four majors are key—they bring her total haul to 17, just one behind Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who are in the No. 2 spot on the all-time list, and five behind Steffi Graf's GOAT-leading 22. (Margaret Court has 24, but most of those victories came before the Open Era began in 1973.)
Somehow, Williams seems to just be getting better with age. 2013 was definitely the most complete—and arguably the best—year of her legendary career. She earned a record-shattering $12,385,572, took home a career-high 11 titles, and won 78 matches—an astronomical 20 more wins than her previous best total, which came in 2012.
Serena's late-career surge has shot her up the list in all of the important categories in the best-ever debate: total wins, total titles and major victories. But what does she have to do in the upcoming year to leap to the head of the conversation?
Most importantly (and obviously), Serena needs to keep winning majors. She has won two majors each for the past two years, and it's important that she keeps up that pace if she wants to challenge Graf's 22. Even though she is aging extremely gracefully, Serena's age will eventually catch up with her. It happens to everyone. Since Serena is already 32 years old, it's likely that she only has two or three more years at the top of the game.
To get into the No. 2 on the Grand Slams list and stay within shouting distance of No. 1, she is going to have to win at least two majors in 2014.
But it's not solely about the majors. The past two years, Williams has no longer been a big-events-only competitor. Instead, she has brought her best tennis to every event she has played, a strategy that has allowed her to fine-tune and improve every aspect of her game, get into the best shape of her life and keep her confidence consistent throughout the year.
She needs to keep that consistency up, not only to keep her game and fitness in top shape, but to help build her resume. She is far behind Graf and others on the list of career titles and career wins, and every victory, be it big or small, helps her close the gap.
The day-in and day-out consistency will also help her stay at No. 1, which is crucial. Right now, Serena only has three years as the year-end No. 1, a number that ties her with Justine Henin, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis at No. 5 on the all-time list. She still trails Lindsay Davenport (4), Chris Evert (5), Martina Navratilova (7) and Steffi Graf (8).
Increasing her time at No. 1 will definitely strengthen her case as the GOAT, and considering her dominant head-to-heads over all the other top players on the WTA right now, if she plays consistently at all the events she enters in 2014, she should be able to hold on to the No. 1 ranking for at least one more year.
But the most important part of this equation is health. Serena has had injury issues throughout her career, and as she continues to climb into her 30s, staying healthy is only going to become more of a challenge.
In order to keep building her resume and adding to her surefire Hall of Fame career, Williams has to continue to stay injury-free. Luck has a lot to do with this, but she can help things along by staying fit, listening to her body and continuing to put the proper time into recovery.
No matter what, it's unlikely that Serena will come close to matching most of Graf's lofty career numbers, so the debate about the best player ever will continue. But if her 2014 is as dominant as her 2013 was, she will certainly make the conversation a lot more interesting.
We know that Serena is great—we're just going to have to watch how she finishes her career to find out how that greatness stacks up with history.
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