Why Serena Williams' Dominance Against Top Foes Hurts Her Legacy

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistMay 31, 2015

Serena Williams clinches fist to signal the near end of her match against Victoria Azarenka in the third round of the 2015 French Open.
Serena Williams clinches fist to signal the near end of her match against Victoria Azarenka in the third round of the 2015 French Open.Clive Mason/Getty Images

Serena Williams moved a round closer to winning a 20th Grand Slam title, but took a step back in cementing her legacy. 

Apparently, Williams is so dominant that some members of the media have begun labeling her era as "weak."

Williams, down 3-6, 2-4, won the last four games in the final two sets to defeat Victoria Azarenka 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 to advance to the fourth round of the 2015 French Open. She is 9-0 against Azarenka in Grand Slams. She next faces Sloane Stephens, a woman who has beaten her once, at the 2013 Australian Open.

Williams has now won 50 matches at each Grand Slam. She's the first woman to win 50 or more matches at all four slams. No matter what happens in the second week at Roland Garros, Williams will retain her No. 1 ranking for a 118th consecutive week, already third-best all-time. 

As she edges closer to her 34th birthday, Williams extends her record as the oldest woman to hold the No. 1 ranking, a milestone she reached at age 31. She's topped $67 million in prize money, the most earned by any woman in the history of sports. Last year, the New Yorker declared her America's greatest athlete.

Still, with each milestone Williams surpasses comes a new set of criteria. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova's 18 Slams once served as the benchmark for greatness. Six years ago, those records appeared out of Williams' reach. Steffi Graf's 22 seemed impossible.

Now that Williams has 19 Slams and 22 within reach, some in the media have placed a roadblock in the path toward greatest of all time: the era in which she plays.

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PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 30:  Serena Williams of the United States celebrates a point in her Women's Singles match against Victoria Azarenka of Belarus on day seven of the 2015 French Open at Roland Garros on May 30, 2015 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Clive Bru
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Simon Veness, of Skysports, believes Williams can "never be the greatest," based on the "lack of competition" in her era. He even used the ease in which she reached the 2013 French Open final to make his argument. (Maybe Veness was asleep when Williams had to come from behind against 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova.) 

After Williams defeated Maria Sharapova in the 2015 Australian Open, David Lariviere, a contributor to Forbes.com, wrote that even if Williams wins 23 Grand Slams, he would still consider Graf the greatest of all time. 

Just prior to the French Open, ESPNW writers Melissa Isaacson and Adena Andrews debated about whether the lack of a rival hurt Williams' case for greatest of all time. Isaacson argued that "any semblance of a real rivalry is largely left to our imaginations, which is the same that can be said for Williams' entire career."


Meanwhile, Andrews dismissed Isaacson's stance as silly, pointing out that "It's not like Serena plays against a bunch of scrubs."

Indeed, Williams may have no rival her equal. However, she's had tremendous competition. Her opponents includes several Hall of Famers, and players who have won multiple Grand Slams. A few overlap into Graf's era.

Williams' biggest rival was her sister, Venus Williams, against whom she has a 14-11 record. Other competitors include Maria Sharapova, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Li Na, Mary Pierce and Jennifer Capriati. All of those players are either in or headed to the Hall of Fame. 

Williams has a winning record against every single last one of them. 

Chris Evert, winner of 18 Grand Slams, told The Desert Sun's Andrew L. John that lack of a rival underscores Williams' dominance. Evert believes having no rival or near equal proves Williams is the greatest of all time: "That's why you have to really consider Serena the greatest of all-time. She's never had a rival. The only rival she ever had was her sister in the early years...When the chips were down, she still beat everybody." 

Serena Williams is flanked by 18-time Grand Slam winners Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert at the 2014 U.S. Open trophy ceremony.
Serena Williams is flanked by 18-time Grand Slam winners Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert at the 2014 U.S. Open trophy ceremony.Julian Finney/Getty Images

Yet beating everybody is somehow considered a negative. 

What or who defines a weak era? When NBA greats such as Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan talk about the more physical play in the 1980s and '90s, they have rules changes and plenty of video evidence. 

However, when tennis greats such as Evert and John McEnroe are asked to compare eras, they use the "eyeball test." Back in 2012, McEnroe told BBC Sport"I've seen them all, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert was a machine... Monica Seles, Steffi Graf but I believe we're watching the greatest female player that's ever played this game."

That was five Slam titles ago. 

Former No. 1 Tracy Austin told ESPN columnist Johnette Howard that "I can't think of anybody—even Roger Federerwho holds the outcome on their racket more in every match than Serena."

Howard spoke to several retired players about how they rate Williams' career against other all-time greats. 

Pam Shriver thinks Williams' longevity separates her from Graf. Shriver pointed out that Graf won her first Grand Slam in 1987 and last in 1999. Williams won her first Slam in 1999 and is still going. "To me, Serena's longevity is one of those are-you-kidding-me stats," Shriver told Howard. 

Then there is head-to-head competition. During Graf's era, she often clashed with Seles, Davenport and Gabriela Sabatini. Graf holds a 28-11 edge over Sabatini. Graf was 8-6 against Davenport and 10-5 against Seles.

She won five of her first seven meetings against Seles. Then Seles began to turn the tables. Between 1991 and 1993, the year she was stabbed, Seles won three of four matches against Graf, all in Grand Slam finals.

Williams has a 4-1 record against Seles. She is 1-1 against Graf. She is 7-2 against Clijsters, 7-6 over Hingis, 10-7 against Capriati, 5-1 against Pierce, 8-6 against Henin and 10-4 against Davenport.

But some would rather dismiss Williams' head-to-head against some of the all-time greats and lament about "lack of competition" for her in the last years of her career.  


Her lopsided records against Sharapova (17-2), Azarenka (16-3) and Petra Kvitova (5-1) prove Williams has gotten better. Remember, 10 years ago, she was 1-2 against Sharapova. Early in her career, Williams was 1-5 against Venus. 

In a press conference leading up to their match at the Australian Open, a reporter asked Williams about Sharapova as a rival. Williams told reporters, "I think she's been a wonderful player this era. She's so consistent." 

What's she supposed to do? Apologize for greatness? Sharapova has won five Slams. She's defending a French Open title for the second time in two years. She's one of the tallest women in the history of the game and packs a monstrous forehand. Where are these weak players? 

If journalists are going to hold a modern-era player's competition against her, why not prop up a player from the 1920s over Billie Jean King? Back in those days, women wore long skirts. Tougher to pull off that drive volley. 

Serena Williams shakes hands with Victoria Azarenka after their third-round match.
Serena Williams shakes hands with Victoria Azarenka after their third-round match.Clive Mason/Getty Images

Holding Williams' dominance against her is media-manufactured nonsense. Unfortunately, journalists are de facto historians. How they cover an era contributes to how it's defined. If enough sports journalists label Williams' competitors as weak, they minimize her accomplishments. 

Whether a systematic or random reach to diminish her stature, the "weak era" references are growing and ongoing.

What can Williams do about the era in which she was born? Nothing.

However, she can do something about the doubters, critics and naysayers. Keep winning. Continue dominating. Soar over manufactured hurdles. Destroy new benchmarks. Obliterate the record books, leaving them tattered and in shreds.  

Keep doing Serena and erase all doubts. 

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