Whenever the conversation of world No.1 tennis player Serena Williams comes up she’s often referred to as the greatest female athlete ever. However, Nike just released an ad recently proclaiming Williams the greatest athlete ever, dropping “female” from the description.
I’ve always struggled with this conversation because it’s incredibly difficult to unequivocally crown someone greatest athlete ever. Think of all the potential candidates who come to mind: Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Serena Williams.
I named several people before Williams, not because she’s any lesser than the aforementioned but rather because we’re conditioned to think if we’re talking “greatest of all-time” in sports it has to be a man right?
Right. But that’s so wrong.
If you think about it the playing field was rigged against Williams before she even took the field. We never have and probably never will view sports played by women as equal to that of sports played by men.
Its clear Nike’s ad was an indictment against those who try to qualify Williams’ greatness by restricting it to just sports played by women.
My criteria for greatest athlete ever is going to be different than that of someone else. Some may look to wealth, status, or impact on the game as a mandate for what their greatest athlete of all time has to have. Some may look to a Muhammad Ali who combined dominance of his sport during a contentious time in history with impassioned activism.
I, on the other hand, value physical prowess, sustained dominance of their respective sport and overall contribution/elevation of the game.
The reality is you can’t compare a sport where success is incumbent on team effort with a sport where an individual is directly responsible for his/her success or failure.
So yes, it’s unfair to compare Williams the tennis player to James the basketball player because on any give night they have different factors working at hand. For instance, Jordan could be having the greatest game of his NBA life, score a ton of points, secure rebounds, steals and block shots and have his team still lose. Why? Not because he didn’t perform well, but because he has four other men on the court, a coaching staff and a bench to rely on.
On the flip side tournament after tournament, match after match, set after set, Williams is the master of her own fate. Whether she has a great night or an off night when she sits back and processes the results there’s only person whose culpable: Serena Williams.
Williams is coming up on more than a decade of dominance. Her countless accolades speak for themselves. She’s won four grand slam titles, a feat to become known as the “Serena Slam.”
Her current world No.1 ranking marks the sixth time in her career she’s held the honor. She holds the record for most singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles amongst any active player, male or female.
Her 22 Grand Slam single titles has her tied with Steffi Graf. The list goes on-and-on.
The argument that the absence of a true rivalry has hurt her candidacy for greatest athlete of all time is bogus. That’s out of her control. We as spectators and consumers tend to crave rivalries to fulfill our need to have the satisfaction of competition. But Williams has been so dominant that there has been no legitimate perceived threat to her position as alpha female in the sport.
Her storied rivalry with Maria Sharapova and I use the term storied pejoratively, was more lopsided than anything. Williams dominated the head-to-head matchup defeating Sharapova 19 out of 21 times they played.
She’s been at the top of her sport longer than any other female tennis player and longer than some of the marquis men’s tennis players such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
If you argue that she’s the greatest female tennis player of all time that’s fine, or even the greatest tennis player of all time I’m content with that. One thing that’s solidified is she’s one of the greatest sports athletes of all time.
People struggle with the thought of having a female called the greatest athlete ever because as a society we’ve yet to give female athletes and sports played by females the respect they richly deserve. That’s why we consciously and subconsciously use qualifier words such as “female,” “Black,” etc. when referring to Williams.
Maybe this Serena Williams debate is the start of something new.
Or, maybe not.
Williams might not be on your Mount Rushmore of greatest athletes of all-time, but she certainly made my list.
And I dare someone to argue otherwise.
Marcus Lamar is a New York-based sports journalist. You can check out his podcast “Marc My Words” on Soundcloud, YouTube and coming to iTunes soon. Follow him on Twitter @iam_marcuslamar.