I’ve reached a fortunate age as a sports fan where I can remember the careers of the greats of multiple generations. I saw both LeBron and MJ in their primes (and unlike a lot of cats too young to remember the latter play, I have no use for a ‘who was better’ hot-take fest). I saw Barry Bonds play as a Pirate and a Giant, Ken Griffey Jr., A-Rod and Big Papi on the diamond. I’ve watched Tom Brady and Peyton Manning but also Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes. I’ve seen all of them play live, in-arena.
None of them was as good an athlete as Serena Williams. Hear me out.
Isn’t an argument against the greatness of any of those players or their athletic prowess. That LeBron and Brady are still playing at a high level in their late 30s and mid-40s, respectively, is astounding, even accounting for advances in nutrition, training and sports medicine that have kept elite players in the game longer, but both dominated in team sports where their success largely depended on the supporting casts around them. LeBron needed D-Wade and Chris Bosh to get over the hump in the NBA Finals and although Brady won a ring without his, ahem, partner in crime Bill Belichick, the stain of Spygate will follow him into the Hall of Fame.
Williams’ status as the greatest athlete of her time lies in her rule atop a sport in which she had to rely only on her skill and her ability to impose her will on whoever was on the other side of the net. For the better part of two decades, she didn’t just beat her opponents, she overwhelmed them as individuals. Along the way she consumed most of the oxygen allotted to her sport in the broader culture. She became ubiquitous, joining LeBron and Kobe and her sister Venus among the short list of American athletes whose first name alone was enough to open any door in the world.
Her 23 Grand Slam titles outstrip any other athlete in the history of her sport, male or female. But that’s only part of the story of her competitive nature. Williams also made it to 10 other Grand Slam finals, for a total of 33 appearances on the biggest stage in her sport. Tiger Woods, whose early career ascent tracked Williams’ in the late 90s and early 2000s, continues to play but has been on the downhill side of his dominance for at least a decade. These days, he’s still a draw for spectators but almost never a threat to win. Serena was, and is, always still in it.
Maybe the only other athlete to rival Williams’ dominance is Floyd Mayweather, the boxer who ended his career undefeated. Like Williams, Mayweather ran over the competition in his sport, often making his opponents look silly with a combination of speed and counterpunching that often made it look like he was playing chess to his rivals’ checkers. Mayweather’s sport, like tennis, is also a competition without geographic borders. But some of Mayweather’s biggest fights—against Shane Mosely and most famously, Manny Pacquaio, to name two, came later in his career against fighters past their primes. His bout with Canelo Alvarez was a match against an outmatched young buck who hadn’t yet grown in to the pound-for-pound dominance Alvarez enjoys now.