Alan Pattullo: Is Serena Williams the greatest?

IT probably wasn’t the time to get into a debate about who was the greatest tennis player of all-time. But some were determined to have it anyway, even widening the scope to include all other sports.

Serena Williams parades the Venus Rosewater Dish after her victory against Garbine Muguruza at Wimbledon. Picture: Getty Images
Serena Williams parades the Venus Rosewater Dish after her victory against Garbine Muguruza at Wimbledon. Picture: Getty Images

Andy Murray barely had time to begin processing his crushing, disappointing defeat by Roger Federer on Friday, before he was being asked to dish out compliments to the Swiss, who had just delivered an admittedly awe-inspiring performance to defeat the Scot in straight sets.

How far is Federer, he was asked, from being considered one of the greatest sportsmen, not just tennis players, who ever lived? Murray had already been asked about Federer’s ability to reach such peaks given he is so shortly due to turn 34. Did it mark the Swiss out as something special?

Murray mentioned others who had gone on playing with success, such as Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors. But both suffered mid-career slumps that meant they were not challenging at the business ends of tournaments for periods, providing their bodies with some time to recover from the constant wear and tear of the professional tennis tour.

Roger Federer. Picture: Getty Images

Murray also mentioned someone else we mustn’t forget is still playing tennis in her mid-30s, and perhaps playing it better than ever: Serena Williams.

“I don’t know if anyone’s played as well as Roger at that age – Serena obviously on the women’s side is doing it,” pondered Murray, the sweat from his own earlier endeavours having barely dried upon his brow.

The Scot was admirably desperate to see Serena given the credit he clearly thinks she deserves, again slipping her name into that later discussion about the greatest sportspeople out there. Lionel Messi, he said, makes football look easy, which means he must be given consideration. But, Murray added, “Serena has got a fair shout at it, saying the same thing, right now as well.” He is right, of course.

The multiple-champion does have a very fair shout of being ranked among the elite of the elite. Particularly since she has been doing it for so long. Indeed, precisely because she has been doing it so long.

Federer turns 34 next month, Williams the month after that. She lifted her first Grand Slam title as long ago as 1999, when she won the US Open, before reaching another six finals, all against her sister Venus, all except for one in which she triumphed, by the time she’d turned 22, in 2003.

Federer, meanwhile, did not win his first Grand Slam title – at Wimbledon – until that same year, by which time Williams was already motoring towards her current Grand Slam singles haul of 21 (she has another 15 doubles titles).

Her longevity coupled with her physical condition commands awe, and is why the likes of Hillary Clinton, JK Rowling and Kobe Bryant, the American basketball star, were among those who took to Twitter to congratulate Williams following her sixth Wimbledon title on Saturday.

There was Tiger Woods yesterday, sitting solemnly in St Andrews trying to explain how he gets his head around being No 241 in the world, a decline that set in around the time he was trying to claim an injury to his head had been caused by driving into a fire hydrant. That was six years ago, and he’s barely challenged for a major since.

In a sport in which the physical demands are nowhere near as excessive, Woods, while clearly one of the greatest-ever golfers, has excelled for only an 11-year period, between 1997 and 2008. Williams was causing shocks in her first senior tennis tournament in 1997, when she defeated both Mary Pierce and Monica Seles. Both were top ten players at the time, and their mere presence in the Williams narrative illustrates the stretch of her career timeline. Indeed, it seems remarkable to consider that both Williams and Martina Hingis turned professional within just a few weeks of each other in the mid 1990s. Hingis’s return to prominence this year at Wimbledon, where she won both women’s doubles and mixed doubles events, has been treated as a blast from a very ancient past. Hingis has retired twice and come back again twice since making her bow with that famous Wimbledon win in 1996, at the age of just 16.

Williams took slightly longer to get going but now just keeps on keeping on. Not only that, she has kept on winning. Even Federer must surely give an elegant salute in her direction.