Synopsis: Based on the overwhelming fan support Serena Williams received during the 2018 U.S. Open, this post will not be well liked. I certainly cannot deny Serena’s dominance of women’s tennis over the last 20 years. Of note, she impressively has won almost 30% of all Grand Slams contested since her first title at the 1999 U.S. Open. At the same time, an objective observer cannot deny that the younger Williams sister has a bad temper. She has proven to be an accomplished athlete who serves as an inspiration to many. Still, I have nominated her as a T10B Busted nominee because of the excuses she has given to defend her lack of decorum on the court.
T10B Busted nominee: Serena Williams
As an insomniac, I love the U.S. Open. I particularly enjoy being able to watch compelling tennis well past midnight. The 2018 tournament had plenty of rich subtext due to the incredible heat that resulted in an unprecedented number of retirements. By winning the men’s title, Novak Djokovic tied Pete Sampras for 3rd place all-time with 14 Grand Slam titles. Regardless, the tournament will be remembered most for how chair umpire Carlos Ramos “stole” Serena Williams’ opportunity to tie Margaret Court for the most Grand Slam titles (24) by any man or woman. While I don’t agree with Ramos’ handling of the situation, he has endured undue criticism because Serena earned the code violations.
While I love the U.S. Open for an obscure reason, I love my wife because she offers me her unconditional support. She’s the only person who “likes” all of my Tweets regardless of content. As a Serena superfan, she won’t like the content of this article. However, as a the “#1 Tennis Mom,” she should appreciate what I’m about to write.
#1 TENNIS MOM
When I first met my wife in college 30 years ago, I knew she would be a great mother. After 23 years of marriage, I can confirm my initial instincts were correct. I especially enjoy seeing her in action as if she’s a mother bear when anyone goes after her cubs.
I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but our daughter fell in love with tennis from the start. For years, our family spent every Saturday morning watching her practice. During one of those practices, I watched another young girl have a compete meltdown on the next court. I told my daughter that I would pull her off of the court permanently if I ever saw her act that way. Perhaps, I gave the wrong advice because that other girl has gone on to become professional tennis player with numerous Grand Slam appearances. Then again, our daughter has become a well-balanced adult with confidence and grace so I have no complaints.
With respect to becoming a professional tennis player, the funnel starts early. As a nationally ranked under-10 player, our daughter was in the funnel. She was invited to a USTA clinic during which I heard that “supportive” parents should home school their kids in order to give them enough time to become great players. My interest waned immediately due to the ridiculous demand. In contrast, my wife remained committed. She continued to watch countless practices, drive hundreds of miles for tournaments, and provide support after tough matches. By no means did she ever question the value of a good education, but she did everything else possible to support our daughter’s dream.
Thanks to my wife’s commitment, our daughter stayed in the funnel until the age of 12 or 13. She played 1-2 hours per day and went to 1-2 tournaments per month. With the benefit of home schooling, the top girls were playing 3-4 hours a day and going to a tournament every weekend. The gap just became to great to overcome. Regardless, our daughter stayed with the sport and still plays competitive tennis in college. I proudly say that her team finished 3rd in the USTA College National Championship last year with her playing both women’s and mixed doubles. For her ongoing success, we all say, “Thanks Mom. Without you, none of this would have been possible.”
WHERE ARE THE 2ND GENERATION PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYERS?
Given the statistical improbability of greatness, it shouldn’t be surprising that all-time great athletes don’t have children who exceed their achievements. Regardless, there still are numerous examples of successful offspring in most sports. I offer Ken Griffey and Ken Griffey Jr. in baseball, Archie and Peyton Manning in football, Del and Steph Curry in basketball, and Bobby and Brett Hull in hockey.
In contrast, can you think of one professional tennis player whose parent also played the sport professionally? Genetically speaking, Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi should be able to produce the all-time greatest tennis players. However, their kids don’t play competitive tennis. After experiencing the demands of raising a potential future tennis star first hand, I get it. The commitment to be great in tennis is all-consuming. It’s hard to put your child through the same punishment when you’ve already done it.
GREATEST ATHLETES OF THE 21st CENTURY
Whereas most sports reporters tend to have a bias as if only modern-day athletes can be the greatest ever, I try to maintain a historical perspective that doesn’t minimize what I haven’t seen. I never saw Babe Ruth, Jim Brown, or Wilt Chamberlain play, but I can appreciate that they may have been the best ever to have played their respective sports.
I could offer various statistics to support my assessment of what defines greatness, but I’ll simply refer to the “eye test.” Specifically, I have seen four athletes against whom I would never bet.
- Joe Montana in the Super Bowl.
- Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals (or at the end of any game for that matter).
- Tiger Woods with a 54-hole lead (or in any event before Thanksgiving 2008).
- Barry Bonds at the plate from 2000-04 (admittedly while he used PEDs).
With respect to these four superstars, Woods is the only one whose career primarily occurred after 1999. I’m not going out on a limb predicting that he will be regarded as one of the five greatest athletes of the 21st century. For all that he has accomplished, Tiger’s biggest contribution may be financial. He single-handedly tripled the purse of golf events because so many viewers tuned in to watch him. For the first time in five years, Tiger just returned to the winner’s cycle (after holding a 54-hole lead) at the 2018 Tour Championship. Given the 200% jump in ratings (on an NFL Sunday), fellow PGA professionals should be thankful (and scared) that he seems to be back.
As the current NFL GOAT, Tom Brady also should make that Top 5 list based on his five championship rings. My son insists that Brady’s 5-2 record in the Super Bowl is better than Montana’s 4-0 record. I respectfully disagree because I watched Brady win one of his titles from the sidelines after Seattle Head Coach Pete Carroll refused to go “Beast Mode” in Super Bowl XLIX. Furthermore, Brady failed when given a chance to lead a last-minute game-winning drive against the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. Mr. Gisele Bundchen still may be the best ever, but he’s not invincible or someone against whom I would never bet.
The only other current athlete who deserves consideration for a Top 5 spot on the all-century list is Serena Williams. I respect the accomplishments of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novac Djokovic on the men’s side, but their collective success will obscure their dominance as individuals. In contrast, Serena has dominated women’s tennis without an equal for almost two decades.
After re-reading the previous paragraph, I realized that I needed to provide some numbers to support my statements. As of now, Federer (20), Nadal (17) and Djokovic (14) have the most men’s Grand Slam titles in history. Since Federer won his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2003, the three of them have won over 3/4 of all available titles.
MEN’S GRAND SLAM TITLES SINCE FEDERER’S FIRST
Simply based on his advantage in Grand Slam titles, Federer arguably deserves to be considered the GOAT. However, the numbers need further dissection.
As shown above, Federer has won over 30% of all Grand Slams since winning his first. In comparison, Nadal has won 29% and Djokovic has won 35% of all Grand Slams since winning their first titles (2005 French Open for Nadal and 2009 Australian Open for Djokovic). Based on this stat and his age (i.e. best chance to win more titles), the Djoker still has a chance to end his career as the GOAT.
FEDERER / NADAL / DJOKOVIC HEAD-TO-HEAD COMPARISONS
Even though he trails the other two in total titles or winning percentage, Nadal holds a head-to-head advantage against his greatest foes.
Nadal vs. Federer
- Nadal has a 9-3 advantage in Grand Slam events.
- 5-0 at the French Open and 4-3 at all others.
- Nadal has a 6-3 advantage in Grand Slam finals.
- 4-0 at the French Open and 2-3 at all others.
Nadal vs. Djokovic
- Nadal has a 9-5 advantage in Grand Slam events
- 6-1 at the French Open, 2-3 at all others.
- Nadal has a 4-3 advantage in Grand Slam finals
- 2-0 at the French Open and 2-3 at all others.
Djokovic vs. Federer
- Djokovic has a 9-6 advantage in Grand Slam events.
- Djokovic has a 3-1 advantage in Grand Slam finals.
With 11 of his 17 Grand Slam titles at Roland Garros, Nadal’s achievements on grass and hard court sometimes get minimized. I separated Nadal’s advantage over Federer and Djokovic at the French Open in the previous bullet points, but I’m not going to discount his dominance on clay. Rafa simply has a superior record against both Roger and Novak in Grand Slam events. As such, he has a legitimate claim to be considered the GOAT.
Overall, the numbers confirm my previous statement that the collective success of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic obscures the individual dominance of each one. In contrast, Serena’s individual dominance over women’s tennis for the last 20 years cannot be denied.
WOMEN GRAND SLAM TITLES SINCE SERENA’S FIRST
In case it’s not obvious, there’s no need to parse the data to prove anyone else belongs in the conversation. However, before extending the conversation to Serena’s qualifications as the GOAT, I need to provide an important caveat.
SERENA VS. VENUS (Sister Rivalry)
- Serena has a 11-5 record against her sister Venus in Grand Slams.
- 7-2 in the finals.
- 4-3 in earlier rounds (3-3 before her victory in the round of 32 at the 2018 U.S. Open).
- In all other events, Serena has a 7-7 record against her sister.
Early in the “rivalry,” I watched matches between the Williams sisters hoping to see compelling tennis. Unfortunately, it seemed as if the outcomes had been predetermined based on which sister would benefit more from a victory. As a result, I’ve never found anything compelling about watching them play each other.
Now that Serena winning Grand Slam titles is the only thing that matters, we never see the mastermind (i.e. Richard Williams) anymore. At the same time, I don’t blame Mr. Williams because he fathered two of the greatest tennis players in history. I just wish he let them play legitimately throughout their careers.
Instead of comparing Serena to her contemporaries, it’s only fair to evaluate her versus the all-time greats from other generations. Based on Grand Slams won, the following table highlights the best of the best.
ALL-TIME WOMEN’S GRAND SLAM TITLES
|Helen Wills Moody||19|
|Billie Jean King||12|
As the only minority on this list, Serena deserves utmost credit for her accomplishments in a primarily Caucasian sport. At the same time, I can’t discount the seven victories she earned over her sister in Grand Slam finals. I’m not claiming that Venus threw the matches. However, it’s hard to avoid the lack of competitiveness she showed when playing against her little sister.
By the way, there are other caveats that need to discussed with respect to the previous table. Of note, Steffi Graf won 11 of her 22 Grand Slam titles after Monica Seles got stabbed by a pro-Graf lunatic. Prior to attack, Seles had won eight out of 12 Grand Slams while Graf had only won two. Additionally, Chris Evert lost 10 out of 14 Grand Slam finals to Martina Navratilova. If Martina had taken a “sisterly” approach to the rivalry, Evert may have come close to Court’s total of 24 titles. Then again, the former Mrs. Greg Norman loves herself enough that I don’t need to help her case to be ranked any higher than she already is.
I this post with the intent of exposing Serena Williams’ questionable on-court behavior. With respect to her actions in the 2018 U.S. Open Finals against Naomi Osaka, she received three code violations.
- Her coach admitted to coaching her during the match, which is against the rules of the sport. The umpire, Carlos Ramos, saw him break the rule and granted Serena a warning.
- After losing a tough game, Serena slammed her racket on the ground. Per the rules of the sport, she justifiably earned a 1-point penalty for a second code violation.
- Still fuming over the previous penalty, Williams engaged in a verbal attack on the umpire by calling him a “thief” for stealing a point from her. She emphasized that she rather lose than cheat and demanded an apology on behalf of her daughter.
If I were Kevin Bacon acting as the prosecuting attorney in A Few Good Men, I would say, “These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.” Unfortunately for Serena, Tom Cruise did not show up and argue that USTA ordered a “Code Red.” Instead, she tried to dismiss the facts by claiming that Ramos must be sexist because men have gotten away with a lot more.
To be fair, I’ll go through each of the violations to see if she has a legitimate claim.
- #1: Code violation due to coaching.
Testimony: Serena claimed that she doesn’t cheat (i.e. receive coaching during a match). Based on her passion while arguing that she rather lose than cheat, she seemed believable. Unfortunately, her coach separately admitted that he tried to help her (i.e. cheat) during the match.
Verdict: BUSTED! The coach’s admission directly contradicts Serena’s statement that she doesn’t cheat. While she may not have seen her coach signal her at that exact moment, her statement that they don’t have signals is categorically false. Unlike her coach, Serena didn’t make the “everyone does it” excuse. Why? Because it doesn’t work. If you doubt me, use it the next time you get pulled over for speeding.
- #2: Code violation due to a destroyed racket.
Testimony: Serena clearly destroyed her racket after slamming it to the ground.
Verdict: BUSTED! Relative to all of the violations, this one is indisputable. Interestingly, Ramos called the same violation on Marin Cilic in a Davis Cup match several days after calling it on Serena. So much for him being sexist.
- #3: Code violation for verbal abuse against the umpire
Testimony: If you didn’t click the link earlier, here’s another chance to view Serena’s complete meltdown.
Verdict: BUSTED! While male tennis players certainly have called an umpire worse things than a “thief,” I have never seen a clip of one who relentlessly offered such personal attacks for as long as she did. As additional support, I offer commentary from all-time great Martina Navratilova.
Just because the guys might be able to get away with it doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.
BY THE WAY, THIS WASN’T THE FIRST TIME
Despite Serena’s greatness, I lost a lot of respect for her at the 2009 U.S. Open semifinals when she absolutely eviscerated a line judge who called a foot fault against her. Serena, who was down 4-6, 5-6 (15-30) at the time, had already hit her first serve out so the foot fault resulted in two match points for opponent Kim Clijsters. Instead of playing the next point, however, Williams launched a verbal tirade at the line judge.
The previous video clip shows Serena from behind so it’s uncertain what she said. Still, here are two versions from sources close to the court.
I swear to God, I’m [expletive] going to take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat. You hear that? I swear to God.
From the Associated Press:
SERENA – “I DIDN’T SAY I WOULD KILL YOU. ARE YOU SERIOUS?”
After a two-month investigation, the Grand Slam Committee decided to fine Serena $82,500 for what it considered a “major offense.” Furthermore, it put her on probation for two years with a potential $175,000 fine for another similar offense. The committee never confirmed what Serena said or didn’t say, but I have to imagine she uttered those magic words in order to earn the largest fine in tennis history.
In comparison, Serena “only” got a $17,000 fine for her three violations at the 2018 U.S. Open. She likely wouldn’t have been fined but for her tirade. However, the tournament somehow decided to fine her $4,000 for
cheating unauthorized coaching, $3,000 for breaking her racket, and $10,000 for the verbal abuse. So much for all of the vitriol aimed at Carlos Ramos and suggestions that the chair umpire deserved to be suspended.
I ask any reader to submit a clip of a male tennis player acting out as egregiously as Serena did in either match without a violation being called. Point being, Ramos was not being sexist. He simply followed the rules, which is what he is known to do.
- Motivate herself.
- Minimize the impact of her opponent’s victory.
Serena’s tirade in the 2009 match resulted in an immediate victory for her opponent, so the purpose could not have been to motivate herself. Instead, she likely didn’t expect to win and blowing up at the line judge gave her an excuse for losing. In comparison, Williams still had a chance to overcome the game penalty against Osaka. Frankly, I assumed she accosted Ramos hoping to invigorate herself and get in the head of her opponent. After getting the one-game penalty to go down 2-6, 3-5, Williams responded with a dominant service game to get to 4-5 in the second set. Despite all of the drama, Osaka didn’t lose her composure and proved to be equally dominant when closing out the match.
Lest you believe that Osaka had an insurmountable lead, #2 seed Caroline Wozniaki won the 2018 Australian Open despite being down 3-6, 6-2, 1-5 (15-40) in the 2nd round against Jana Fett. The future Mrs. David Lee (and former future Mrs. Rory McIlroy) survived two match points and won six straight games to complete the comeback. In the finals, Wozniaki beat #1 seed Simona Haleb, who survived her own scare earlier in the tournament. Down 4-6, 6-4, 10-11 (0-40) in the third round, Haleb not only saved the three match points, but also went on to win the third set 15-13. Since losing that match, Haleb’s opponent has fallen from 76th to 196th in the WTA rankings. That other player coincidentally happens to be the same person who had a complete meltdown while playing on the court next to my daughter 10 years ago. Based on what I saw back then, I wasn’t surprised.
During the trophy ceremony after Osaka’s victory, the pro-Serena fans started to “Boo” loudly. To her credit, Serena told the crowd to stop and comforted her visibly upset opponent. As a cynic, I could say, “Too little, too late.” However, I view Serena much differently as a person than as a competitor. Of note, I respect her as a mother and as an inspiration to female athletes of all ages and capabilities.
Will Rogers once said,
It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute.
I refuse to have this quote apply to Serena because her lifetime of good more than offsets her few bad moments. By writing this article, I effectively nominated her as a T10B Busted candidate. However, I just can’t include her on the final list. My wife and daughter wouldn’t forgive me.