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The numbers lie: Serena Williams is the best women’s tennis player ever, by far

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Serena Williams hangs her head during her semi-final against Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open in Melbourne on Feb. 18, 2021.

LOREN ELLIOTT/Reuters

No reasonable person believes Serena Williams is the second-best women’s tennis player in history.

Williams has not won the most majors. She has 23 to Margaret Court’s 24.

Court’s record is down to one special talent – she was Australian at a time when getting to Australia was a real pain.

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Until 1968, the Grand Slams were amateur events. That’s a lot of connecting flights for zero dollars. Most top women’s players gave the Australian Open a pass. That’s how Court won 11 of them – playing a bunch of local crocodile farmers and wallabies.

Watch some old video of Court. She moves extremely well compared with the average person. But by modern tennis standards, she looks as though she had her ankles fused before the match. It’s not that she can’t get side to side. It’s that she doesn’t bother trying. Her serve is a floater. Her strokes are soft and looping.

It’s unfair to compare eras, so let’s do that.

If Court at her peak could somehow play Williams in a likewise state, the result would be first-degree sports murder. They’d have to roll the Australian off on a gurney after the match ended, which would be about 15 minutes after it started.

Nonetheless, we persist in the belief that if Williams does not at least match Court’s Grand Slam number, she has somehow injected a doubt into the best-ever debate.

That mood suffused the tail end of the Australian Open this week, after the 39-year-old Williams had been roughed up by Williams 2.0, Naomi Osaka, in the semi-final. (Osaka will play Jen Brady in Saturday’s women’s final).

In the news conference afterward, Williams wept when asked if this was the end for her. She dodged the question (“If I ever say farewell, then I wouldn’t tell anyone”), then abruptly left.

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As good as she is at her work, Williams has always been even better at manufacturing drama. If the point of this display was pinning people to her record chase, then mission accomplished.

But if this was in any way prompted by regret over a statistic that may go unrealized, it is an almighty waste of emotion.

If best ever is defined by three things – achievements, gap in ability between yourself and your contemporaries, and forcing a systemic overhaul of the way your sport is played – Williams is close to the best ever at anything.

When she turned pro, most top players were wispy Eastern Europeans or plucky (read: short) Iberians. As she prepares to leave it, the best of the best look more like rugby props who run track.

It took two decades for tennis to catch up to her because they had to begin recruiting and developing an entirely different sort of athlete.

Williams is the best women’s tennis player ever. You don’t need to be an expert at this stuff to know that, in the same way I don’t need to be Damon Runyon to tell you that Secretariat was a better race horse than a really up-for-it Shetland pony. Just look at them. One of these things is not like the other.

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But increasingly, we don’t use our eyes to make judgments about the greatness of athletes, or really, anything to do with sports. We use spreadsheets.

Is Mike Trout a better baseball player now than Babe Ruth was? Let’s go to the numbers. In 1923, Ruth slashed .393/.545/.764. What does that mean? It doesn’t matter what it means. What matters is that it’s a lot. Like, a ton. Mike Trout never slashed anything close to that.

On the other hand, my eyes tell me that Ruth was a booze-swilling, hotdog-inhaling, chain-smoking bon vivant who looked more like the Gerber baby than a professional athlete; and Trout looks like a robot sent from the future to destroy all human baseballs.sf

My eyes further tell me that the pitchers Ruth faced threw two pitches – the fast one and the slow one. Today’s pitchers can start the ball at your head and end up blowing off one of your feet.

Ruth was a truly imperious player for his time. In the same way that growth is a constant in human history, so too is improvement in human performance. On aggregate, we will always be getting better at everything we do, right up until the surface of the Earth is as hot as the sun and we are no longer good at doing anything because we’re all dead. (As a species, one thing we weren’t always getting better at was husbandry.)

So while the best-ever debate in sports is fun, it is also pointless. Did you do it more than 20 years ago? Then you weren’t the best ever. By 2040 or 2050, Williams will not be the best ever. That is a guarantee.

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This is why best-ever debates were best ever before everyone started talking about this like sentient calculators.

Back then, you used your eyes. You thought Wayne Gretzky was the greatest because, well, because just look at him. He spends 90 per cent of his time standing behind the net and everyone else is afraid to go back there after him. He makes Dave Semenko, who can just barely skate, look like Rocket Richard. He routinely does things that make you stand up and slap the television. Clearly, it’s broken.

Do the numbers add up? I don’t know. You fiddle with the numbers long enough and they’ll tell you anything you’d like to hear. That’s what my accountant keeps saying, and I want very badly to believe him.

Numbers are joy killers. Numbers killed the joy of movies (the opening weekend box office numbers); they killed it for TV (top 10 shows about angry teenagers in space for the first half of January); they’re killing music (‘Siri, play me something new that is exactly like everything I already listen to’); and they’re killing sports (‘Who’s better? I couldn’t tell you. I don’t even know how that sport is played. Let’s ask pickleballreference.com).

Your eyes aren’t always right. There is more to this than any boxscore can tell. But in the same way you can’t read a symphony, you can’t count a game. The only way it can be enjoyed – and so the only reason it exists – is to be watched.

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