The Terrible, No Good, Extremely Weak Competition of the Serena Williams Era

As Serena Williams teeters on the edge of history – a calendar slam just 7 matches from her grasp on her home courts at the US Open – some Serena skeptics have emerged to voice the not-at-all-racially-charged and completely objective point that the American has won her slams in a period of weakness in women’s tennis.

This WTA dry-spell is well worth discussing, and it’s best to do so by running through some of the main “competition” that have offered Serena an easy path on her crusade to 21 (possibly soon 22) grand slam titles.

Venus Williams

Venus Williams is a former mediocre world number 1 and seven time grand slam champion, and current old fragile lady who is just happy to be around. She may be considered the best grass court player of the last 20 years but this should not fool you. Her hard hitting forehand, the elegance and speed with which she navigates a court and the stretch and instinct at net that have seen her lift the Wimbledon trophy 5 times should not be held in too high esteem.

She is, after all, Serena’s older sister. So, she’s probably thrown a few matches here and there to give the young one a chance. Fiercely competitive, I hear you say? Well, yes, that is true. Maybe we should look at some evidence. To see Venus kindly handing Serena a match, please enjoy this point from their US Open quarter-final in 2008:

Maria Sharapova

The “ice queen” from Russia was a teenage sensation when she fluked her way to the Wimbledon title in 2004 at the age of just 17. On that occasion she got the better of Serena Williams but over the course of the last ten years she has barely succeeded in winning a set over the American. Fortunately, for the Russian, she has been able to vulture several slams kindly left available by Serena, which is why her current slam tally stands at 5.

Some would argue that Sharapova’s power, accuracy and ability to open up the court to produce a winner are signs that she maybe isn’t a hack. Others would suggest that she has grit and survival instinct that is unmatched in the sport. They’re wrong. All she can do is hit hard from the baseline. Behold, the uselessness of her tennis:

What will Sharapova do once she steps off tennis courts? Will she use her startling business acumen to build a lasting career? Maybe. But mostly she’ll be remembered as one of those weak WTA girls.

Justine Henin

This diminutive Belgian was once known for being Williams’ fiercest rival on the tour. The 117 weeks she spent at number one in the world and the seven grand slam singles titles she has to her name are all entirely a result of Williams’ outside interests, and not at all to do with her being a bloody good sportsperson.

There is something to be said, possibly, for her one handed backhand – a rare beast on the tour that was able to dish out incredible damage – or perhaps for the fact she stood at only 1.67m (5’5″) in a sport otherwise comprised of giants but really…are we going to give her credit for being short?

One big problem of Justine’s was that she could never show caution. Some people would call this shot, two set points down, “brave”. Let’s be honest, she was just reckless:

Kim Clijsters

It says a lot about this era that we have to look to one tiny little country to try and find good “competitors” to Serena’s crown. It was also Belgium that offered forward Kim Clijsters as a rival, though really her three US Open titles and one Australian Open title should not be overrated.

Clijsters had a knack for moving her opponents around the court, sure, and she had variety in her game that allowed her to sneak out of the most difficult looking of points. But the big secret of Clijsters was that SHE WAS PLAYING THE WRONG SPORT. You can’t call somebody who does the splits mid-point that often a “world class defender”, what you have to call them is a “lost gymnast”. Just look at her here, what sport is she even trying to play?

Li Na

Look, Li Na has billions of fans, we get it. She’s charming and funny and she won two grand slams and she defied the anti-individualism of one of the world’s most powerful countries to carve out a career she designed in her own image etc. etc. That’s all fine. It’s fine enough to be listed on TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World list. That, we can accept. Being respected as a formidable athlete, though? Meh.

Li Na was flashy, sure. She could hit ridiculous winners from anywhere in the court and draw out great play from her opponents, but was she ever consistent enough to be considered good? Won’t somebody please think of the consistency? Besides, put her on a court with Serena Williams and what could she possibly do? I mean, just look at her trying:

Victoria Azarenka

In Azarenka, Belarus produced a player who quickly ascended up the rankings to world no.1 and won the first grand slam title of any player from her home country, over on the hardcourt of the Australian Open. A year later she followed this up with another Australian Open victory, successfully defending her title. She has also been able to sneak 7 WTA Premier Mandatory & Premier 5 titles, three of which she had to defeat Serena Williams in the final to win.

SHE ONLY WON BECAUSE SHE’S SO LOUD, THOUGH. Don’t you just hate it when women make noise? They’re not meant to do that. So ignore the statistics and just look at how awful and unwatchable her tennis is:

Petra Kvitova

Terrible, awful tennis player:

Caroline Wozniacki

Pfft, she ain’t nothing:

Svetlana Kuznetsova

Two slams? Please, anyone can do that.

Aga Radwanska

Might as well hang up her rackets.

Ana Ivanovic

Can understand from these two points why even her fans don’t like her:

And don’t even get me started on how terribe Jelena Jankovic is, how bad Lindsay Davenport was at tennis, why people even care about Amelie Mauresmo, Nadia Petrova or Mary Pierce, how people could sit through a Jennifer Capriati, Elena Dementieva or Anastasia Myskina match, the utter lack of talent of Samantha Stosur and Marion Bartoli or the snooze-fests that are Martina Hingis and Francesca Schiavone.

These were and are Serena Williams’ great rivals? My goodness, what a weak era we live in.

Andrew can be found in the mountains of Switzerland, watching tennis and trying not to eat too much Swiss cheese. You can follow him on twitter @BackSwings

17 Responses

  1. Carole yamin
    Carole yamin August 29, 2015 at 4:00 pm |

    This writer is sarcastic and I don’t agree with him. Let’s face it, the women’s
    Fried is pretty good. Serena is built stronger and more powerful because of her body
    She is a slam dunker….good for her; but to put down sharp Maria Venues , Vike Petra you are absolutely wrong. Without these women, tennis would be dull. Serena is great but enough. No one can beat that kind of power. Strength not strategy. Great serve. I’m so sick of writers like you calling other female plays weak and terrible. I’m a big Serena fan, but I watch tennis because I enjoy the other female athletes. You are narrow minded. Put must be jealously. You can’t be for real. You’re a poor writer for the woman’s game. Not all
    women are super powerful by nature. Sharapova is great Pertra as is great Venus was powerful and smart.
    All of the above you have demised would certainly not invite you to their winning parties. Go get another job. Write about how much you hate Isis. The competition is great. Serena is just the New England Patriots against the Seattle Seahawks. Women s tennis is higher rated than men’s tennis in television. Gee, I ponder why!

  2. 1tennismate
    1tennismate August 29, 2015 at 5:54 pm |

    Bravo, what a response! I love your sarcasm loaded meal for the skeptics.

  3. Petra
    Petra August 29, 2015 at 8:52 pm |

    Pretty disappointing article.

    First of all, is it really necessary to call everybody who criticizes Serena (hell, arguing about the strength of the era is hardly even criticizing her, it’s criticizing her competition) a racist? That has become the Godwin’s law of women’s tennis, the only plausible positions are godlike admiration for Serena Williams or being a racist. It immediately kills all viable discussion.

    Second of all, the argument about weak competition is focused on the recent few years, not her whole career. And in my opinion we do have a weak stretch currently. Of the current Top 10, only 4 have ever won a major, and Ana with 1 and Petra with 2 don’t exactly have enormous numbers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are weak, after all it could be that they just always run into Serena and that’s what’s stopping them from winning slams – but that’s just not the case.

    Since the beginning of 2014, Kvitova at majors has:

    AO 14: lost to unseeded Luksika Kumkhum
    FO 14: lost to [27]Svetlana Kuznetsova (3)
    WI 14: won, highest-ranked opponent [13]Bouchard
    US 14: lost to [Q]Aleksandra Krunic
    AO 15: lost to unseeded Madison Keys
    FO 15: lost to [23]Timea Bacsinszky
    WI 15: lost to [28]Jelena Jankovic

    It’s not Serena stopping Petra from winning more slams, it’s not other top players either.

    The same for Ana:

    AO 14: lost to [30]Eugenie Bouchard
    FO 14: lost to [23]Lucie Safarova
    WI 14: lost to [19]Sabine Lisicki
    US 14: lost to unseeded Karolina Pliskova
    AO 15: lost to [Q]Lucie Hradecka
    FO 15: lost to [13]Lucie Safarova
    WI 15: lost to [Q]Bethanie Mattek-Sands

    Just the same.

    And it’s not these 2, Halep, ranked No.2 in the world, has made the 2nd week of only one of the last 4 slams, where she got bageled by Makarova in the Quarters. Her other 3 losses came against Lucic-Baroni, Lucic-Baroni (yes, again.) and Jana Cepelova. And you can continue that lift ad infinitum, be it Wozniacki losing in straights to Goerges, be it Suarez Navarro and Pliskova not even in the 2nd week of a slam this year.

    The only other Top 10 player where you don’t find a boatload of absurd losses at the majors is Sharapova, and she simply isn’t the player she could’ve been without a busted shoulder. So yes, in my opinion the WTA in it’s current era is weak at the top.

  4. Patrick of La Verne
    Patrick of La Verne August 29, 2015 at 11:15 pm |

    I would submit to Petra that in early 2013 the trio of Serena, Azarenka and Sharapova was the strongest top 3 in the entire history of women’s tennis. All three of them were playing at 85-90% winning percentages in an era where the 30th ranked player, the 50th ranked player, and the 100th ranked player are incomparably better than their counterparts of 15, 25, 35 years ago.

    In the day of Evert, Navratilova, and Graf the top players typically only had too beat two or at most three players who were remotely in their class to win a grand slam. Nowadays a top player typically has to play five or six dangerous players (or players who have beaten a dangerous player) to win a slam.

    Petra, take a look at the players ranked between 20 and 30 nowadays, i.e. players who have been unable to fight their way into – or back into – the top 10.

    #20 Victoria Azarenka, two time grand slam winner and two time grand slam finalist
    #21 Jelena Jankovic, winner of 598 WTA matches, which I believe is more than any player save for the Williams sisters
    #22 Samantha Stosur – grand slam champion only three years ago, and the last player to beat Serena in a really big match
    #23 Venus Williams — enuff said
    #24 Sabine Lisicki — former Wimbledon finalist
    #25 Genie Bouchard — former Wimbledon finalist and as recently as a year ago ‘the next big thing’
    #26 Flavia Pennetta — holder of 563 career wins
    #27 Alize Cornet — one of only two women to beat Serena three times in one year (Henin is the other)
    #28 Irina Camelia Begu (not sure what she’s doing in this exalted company, lol) but she’s a nice steady player
    #29 Sloane Stephens — who has a better winning percentage in grand slams than all but a few current players
    #30 Svetlana Kuznetsova — two time grand slam champion, who has won $19 million, #11 on the all time list

    Those are the players who are NOT in the top 20. In the old days, it was quite an achievement to reach the semi-finals of a grand slam. Nowadays, with 30, 40, 50 really dangerous players and another fifty occasionally dangerous players, it’s a great accomplishment just to get to the 4th round.

    The top ten players aren’t weaker than those of ten, twenty, thirty years ago — they just have to play much tougher day-in, day-out competition, which prevents them from acquiring and maintaining the winning percentages – and the confidence (!)- so essential to success.

    Twenty-thirty years ago girls in their mid teens (Graf, Seles, Capriati, Venus, Hingis and others) swept aside most of their adult competition; how many girls in their mid-teens are sweeping aside their elders today?

    That is the truest test of the competitiveness of the modern era.

  5. BadToss
    BadToss August 29, 2015 at 11:41 pm |

    People really don’t understand satire. Psst future commenters: Andrew is *joking.

  6. cjb
    cjb August 30, 2015 at 3:34 am |

    You can’t really compare different eras but it’s generally true that women’s tennis has always had the same structure – one or two (or three) players dominant (although they did lose from time to time) and the rest bunched somewhere below.
    So I don’t think Serena’s case is exceptional – she’s the dominant player of her era, with outstanding longevity.
    And as generations change you often get a period where younger players start to beat those reaching the end of their careers – that’s a natural cycle.

    I get Andrew’s point but he does stretch the joke a bit. In wit, less is more.

  7. Patricia
    Patricia August 30, 2015 at 4:59 pm |

    I get that the point of the story is to praise a bunch of great tenniswomen (By the way, how could you forget Mauresmo, Hingis, Davenport and Capriati when you evoke Radwanska and Wozniacki ?)

    Though, the ironic way to phrase the hyping of Serena’s opposition eludes to adress some specific arguments…

    I think that nobody is really dismissing the quality of the field during the first 12 years of Serena’s carrier. Hingis, Venus and Hénin can be listed as all time great, and Davenport, Mauresmo, Capriati, Clijsters, young Sharapova were just the second row of it (and the third row had players such as Dementieva, Myskina, Kuznetsova…)

    After Hénin’s retirement in 2010, the best of the opposition is, at best, as successful as the second row. Venus didn’t show anymore at end stage. Kuznetsova is out of the top 20. The best of the new staff, Na Li and Azarenka, were only competitive for few seasons (say 2 and half for Na Li, 2 for Vika).
    The only player who has a consistency and a palmarès you can compare with the opposition pre-2010 is Sharapova.

    And when people can minimize Federer’s achievements because of an unbalanced 23-10 H2H with Nadal, I think that a 2-18 H2H has a point, when the opponent is the only long term rival of a player for 5 years. Since Justin’s retirement, Maria was beaten 13 times in a row by Serena.

    12 Slams in 12 years of tremendous concurrence, with 3 “All time contender” and 6 Big shot.
    9, maybe 10 Slams in five year of weakened concurrence, with no “All time” and 3 big shots.
    It makes sense for an aging player…

    The only conclusion possible of the TWO displays proves that Serena is a GOAT – but it doesn’t make the questioning of the actual field meaningless… the mixing of old and new rivalry was conveniently blurring this point.

  8. Hartt
    Hartt August 31, 2015 at 10:20 am |

    Andrew, the next time you use satire, be sure to tell people that is what you are doing, because obviously a lot of people did not get it. I enjoyed your post.

  9. Sabey
    Sabey August 31, 2015 at 11:34 am |

    Great post Andrew!
    It is such a disservice to women’s tennis (which, in my opinion is better than ever)to run down the entire field as wannabe’s. Many of these women are better athletes than most of the greats of yesteryear.

    1. cjb
      cjb August 31, 2015 at 1:40 pm |

      I do get fed up with people going on about how today’s players are so much better than previous eras etc. It’s a sterile, irrelevant non-argument which denigrates the achievements of past great players. They’re not competing against each other are they ?
      Styles change, technology changes – and by the way, more power doesn’t mean better tennis as a game.
      I can remember the ‘old days’ and at the time they were just as good as what’s going on now – only a different framework.

  10. Sabey
    Sabey August 31, 2015 at 2:31 pm |

    I get sick of people carrying about how good the good old days were. It is hard to compare across eras but watching old coverage is pretty telling with regards to the level of athleticism in the game. Even Christ Evert said that back in her era you had to be a great ball striker to be a champion but now you needed to also be a great athlete.

    1. cjb
      cjb September 1, 2015 at 2:17 am |

      It depends what you mean by ‘old days’. If we go on from the 1970s say, there were women players who were pretty athletic. Chris Evert was never one of them. That was a notable feature of her game.

      I’m not saying the old days were ‘better’ – I’m just saying things change over the years and comparisons are not terribly useful and denigrating the past because it’s different diminishes players who were great in their time.
      But I do miss serve and volley, which was certainly played at a higher level up to around the end of the 80s.

  11. Petra
    Petra August 31, 2015 at 9:10 pm |

    Fivethirtyeight did it by the numbers. Spoiler: The current Top 8 is the weakest of the last 30 years.

  12. Karen
    Karen September 1, 2015 at 8:12 am |

    When 538 spoke about era, someone needs to find out which era of Serena’s the are talking about. Serena has been winning Majors since 1999. She has gone through the American dominance, the Belgians, the Russian invasion, the Serbians and now we have the Rising Star movement. At some point in time we need to take a step back and just honour her greatness. She may not be what we would like in terms of a champion, but she is indeed a champion. Frankly, if 538 and other media are going to be using analytics to discount Serena, then they need to tell us how many Major champions were around during Martina, Evert, and Graf’s era. Serena has never beaten anyone love and love to win a Major and that is what Graf did and has done. When Martina and Evert are meeting countless times in Major finals, I am not quite sure what to say about the level of competition that existed back then. It would be nice if someone could go back and look at the resumes of players that competed during that time and perhaps we would get an idea of the level of competition that existed.

    I refuse to compare eras because then we are going down a road that is riddled with pot holes. Let us enjoy this era’s champion and her accomplishments for what they are, a testament to an athlete’s hard work and determination to be the best.

  13. Karen
    Karen September 1, 2015 at 8:16 am |

    And people please, learn sarcasm and satire before you comment on a public forum. Jeepers

    1. cjb
      cjb September 1, 2015 at 10:18 am |

      Re the level of competition in earlier years – I think you could consider it pretty much the same in terms of individual players being dominant – and I covered tennis through 70s to end of 80s. I think what Serena has been missing is a decent ongoing rivalry to compare with those of the past – ie Margaret Court/Billie Jean – Chris/Martina. Not sure what that says about the current game.

      I totally agree about comparing eras – not fruitful, but looking up detailed results as you suggest might be interesting. Stats from the past can only tell so much of course. Can’t give us information about quality. That’s a bit subjective. You have to go back to reports.
      BTW – I always wondered why Steffi, who won her GS at 19, never came near again -or did she ? I didn’t follow her later career.

Comments are closed.