The point here was whether Serena Williams is the greatest female athlete in history. After all, who was better?
Maybe Babe Didrikson with Olympic gold medals in two different track and field events and 10 major wins on the LPGA Tour; perhaps Larisa Latynina, who won 18 medals in three Olympic Games; or Jackie Joyner-Kersee with their back-to-back Olympic heptathlon titles; or Allyson Felix, who just quit after winning more medals than any other runner in history. From Williams Sport, for example, Martina Navratilova with 167 titles in singles and another 177 in doubles, or Steffi Graf, who was at the top of the world rankings for 377 weeks.
But all comparisons are smelly, and this one smells worse than most. Because if you’ve seen Williams play, listened, and read what she has to say, you must be wondering why anyone would try to put her, or any of them, in that one box.
Why not Williams is considered a better player than Roger Federer? Or Rafa Nadal? Or Novak Djokovic? Or the rest of the men who played in their day? She’s won more singles titles than anyone else, more Olympic medals too, and done everything, as Ginger Rogers used to say, “backwards and in heels.”
As Williams wrote in the Vogue article announcing her retirement (sorry, her “evolution”) from professional tennis, “I went from having a cesarean to a second pulmonary embolism to a Grand Slam final. I played while breastfeeding. I played through the postpartum depression.” And did it all while coming to terms with it huge amounts of unbearable bullshit.
Williams doesn’t want to give up. Not yet. She would rather play next year and beyond. But she can’t because she has to choose between more children and a playing career. “If I were a man I wouldn’t be writing this because I would be out there playing and winning while my wife does the physical labor to expand our family.”
Here, at the end of a 27-year career in which she has struggled to be treated equally with male players, is the inescapable fact that her biology still puts her at a disadvantage. Williams compared herself to Tom Brady, but she might as well have picked any of these three male players from her own game.
Federer, 41, won five of his Grand Slam titles after becoming a father for the first time in 2009, three after his wife gave birth to a second set of twins in 2014. The biggest impact four kids have had on his body is that he needed surgery in 2016 for twisting his knee while running a bath for them.
Djokovic, 35, won five of his Grand Slam titles after giving birth to his son in 2014 and three of them after giving birth to his daughter in 2017. He hinted a few years ago that they would like to have more children. When Djokovic has talked about how fatherhood has affected his tennis, it’s often about how it taught him to be a better person and thereby made him a better player.
Nadal, 36, announced in June that his wife is expecting a baby. So earlier this month he won the French Open while his wife was in the early stages of pregnancy, which must have been distracting for him. Williams, on the other hand, won the Australian Open in 2017 you was two months pregnant, which she writes seems “nearly impossible.”
It has been speculated that Nadal could also retire after becoming a father. His coach Carlos Moyá doesn’t think so. “I don’t think fatherhood will lead to that Rafael Nadal stop playing,” Moya said when asked about it, “on the contrary, it will be an extra motivation to keep winning.”
For the men in their line of work, parenthood is usually framed as an opportunity for some kind of spiritual change. For Williams, it was that and also three rounds of emergency surgeries, one in which her stomach and uterus were cut open, another in which they found the hematoma that had flooded her abdomen, and a third in which they inserted a filter into a inserted a main vein to prevent further blood clots from traveling to her lungs and then being unable to even get out of bed for six weeks.
Williams has spent her life grappling with double standards when speaking and writing about male and female players, what they are paid, how their behavior is monitored and how much respect they receive. For the past decade, Forbes has published an annual list of the 100 richest athletes in the world. Federer has always been present in the top 10 and even surpassed it in 2020. Williams has never made it this high or even close. No woman has.
Once in a while, like 2019She was the only one in the top 100. Well, men said. “Stats show that we have a lot more spectators at men’s tennis matches,” Djokovic said in 2016. “I think that’s one of the reasons why maybe we should get more awards.”
He later apologized for it, after Williams took the time to explain what he had done wrong. “Novak is entitled to his opinion, but if he has a daughter – I think he has a son right now – he should talk to her and tell her that his son is making more money because he’s a boy.”
Williams always had a way of explaining these things. Her farewell statement is an eloquent acknowledgment of an inequality she was unable to overcome. Not that it stopped her from trying.