What the Tape Told
In a recent post, I suggested that while both Roger Federer and Serena Williams earn the nod from numerous pundits and former players as, respectively the greatest male and female players of all time, they’re rarely spoken of in the same breath or linked in any way outside of their still evolving roles in tennis history.
So let’s have a little fun with this and compare their accomplishments, in a tale-of-the-tape format. And let’s dispense with some of the basics before we look at their records. They are both 31-year old righthanders, and fast closing on 32 (Federer is a few weeks older). Serena stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 155 pounds; Roger is 6-foot-1 and 187 pounds. And while Roger has been struggling this year, Serena could well end up having one of the finest years of her career.
17 Grand Slam Singles titles 16
17 Total Grand Slam titles (inc. doubles) 31
257-40/86.53% Grand Slam record/WP 236-36/86.76%
77 Total singles titles 53
77-35/68.75% Career record/WP, all finals 53-16/76.81%
908-207/81.4% Career match record/WP 605-111/84.49
302/No. 1 Weeks at No. 1, all-time rank 146/No. 6
5 Years at No. 1, year-end 2
1 silver Olympic medals, singles 1 gold
1 gold Olympic medals, doubles 3 gold
No Grand Slam (calendar year) No
Yes Grand Slam (career) Yes
No Grand Slam (non-calendar year) Yes
44-41/51.7% Record vs. active no. 1s/WP 55-9/74.3%
Well, there you have it. So what are the takeaways in all this if we want to compare the records of these two icons? In general, Federer’s great strength lies in his day-in, day-out consistency; his title production is remarkable, and like many of the other statistics it points toward the sheer sustained excellence of the Swiss champ.
That’s particularly striking when you take into consideration how often men play best-of-five sets, how physical the game has become for them, and how much more capable journeymen are of upsetting elite players by the sheer application of power.
Another way to appreciate this difference between the ATP and WTA games is to look at the number of Grand Slam titles Williams has won. No male player has been able to play singles and doubles at the highest of levels since John McEnroe. But don’t punish Williams for what her male counterparts cannot do; her own rivals generally eschew doubles for some of the same reasons as the top men, and that theoretically gives them an edge on Williams.
BTW, did you know that Serena is also just the third woman to have a career Grand Slam in singles and doubles (she joins Margaret Court and Martina Navratilova).
Federer’s status as a five-time year-end No. 1 is a further tribute to his consistency, but isn’t it surprising that Williams finished on top for just two years of what is now her 15th year of Grand Slam competition? You’re almost tempted to ask, “How did heck she do that?” Consider the facts a comment on the ranking system, but not necessarily a criticism. No definition of “best” ignores that critical component of sustained reliability.
One place where Serena holds a significant edge is in Olympic competition, but that’s heavily qualified by the fact that she won three of her gold medals in doubles. Still, the singles gold medal is a hole in Federer’s resume. Serena has a career “Golden Slam” in singles, and Roger does not — at least not yet. He’s said that he’s hoping to compete in the 2016 Olympic games in Rio. And this is a good time to remind everyone that these statistics are probably far from complete, because both players continue to pile on the Ws.
The most powerful statistic Serena has on her side of the ledger is her record against active former No. 1 players. Conversely, it’s a surprisingly weak statistic in Federer’s column, which comes down largely to his 10-20 record against his nemesis, Rafael Nadal. But keep in mind that this is largely due to Nadal’s proficiency on clay, the surface on which he is nothing less than astonishing (I get an 8-7 advantage for Federer if you take all clay out of the equation). Still, tennis is tennis, and you can’t punish Nadal for his supremacy on one of the surfaces.
Believe it or not, Federer actually is sort of lucky in this department, because Lleyton Hewitt is still active — and the only other former No. 1 (besides Nadal and present No. 1 Novak Djokovic) on the tour. Federer has a stat-enhancing 18-8 edge on that game Aussie, and it represents his best record against the other top dogs. By contrast, Serena basically dominates all seven former No. 1s, and that includes her sister Venus, who accounts for a significant number of Serena’s losses while still holding the short end of the stick.
My favorite stats, though, are the ones pertaining to Grand Slam events. For the one sure thing in tennis is that the players all make a full effort to play every major, from the beginning to the end of their careers. Thus, the virtually identical Grand Slam winning percentages of Roger and Serena just have to make you smile.
It really is true; the statistic don’t lie. They tell us we’re living in a special moment in tennis history.