The 50 Greatest Players of the Open Era (W): No. 1, Serena Williams

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In her big sister Venus Williams, Serena had an idol, an inspiration, a protector, someone to catch up to, and ultimately someone to surpass. (AP)

Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.

(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)


1. Serena Williams

Years played: 1995—
Titles: 72
Major titles: 23

Serena Williams has said that she has trouble recalling a time in her youth when she wasn’t holding a tennis racquet. “I just remember playing all the time. It’s like tennis was always there, like going to services at [church]. Like breathing.”

According to Serena, the way she looked at the world and related to other people was formed during the hours that her family spent playing tennis on those cracked courts in Compton, CA, that they made famous. It was there that she first developed the fearsome forehand and best-in-history serve that made her a Grand Slam champion by the age of 17.

Just as important, it was on those cracked courts that Serena first developed the intense, sibling-inspired drive to win that remains the deepest secret to her success at age 35. In her big sister Venus, Serena had an idol, an inspiration, a protector, someone to catch up to, and ultimately someone to surpass.

Their father, Richard, believed early on that Serena would be the better of the two, but even he was probably surprised by how quickly his prophecy came to pass. In 1999, in her first major final, Serena beat the world No. 1 Martina Hingis—the woman who had beaten Venus the day before—in straight sets. With that victory, Serena knew right away that she was a champion, and that she should never settle for anything less. By the time she was 19, she was No. 1 and on her way to winning four majors in a row—the first of her two Serena Slams.

Court Report: Serena Williams scheduled to play Indian Wells

Along with her sister, Serena pioneered the open-stance backhand, the weaponized service return, and the unrelenting, hard-hitting ground-stroke style that are the standards today. But Serena also had something that no one, not even her sister, could match: That Serve. With an exquisitely smooth and simple motion, Serena has used That Serve to extricate herself from countless jams, and, on crucial points, keep her opponents from even getting a swing on the ball. Unlike so many other great servers, Serena, at 5'9", has done it without the advantage of towering height.

Even more important than Serena’s serve has been her approach to the game. With her first-strike play, her long stares across the net, and her top-volume celebratory screams and fist-pumps, she plays to intimidate and to dominate. When she does show negativity, it’s not because she’s doubting herself or lacking confidence. It’s the opposite: it’s because she’s so sure of what she can do. In Serena’s mind, if she’s not in total control, it’s not because of something her opponent is doing well; it’s because of something that Serena herself is doing badly. Why wouldn’t she think that? After 22 years on tour, no woman has emerged to prove her wrong.

Still, even Serena has benefitted from some outside help. Since 2012, she has been getting it from the French coach Patrick Mouratoglou. Like Nancy Lieberman with Martina Navratilova, Mouratoglou has helped Serena find new motivation, control her emotions, channel her talents, and play more efficiently than ever in her 30s. The result has been a stretch of play that has matched Navratilova’s and Steffi Graf’s best runs, and taken Serena past them on the list of all-time major-title winners. From 2012 to 2017, starting at age 31, Serena went 287-26, upped her title count from 39 to 72, upped her major-title count from 13 to 23, and tied Graf’s record for consecutive weeks at No. 1 with 186.

“She has a certain education from her family that makes her a really tough competitor,” Mouratogou told Sports Illustrated in 2015, “When education meets a personality like Serena’s, it creates, maybe the biggest champion of all time.”

She’s the biggest champion, and seemingly an eternal one. Navratilova passed the torch to Graf in the 1980s, who passed to Serena in the 1990s. But even after getting married, having a daughter, and approaching 37, Serena doesn’t look ready to pass any torches to anyone. And if she were, who would be close enough to grab it? She’s left everyone else in the race far behind.


Defining Moment: In the 1999 US Open final, a 17-year-old Serena faced a crucial point late in her match with Hingis. What should she do with Hingis’ next serve? Get it in safely and start the point? Or go for broke? Serena—as anyone who has ever watched her can guess—went for broke, and hit a winner. From that point on, she’s known exactly how she should play. She hasn’t stopped trusting her shots, and she hasn’t stopped hitting them for winners when she needs them.


Desert Smash: A Celebration of Celebrity, Charity and Tennis Unlike Any Other

The 14th annual Desert Smash charity tennis event is Tuesday, March 6, and there are many reasons to mark your calendar. Here are just five of those reasons, including the event's host, Serena Williams.

Desert Smash is the kick off to Indian Wells, which will be broadcast on Tennis Channel over the next two weeks.

*** STREAM DESERT SMASH LIVE on TENNIS.com ***

*** WATCH LIVE on TENNIS CHANNEL ***

*** PURCHASE TICKETS AT https://desertsmash.ticketleap.com/ ***

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