Serena Williams is, without question, the best player in women’s tennis right now. She’s held that position off and on for over a decade, and it’s easy to make the case that she’s the best player in WTA history.
The longer one player dominates a sport, the tougher it is to distinguish between her ability level and the competitiveness of the field. Is Serena so successful right now because she is playing better than any woman in tennis history, or because by historical standards, the rest of the pack just isn’t very good?
As we’ll see, the level of play in women’s tennis has remained relatively steady over the last several decades. While there is no top player on tour these days who consistently challenges Serena as Justine Henin or peak Venus did, the overall quality of the pack is not much different than it has been at any point in the last 35 years.
Every year, a few new players break in, and a few players fade away. If the players who arrive are better than those who leave, the level of competition gets a bit harder for the players who were on tour for both seasons. That basic principle is enough to give us a rough estimate of “era strength.”
With this method, we can compare only adjacent years. But if we know that this year’s field is 1% stronger than last year’s, and last year’s field was 1% stronger than the year before that, we can calculate a comparison between this year’s field and that of two years ago.
Since 1978, the level of play has fluctuated within a range of about 10%. The 50th-best player from a strong year–1995, 1997, and 2006 stand out–would win 7% or 8% more points than the 50th-best player from a weak year, like 1982, 1991, and 2005. That’s not a huge difference. One or two key players retiring, breaking on to the scene, or missing substantial time due to injury can affect the overall level of play by a few percentage points.
The key here is that a dominant season in the mid-1980s isn’t much better or worse than a dominant season now. Perhaps Martina Navratilova faced a stiffer challenge from Chris Evert than Serena does from Maria Sharapova or Simona Halep, but that difference is at least partially balanced by a stronger pack beyond the top few players. Serena probably has to work harder to get through the early rounds of a Grand Slam than Martina did.
So, Serena’s great, and her greatness isn’t a mirage built on a weak era. Using this approach, how does she compare with the greats of the past?
Given an estimate of each season’s “pack strength,” we can rate every player-season back to 1978. For instance, if we approximate Serena’s points won in 2015 (based on games won and lost), we get a Dominance Ratio (the ratio of return points won to serve points lost) of 2.15. In layman’s terms, that means that she’s beating the 50th-ranked player in the world by a score of 6-1 6-1 or 6-1 6-2. The 2.15 number means she’s winning 115% more return points than that mid-pack opponent. If the pack were particularly strong this season, we’d adjust that number upwards to account for the level of competition.
Repeat the process for every top player, and we find some interesting things.
Serena’s 2.15–the second-best of her career, behind 2.19 in 2012–is extremely good, but only the 21st-ranked season since 1978. By this metric, the best season ever was Steffi Graf‘s 1995 campaign, at 2.42, with Navratilova’s 1986 and Evert’s 1981 close behind at 2.38.
Graf has seven of the top 20 seasons since 1978, Navratilova has four, and Evert has three. Venus’s 2000 ranks sixth, while Henin’s 2007 ranks tenth.
It seems to have become harder to post these extremely high single-season numbers. In the last ten years, only Serena, Henin, Sharapova, Kim Clijsters, and Lindsay Davenport have posted a season above 2.0. Serena has done so four times, making her the only player in that group to accomplish the feat more than once.
As we’ve seen in comparing Serena’s best seasons to those of the other greatest players in WTA history, it’s far from clear that Serena is the greatest of all time. Graf and Navratilova set an incredibly high standard, and since the greats all excelled in slightly different ways, against different peer groups, picking a GOAT may always be a matter of personal taste.
Assigning a rating to the current era, however, isn’t something we need to leave up to personal taste. I’m confident in the conclusion that Serena is not simply padding her career totals against a weak era. If anything, her own dominance–during an era when dominating the women’s game seems to be getting harder–is making her peers look weaker than they are.