Sunday, August 30, 2015

BV: The Graf Era vs. The Serena Era, Pt.1

As Serena Williams embarks on a mission to seize history by the throat in New York City, it's inevitable that her name will often be mentioned in the same breath as Steffi Graf -- the last player to achieve a true Grand Slam in tennis -- over the coming days and, if form holds, weeks.

But Williams is not only seeking to equal Graf's single-season feat, another U.S. Open title will mean she'll match the German with a record twenty-two major titles in the Open era, as well. So, what about the players that made up both of their respective eras? Which of the two had the better, and deeper level of, competition?

The answer may not be as elementary as "conventional wisdom" might lead some to believe.

Along with ATP Backspin's Galileo West, and using this space's old "Backspin Volley" format, I decided to delve a little deeper into the subject. When the room clears, and all the glass at Backspin HQ is cleaned up, maybe we'll have some sort of answer. Maybe.

But, of course, I can't promise anything.

Blue = Todd
Orange = Galileo

Todd Spiker: So, the "Backspin Volley" returns after a long absence!

Galileo West: I have to say a more experienced volleyer could probably win this argument. But I will try to show you my point of view, if I cannot convince you.

TS: Well, we'll see. But I've come "armed with stats and long-held opinions."

GW: Of course you have. You'd have to to try and defend this era. Might I suggest we make this a yearly, or perhaps every other year-ly, event? At the end of the year previewing the next, as it was originally. Just a suggestion.

TS: Might not be a bad idea.

The whole idea of resurrecting the old "Backspin Volley" that I used to do on occasion with Head Honcho Pierre Cantin came to me when you noted on ATP Backspin a few weeks ago that, "Serena looks set to overtake Graf, though her era has been noticeably weaker than Steffi's." I thought for a second and said, "Is it really?" I know that's come to be the "conventional wisdom" in some corners. After years of seeing people fall into the old trap of saying the WTA has no depth when a small group of women sometimes dominate the sport, then the ATP lauded for being in a "golden age" when the same thing happens (for three times as long a period), needless to say, I was skeptical. Then when I began to look at the comparative fields I realized that, in this case, people tend to overlook some great recent players while elevating quite a few others from the not so distant past.

As the U.S. Open begins, and Williams looks to match Graf's own accomplishments with a 2015 Grand Slam and a 22nd overall major title, I thought a Volley on this topic would be interesting. Also, considering both players are in the "greatest of all time" discussion, it's of note that (while Graf and Williams DID play twice, splitting a pair meetings in Steffi's final season) their eras really DO have a hard dividing line between them -- three-quarters into the 1999 season. That's when Graf, eight days from turning 30 and finally healthy after having a trying few seasons, won her final slam crown at Roland Garros, reached the Wimbledon final a few weeks later, then retired before the U.S. Open... the very Open when a 17-year old Serena rose from the pack to grab her very first major crown. It was almost a "passing of the torch" moment, albeit one when the two weren't even actually in the same stadium, or likely anywhere close to each other geographically, for that matter.

GW: The key thing to remember is that there are only three, maybe four, people in the singles greatest of all time discussion (if we leave out Margaret Court). And I've got three of them in my era. I believe that's first blood to me, a break of service as it were. Graf retired while she was still world number three because she knew that the era was getting too strong for her.

TS: I will give you an early break (say, at 1-0) for noting that "your" era contains Graf, Navratilova and Evert. Hmmm, but didn't the Graf era become the Williams era as soon as Steffi retired? So... what would become "my" era (as far as this Volley is concerned) would soon be "too strong" for Graf? Heehee.

GW: Well she was aged 30 with bad knees and a host of injuries but she still managed to compete in the next era. She knew her time was up. But she was still good enough to play one more season out of her comfort zone. And that's partially her brilliance and partially the weakness of the era that followed.

TS: Actually, most of the players that would provide the Williams era with its strength (i.e. slam winners, Top 10ers, etc.) were barely junior players when Graf retired (Sharapova was 12, for example, while Henin had just turned 17). Also, Evert was hardly the player she once was by the time the "Graf era" began, so she's mostly there in name only in the last few lines of a Hall of Fame career and was no longer fully present as the all-time great version of herself. Martina was still a force, though not quite the dominant, in-her-prime G.O.A.T. contender (and probably definitive #1 in that race at the time) before Graf arrived. It was definitely a generational battle when those two met, with Navratilova only able to hold Graf off for so long before she caught and surpassed her.

GW: I think Navratilova is the greatest there will ever be in men's or women's. There is no discussion.

TS: Well, there's always discussion, since there's always opinion. But Navratilova likely changed the game more than any other player in the last century. Graf vs. Martina was a classic class of an aging great champion being overtaken by the new upstart who'd obviously assume the lead role in future years. And except in one instance, Graf DID dominate, often to the detriment of the reputation of the other players from her generation.

GW: Graf had two gaps where there was weaker competition. But Williams has had a gap of about eight years where the competition has been weaker for the most part. And is eight years really a gap? No. Even Henin struggled. Clijsters managed for a little while to match her but she only returned for what felt like a whirlwind farewell tour.

TS: While there is no true equivalent to the "powerful veteran" role that (mostly) Navratilova filled in the Graf era, I think, as a group, the top players in the game during Williams' era are equal to or (almost sneakily) better than that of Graf's, while the overall depth of the tour is better in the #35-100+ range now than it's ever been, if only because the ENTIRE world is represented on tour now and the field isn't dominated by the "old world" tennis stalwarts. The "new world" European/Baltic influence on tour was only just beginning to show its face in the back-half of Graf's career. For most of Graf's era, eastern Europe didn't have a great presence on tour, and it would take a few years before the impact of the fall of Communism would lead to tennis players emerging from the formerly Soviet-dominated nations and flooding the tour with new talent. While Graf was playing, Russia was known mostly as having produced only Anna Kournikova, and not yet much else in terms of highly-ranked players in the era, though Anastasia Myskina was just starting to pop up around the time Graf was exiting.

The Czechs -- though they still had an aging Hana Mandlikova and Helena Sukova, and the crazily-inconsistent Jana Novotna in the mix -- were at the beginning of a decline during Graf's years, as well, and the Romanians weren't even on the radar beyond Irina Spirlea. And that's not even touching on the players who have come out of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the like who never would have had such careers had the political climate remained the same. And then there's China, too. Ah, but I don't want to play my ENTIRE hand so early. Though I will throw in the additional point that while Graf was by far the dominant German face in the WTA during her career (w/ Anke Huber playing only a tiny role), Germany's contingent of relevant woman is far, far deeper in today's game.

Also, while I'm on the topic of the inclusion and deepening of the talent pool, I should note that the increasing number of African-American U.S. players (Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, etc.) only serves to play into the notion of the depth of the current era, as well, as Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil were the only players of color of note during the Graf era, as Goolagong had retired by then. In a way, the Sisters have served to make their era greater simply by their being there to inspire young American (and non-American) girls to play the sport who probably wouldn't have had tennis -- or the path to a career in it -- on their radar if not for them. Today, even black players from non-U.S. English-speaking nations like Britain (Heather Watson) and Canada (Francoise Abanda) add to the wide range of talent that now exists, as well.

GW: You do realize how hard it was to travel back then. It was easier than the earlier years of the Open Era and journeywomen struggled. Especially with the lack of seeding protection at the big events, even maintaining a top 32 position was difficult. There was no protection from the bigger seeds. And travel was more expensive then. Imagine that on lower wages. Allowances do have to be made for that. The fact that my era was so strong despite the weaker, less advanced technologies gives my era another point. Or is that perhaps a stretch?

TS: I think you're stretching a bit. For the most part, we're talking about the 1990's, not the early days of the WTA when Billie Jean King and the rest had to scrape and claw to make the tour viable. The tour was well established, it had a title sponsor, and really had a larger piece of the "sporting pie" than it does today. I think the overall health of the tour at the time could probably be seen just by how much more important it was in the U.S.. During a typical year during the Graf era (1996, say), there were fourteen tour events played in the United States. Sponsorship wasn't wanting. As the sport has declined in America, that number is down to eight in '15. That's an anecdotal argument, of course, but I think this discussion is supposed to revolve around the overall talent of the competing eras, not the financial standing of the tour, prize money and cost of air travel and the like... at least that's how I approached this project based on your original "(Serena's) era has been noticeably weaker than Steffi's" comments.

GW: True. But it was more difficult and for the poorer players travel could affect their play. If I were playing dirty I might also add that players did not abuse the system so readily like Vika does. Particularly with the time outs. There were real injuries back then. And Halep retired 3-0 down in the final in the third set. At that point why not just tough out the last 12-20 points? But I'm not playing dirty. Teehee.

TS: Still not seeing how the abuse-the-system argument makes the overall talent of the era "less," but I'll agree that there has probably been more outright bumping up against the rules in the current era (by Vika in the past, and probably more so by Henin, Jankovic and others). As far as Halep retiring in the Toronto final, I look at that as a triumph of will over her own condition to even find a way to push the match TO a 3rd set. I suppose she might have played out the final few games, but I'm not sure watching a player just stand around while the other hits balls into an open court is particularly good for the sport, the fans or the players. We could have had a great Volley after Henin retired in the '06 Australian Open final against Mauresmo, I'm guessing! Ha!

A case could be made on either side about racket technology, I suspect. Though I think it more plays into my argument's favor, as well. Better rackets have increased the power quotient on tour, allowing players a notch below some others the chance to better keep up with players whose talent would otherwise be greater than their own. That was mostly the case during Graf's era, as well, as the wooden racket days had passed. Still, some of the players just on the cusp of contention twenty years ago might have put up a few bigger results if they were using the better rackets and strength training regimens of today. So maybe that topic is a wash.

GW: I think with the worse rackets the better players had more talent. And so I think it actually made the better players rise to the top. This isn't Communism. Surely the whole point is that some animals are more equal than others. Surely the point is to have a best player. So the fact that the rackets in this era evened it up isn't necessarily a good thing. Everybody has different game styles but it almost feels as if they're all getting similar with small tweaks here and there. It's the Nicelescus who really stand out. And it feels like they're a dying breed. And it makes me sad. Everything is from the baseline these days.

TS: Yeah, I'd agree with that. That's why it's right to cherish a player like a Radwanska, whose mind has allowed her to compete as much as her body. But now we see a player like Belinda Bencic rising, so there will always be a few who can out-think as much as out-hit, even if the overall variety of playing styles in the game isn't what it used to be. Hingis was really the last player who was able to win slams with that sort of style, but her mini-era was quite short. Now even players who employ spin, drop shots and the like need to find a way to add something to their serve, or play with more in-point aggression to take the next step. That's where the rackets can really help. Unfortunately, we won't likely EVER see a true serve-and-volleyer like Navratilova again. The power just makes such a regular style unfeasible, other than in a change-of-tactics, surprise-the-opponent sort of situation.

GW: A few weeks ago, Serena had a 7000 lead in the WTA rankings. That was the difference between the one and two. And Serena is 33. By the way, I don't think I can accept Sharapova as an actual rival of Serena's. The math speaks for itself.

TS: Yes, that ranking difference was a record twice-as-many points advantage, actually. (Of course, much of that has to do with difference in the ranking points, as when Graf had her Grand Slam in 1988 she only totaled a 325-point "final number" for the season once everything was averaged, subtracted, etc.) But don't make the mistake of automatically assuming that excellence and/or dominance means that there is no legit competition. That was the case during Graf's most overpowering runs, as well as Serena's.

GW: Serena's era has run from 1999 to the present. A long time. A very long time. She's never had a Nadal like Federer did. Serena has never had a proper rival unless you include herself. I heard the WTA described as "Bruce Hornsby and the Range" once. It seems as accurate to me now as it did then.

TS: At this very moment and the last 2-3 years, I'd "sort of" agree. Of the players still active, only Vika Azarenka has been a player Serena could call a "rival," but, other than Sharapova, that's largely because she's outlasted pretty much all (Venus excluded, but that's a separate case) the other top players from her generation who measured up. But they WERE there, and they play a large part in my argument. The fact is, Serena may just very well be THAT good, making most (but not all, as I'll point out) potential rivals seem "less" in comparison. To steal a line from the aforementioned Hornsby & the Range, "that's just the way it is." I agree that Sharapova isn't a true "rival" to Williams, but she IS a Career Slam winner. She's hardly a "paper tigress," it's just that Serena is able to mentally psyche her out, and then physically overpower her. Of course, a player doesn't necessarily have to be anywhere close to even on a won/lost comparison for a rivalry to exist, but there have to consistently be "moments" and close matches on big stages produced in their head-to-head.

GW: I don't think Steff had many negative records against players she played three times or more. Jo Durie comes to mind. She was 3-4 against the Brit and 1-2 against Turnbull. Serena actually has the same amount of losing records. They both have three, which is frankly preposterous. In a strange twist of fate, Serena is 3-4 against Sanchez Vicario.

TS: Hmmm, that's an interesting little note. I just looked that up: Sanchez won their first three meetings, when Serena was just 16, and the other win came via a 2nd set retirement after Williams had won the 1st. All those meetings came before Serena won her first major... so, considering ASV's fairly big role in the Graf era (when, technically, the matches were actually played), I'd say that says that Serena would have done very, very well if she'd played then, too.

I'm curious, who would you consider to have been Graf's true "rival" as she was winning 22 slams (almost half of them jammed into a particular four-year window at one point)? I think it's easiest to say one particular player, but I think the statement comes with a rather obvious caveat.

GW: It has to be Seles. And it is wrong that a man, not even involved with the official tennis network could influence women's history so drastically. If Seles wasn't stabbed this would be a no-brainer, I feel.

TS: I feel like this argument might not even be taking place, either, actually... just because how dramatic a long, full-throated Graf/Seles career rivalry might have been could have blotted out everything else (sort of how Roger/Rafa did on the men's side). I'd still say the same about the rest of the players, but one GREAT player at FULL strength can make a HUGE difference in perception. A full blown Seles career would singlehandedly "raise all boats." Of course, Graf wouldn't have then won 22 slams... and it might be dubbed the "Seles era" (or Graf/Seles), altering this sort of discussion even more. But more on that later. Mmmmfph. (Physically keeping my mouth closed.)

GW: The thing is that Graf was stopped by several players. And she retired at number three. She was not the best player in the world at that time. Her era got too good for her. That has never been the case for Serena. The only time the era has been a match for her is when she has let it. She helped Cornet and Razzano. She never loses purely because the opponent plays well.

TS: I don't think her era got too good for her, though. She just couldn't stay healthy. When she was right -- as she was in the spring/summer of '99 -- she won RG and reached the SW19 final, losing to Lindsay Davenport (who overlapped both eras). Injuries and other issues have adversely impacted Serena's fortunes, too, especially during her dip around 2005-07. Sure, losses to players like Cornet and Razzano will always be partially attributed to Williams' lacking play, but she's lost to more accomplished players in slams, as well. Graf lost to McNeil in the Wimbledon 1st Round in '94, and that can't be explained simply by saying McNeil was a "great" player, either. It was a rare instance for either player to lose when they were playing at their best.

Graf would have won more slams over the few years before her final one in '99 had she been healthier. Her absence really allowed Hingis to rise to #1 and dominate the sport for a brief window (three of her five slam wins came in majors where an injured Graf wasn't in the field) before the big power players of the Williams era stepped in. In a way, though Hingis is no doubt a Hall of Famer, that was a semi-version of the stretch when we saw the likes of Jankovic and Wozniacki rise to #1.

And I think, as I'll show later, that during the middle of Serena's career the likes of Henin and Capriati DID take out Williams on a fairly equal footing. That said, as Serena has gotten older, she's become more focused and actually become a better all-around player, as her late-career clay court success has shown.

GW: I think also once she realized she could just out-muscle all these young blonde Eastern Europeans that was game over. Physically it's just such a mismatch. And in this era of fitness trainers and cardio courses at college, etc. that seems strange. Surely that should be your ace in the hole. Well, "my era is so fit." Yet I would bet that Arantxa could in her prime have outlasted just about anyone in this era. Can you imagine Errani and Arantxa on a slow clay court in rainy weather? I don't think I'd last the set. Could you watch it all?

I found it funny when Roddick said of his loss to Serena (when they were kids) that he had to run around in the shower to get wet and she was already "bench pressing dumptrucks." I can't find the clip sadly, but I wouldn't put it past her.

TS: Ha! Well, I'm sure we'll see it when they eventually put together a big documentary on Serena's career when things are all said and done. It might even be the opening scene.

To be continued... all for now.

NEXT TIME: Of Spaniards, Belgians and Secretariat, oh my!


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