Tuesday, September 01, 2015

BV: The Graf Era vs. The Serena Era, Pt.2

The "debate" rages on, with a few tangents here and there. All right, maybe more than a few.

But, hey, at least we didn't start discussing the upcoming "Star Wars" movie or anything. Secretariat, yes. Han Solo, no.

Note to self: next time, bring up Harrison Ford and the intelligence of flying experimental airplanes over residential areas.

Blue = Todd
Orange = Galileo

Todd Spiker: Back to the rivalry talk. Rivalries are nice, but they don't necessarily establish that an era has great depth. While the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic-Murray era is chocked full of rivalries, a great case can be made that the rest of the men's tour doesn't measure up because none have been good up enough to put up even a short-term challenger over the course of an entire decade (maybe Del Potro would have been that, but what can you do?). The men's game has mostly seen a "lost generation" of non-(slam) champions since the early 2000's, but that hasn't been the case with the women's game. Waves of young talent have arrived over the the past decade (Serena's era), while members of Serena's generation of players have actually achieved quite a bit.

Galileo West: But, see, they didn't lack the talent just the mental capacity.

TS: Granted, there's some of that (as there were in many cases during Graf's era, such as with Novotna). There's just something about this generation -- men and women -- of tennis players, I guess.

GW: Look at the French men as the classic example. Tsonga, Gasquet and Monfils have more pure talent than Nadal. But not even Atticus himself could persuade a court that they are better players. I also refuse to put Murray's name in the title of an era. He is not at the big three's level. He never has been. He never will be. Wawrinka came along and won two slams in the space of 15 months. It took Murray five years to achieve that feat. And Wawrinka beat two members of the big three. Murray has never done that before at a slam.

TS: Murray seemed to be greatly helped by good coaching. First, Lendl... then Mauresmo and, recently, with an assist from Bjorkman.

GW: But the point is I think the standard of Federer and Nadal was too great. The problem was that every major was covered by the pair and then some. You got one or the other in the semi-final and then the other in the final.

Yeah, waves of young talent. In my era players like Majoli (RG '97) were good enough to win slams. In this era the Vaidisovas and Chakvetadzes didn't make the cut.

TS: I think you're sort of cherry-picking two non-slam winners there. I could pick out multi-season Top 10 players like Sukova, Shriver, Maleeva,, Zvereva and Gigi Fernandez (yes, she was a four-time Top 10er in singles during those years) from your era and say the same thing. But, of course, in my era a player like Myskina was good enough to win a slam, too. Both she and Majoli were sort of "one-slam wonders." It happens. Plus, "second or third tier" players winning slams is a double-edged sword. It shows some depth but it also...

GW: Makes the era weaker?

TS: Exactly.

GW: But I say it proves that the players are stronger. Majoli beat 5th seed Davenport in three in round 4 and then dismissed Hingis in the final. She had a Cilic career arc but she was a clay and carpet specialist. Like a better Pironkova, except a specialist on a different surface. Davenport beat her in the quarters the next year. She made four French quarters and won it once.

TS: Myskina defeated Capriati and Venus en route to her RG title in '04, and reached five other slam QF, but never another semi.

GW: Majoli was a player who just played well at one slam before bad fortune and bad decisions spoiled things. I miss the one-court specialists in some ways.

TS: Ivo Karlovic (on grass) used to be that. But, darn it, then he's gone and improved on all surfaces this year and "ruined" it! Ha!

GW: I like how you can make a career out of a serve. Cough, Pete, cough.

TS: Lisicki on grass borders on filling the Ivo spot on the women's tour, though.

GW: I thought she'd beat Bartoli 2 and 1.

TS: Sabine probably did, too. Of course, there's still a shot she'll get another chance at the AELTC. Okay, let's get on with "pumping up" and/or comparing these eras.

GW: I think Graf's era (1986/87 or so to 1999) was probably the most talented decade or so of tennis. The '80s were just concluding, a decade where Connors, Borg and Evonne Goolagong had all won slams. But the question of who would succeed the Evert/Navratilova dominance was the topic on everyone's lips. In early 1986 Graf was ranked number six. By the 1987 French Open she was the world number two. And after she won that French Open she just kept on winning. Like how Forrest just kept on running.

TS: Of course. Life, and tennis, is like a box of chocolates, too. :)

GW: Navratilova was beating Graf up until 1993. She had a 9-9 record with the German, better even than Seles. And Graf was only 7-6 in her head to head with Evert. And then once they started to fade, suddenly this young Yugoslav with a grunt and two hands on the racket turned up. Her opponents during her twelve years had around 320 weeks at number one, while Graf had 377. But more importantly, all her era's number one players actually won slams.

TS: Sure, the likes of Wozniacki and Jankovic rose to #1 in an era -- mostly while Serena was injured, and the Belgians were retired -- never won a slam and maybe wouldn't have ever been #1 in a "regular" situation on tour, but the same can't be said for others. Henin reached #1 and won multiple slams. Clijsters did, too. As did Davenport (in both eras). And Capriati. And Venus. And Mauresmo. And Sharapova. And Vika. Ivanovic won one and got to #1, though she's not exactly a sharp tool to use for my argument (she's sort of this era's Novotna, minus the HOF-worthy doubles career and less consistency). The period of time when Caro and JJ (and Safina, though the Russian didn't fail to win a major due to a lack of slam-worthy ability -- the problem was "elsewhere") reached #1 was only a window in time where consistency allowed them to rise to the top of a ranking system that stressed it over winning majors, and it wouldn't have likely happened if not for multiple retirements and/or injuries to the other former #1's and slam winners that all struck during a 3-4 year stretch.

GW: I like how Sveta only managed to win slam finals against mentally weaker players. Dementieva and Safina made her look like Borg. That was another problem. Mentally this era is weaker. Serena makes her opponents flinch. That shows weakness. Or good survival instincts.

TS: Oh, that's one I won't argue with you about. While Novotna stood out for such characteristics in the Graf era, there are far too many top players who have similar hang-ups in the current game. As Henin noted a few weeks ago, today's players first need to actually BELIEVE they can beat Serena before they can go about actually doing it. Too many of them don't. Of course, Serena's presence is more intimidating than most, what with the roars that go along with the sudden surges that ultimately steal matches from the clutches of defeat. But still, she can be beaten.

GW: Why are so many players in your era past their best after they turn 25? I can think of only one besides Serena. One slam winner, of course, but, in general too.

TS: Overall, I think it's been pretty clear that in this era many players are reaching their peak years AFTER age 25. I'm not sure where you're getting that players are achieving less in their late twenties now.

GW: What I mean by that is players generally tend to fade as they get older. Take Mauresmo. Done by 28. Clijsters and Henin both retired young and then came back a bit worse, then retired older. And there are less players staying relevant much past 25. Look at the rankings now. A few 27 year olds but that's about it. It just feels this last two years the younger players have been taking over. I think it comes in waves. But players aren't lasting from a young age through to an older one. I felt you had that a bit more in the last gen.

TS: At the moment, five Top 10ers are 26 or older (and CSN will be 27 soon). Four are 28+. Twelve of the Top 20 are 26+, as are sixteen of the Top 24.

And I think Clijsters came back far better (at least mentally) in 2.0 than 1.0, then retired again. Henin just wasn't quite the same... I think she'd lost the singular drive that propelled her career. Players retiring before reaching 30 has always been common (even Graf did it), but that seems to be changing.

One of reasons I think the most recent era is underrated is the fact that careers actually last longer, but maybe begin a bit later, and a player's "slam window" isn't a brief 4-5 year stretch before their 24th birthday. While you had someone like Navratilova playing well into her thirties during Graf's era, she was far more of an anomaly than is likely to be the case in this era. Players like Stosur and Schiavone won maiden slams at nearly thirty. Same with Li Na and Bartoli. Players play longer and more effectively over an extended span than was the case during Graf's era. She was "old" when she won her final slam at age 29, while today some players are just coming into their own at around that age (Cibulkova reached her first slam final at nearly age 25, Safarova at 28). It's a different sport now, with multiple generations able to compete over long stretches for slam titles.

At the moment there's something of a transition going on. There are teenagers coming up with big wins and early twentysomethings starting to break through who are beginning the process of replacing some of the players who have been near the top in recent seasons, though many of them are also still very relevant. I think it's a great, multi-generational combination... a little something for everyone.

In Graf's era, it was an older Navratilova and the next generation. Today, it's the survivors of the Serena generation (one of which, Venus, I believe you just recently picked to reach the Wimbledon final ahead of Serena... and it was a legit possibility), the mid-twentysomething players AND the new group of teenagers-or-nearly so (Muguruza and Bencic, both of whom have beaten Serena in the last fifteen months) coming in, as well, with many of them in the running to win slams.

Actually, I think this is all a great development for today's game, leading to longer careers and more opportunities for success. Part of it might be the more physical nature of the sport -- as is the case on the men's side, too -- making it a necessity for players to be stronger in order to be consistent and healthy enough to compete over the course of a long season. Also, the "Capriati Rule" was instituted after the mess that became her early career led to teenagers' opportunities to play tour events to be somewhat curtailed, robbing them of the ability to get a lot of big-time experience early in their careers, leading to a somewhat slower journey to some players' peak career years. On the positive side, the time -- and less wear on the body -- seems to be allowing them to be competitive later and longer in their careers.

Also, the training that is common now -- and, quite frankly, the money that can be won by the top players the longer their careers last -- gives a huge incentive to be careful and plan for a long career into their early to mid (and, we shall see, maybe even late) thirties. Once again, Navratilova was among the first to "change the rules," and now those ARE the rules.

GW: Yes, but again that is because of developments. Back in my era athletes in a whole bunch of sports were fat. Fitness had not yet taken over. Physios did not travel. And in the NFL head trauma was barely an issue yet. Navratilova is the biggest anomaly. Except perhaps that one election Jimmy Carter won like 3 or 4 states. Schiavone never should have won that French Open. I know it's a cliché, but she was not a deserving champion. And this era is riddled with them. Had Stosur not been nervous and choked she would have eased past Schiavone. Stosur was far and away the best player of that tournament.

TS: Then this speaks to how much better prepared and fit the players are today. I think I actually score points when you point out what wasn't up to par in the Graf era.

And, of course, it should be noted that an "undeserving" Schiavone also returned to the RG final a year later. Stosur, of course, then won the U.S. Open soon afterward (in a rare win over over Serena in a slam final). Sounds like depth, to me. And if we're going to talk about "flukey" slam winners, then it's hard to get past the likes of Majoli and Martinez (at least at Wimbledon, though that's the only one she ever won), who are surely in the discussion.

GW: But Schiavone only won that French Open because Stosur choked after beating the three favourites for the title back to back. But Stosur earned that U.S. Open win. There's no doubt. Majoli had injuries. And Martinez was a very solid player. She went 33-22 in finals. I think she was a solid 1-2 slam winner. She made two other finals. She earned her ranking of two.

TS: And Schiavone earned her title, too. By the law of averages and computations, all the non-Graf winners of slams in her era couldn't have been great, undervalued players while all the non-Serena winners of hers a fluke that only won because her opponent lost. If it were true, it might benefit your side, but I really don't think it is. I'm just sayin'.

GW: About my Wimbledon prediction, I picked Venus to defeat Serena because I was sick and tired of picking Serena for every damn slam year in and year out. Every tournament I say the same -- well, Serena is the heavy favorite but she might beat herself. Still I can't pick against Williams. Let's just be honest. It's boring. It's dull. I can't remember the last tournament where Serena was not the favorite. And that feels wrong. I didn't really believe Venus would beat Serena. I just can't pick Serena anymore. I really hate it. And Venus was the only other player I could justifiably choose.

TS: Turned out, there were several other legitimate choices to win or reach the final, though. Muguruza being one, and Kvitova (your overall pick) was another. She HAS won two slams. Twice as many as, say, Sabatini, with a lot of career to go. You DID predict Kvitova to win five Wimbledons, I believe, before this year's tournament.

GW: Yeah, I chose Kvitova to win and look what happened there in this supposed era of strength. Kvitova, the defending champ, imploded in a loss to somebody who is 20-12 lifetime at Wimbledon and 4-5 since 2011. I mean that's a bad loss. But I stand by that. Kvitova will win five Wimbledons in her career. Just when nobody picks her and we look the other way for seven matches.

TS: Was Kvitova the favorite? Yes. But I say that was a three-set match, and not one in which she just "disappeared." Again, I think that shows depth. Oh, and that "player" you were referring to is none other than Jankovic, a former #1 and slam finalist who's had a resurgent season at age 30 (and a 20-12 record at Wimbledon is actually not bad at all for a mortal), which I think goes to prove some of my points.

GW: Serena had an annoying habit of not playing a lot, which had to do with her injury, then turning up at slams and winning them. Despite the fact there was usually a world number one and top seed to contend with. Although for a period of time the WTA sullied the phrase "world number one." The best player in the world Wozniacki was not and probably never will be. And Serena looked finished before 2007 after a poor 2006. But back she has come. And then she survived life-threatening surgery. And the fact that a player with a history of injury, who had life threatening surgery, and is now 33 can dominate the WTA is actually a little embarrassing.

TS: You're actually helping me out here, Galileo. I don't think it's "embarrassing" at all (and, remember, Navratilova won a slam at 33 and played in a major final at 37, so some players are just special like that). Just look on the men's side, as Sampras' final slam run was the epitome of just showing up and winning a slam with one superior skill (his serve), while Agassi's career arc is actually very similar to Serena's as far as injuries and a lack of focus early in the careers of both allowing them to be more mentally fresh, willing to train in a way to keep ahead of the field, and dedicated into their early to mid-thirties than they might have been otherwise. Federer is his own unique case, as he's been at a consistently high level on both fronts from his early twenties to his early thirties, but most players can't say the same.

GW: Yes, but this isn't just a loss of form. Serena nearly died. She could have passed on. The fact that she can come back from that and the fact that she won majors before some of her competitors were born is ridiculous. She should not even have been able to compete let alone dominate after that. Federer must make sports aging experts so frustrated. If there is such a thing.

TS: If he wins this year's Open, he'll make a lot of people eat their words (again), too.

Again, though, just because Serena is a remarkable athlete and is capable of great things doesn't mean that everyone else is a chump(ette). It means Serena is remarkable, and great. And as far as winning majors before her competitors were born, well, I don't think she's played a 15-year old quite yet (since said competitor would have had to have been born in the final months of '99 or after January 1, 2000). But she might play Claire Liu soon... so that might not hold up much longer. Ha!

And now for something TOTALLY different. Ha! Here's an interesting note, even if seemingly a little off topic. Secretariat won a Triple Crown in horse racing in 1973 in dominating fashion. It didn't mean that the other horses of the year weren't any good. Secretariat was just special. And when that animal died in '89 it was revealed that his heart significantly larger than that of an ordinary horse, meaning it had a larger and stronger "engine" than any of its competitors. It proved what happened sixteen years earlier had been a singular phenomenon made possible by the unique traits of the top performer of the time, and why Secretariat is considered the greatest racehorse of all time (ESPN even ranked him at #35 on the Top 100 North American Athletes of the 20th century in 1999, right in the middle of the Graf and Serena eras!). Now, that's not saying that decades from now Serena is going to be cut open like a tree and her inner rings will reveal the "true" secret to her success. But, you know, you get the idea. She's just got something that her peers don't. It's not her fault, or theirs.

GW: Now that is interesting.

TS: Well, at least different!

As good as she was when she was younger, Serena has become a better player later in her career since joining forces with Patrick Mouratoglou. 33 has never been "old" in the real world, and it no longer is as much in tennis, either. As noted, various factors can lead to top athletes being at or near the head of their field at that age in other sports (Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Albert Pujols and I'm sure some soccer players that I'd never think to mention, etc.) if they so choose to be, and don't have some career-threatening injury. Back when Venus was the only Williams Sister anyone really knew about, her father Richard always said that Serena was going to be "the one." No one believed him then, but he was right. If not for her, Venus might have been the one with the 15-20 slams, not Serena, and the "What If?" story there might have revolved around her illness and how many more titles she could have won without the reality of that. Yes, Serena is still winning more than anyone. But, again, it's not because the talent isn't there on tour. Serena's just that good. Navratilova was able to compete for slams into her mid to late thirties (at least at SW19) because she was a singular talent.

GW: That's why Haas is so impressive, I think. He's been relevant and a force in three decades. Think about that for a second. A top 15 player in three decades. Multiple surgeries. Oh, and I disagree -- Bencic didn't beat Williams. Williams beat Williams.

TS: I'm not going to rob Bencic of the credit she deserves. Is it true that Williams, just like Graf, never was and never will be beaten when 100% in form? Of course it is. But as is the case in most tennis matches, the trick is often staying even with an opponent, then winning the few big points that turn the match. It looked like Serena was going to pull away in Toronto, but Bencic didn't crumble in the moment. That counts for a great deal, especially when it comes to defeating Serena. As Henin noted -- belief is key. Of course, it probably helped that Bencic is 18 and "didn't know any better."

GW: The last straight sets match Serena lost. When was that? Muguruza at last year's French?

TS: Serena's been solid for the past year or so. Hence, the Grand Slam bid. (Naturally, it's coming the season AFTER I predicted she'd do it in 2014, though.)

GW: And why have this string of world number twos been unable to challenge her? Sharapova played her best match ever against Serena back in 'Straya. She didn't get a set. And Kvitova imploded against Jankovic. On grass. You know, on grass. At Wimbledon. The event where Jankovic has never been past the fourth round despite being a world number one. That's the kind of era we're talking about. Mental implosions and inconsistencies. Sure it was there in the '90s, but it wasn't so prevalent.

TS: I agree, there IS too much that in today's game.

But, of course, I have to stick up for Jankovic, too. JJ has won a title on grass, so it's not like she's incapable on the surface. Kvitova is, well, we know how Kvitova can be... but when she's good she's brings-Hall-of-Famers-to-their-feet good (literally). And that Jankovic, at 30 and after having fallen outside the Top 20, was able to muster such a win against the reigning Wimbledon champ, I think, says a great deal about HER. She's played well on hard courts this summer in the afterglow of that run, too. (even if she did just lose in the Open 1st Round)

GW: One of the interesting things from Graf's era is that they seeded 1-16 at slams. Lori McNeil was in the top twenty at the time she beat Graf in that Wimbledon upset. Imagine Serena running into a Stosur in New York. And if they had seeded properly, the upsets would have been lessened and the player ranked 16-32 would have been stronger and more consistent. And this pattern is repeated throughout Graf's era. Let's take a random slam. One she didn't even win. 1993 Australian Open. World number 18 Zina Garrison was seeded 16th and she played world number 19 Amanda Coetzer in the first round. World number 21 Kimiko Date, who belongs in this era, ran into the tenth seed in the second round. The world number 22 Leila Meshki ran into the 13th seeded Nathalie Tauziat in the first round. And that pattern was repeated throughout the Graf era. And how strong was that top 32? Stronger than today's. And that's another point. Look at the top 40, the top 50. So much strength in depth. And as you look down so many famous names, so many excellent players. See if we'd been around in the '90s on the Interwebs your sister-watch would have been about the Maleevas. Little tangent -- in that 1993 Australian Open Mary Pierce lost just nine games, including a double bagel of Mary Joe Fernandez and a 3 and 0 thrashing of Davenport, who qualified but then blew three match points in the quarterfinals and lost to Gabriela Sabatini 4-6, 7-6[10], 6-0. Isn't that just Pierce's career writ small?

TS: Yeah. I'm wondering who might be the equivalent to Pierce in this era. Maybe Kuznetsova? Good. A multiple slam winner. But still seen as something of a career underachiever who might have been so much more if there'd been any consistency there. Ever.

GW: Yeah, our beloved Sveta. That 2009 FO match where she beat Serena might be my favourite match this century on the women's side. The best was probably the 2007 U.S. Open semi-final. It's funny the semi-finals at that event had both the best and worst match.

TS: On the other point, though, do you really think Meshki was a great threat? A good little player, yes, but not a "top" player by any means. I'd say the same about Coetzer and Date. They were good players, but not really slam championship contenders. I'd take up to a half a dozen of the second-tier (and maybe third) Russians from Serena's era over Soviet/Georgian Meshki. Garrison, though, was a talent, and maybe one of the most undervalued players of the era (four slam SF and a RU).

GW: Garrison was top five in singles and doubles. She made more than forty doubles finals and thirty-six singles finals, winning fourteen. She was a solid consistent player from the mid-80s through to about 1993. This is a big problem I feel with the WTA. One good year is rewarded above five or ten or fifteen solid consistent years. You get a higher ranking for having one very good year and that feels wrong. I'd rather have a consistent top four career over a ten-year period along with doubles success than have a good/best ranking but only have one-three great years. And MJF was a double Gold medal winner with sixteen slam quarterfinals (going 9-7). And then in the doubles she did even better, winning two slams. She made seven major doubles finals. And with six finals at the Australian Open overall (but 2-4) and two other semi-finals (not to mention overall a combined twelve quarterfinals there) she was one of the best ever at that slam not born in Australia. And as for Pierce... well, she won slams and beat Graf 2 and 2 once. She, when she got it right, was unbeatable, unstoppable and unplayable.

TS: Personally, I was never much of a fan of Fernandez as a player. At the time, I thought that she was going as far into slams as she was was something of an indictment of the rest of the field. So, I guess I don't come by my feelings about the Graf era only of late... I've always sort of felt this way. And, no, that opinion of MJF isn't colored by how I feel about her inept captaincy of the U.S. Fed Cup team, either. Honest!

On your previous point, yes, the 16-seed slams provide a few more potential early-round upsets than in the 32-seed slams (and that was bad luck for them), but I really think there are just as many -- if not more -- players capable of such wins today. Just at this past Wimbledon, Serena was challenged by unseeded Heather Watson. Her only 1st round slam loss came against unseeded Virginie Razzano. Defending Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova lost in the 3rd Round (to JJ), while #2 Simona Halep was tripped up in the 1st. Even with 32 seeds, while you'll still get early-round blow-out wins for top players, at every slam there are 1st/2nd Round match-ups before the start of play that are potential looming upsets by unseeded players, several of which happen at every major. Plus, you'll still get early-round match-ups with top players who've fallen due to an injury and are on their way up (such as Vika vs. Serena in the 2nd Round at this year's RG). We've seen players seeded outside the Top 16 go deep into slams of late, as well (four in the semis of the last five Wimbledons, to cite an example).

GW: But seedings helped. Again, Lori McNeil was world number 20 when she beat Graf. If there had been proper seedings the famous upset may never have happened.

TS: In that specific case, I agree.

GW: If I'm being honest, it is time for the Williamses to retire. They have had 20 years now of being on the tour. And they have had 17 years of being at the forefront. It's just time for new blood. In Graf's era it was never this boring.

TS: Now, now, Galileo. I understand. I really do. But, truth is, well, actually, it was. Much more so, in fact, a lot of the time... mainly because Graf was such a "machine" at times that there was no real drama and entertainment involved in her march to victory. I remember the era well, and it's why the loss of the "real" Seles hurt so much. I understand the "picking Serena is boring" thing, because I felt the exact same way when Graf was running roughshod over the field while winning many of her majors. Serena's longstanding dominance sometimes serves to make this era seem "lesser" in terms of competition, but the same was the case with Graf. I checked back on some of my slam predictions during the 1990's, and I picked Graf to win Wimbledon six of seven years from 1990-96 (and got five picks right), and the U.S. Open four times in five from 1992-96 (getting two). If I'd been picking in the late 1980's during her Golden Slam period I'm sure the pre-slam picks would have even been more lopsided in the German's favor. Remember, Graf won ten of the thirteen slams she played from 1993-96 after Seles' stabbing following her own seven-of-eight stretch.

The difference is that Serena's runs are very rarely ever "boring" in practice, match in and match out (as most of Graf's championships were), even if the on-paper final result has often been the same -- a title. The drama that Williams brings to the table, while some might grow tiresome with it (and even question it), makes every match a potential "classic comeback." Graf rarely had those. Truthfully, when I think about it, I think I'd be nodding my head agreement with you more here if your case was Graf vs. Williams, not their respective eras. Interestingly.

GW: I'd just like to say to anybody reading this whenever or wherever you are, Todd and I have been working our butts off for six weeks on this. Just want to point this out.

TS: Haha! Well, if they're this deep into this then things are fine, or they're gluttons for punishment! Either way, welcome!

GW: Anyway, here is an excerpt from the excellent S.I. Mailbag column were tennis-themed questions are answered by Jon Wertheim:

Q: I've always appreciated your willingness to acknowledge how professional tennis is rife with conflicts of interests, particularly among the commentators covering the sport. I was struck by an exchange between Cliff Drysdale and Mary Joe Fernandez during ESPN's coverage of the Western and Southern Open final. Fernandez noted that Serena had already lost nine sets in Grand Slam play this year while Graf only lost two during her 1988 Grand Slam year. Drysdale asked, "Doesn't this reflect how much stronger the women's game is today?" Silence. Drysdale then rephrased the question as, "Does it mean that women's fields are deeper today since I realize I'm asking about your generation?" Fernandez bluntly said, "No. There's no difference. I remember hitting with Steffi Graf before matches and being tired just from the warm up." I have never been so struck by a commentator's choice to defend her own era at the expense of credibility, and I have never been so embarrassed for a former professional athlete to acknowledge how poorly prepared she was to compete at the highest level of the game. So I would ask you, Jon, does Serena Williams face a significantly deeper field in her pursuit of the Grand Slam in 2015 than Graf did in 1988? — Robert Webb

JW: I will always maintain that these conflicts really stunt tennis’s growth, deprive the fans of honest/objective coverage and make the sport look small and incestuous. But I don't see a conflict here. Cliff Drysdale asked a reasonable question, the kind we would expect one analyst to ask of a former player. Mary Joe Fernandez gave what I assume was an honest answer. I don’t think it’s her “defending her era” so much as her giving a candid assessment. There is a sense among many —- fans, media, Justine Henin -— that, without diminishing Serena, she is not exactly competing against a murderer’s row. If anything, good for MJF for taking the question seriously and resisting the easy answer.

TS: Need I say more about MJF? Maybe she was exhausted from hitting with the powerful Graf because she was a string bean with no muscle at all? That said, while I've already stated my opinion of MJF as a player, a Fed Cup captain and, truthfully, over the years, a commentator (and none of them have been complimentary), I'll give her credit for the career she had because I can't think of any real reason she had it other than she worked really hard to get as much (and then some) out of her body and herself as she possibly ever could. Wow, I actually complimented Mary Joe... someone needs to mark this date on the calendar!

Wow, and speaking of "incestuous" answers, and a fellow media member taking up for another and not exposing her with the truth that was fairly plain as day (sort of how no ESPNers will ever criticize Fernandez's inept FC captaincy). I think Wertheim is plain wrong. It was definitely a case of MJF (rather feebly, I might add) defending her era. It wouldn't take a lot of listening to her commentary, which I'm sure Wertheim hasn't done much of since he's covering the same events she's working, to know that that's "the usual" sort of thing you get from MJF. We got the silence because she couldn't believe a colleague would dare to speak the truth... which is quite rare in an ESPN tennis broadcast. The fact is she DID give the easy answer rather than, as Wertheim called it, "taking the question seriously." Please, all she did was say something good about the BEST player of her generation. Drysdale wasn't questioning Graf, he was talking about her competition. If she'd "resisted the easy answer" she would have had to go into the subject far more than the questioner noted there that she had.

GW: I think Steffi came in right at the best time game-wise, not competition-wise. The way she played...well it was like when Connors came in. Nobody had seen anybody play like that before. It was new and astonishing. He made his first three finals in 1974. He won them all. In the second at Wimbledon he beat Rosewall 6-1, 6-1, 6-4. Also in grass in New York he beat Rosewall 6-1, 6-0, 6-1. OK, Ken was 41 but still. Nobody had seen that style before. I think the story is the same with Steffi.

TS: Yes, her speed and huge forehand were a shock to the system. The same was the case when Seles' wicked two-handed-on-both-sides angles, which very few players even had a prayer of defending when she was at her best.

Oh, and as far as Wertheim's mention of Henin's comments. Here they are in context, where she notes the lack of belief of many of the players that they can defeat Serena (which I mentioned earlier). And, also, let's not confuse that sentiment about any "lesser" competition during Williams' Grand Slam attempt (though, ironically, she's had a slew of three-set matches and close calls -- namely vs. Bacsinszky and Watson in Paris and London, during her '15 slam runs) with the overall "Serena era," of which Henin was a large part.

But back to the eras...

GW: Navratilova and Evert were still around until 1990. Then Seles took over. Then a whole host of very good players, injury and scandal kept Graf back until 1997. Then Hingis, Davenport and the Williamses arrived. She had more talented players in her era than Serena does. Navratilova is the greatest of our sport. And while Evert retired in 1989 she was still able to beat Graf six times. I believe, Todd, you wrote a post on how it would have been if Seles had not been stabbed. Well, then surely you can attest to her greatness. And who in today's era was really a greater player than Seles with the exception of the Williams sisters?

TS: Well, thing is, Venus plays a HUGE part in evaluating Serena's era. While they have always been and always will be thought of together, Serena and Venus WERE competitors during their careers, if not playing each other than defeating the non-sibling competition of the other. Venus maybe strengthens the talent base of Serena's era more than any other player, even if their head-to-head never really measured up as a "rivalry" because of the family dynamics. At the start, remember, it was Venus who was the Williams who was revolutionizing the women's game. Serena was the first to win a major, but it was during the stretch when Venus had a 5-1 head-to-head advantage in their match-ups. Venus' 35-match win streak in 2000 was the longest of the era, and her back-to-back Summer of Venus (SW19 & U.S. titles) runs in 2000-01 were arguably the best non-Serena stretches of dominance on tour since some of Graf's extended bits of brilliance. Also, Venus was on the losing end of all four slam finals during the original "Serena Slam," but defeated Serena in a pair of slam finals in 2005 and '08. Venus is an intricate part of Serena's era. If not for Serena and her Sjogren's condition, this might have been the "Venus era."

GW: I think she does play a huge role. And I think the fact she beat Serena all those times is impressive. But she is a case in point. All these players in your era on both sides never quite lived up to their potential. Venus should have won more than seven. Sharapova should have so many more. Henin should really have won Wimbledon. Venus just seemed to lack the fitness. Even before the syndrome she had struggled outside of Wimbledon and certain hard courts. Broadly speaking after 2006-07 she really tailed off. Except at Wimbledon and on certain hard courts she was no longer a factor. That being said, she was really consistent from 1999-2005 and then again briefly from 2007-2010. But she never became as great as she could be. It almost feels wrong to say Sharapova is greater, but I think she may just be.

TS: Heehee, well I actually listed Sharapova one spot ahead of Venus on my all-decade list for the 2000's and took some grief about it, but I think that speaks to the well-rounded nature of Sharapova's career that you rank her ahead of a seven-time slam winner, Gold Medalist and lock Hall of Famer like Venus. Incidentally, Venus was still a Top 10 player from 2007-10, and then the illness likely slowed her down from that point. Still, the fact is, many slam winners have had to go THROUGH Venus to win titles over the past decade, and I'm not just talking about Serena. From 2005-10, the U.S. Open winner had to defeat Venus en route on five occasions (only one was Serena), and then again last year at Wimbledon Kvitova's best match all fortnight came from Venus in the 3rd Round. Truthfully, at 35, anything we get from Venus at this point is just another layer of icing on a well-decorated cake. It might not be quite as grand as Serena's... but it's still quite spectacular.

GW: Yep. I like Venus and I think she's great, but she was always a one and a half slam player. Which is strange considering she usually does well on clay.

TS: Clay was always a struggle for both. For Serena, her footwork probabaly held her back in Paris more than anything, until Patrick M. helped clean up some aspects of her game. She won on natural power for so long, it's quite remarkable that she was able -- and willing -- to become a more well-rounded player so late in her career. Same with Sharapova.

GW: Well, you must have known that Evert's name would come up a lot. Let's not forget on clay Evert could still compete with Graf. There's no reason to drop this in here but I feel I have to point out she won 125 clay court matches in a row. Just sit and think about that for a second. It is beyond extraordinary.

TS: No doubt, Evert is one of the greatest players ever. That's not even an issue up for debate. I just don't think she plays much of role in terms of judging Graf's era. Navratilova, yes. Evert, no.

Where Evert is concerned, she was mostly out the door by the time Graf arrived. Her thirteen-season streak with at least one slam title ended in 1987, and she never won another after claiming Roland Garros in 1986. She lost to Graf in the first leg of the "Golden Slam" in '88, but by the end of the next season her career was over.

GW: But, yes the point is good. She had had enough. I think it was the rise of Graf that possibly convinced her, having reached her first final in 1973, that her time was coming to a close. That '73 French Open was possibly the best women's final at slam level in the 1970's. Martina was something else.

Serena, I think, is special in a different way. She wasn't innovative. She was special because she was so ultra-dominant and nobody ever really found a way to beat her. But Evert, Navratilova and Graf were all innovators. They all brought something new to the game. I would go further. I don't think there is a fitful comparison in all of sports.

TS: I think Serena's SERVE and overall power did revolutionize the game. Along with Venus, they forced the rest of the field to become stronger, fitter and, in a sense, take more chances on the court in order to have a shot to beat them. The players of the mid to late 2000's did a better job of that than some of the current ones, but it should be noted that so many of today's young players grew up idolizing Serena and/or her game. For most, that's probably crazy intimidating. Of course, that doesn't excuse not beating her more often.

Navratilova wasn't quite at her peak in Graf's early years, but she held on for as long as she possibly could (Graf's slam singles career only lasted five years beyond Martina's, even with their 13-year age difference), especially at Wimbledon. After Graf's early upset in '94, Navratilova played in her last Wimbledon final at age 37 that year (and it wasn't an embarrassment that she did it). She has to be factored into the act of comparing the eras, and I'm not sure there's a fitful comparison in Serena's era. Really, only Venus at this stage of HER career might come close (but not really).

GW: I think the closest Evert equivalent for Serena is probably Seles.

TS: Hmmm. Maybe. Not the same player (and not as good as a late-career Martina), but still competitive. If Graf had played into her thirties, maybe it might have been her. Well, it WOULD have.

All right, let me take a swing.

Basically, I think I can make my era's point best simply by comparing a few players, or groups of them. Here's my initial go-around. First off, how about the two-headed national threats comparison? While Graf had the Spaniards Sanchez and Conchita Martinez, Serena faced Belgians Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. Graf was 29-8 (5-2 in slam finals) against Sanchez, and 13-1 vs. Martinez. That sort of dominance over some of the biggest Hall of Fame-level achievers of her era sounds familiar. Meanwhile, Henin (a close 6-8 vs. Serena) defeated Williams in three straight slams at one point. It was her sudden retirement when she was #1 that created the environment that led to the AnaIvo/JJ/Caro/Safina stints at #1, which wouldn't even be an issue if she'd stuck around. Meanwhile, Serena had Clijsters' number in the less-than-it-should-have-been KC 1.0, but the Belgian's 2.0 comeback saw her as a player who no longer felt the pressure to win and her return featured three more slam titles and a brief return to #1. The only time THAT Clijsters faced Serena, she won in the '09 U.S. Open semi (one of Williams' three career defeats in 28 slam SF) in the match that included Serena's meltdown directed at the "foot-fault judge." In a head-to-head comparison, I'd take Waffle #1 (Henin) over Spaniard #1 (Sanchez), as well as Waffle #2 (KC) over Spaniard #2 (Conchita).

GW: When ASV ruled the world, she did it with seemingly nothing but excessive determination and complete utilization of all the talent she had been given. Which was little. She is like Ferrer in that aspect.

TS: Of course, Ferrer has never able to win a slam in his era. Sanchez won four in hers.

GW: Well, ASV won 759 matches and Henin 525. ASV had a longer period of relevance. They both had 12 slam finals. And ASV played Seles and Graf in every single one of them, except two. She played Pierce in two and won one. Because when Pierce gets it going nobody could stop her. Not even Graf could handle Pierce at her peak. Henin played Kuznetsova in implosion mode and Pierce in implosion mode. She played Ivanovic, too. She also played Clijsters three times. These are all players she could beat. ASV played the two greatest players of her era. Henin played two Williams sisters in slam finals. Plus ASV made 22 slam semi-finals, but Henin only 17. Consistency was something that ASV had over Henin. I think KC was a better player than Martinez, but Conchita won 725 matches. Clijsters just 523. And look at some of the players who the Belgian played in her finals. Wozniacki and Zvonareva. CM had Hingis and Navratilova. Plus Pierce, who went into some upper level of tennis.

Sanchez and Martinez are 1st and 3rd all time for clay wins. They are 2nd and 4th for French Open wins. Neither Henin nor Clijsters feature.

TS: Well, I think Henin will take her four RG titles in five years vs. Sanchez's three and Martinez's zero and be content. Henin is the greater player of the two between her and Sanchez. I feel totally secure in that assessment. Even on the best surface for both -- clay -- La Petit Taureau holds sway. As far as the match win totals, they're just numbers. I think we know that the shorter careers (but, still, more slam title-laden) of the Belgians are the reason for that. As far as who were her opponents in finals, it can't be ignored that Henin often knocked off bigger names getting to the finals of the seven slams she won, including Davenport ('04 AO), Sharapova ('05 RG), Capriati ('03 US) and Serena ('07 RG, one of the three straight times she defeated Williams in majors that season).

GW: And of course Hingis, too, was a strong number one.

TS: I think Hingis' rise was somewhat akin to what happened with Wozniacki and Jankovic. Aside from her actually winning slams, of course.

And, on that note. To be continued one final time... all for now.

NEXT TIME: Hingis, Capriati, the Russians...and Seles (DUM-DUM-DUUUUM)


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