Note. This blog was originally posted after Serena’s defeat at the USO 2019. An update of the figures has been done, covering up to Wimbledon 2022.
Serena Williams and Steffi Graf have been the dominant forces in tennis for the last three decades. Their careers barely overlapped in the late nineties, when Graf was on her way out and Serena was arriving. Their H2H record stands at 3-2, Serena, which is as close as it can be when you only play 5 matches.
Serena is still playing and currently trying to tie Margaret Court’s Grand Slam record. Graf, of course, is completely retired, so much so that she does not even partake in post-career activities as commentating.
Can they be compared? Let’s.
Total number of Slams: Serena 23, Graf 22. Fairly close. It gets even more interesting. Serena has lost 10 Grand Slam finals, Graf lost 9. So their respective winning percentages, in finals, are 70% and 71%. Too close to make a relevant difference.
On total tournaments, Graf does have a clear cut advantage. She holds 107 tournaments and a winning percentage of 78%, while Williams has 73 titles and a 74% winning percentage. The second figure is again statistically identical but it seems very difficult that Williams will reach the “100 tournaments Club”, as she tends to play selectively throughout the year (and is by now contemplating whether she will continue to play).
Graf, of course, retired at age 30, after 17 years in the tour. Williams is still playing after 26 years, so a simple count of how many Slams it took them to get to their positions is easy: Williams played her first Slam at the Aussie Open in 1998, and has played in 80 such tournaments. Graf first appeared at a Slam in Australia 1983 and bid farewell after her defeat at Wimbledon in 1999. With multiple non-appearances (due to injuries), her total tally of Slams played were 54. So it took Graf considerable less Slams to reach her mark, as opposed to Williams. The percentages are quite different: Williams has won 29% of the slams she has played in, Graf won 41%.
At the End Of Year tournaments, they are quite similar too: Graf won 5 and lost 1, Williams has also won 5 and lost 2.
They both, of course, have been #1 for considerable stretches of time, but Graf held the top spot, at year’s end, for 8 years, while Williams has done it five times. Total weeks at that spot goes to Graf: 377 Vs 319, for which Graf is #1 and Williams #3 (Navratilova is #2 at 332). One curious item: they both hold the record for most consecutive weeks as #1, with 186 weeks each.
Both Graf and Williams have also held multiple Slams at the same time. Graf won a complete calendar Slam in 1988, held them all again starting from Roland Garros 1993 through the Australian Open in 1994, and at one time won all the slams she played in two consecutive years, 1995 and 1996, for a total of six straight Slams in which she appeared. She missed the Aussie Open of those two years so she did not hold a “Steffi” slam in them, but that is the longest streak of Slams for either player. Williams has also held a “Serena Slam” twice, the first one from RG 2002 through the Aussie 2003, the second from the USO 2014 through Wimbledon 2015.
Graf is the sole player that has won all Slams at least 4 times each. Serena has won them all at least three times, with RG her least successful slam of all.
One thing they also share is the concept that both have played in “Weak eras”. The concept, of course, is circular: if you dominate your sport totally, it makes the rest of the field look weak. Just look at Usain Bolt and all the rest of his rivals. Bolt was dominant in an era in which almost all sprinters could crack a 100 Mts dash in less than 10 seconds, so a weak era it is not.
But tennis is not played with a stopwatch to measure your rivals. It is simply wins or losses and it makes no difference if it was 1 & 2 (Williams´ defeat of Sharapova at the 2007 Aussie open) or 10 – 8 in the third (Graf’s defeat of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario at the 1996 French Open). So can you make sense of how weak were the fields these two players were in?
Graf only played in Slam finals three players that never won a Slam: Natasha Zvereva, Helena Sukova and Mary Joe Fernandez. Both Sukova and Fernandez appeared in two slam finals each, both losing twice to Graf. So it is only Zvereva that can be said was an anomaly, reaching only one slam final in her career.
Williams has played in Slams finals a total of five players that never won one: Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina, Vera Zvonareva, Agnieska Radwanska and Lucie Safarova. Of the five, only one reached multiple slam finals: Safina (3).
Furthermore, playing a little numbers game tells a bit more. Graf played in her career a total of 11 different players in Slam finals, who hold a combined 58 slam titles. Williams has played a total of 17 different players, who hold a combined 41 slams. But the comparison is very hard to accept at face value. Graf played winners of 58 slams, sure, but 36 of those came from Navratilova and Evert (whom she played once in a Slam final). Nuances abound. Williams, for example, has played Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep and most recently Bianca Andreescu, three players that account for 7 slams in this tally but who most certainly will get at least a couple of more (Osaka and Andreescu are very young and very good and will remain on the tour for a considerable time). Is there a formula to “weight” these results? Try, for example, to add the Slams that an opponent had and multiply them times each time they faced each player. Graf has the advantage of having played Navratilova 6 times (times her 18 Slams), Seles 6 times (times her 9 slams) and Sanchez Vicario 7 times (times her 4 slams). The total tally for this silly exercise is that Graf played against a “total” of 211 Slams. For Williams, you have to add her sister Venus’ 7 slams (times 9 matches) and Sharapova’s 5 slams (times 4 matches). She has surprisingly played very few multiple Slams repeatedly (she only played Henin in one final, and never played Clijsters in one). Serena’s tally in this sense is 117 slams, slight more than half of what Graf faced. But admittedly, the exercise seems a bit bland at face value.
Graf’s career will always carry an asterisk, the infamous stabbing of Monica Seles, her chief rival at the time and a player that, for those with good memory, seemed to have Graf’s number. But those are the numbers and tennis has certain subjects that are prone to that sort of analysis. Roy Emerson will never be considered to be better than Rod Laver despite having won one more slam. The subject is well known and bears no discussion here. In the end, Graf won her slams, did it faster than Williams, and has a few little shining medals of her own. Williams has one more Slam and her trophy chest is also quite full.
The comparison, of course, is a silly exercise, just a few numbers being crushed. Some numbers may be missing. But as Serena Williams continues her quest to reach Margaret Court’s record, many commentators claim she is the greatest player of all times. But a beautiful, middle age woman born in Germany may have a different opinion, if she were the type to voice opinions at all.
Now, if you will excuse me, Martina Navratilova wants to have a word with me.