When a journalist last week called Serena Williams ‘one of the greatest female athletes of all time’, she bristled. “I prefer the word: one of the greatest ‘athletes’ of all time,” she replied.*
Equal pay for female tennis players, at Wimbledon, began in 2007**. The Wimbledon Championships are gender based. Men must win three sets to win, implying a maximum of five sets. Women must win two sets. So women play two-thirds the number of sets of the men’s game. Does this matter when discussing equal pay? Not really, because the prize money is a commercial decision. Top female tennis players wouldn’t enter Wimbledon if there wasn’t equal pay. Serena Williams and Andy Murray therefore won £2M each as the 2016 champions. Pay equality isn’t enough for Williams, she also wants to be regarded as ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time’.
Serena Williams undoubtedly meets the first criterion of greatness. She is no flash-in-the-pan ‘lucky’ winner. She has had many victories on different surfaces and in different climatic conditions. She dominates the modern women’s game even into her thirties. She is indisputably one of the greatest female athletes of all time. Yet this is not enough for Serena Williams. Serena Williams seems to hear the journalist say ‘You’re very good considering you’re a woman’, a condescending sneer as opposed to a statement of fact. After all what does it mean to be in the pantheon of the elite of the elite? The finest of the finest?
Serena Williams certainly passes the first test. She is the finest female tennis player of the current generation. However, how good do you have to be to be the finest female tennis player? How good is the opposition? This has been a recurring question especially by those opposed to equal pay for female tennis players. Their belief is that female tennis players are over-rewarded for medicocrity***. Historically the question cystallised in 1973 when Bobby Riggs challenged the world number one female player, Margaret Court, to a match over five sets. Despite being fifty-five, he trounced Margaret Court (13th May 1973). He then challenged Billie Jean King, aged 29, the world number two. Their match took place four months later and he lost****. Whether Riggs deliberately lost to King is neither here nor there to this discussion. What is relevant is that an ex-player aged 55 challenged the female world number one and two and it wasn’t a joke. Billie Jean King didn’t claim to be one of the greatest athletes of all time because she defeated a 55 year old ex-player.
If Court and King had challenged Jan Kodes, the 1973 male Wimbledon champion, and defeated him, that would have put an end to the debate. They could rightly have pointed to Kodes’ three Grand Slams (early 1970s) as proof that he wasn’t a has-been. Kodes was at his peak. If Serena Williams had played a best of five set match against the Serbian Novak Djokovic***** in 2016 and won, then she would have strengthened her claim to be one of the greatest athletes of all time. Until she competes at the highest levels she remains ‘one of the greatest female athletes of all time’.
Being the greatest female athlete of all time isn’t to denigrate Serena Williams, her talent, her dedication or her stellar abilities but she isn’t the greatest athlete of all time. For her to achieve that accolade she has to surpass all other contenders and she clearly hasn’t done that. It’s profoundly unlikely that she would defeat a champion male tennis player at the peak of his powers.
*The Observer 10th July 2016
**Equal pay in Grand Slam events see https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2015/sep/11/how-women-in-tennis-achieved-equal-pay-us-open
***Serena Williams won her semi-final (2016) in 49 minutes. The loser was paid £500,000.
**** This is a closely discussed event full of murk and possible Mafia involvement see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2402318/Battle-Sexes-tennis-match-new-claims-emerge-Billie-Jean-Kings-opponent-deliberately-lost.html
*****He has won 12 Grand Slams