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O’Sullivan: Serena’s new-mom Wimbledon and the GOAT debate

  • Serena Williams returns the ball to Angelique Kerber during their women’s singles final match at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships on Saturday in London. AP

  • Angelique Kerber hugs Serena Williams (left) after defeating her in the women’s singles final match at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships on Saturday in London. AP



Monitor staff
Saturday, July 14, 2018

Lately there’s been a lot of sports debate about who’s the greatest.

Let me weigh in.

There’s one who just lost in the championship. Simply getting there was a feat, the kind of odds-defying, overcoming achievement that carries a lot of weight in the GOAT debate. It’s easy to win when the deck is stacked in your favor, only the greatest can do it when the odds are against them.

That could apply to LeBron James. He may have just lost to stacked Golden State, but dragging that Cavs team to the finals was a triumph. It’s what sparked the new wave of greatest-ever arguments, and it pushed him closer, if not past, Michael Jordan.

But I’m not talking about LeBron. I’m talking about Serena Williams, who may have lost in Saturday’s Wimbledon final, but picked up big points in the GOAT rankings by getting there as a 36-year-old who gave birth 10 months ago and nearly died in the process.

Yes, it’s different sports and different genders. But this is what we do with sports, we get hypothetical and creative. We analyze pound-for-pound.

Comparing LeBron to Jordan requires its own touch of imagination since they played in different eras. So let’s go a little further with it, let’s compare between sports.

Many of the greatest have these iconic moments of overcoming. Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle. Jordan’s flu game. Tom Brady’s snow game. LeBron’s …. J.R. Smith game?

The last one does fit. LeBron had to overcome Smith all year just to get to the finals. It also makes a nice segue to the next and newest addition to that list: Serena’s new-mom Wimbledon.

Serena isn’t the first mother to succeed after giving birth. Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong and Kim Clijsters all won majors after becoming moms. Lindsay Davenport won a tournament only three months after having a child in 2007. Victoria Azarenka just reached the fourth round at Wimbledon after giving birth in December 2016.

But Serena is the first person to be competing on her sport’s biggest stage after nearly dying during childbirth.

“Almost didn’t make it, to be honest,” Serena said on Thursday after her convincing 6-2, 6-4 semifinal win over Julia Goerges.

She almost didn’t make it due to blood clots in her lungs, the same condition that nearly killed her in 2010. This time the clots started a chain reaction of health issues that required multiple surgeries.

Given all that, it was amazing when Serena returned to the tour in March. It was also understandable when she left again after just two events to work on her fitness, and when she withdrew from the French Open in May with an injury.

The amazing returned when Serena returned to Wimbledon, where she has won seven of her 23 Grand Slam titles. The power, shotmaking and consistency were all back as she rolled through the first four rounds without dropping a set.

Sure, the Wimbledon brackets were busted by upsets, and Serena didn’t face a seeded player until she met No. 13 Goerges, but that doesn’t mean the competition was weak – the women’s game is deep, which is why the brackets were busted, and Serena had to face the players who had momentum from pulling off those upsets.

“Every single match I play, whether I’m coming back from a baby, or surgery, it doesn’t matter, because these young ladies bring a game that I’ve never seen before,” Serena said last week. “That’s what makes me great. I always play everyone at their greatest, so I have to be greater.”

She wasn’t greater than Angelique Kerber on Saturday, but she wasn’t far away, either. The steadiness Serena had shown all tournament was gone, and while she played below average, Kerber played her best. She deserved the title, but Kerber also knew Serena wasn’t far away.

“You’re such an inspiration for everybody, for all of us that are watching you, really, it’s just amazing,” Kerber said to Serena during the post-match on-court interviews. “And I’m sure you will have your next Grand Slam title soon, I’m really, really sure.”

When Serena does win that next major, she will be tied with Court for the most of all time with 24. But Court won half of those in the pre-open era playing against amateurs, and she won 11 of them in Australia when few of the top players traveled Down Under to participate.

Serena’s total titles put her in the greatest debate, but the gap between her and the next-best might put her over the top. When Serena plays her best, no one comes close. There were glimpses of that against Goerges, who played at a high level all tournament and was at her peak against Serena … and never had a chance.

Serena has shown that gap against all her top rivals, including her sister Venus. The same can’t be said for all the other greats. Even if Roger Federer is playing his best, Rafael Nadal at his best can still hang with him, or beat him on the right surface. Ali was pushed to his limits, and beaten, by Joe Frazier. LeBron has a losing record in the Finals.

Jordan had that Serena-like separation from his competition and never lost in the NBA Finals, but he did lose to Detroit before winning titles. Also, his title run spanned nine years and he was a shell of his former self at the end of his 15-season career. Serena’s title run has spanned 19 years and she looked in peak form after winning her last major – the 2017 Australian Open (when she was two months pregnant).

Now all those years and all those titles and all that distance between herself and the next-best have a signature moment of overcoming to go alongside them. This Wimbledon may have been her flu game, but the truth is Serena has been overcoming for a long time.

“(Serena’s career) has been fascinating to watch,” Federer told The New York Times in May. “She had a totally different upbringing – I came up through Switzerland with the federation, she did it with her dad and her sister. It’s an amazing story unto itself – and then she became one of the greatest, if not the greatest tennis player of all time.”

Asked if he meant women’s player or overall, Federer answered, “Overall.”

Now we have to ask – tennis player or athlete overall?

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)