Against waves of young opponents, Serena Williams just kept winning

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Serena Williams, through 27 years in professional tennis, has faced several generations of stars who jockeyed for position at the top of the sport.

The strength of her claim to be considered the greatest player ever is rooted not only in her longevity – and 23 Grand Slam singles titles – but in her dominance over women from across eras of tennis. She routinely beat the stars who ruled tennis before her, and she held her own against phenoms who hit the court more recently. Between those generations, Williams overwhelmed the women who grew up with her in the sport – and then outlasted many of them by more than a decade.

Williams went pro at 14. Her first title at the top level of the tour came in 1999 against Steffi Graf, who finished her career with 22 Grand Slam championships. Williams was 17 at the time and eventually surpassed Graf’s majors wins with her victory at the 2017 Australian Open.

As Williams settled into her prime, she found regular foes in a cohort of women who came up through the ranks around the same time she did. She went toe to toe with Martina Hingis, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin and Venus Williams – all of whom reached No. 1 in the era that Serena Williams did, and all of whom lost to her more often than they won. Serena Williams had an overall record of 63-38 against those peers across WTA matches, the Fed Cup and the Olympics.

With the exception of Venus Williams, who is still playing at 42, those other former top-ranked women had largely retired from WTA singles competition by around age 30. But when Serena Williams hit 30, she seemed to get stronger.

From 30 to 35, she posted a record of 288-34, winning 89% of her matches. She spent 186 consecutive weeks at No. 1 in this time frame – from February 2013 to September 2016 – and she dominated the other women who reached the highest echelon of tennis in that era. Her career record was 19-5 against Victoria Azarenka, 10-3 against Simona Halep, 10-1 against Caroline Wozniacki and 20-3 against Maria Sharapova.

Williams became a mother just before turning 36, and though she returned to the court the next year, her time on the tour since then has been limited by injury. Consequently, this era’s top contenders have had more success against her than previous ones. Naomi Osaka is 3-1 against Williams, and Bianca Andreescu is 2-0. Both of those young stars beat Williams in U.S. Open finals – Osaka in 2018, Andreescu in 2019.

As for the next batch of phenoms, they have not had as many chances to play Williams, in part because of her limited schedule and because she has had fewer deep runs in tournaments in the past three years. The current No. 1, Iga Swiatek, has never faced her. Neither has second-ranked Anett Kontaveit, though she would be Williams’ next opponent if both win their first-round matches. Emma Raducanu, who won the U.S. Open last year, played Williams for the first and probably only time at the Western and Southern Open this month.

Raducanu, who won, said she appreciated getting to play a woman she had idolized, even if it was in the twilight of Williams’ career: “I’m so grateful for the experience to be able to play her and for our careers to cross over.”

This article originally appeared in
The New York Times.

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