The title of this article is a hotly debated topic between me and my friend Jean. The conversation always begins the same way, with him singing the praises of Serena Williams. With her impressive list of accomplishments, it is easy to argue her case as being the best female player of all time, but is she the best at the moment? Jean gets upset when I play devil’s advocate in suggesting that the number one-ranked player should get the title of the best player, if only for the time being. Serena may not always be ranked number one, but she is always treated as such when playing. Few players, if any, can illicit the respect, fear and admiration of other players the way she does. Whether at the top of the rankings or not, Serena could be said to, at the very least, have an honorary number one ranking in the minds of the commentators at every major. This begs the question: Is the number one ranked player the best player, or does the title require more justification?
Before trying to make an argument as to who is the best, we must first ask ourselves how are we going to define “the best.” There are many criteria that must be considered. Should the best player be the one who has won the most money in the year? Should the best player be the one who has won the most matches? Should the best player be the player that has won the most, big matches? Realistically, I believe that to call someone the best, they have to be the favorite to win in any match they play. I certainly would not bet against Serena in any match (barring any injuries).
Ranking is used to seed players in tournaments and reflects an estimation as to who should have the highest percentage chance of winning the event, but things rarely turn out that way. Part of the reason this occurs is because several things go into how a player is ranked. One example is consistency and frequency. A player may arrive at a major with a 50/50 win-loss ratio, ranked higher than their opponent because they have played more events in the year and thus, have accumulated more ranking points. Their opponent, on the other hand, although being ranked lower, has an 80/20 win/loss ratio and proceeds to demolish our first player. No ranking system is perfect, nor can it account for every variable (especially off the court variables.) The system we have in professional tennis, I feel, is as fair and balanced as we can expect.
Going back to the center of my debate with Jean, I am inclined to agree with my friend. Serena does not necessarily need to obtain the number one ranking to be considered the best player in the world, nor does anyone else. Ranking cannot tell you with certainty what the outcome of a match will be. A more interesting question for debate would be, if Serena played more events, would she be able to perform as well as she does at the majors. Part of a player’s skill is shown not just on the court but off the court, finding that balance of dozens of variables to perform at your absolute best. Serena has, in her career, done things her own way. She might be the object of criticism for this, but her results suggest that she knows what works for her, to perform at her absolute best despite her rank at any given moment.
Miguel Cervantes III
Miguel Cervantes III teaches at Carefree Racquet Club and privately outdoors. Miguel specializes in teaching beginners, training juniors and coaching doubles. He may be reached by e-mail at UnderstandingTennis@gmail.com.