NEW YORK -- Irish author Oscar Wilde, who lived for a time in a London hotel not all that far from Wimbledon, once famously joked, "I can resist everything except temptation" -- a sentiment that comes roaring back to mind as Serena Williams moves closer and closer to finishing off her calendar-year Grand Slam at the US Open, an accomplishment no one has done since Steffi Graf in 1988.
Williams' blanket dominance of today's women's tour tends to make the mind drift toward other greats from other eras. The urge is to try to put her in historical context. She's now generally considered the greatest female player of all time. And still, you wonder .
How might Serena have done in a head-to-head clash against Graf at her best, or against Martina Navratilova at her best? They're the only two players who can approach Williams' athleticism, longevity and string of accomplishments.
How would Navratilova's serve-and-volley game -- a style pretty much extinct in today's era of souped-up rackets and polyester strings -- survive against the sizzling groundstrokes Williams belts from the backcourt? Better yet, what if you armed Navratilova with the same racket and dropped her down at Wimbledon or the US Open against Serena? Then what?
"It would be tremendous," says ESPN analyst John McEnroe, a fellow lefty and serve-and-volleyer.
Graf was quiet and inscrutable on the court. Navratilova, like Serena, was emotionally raw and loud (as in loud enough to shatter the wine glasses in the stadium suites if really, really upset.) But once you put the temperament comparisons aside, would Graf's remarkable foot speed and court coverage, her vicious forehand and incinerating will to win make Serena feel great unease at times, as if she was playing a mirror image of herself?
We don't have to ask the same questions about Serena against older sister Venus. They've played 26 times, and Serena has a 15-11 edge in their showdowns and an 8-5 record in their head-to-head meetings at majors.
But Serena versus Navratilova at their absolute bests?
Serena versus Steffi at their absolute bests?
Graf and Williams split their only two meetings, both in 1999. But it's hard to draw much from it because they were at dramatically different stages of their careers. At the start of the year, a 29-year-old Graf beat a 17-year-old Williams in Sydney. Later that spring, Williams beat Graf in three memorable sets in Indian Wells to begin her move out of Venus' considerable shadow. Two months later, Graf won the French Open, the last of her 22 Slams. Three months after that, Williams captured the US Open, the first of her 21.
By then, Navratilova had been retired from singles play five years.
"I would love to play against Serena -- I wish we could have played," Navratilova once told Laureus.com. "At our best, I think we would pretty much have split the matches. Serena can almost serve you off the court, but once the ball is in play, I think I would be OK. She doesn't like to play people that are fast, which I was, that give her different spins, which I would have.
"She wouldn't have liked to play Steffi Graf because of the low slices and her big serve, and somebody fast that can absorb her power and give it back. They would be great matches."
No argument there.
Graf, meanwhile, has been almost radio silent about Williams' nine-month quest to become only the sixth player to win the Slam. A win here would also tie Williams and Graf at 22 major titles apiece. Graf did speak briefly about Williams to France's L'Equipe newspaper while in Paris in June, calling her "a unique athlete" who has "shots and weapons unique in the history of the game."
She also reminisced about the pressure of her own Slam chase, which included an Olympic gold medal as well, and how much it took out of her.
"I remember, above all, the extreme fatigue I felt in New York,'" Graf said. "I was feeling the expectation around me that wasn't mine. That was suffocating and stopping me concentrating.
"Everyone was talking about this chance, and I couldn't understand it. I was 19. I was just relieved when it was finished, and 27 years on, I find it unbelievable to have been able to resist the pressure."
Graf's Grand Slam is a significant piece of her claim to best ever. Four experts we consulted -- ESPN's McEnroe, Cliff Drysdale and Pam Shriver, and Jon Wertheim, an analyst for the Tennis Channel and executive editor at Sports Illustrated -- have some thoughts about how the head-to-head matchups between Williams and Graf and Navratilova would play out.
They disagree on some points. But all of them are in agreement with Chris Evert's opinion that Serena, right here and right now, no matter how this US Open ends, is already the greatest female player of all time.
Evert told Time magazine earlier this summer that she doesn't even buy the argument anymore that Williams has lacked the career-long great rival like she had with Navratilova, or Graf had with Monica Seles until a deranged fan tragically stabbed Seles.
"After watching her [Serena's] matches and watching her closely, these players get close, they're doing really well, and then she'll get to another level where she slaps winners and she starts acing people," Evert said. "It's not one level. All of a sudden, she's up two or three levels better than the field. It's not about the other women. It's about how good Serena is."Serena versus Martina
McEnroe: "You know, the way the game has changed, Martina and I, we're sort of old school. We look [on video] like we're in slow motion. But both of us would like to think we could translate fairly well if we had the sort of equipment and everything available to us the way it is available to players now.
"Players in the men's and women's game take much bigger swings now. With our racket technology, you couldn't hit the ball as hard. With today's, you're adding a 10 to 20 percent added impact in speed. . So, I think Martina's serve would've been bigger, and she would've been able to hit her spots even better. In her prime, she was quick-moving to the net, so to think she couldn't do that against Serena would be ludicrous. But she would probably have to pick her spots more."
Drysdale: "They are all great movers and excellent athletes. You're comparing the way the game used to be played with the way it's played now. Today, you'd have a different kind of Martina playing.
"But if you're trying to compare them as players when they were at their best, I'd give the edge strongly to Serena. Martina would try to serve and volley and have minimal success, because Serena's return of serve is just too strong. The only stroke where Martina would be better is the volley, which is considerably better. The issue for Martina is Serena doesn't have to come in much at all. And when she does, she pretty much has the point won."
Shriver: "If everyone had the same equipment, same strings, same chance of power, that would narrow the power differential between Navratilova and, say, Serena of today. So if we're talking apples to apples on equipment and everything else, for any one match, I'd still say Serena can reach a higher level because of her serve and overall power quotient.
"But if you're talking about 10 matches played at their best, or best out of 20 or 50, I'd actually take Navratilova or Graf because they're more consistent over a period of many matches.
"Martina's serve would definitely improve with today's technology. Back then, her serve was more built on being a great serve-and-volleyer and was a lot about enabling her to get to the net as quickly as possible for her first volley. Also, her leftiness -- and that great wide swing serve of hers -- was about getting you off court to set up her next shot. Her intent most of her career was never to hit it as hard a serve as she could . whereas Serena, and even Graf to [an] extent, their intent was to hit hard. Given Martina's strength, I could see her adapting."
Wertheim: "This is a fun story, but the problem with this is, you end up diminishing these great players. You end up picking apart these great players, and you always get into this: 'What surface are we talking about? Whose technology are we using?' In a vacuum, Serena is the best athlete. Certainly, she's the most powerful.
"Some of this is the technology, but I don't think Martina's serve-and-volley game would be tremendously successful against Serena. We can debate if that's the racket Serena is using or if Martina had Steffi's strings, would that change the dynamic? But serve-and-volley would not be a particularly effective tactic against Serena. I just don't think Martina penetrates the court if Serena hits to her backhand and serves well enough to dictate every rally. Which she can."Serena versus Steffi
McEnroe: "In terms of out-and-out athleticism, the two greatest athletes ever are Steffi and Serena, and maybe Venus close behind. So from that aspect, it would be awesome to see how Serena and Steffi handled each other. Because I practiced with Steffi a lot more than I played with Serena, she was very, very intense and a great person to practice with. And her movement was unbelievable. Serena is also.
"It would be a helluva matchup. It depends what surface, too. You'd think the faster the surface, it would favor Serena because she's got firepower. And Steffi -- because she preferred to chip most of her backhands -- was more comfortable handling the slower surfaces. Her forehand was as big as Serena's. Backhand, you win 22 majors and you get away with chipping 90 percent of your backhands -- that's what Steffi did, what she needed to do.
"In this day and age, if you look at some of the players Serena had great rivalries with, like Justine Henin, I suspect Steffi would have adjusted and used her topspin more often, too, had it been necessary. But when it's not necessary and you're winning pretty much everything, why change a winning formula?"
Drysdale: "Steffi-Serena is a different story than Serena-Martina because Steffi was very strong off the ground. Great athlete. Excellent serve. Not as good a serve as Serena's, which would be the Achilles' heel for Steffi.
"Serena's all-around game the past three years and her groundstrokes have improved. Her forehand has gotten better. Her groundstrokes are equal to Graf's. And I don't see that slice you saw so much of from Graf working in the long run against Serena. She would be able to get to it, she'd be able to use her two-handed backhand and she could slide it down the line. Did I say 'slide'?" Drysdale stops himself, breaking into a laugh -- "I should say she would whack it down the line."
Shriver: "I would have to strongly, strongly disagree with Cliff on the groundstrokes being equal. To me, Graf's forehand -- I don't now if he's talking technology or whatever -- but talk about someone who used her forehand with intimidating intentions, with the intent to hit winners. When Steffi was at her best, her forehand was the best shot in tennis, same as Serena's serve has been now.
"The only real knock on Serena is she just hasn't maintained that highest level of consistent domination over the same amount of time as Navratilova and Graf. And there is also a lot of discussion about the quality of rivals the three of them have had.
"All of them have accomplished things that are superhuman. But again, I'd still say Serena at her best can reach a higher level than any of them at their best for one match."
Navratilova has the most singles titles (167) ever. Graf has more majors (22), but Serena is one away from tying that and could match Graf's calendar-year sweep of the Slams by the time the US Open ends next week. But how do their games match up against each other? Let's evaluate the trio in a few key categories.Best serve
Graf was no slouch, and Navratilova never went for speed as much as to set up her first volley. Both would benefit from today's improved racket technology. But Williams' serve is the best weapon ever in women's tennis, hands down. Advantage: WilliamsBest volley
Graf didn't bother unless forced to, and Williams has nice volleying skills honed by years of doubles play. But Navratilova's awesome anticipation, great hands and athleticism made her net play unmatched. Advantage: NavratilovaBest forehand
Navratilova's was fine, and Serena's is sensational, but Graf -- whom Bud Collins' famously nicknamed "Fraulein Forehand" -- had the best ever. Advantage: GrafBest backhand
Graf and Navratilova both made extravagant use of a whispery slice. But when Williams tees off with her two-fisted backhand, she crushes the ball. Advantage: WilliamsBest mover
Navratilova's agility was terrific and Graf might win a footrace among the three of them, but she was a baseliner. Serena's court coverage and ability to play up or back are superior. Advantage: WilliamsIntangibles
All three women could summon greatness when necessary, but Serena and Martina's emotionally volatility sometimes cost them. Graf rarely beat herself. Advantage: Graf
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Serena Williams talks to the media after the 7-5, 6-3 win against Angelique Kerber
Q. How much of a relief is this? Is seven your lucky number or 22?
SERENA WILLIAMS: It's obviously a great relief. But more than anything I think it was a really good and exciting win for me today.
Q. It was important to win, but does it make more satisfaction for you the fact that it was a great final, Kerber played very well, probably one of the best finals you played here in Wimbledon?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think it was a great final. She played really well. We had a lot of long, tough points. I think every single point I worked for, and nothing was given to me.
Yeah, it made for a really good match.
Q. Have you had a lot of sleepless nights in the past few months with everything that's been going on? Does this take a lot of tension off?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I have, yeah, definitely had some sleepless nights, if I'm just honest, with a lot of stuff. Coming so close. Feeling it, not being able to quite get there. My goal is to win always at least a slam a year. It was getting down to the pressure.
Q. Except from winning, compared to Paris and Melbourne, what have you done differently this time?
Q. You spoke about how you were feeling calmer coming into the final. Did you feel that all the way through the final? Second set it looked like you were getting a bit stressed.
SERENA WILLIAMS: Actually, I felt a little more stress in the first set. After I won that first set, I got a little more calm. At one point I really, really took a deep breath. If I can just play my game, I know I have a really good chance at winning this match.
Q. Since you won here last year, you've had a pressure on you we can only imagine. Talk about the process of dealing with it, the tremendous disappointment after New York, how that's helped you to grow.
SERENA WILLIAMS: Yeah, I've just felt, you know, a lot of pressure, I guess. I put a lot of that pressure on myself. Obviously had some really tough losses.
But, you know, if you look at the big picture, I was just thinking about, you know, getting to three finals, Grand Slam finals. In the past eight Grand Slams, I don't know how many finals I've been in. It's pretty impressive.
I had to start looking at positives, not focusing on that one loss per tournament which really isn't bad, and for anyone else on this tour would be completely happy about it.
Once I started focusing more on the positives, I realized that I'm pretty good. Then I started playing a little better (laughter).
Q. John McEnroe described your performance today as superhuman. Where do you rate it?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I don't know. Honestly, I haven't really had time to think about it or see it. I'm still living in those emotions right now, so I'm not quite sure.
Q. Your comments after the semifinal about being not just the best female athlete, but the best athlete, also about equal pay, respecting women in sport, all went down in a storm on social media. There was a lot of love. Also a lot of people saying you inspired them. How does it make you feel to know you have inspired and are still inspiring millions of girls all over the world?
SERENA WILLIAMS: That's why I ultimately feel like I'm here. I've been given such a great opportunity, I've been given so much talent. I've been put in a position where I can inspire females, ladies, and men as well. Anyone, any kid out there that wants to be something, has dreams.
I've had great dreams. I didn't come from any money or anything, but I did have a dream and I did have hope. That's really all you need.
We shouldn't put any female athlete in a box. Why do we have to be limited to just female athletes? We all work really hard. We just want to be known as just athletes.
Q. Are you going to luxuriate at 22 or are you already focusing at 25?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Oh, God, no. One thing I learned about last year is to enjoy the moment. I'm definitely going to enjoy this.
You know, I have the Olympics coming up. I'll take it one at a time.
Q. I saw you after you won throw up your fists. Was that in lieu of everything that's going on back home in the U.S.?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I don't recall throwing up my fist.
Q. After you finished your season last year, you made a statement, I've been playing with many injuries, even with a broken heart. Has the broken heart finally healed today?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Yeah, I guess. Obviously, I would have liked to have won other matches. But it's okay. One at a time.
Q. Did you learn anything specific from the finals in Melbourne and Paris that helped you prepare for today and help you get off to a good start, better than in those matches?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I think in Melbourne I learned a lot in terms of how to play. In Paris, it was just a lot of stress for that moment, for whatever reason.
Yeah, so I just learned to just be better. I also learned that you can't win everything, even though I try really hard. I do the best that I can. I still am not going to be perfect.
Q. You mentioned in here the other day when you were talking about your sister, you didn't really have a life. Speak about some of the sacrifices you made in life to get to where you are today as a tennis player.
SERENA WILLIAMS: I think as an athlete, you have to make a lot of sacrifices. Every day, like even if I want to hang out with my friends, I have to think, Oh, I have to go to practice at 8:00 in the morning, I have to do this, I have to train. That's still every day of my life.
Those sacrifices that you put in every single day eventually pay off.
Q. As a woman, who is Serena Williams? How would you answer that question?
SERENA WILLIAMS: What question?
Q. Who is Serena Williams as a woman, not just as a tennis player?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I think I'm a really good friend. I'm really caring. I'm very, very emotional. I'm really giving.
Q. You're now 22 6 in major finals. What are the qualities you think you have that make you such a good closer? How were they evident today?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Well, I think the qualities is just the ability to turn up my level and turn up my game when I need to in crunch time. I think I was able to do that today.
Q. Are you aware that now we will all start talking about 24 slams of Margaret Court, nine Wimbledons of Martina Navratilova? Is that a worry?
SERENA WILLIAMS: No, not for me. I've learned a lot about 22 (smiling). I learned not to get involved in those debates and conversations. I just learned to just play tennis. That's what I do best.
Q. She finally gets to a breakpoint in the second set. You step up and nail down two aces. Were you feeling it right from the start? Did you work on the serve particularly in the past day?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I feel like my serve has been really good since, I don't know, the third or fourth round. I felt like today I knew, with the conditions, it would be better if I served great because it was really windy out there.
Once I got down that breakpoint, I just knew that, you know, it was her first breakpoint, and I wasn't going to let it go on the very first one, at least. I wanted to hit an ace (laughter).
Q. When you tumbled back, was that in elation of winning the match, or shaking off the pressure of trying to get the Grand Slam after the three misses?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I think it was definitely both. Definitely so excited to win Wimbledon. You know, that's always a great feeling. But maybe even more so is the excitement of getting 22, you know, trying so hard to get there, finally being able to match history, which is pretty awesome.
Q. The Vinci match a long time ago, it sort of changed everything. Everybody was talking Grand Slam. She beat you. Did that shake you a little bit?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I don't know. I don't think it shook me. I mean, I think if I did, I wouldn't have been able to do well in Australia or the French Open. I mean, even though I didn't win those tournaments, it was just the very next tournament I played, I was in the final, I was fighting. Then I was in the final again.
I think, if anything, I was able to show resilience that, no, that's not going to shake me, you're not going to break me, it's going to make me stronger.
Q. We are here celebrating you as champion. What's going on right now in the States is huge. I was wondering if you took the time to follow what happened in Dallas?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Yeah, absolutely. I feel anyone in my color in particular is of concern. I do have nephews that I'm thinking, Do I have to call them and tell them, Don't go outside. If you get in your car, it might be the last time I see you.
That is something that I think is of great concern because it will be devastating. They're very good kids. I don't think that the answer is to continue to shoot our young black men in the United States. It's just unfortunate. Or just black people in general.
Also obviously violence is not the answer of solving it. The shooting in Dallas was very sad. No one deserves to lose their life, doesn't matter what color they are, where they're from. We're all human. We have to learn that we have to love one another. It's going to take a lot of education and a lot of work, I think, to get to that point.
But I think, in general, the entire situation is extremely sad, especially for someone like me. It's something that is very painful to see happening.
Q. You talked at the start about finding that mindset. How easy does that get because it's Wimbledon, almost that comfort blanket of Centre Court that you love so much?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I think for the first time, one of the first times, it felt good, because I knew I was serving well. I felt at home. I can't really say that often because, I don't know, I just really felt really at home with the crowd, with just being there. I just felt really comfortable.
Q. Patrick was telling us you hadn't been yourself, but now he could tell the whole tournament you were back to yourself. Is that a fair description? Did you feel you weren't yourself earlier in the year? When did it change for you?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Yeah, he's been telling me that for a while. I think sometime after the French Open, we were talking, talking about things and strategizing. He just said, You're back. I guess he was right.
Q. In your last three losses, you showed incredible dignity on the court. How important was it for you to be that kind of person? Do you think that contributes to who you are as a champion?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Well, I think it's definitely important, but it's just more or less who I've become and who I am. Definitely being genuinely happy at that moment for the people that I lost to.
I always said, and I'll say it again, for me the success of another female in particular should be the inspiration to the next.
I just felt like, if anything, these ladies inspire me to want to do better. Why would I be jealous of them? I have so many titles, so many Grand Slams, so many things that I'm proud of. I just feel honored that, you know, I'm welcoming them to this unique position with open arms.
Q. Do you remember the 22 individual detailed experiences or.
SERENA WILLIAMS: There's definitely some blurs between eight, nine and ten. I don't even know where eight, nine and ten was or when. I definitely don't remember where 12 was. I remember one and two. I remember one through four. Gets really blurry after that (laughter).
Q. The title, would you be able to place this one?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I will be able to definitely place this one. And 18. I struggled a little with 18. I can remember that one, too.
Q. There was a program about you on the television this week in this country. What prompted you to chart what has been quite a difficult year? Did you have any regrets at any stage about inviting the cameras in in quite an intimate way into your life?
SERENA WILLIAMS: That was my documentary called 'Serena'. I thought it was a great moment for people to see a little bit behind the scenes of what I go through as an individual, and probably a lot of other professional tennis players.
I thought it was a wonderful time, and ironically great timing. I couldn't have scripted it any better. Maybe I could have towards the end, but.
It was just this incredible journey of winning Grand Slams, training, everyday work, life, things that I do as well.
I thought it was a wonderful, wonderful piece. Yeah, it was great.
Q. 22 Grand Slams are great for you. Is winning Olympic gold for your country up a level? Is it the ultimate goal?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I've won gold. I love gold. Not to knock the Olympics. I mean, for me, if I kept one trophy, I would probably grab my gold medals. But right now I am probably focused a little more on the slams, or at least I was with getting to 22. Now I feel like, you know, everything else will be pretty good.
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