Serena Williams is playing arguably the most dominant tennis of her career and now stands two victories from her fifth U.S. Open championship and the 17th major title of her career.
The top-seeded Williams faces No. 5 Li Na in one semifinal Friday afternoon, while No. 2 Victoria Azarenka meets unseeded Flavia Pennetta in the other. All but Azarenka are over 30.
If Serena wins the championship — presumably against Azarenka on Sunday— she would tie Roger Federer with 17 Grand Slams and move within one of the legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who won 18 apiece, tying her for fourth all-time among women. Margaret Court is the all-time leader with 24 majors.
But while there exists a healthy debate about whether Federer is the greatest male player of all time — despite owning the most major titles of any man, he has a losing record against chief rival Rafael Nadal — the chorus is increasingly singing Serena’s praises as the greatest woman of all time.
“First of all, I think she’s the greatest tennis player that we’ve ever seen up until this point,” Evert said Tuesday on ESPN while Williams was destroying Carla Suarez Navarro, 6-0, 6-0, for the first double-bagel in the U.S. Open quarterfinals since Navratilova administered one in 1989. “Maybe 20 years from now somebody else will come out but she’s the greatest tennis player.”
Evert went on to add: “As far as the greatest record, she doesn’t have the greatest record. Margaret Court has the greatest record. Steffi Graf (22 Grand Slams) has a better record, and Serena’s the first to admit that.”
Yes, she is.
“I think still right now, I go by numbers,” Williams said. “I don’t think I’m the greatest because Steffi has way more Grand Slams than me. I just go by what’s written down.”
Despite what the numbers say, Serena’s dominant serve and punishing ground strokes are unlike anything women’s tennis has seen before and she is playing at perhaps the peak level of her career right now.
She has won three of the last five Grand Slams — including Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2012 (as well as taking the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics) — and has surrendered just 13 games through five matches in this tournament.
“Nobody has had a game like hers,” Evert said. “Nobody has had the power and the shots and the serve and the complete package that she has so she’s the best tennis player.”
Williams credits some of her current dominance to her coach — and reported boyfriend — Patrick Mouratoglou.
“One of the main reasons I was able to work with Patrick is because he was telling me a lot of the same things that my father told me,” Williams said of her father and former coach, Richard Williams. “I think that had he told me something opposite or something different, or he wasn’t just doing almost similar stuff, I wouldn’t be able to work with that because I just wouldn’t accept it.”
At 31 and playing at this level, there is no reason Serena cannot continue to assert her dominance for another two or three more years and ultimately challenge Graf and Court on the all-time list.
“If she plays for another three years, if she wins one or two [majors per year] she could very well pass Steffi,” Evert said. “The key to her game is just staying healthy and being fit and just being interested and inspired.
“This is peak Serena.”
Billie Jean King, who won 12 majors in the Open Era and for whom the USTA National Tennis Center is named, added a similar sentiment in a recent TV interview.
“If Serena keeps going, she’s probably going to be the greatest player ever to have lived,” King said. “But right at this moment I’m a big believer in that every generation gets better so Serena, should be, could be, the best that’s ever lived.”
Follow Adam Zagoria on Twitter @AdamZagoria for updates throughout the U.S. Open.