Five years ago on the clay of Brindisi, Serena Williams and Alison Riske lost against Sara Errani and Flavia Pennetta in a doubles match that cost the US a place in the Federation Cup world group. A blip, perhaps? At the end of that summer in New York, another veteran Italian, Roberta Vinci, beat Williams in the semi-finals of the US Open and then lost against her compatriot Pennetta.
A cursory reading of those results might suggest that, for fleeting moments at least, Vinci could claim to be the best player in the world. So, too, could Pennetta – the first woman older than 30 to win her first major – because she beat the player who stopped the peerless American two wins short of a calendar grand slam. Heather Watson came desperately close to breaking the spell at Wimbledon that year.
All of these players, on their day, touched greatness. But none of them was great. Williams has lived not just with greatness, but with expectation, and clings to both still at 38.
In the past 50 years there have been 52 women’s grand slam champions, including a string of lesser please-forget-me-nots such as Kerry Melville, Mima Jausovic, Iva Majoli, Barbara Jordan and Gabriela Sabatini. Standing above them are the evergreens, our five selected candidates for the greatest female player since 1970: Williams, Steffi Graf, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles.
But tennis is not just about the numbers. Sadly, like any other, the game is infected with bald prejudice and other dubious judgments, such as racism, jingoism and jealousy. None of those weighed on my esteemed colleagues this week as they relied on cool assessment of the strength of opposition, head‑to‑head records, contemporary conditions, playing styles and individual genius to lay out excellent cases for their choice.
Readers had their say with some conviction and eloquence, as well. And their vote went to … Steffi Graf, by a clear margin, ahead of Williams and Navratilova, with the others trailing. Who could argue? Well, everyone who didn’t vote for Graf.
Absent are two personal favourites, Billie Jean King (who won seven of her 12 majors in the 1970s) and her regular sparring partner, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who won her seven grand slam titles in the first decade of our half‑century. Both were squeezed from the shortlist as much by memory as justice.
If the cancelled Wimbledon was instead entering its first weekend right now, the debate would still be raging long after the sun had set on the last midsummer gin and tonic: could Williams grab the ultimate crown at the home of tennis? If not, could she fall over the line at Flushing Meadows in September to stand supreme with 24 titles, finally putting Margaret Court in the shade? Her peers would then gather in the fan-empty venue to acclaim her career and life. She would finally earn the universal applause she craves from Planet Tennis, as the Greatest Of All Time … would she not?
If pressed to put them in order I would have Williams at the top of the mountain, a few agonising break points ahead of Graf and Navratilova, a little further clear of Evert and Seles.
Williams has longevity – she’s addicted to tennis, like Roger Federer – and an inner strength that has often rescued her from ignominy. (Her deeds when dominant were another story.) Some call it bloody-mindedness and it could explode with ugly fury, as it did in New York the night she lost against Naomi Osaka. Her control over that passion is fragile. But it is part of what makes her great and, for most of her 25 years on the Tour, greater than the others.
Whatever the cases made for her contemporaries, none has had quite the level of uncontrollable intensity that rages within Williams. It is both frightening and poignant. Tennis defines her, but she is more than just a tennis player. She is part of something bigger than herself, leading the way for others. Many think Coco Gauff – who first met Williams when she was eight – will be the next great champion. And the argument can start all over again …
Kevin Mitchell is the Guardian’s tennis correspondent. Read a selection of readers’ verdicts from Saturday 8am BST.