Martina Navratilova is the WTA’s all-time leader with 167 titles. Additionally, she won a total of 59 Grand Slam titles (18 singles, 31 doubles and 10 mixed doubles). Recently, she discussed the legacy of Serena Williams, who Friday night at the US Open, played her final match.
You won your first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 1978 and your last 12 years later, also at Wimbledon. Serena’s first was 1999 and her last was the 2017 Australian Open (while pregnant), a span of 18 years. What does that say about her longevity and commitment to the game?
Navratilova: She’s got an amazing body that’s very, very strong. And she worked hard to improve on that body. Obviously, these days the training and recovery is so much more sophisticated than it was in my day. It’s easier for players to have that longevity. But surfaces are still hard and everybody’s hitting the ball hard. Serena hasn’t played as many matches as we did, but she paced herself really well.
In your mind, where does Serena rank among the all-time greats?
Navratilova: Everybody talks about the GOAT, but you cannot compare generations. There are a handful of people, all-time greats that belong in there. For the maybe the last two generations, she is that. Of all time? It depends how you measure it. It’s really hard for me to say because, obviously, I’m not impartial.
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But neither was I thinking Steffi Graf was the greatest when she won 22 majors. You have to look at the whole body of work. We weren’t even playing the Australian Open or even the French Open for a bunch of years. The big one for us was the year-ending championship, which I won eight times. These days, Serena’s the greatest in terms of most majors .
At the 1999 US Open, Serena became the first African American woman to win a major singles title in the Open Era and the second ever (Althea Gibson, 1958). In your mind what was the significance of that breakthrough?
Navratilova: I mean, look how much more diversity we have in the game today. It’s fantastic. It used to be just Europe and English-speaking countries for the most part.
All the other countries were like the poor cousins, and so the game became much more international. And more diversified, color-wise. Tennis is not a welcoming sport for people of color. Althea broke the color line in the 50s when Jackie Robinson was doing it in the major leagues.
Althea wasn’t allowed to use the regular locker room, so we’ve come a long way. Let’s put it this way: Serena not only pushed the color barrier. She just blew through that door.
In 1999, at that US Open, at the age of 17, Williams defeated Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martinez, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis to win the title. How impressed were you?
Navratilova: It would have been a great run for Serena, but she was unseeded and smashed through the field. She was probably slightly underestimated, unknown at the time to some people. And of course, no pressure.
Playing with a freewheeling attitude, like [Emma] Raducanu last year at the US Open. She came of age. It’s the same as other sports -- you improve a little bit, and then you make a big jump. And then you improve a little bit, and you make another big jump. That second big jump came for Serena at the US Open.
How important for women’s tennis was the first CBS primetime match, the 2001 US Open final between Serena and Venus?
Navratilova: It was massive. Tennis wasn’t available to the masses, really. Today you see these people on TV all the time so you really feel you know them. Most of the tournaments weren’t even televised. It was great that they did that.
If they had done it 10 years earlier, it would have been the same result. These two had fan awareness already, people were paying attention to them. But this put tennis over the top.
Fun Fact: They were 14-0 in major doubles finals. How amazing is that?
Navratilova: Oh, phenomenal. I played against them a couple of times. They just overpowered you. They just hit the ball so much harder than everybody. And were very aggressive at the net. When you combine their skill and consistency, that’s what happens. Some teams might have played better tactically, but Serena and Venus were just too strong.
Like the old Green Bay Packers -- run it up the middle. You know what’s coming and you still can’t stop it. I hope they play at the US Open, but I don’t see it happening.
Ultimately, what will her legacy be?
Navratilova: Bridging so many chasms in the world of sport. She was just a powerful Black woman kicking ass. It really came down to that. Not just transcending tennis, but all of sport. Not too many can claim that. And bringing a new generation to the sport. Also, motivating young girls -- and boys, too -- to not be scared to dream big. She paved the way for so many more.