Why You’re Not Allowed to Say Roger Federer is a Better Tennis Player than Serena Williams

Written for Acculturated

March 22nd, 2017

The most liked, most affable, and least offensive tennis player in the world finds himself at the center of a controversy. Swiss tennis icon Roger Federer recently graced the cover of GQ after the magazine named him the most stylish man of 2016. GQ sent out a tweet to promote the article and accompanying photo spread, in which they referred to Federer as “the greatest tennis player of all time.” Most tennis fans would consider this pretty inoffensive. Federer is, after all, the only tennis player whose game is so beautiful that watching him play has been likened to a religious experience. Not to mention he holds pretty much every tennis record there is to hold. There’s some debate about whether Federer’s longtime archrival Rafael Nadal is actually better, or if it’s possible to compare Federer to players from previous eras, but for the most part, nobody’s going to freak out if you award Federer the GOAT title.

Except, that is, for the politically correct.

After GQ sent out its innocuous tweet, Buzzfeed ran an article titled “GQ Magazine Is Getting Trolled For Calling Roger Federer ‘The Greatest Tennis Player Of All Time.’” It was subtitled, “Weird, they misspelled Serena Williams.” The purpose of the article was to show that a few people on Twitter were upset GQ named a cisgender white male the greatest tennis player of all time instead of Serena Williams, a black woman. I’d say this is the stupidest tennis controversy of all time, but earlier this year a sports announcer was fired under charges of racism for saying Serena’s sister Venus utilized “guerilla” tactics.

Anyway, this is supposedly just another example of how our society is white-male centric, and how the world overlooks the accomplishments of African Americans and women. Except if you’re trying to argue our society is racist and sexist, the Federer/Williams debate is a really bad example to use. At The Washington Free Beacon Sonny Bunch provided a logical argument for why Serena isn’t as good as Federer, namely that she lost 6-1 to the completely out of shape 203rd ranked male tennis player in the world. Serena herself doubts she could win a point off Andy Murray. Murray, for those who don’t watch tennis, is not nearly as good as Federer. Tennis commentators say Serena is incapable of beating a man ranked in the top 200—some don’t think she’d even rank in the top 1,000 if she were a man—and John McEnroe thinks he could still beat her even though he’s well into his fifties. In short, placed alongside men, Serena wouldn’t make any list of the greatest tennis players. If men and women competed together it’s unlikely Serena would have ever made it past the first round of a grand slam.

It’s not clear Serena can even claim to be the greatest female tennis player of all time. Steffi Graf won one fewer grand slam titles, but was ranked number one for about a full year longer and won the Golden Calendar Slam—all four majors and the Olympic gold medal in the same year—something Serena hasn’t done. Martina Navratilova was also ranked number one longer, and only has five fewer grand slam titles in singles, but oodles more in doubles and mixed doubles. Margaret Court has an absurd 91.74% win record at grand slams, won all four majors in the same year, and holds the all-time singles grand slam record—twenty-four to Serena’s twenty-three—even though she temporarily retired in the middle of her prime. She also won more doubles and mixed doubles grand slam titles than Serena, and, fun fact, reached the Wimbledon singles final in 1972 while she was pregnant. All of these women won more career titles than Serena and have just as much, if not more, of a claim to be considered the greatest female tennis player.

Despite all the truly incredible things Serena has accomplished she is not the greatest tennis player ever. And yet, because Serena’s story fits nicely into the narratives of sexism and racism—well, nicely if you push and wiggle it a bit—it has become the politically correct thing to say she is; even Serena herself believes the PC hype, saying that if she were a man she’d have been hailed as the GOAT long ago. It’s worth pointing out that no tennis analyst or commentator agrees with her. How could they? Sorry, Serena. The data show your claim to the crown has more holes than cheese from Federer’s homeland.