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Serena Williams doesn’t need another Grand Slam. She has nothing left to prove.

Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
4 min

Margaret Court’s 24 Grand Slam titles are the only significant mark Serena Williams hasn’t broken in her tennis career. It’s the polite thing to open this discussion by saying, “Not to take anything away from Court and with all due respect to her …” But I’m not going to do that, because frankly a couple of things should be taken away from Court.

Notice I don’t call Court’s number a record. That’s because it isn’t one, really. It’s just one of those marring historical irregularities from the white linen and wood era that drive you crazy with their irrelevancy and injustice.

Now that Williams has withdrawn from the U.S. Open because of an injury just shy of her 40th birthday, her chance of winning one more singles Slam to add to her 23 and thus officially equal Court’s career total is admittedly fading. But here’s the thing: It shouldn’t even be a pursuit. The idea that Williams is a slightly less accomplished Grand Slam player than Court is pure foolishness. Let’s look closely at Court’s mark, the whole of it, including the undistinguished lead-pencil nature of some of those titles, and give it the asterisk it deserves and quit calling it the record.

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There are several reasons to consider Williams the real record holder in Grand Slam singles titles, and none of them have to do with Court’s crankish or controversial views. I’m perfectly happy to leave the lady alone in her beliefs. But what I can’t abide is that she’s credited with a record when in two of those tournament victories she didn’t have to play a completed final, a fact that is seldom noticed or mentioned.

In 1966, Court was the beneficiary of a total walkover, when Nancy Richey couldn’t take the court in the Australian Open final because of a bad knee. They never played a point. And in the 1965 Australian Open, her opponent, Maria Bueno, had to retire in the third set because of an injury.

If you ask me, that alone makes Williams the legit record holder because all of her 23 titles came with complete victories in the finals.

Then there is the fact that Court won 11 of 24 majors at the Australian Open, many of them when the event really didn’t qualify as a major championship. Through most of the 1960s it was just a closed national title. Her greatest contemporary rival, Billie Jean King, considered the tournament such a minor afterthought that she entered it just three times in her career. She was too busy launching the women’s pro tour.

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When Court won four straight Australian titles from 1960 to 1963, the women’s draw looked more like a club championship. Court defeated the same opponent, Jan Lehane O’Neill, in straight sets all four years. O’Neill never made it past the quarterfinals in any other Grand Slam event.

How unimportant was the Aussie title in the closed, pre-Open era? Chris Evert played it just once between 1971 and 1981 and just six times ever. Martina Navratilova appeared there just once between 1973 and 1979.

We can debate what a major should be — golf fans occasionally talk about the Masters field being small and diluted with amateurs and old-timers — but we all know what a major isn’t. And a tournament that the world’s top players don’t even bother to enter isn’t a major.

Williams consistently has played against the best of her generation. A dozen of her Grand Slam finals — more than half her total — came against 12 different players who were ranked No. 1 at one time or another.

Court without question was a worthy, imposing champion and certainly ranks among the all-timers. But “The Arm,” as she was known, just isn’t the all-time greatest Grand Slammer. It’s not an insult to say so, merely a matter of accurate historical context. Had the Australian been a tournament with deeper international fields, Court certainly would have won far fewer of them — probably four or five, judging by her records in the French (five titles), Wimbledon (three) and the U.S. Open (five).

Chris Evert played tennis with a patience that’s in current demand

I’ve always considered Evert the ultimate authority on these matters simply because of the sheer span of her career: She stood across the net from every modern great when they were at or near their primes: She upset Court, then top ranked, in 1970 and was still a viable Grand Slam competitor in 1989 when she upset an ascendant Monica Seles in the U.S. Open. As Evert likes to say, “I’ve played ’em all, baby.”

Evert long has regarded Williams as the real ruler in the game of historical comparisons. A couple of years ago, I asked her to place Court and Williams in context. She said, “Margaret was a tremendous athlete and had tremendous power for that era, but let’s put it this way: I beat her at 15.”

Evert engineered her upset of Court with sheer steadiness, she said, by making her play long rallies.

“All I had to do was put seven balls in the court and force an error,” Evert said.

Records reflect only so much, and a lot of records don’t matter enough to argue. No record can adequately express the timeless virtuosity of so many champions who crowd and jostle in the annals for attention. A number stamped on a page can’t capture the pure force of Williams’s game, with all of the furious gusts of competitive emotion and breathless shocks she has issued to opponents.

As Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said this season about that nagging lack of a 24th Slam, “I don’t think she needs that for validation.”

No, she doesn’t. Still, the words “all time” mean something, and it’s a brand of inaccuracy to put those words next to Court’s numbers. Williams’s Open era accomplishments aren’t limited by a historically quaint era. Their scale and ambition represent something that actually bears the weight of “all time.”