Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, And Serena Williams: The Most Impressive Athletes Of The Last Half-Century?

Serena is amazing enough to let her mind wander as her body breaks down — and still return to dominate.

Stephane Mahe / Reuters

Serena Williams won the French Open on Saturday with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Maria Sharapova. It was only her second French title, the first having come eleven years ago.

Sharapova was no slouch today, breaking Williams twice and keeping the match close. Here she whacks a winner after her two previous shots, hit hard to opposite corners of the court, had gotten Williams off balance.

But Serena was just too strong and, as she has increasingly become, too consistent for Sharapova. Watch here as she takes a decent Sharapova shot in the middle of the court and smokes it to the corner with heavy topspin for a break-point winner.

This was the 16th Grand Slam win of Serena’s career, which ranks her sixth all time, behind Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova’s 18 each. She’s a singular figure in her sport, so dominant that she has no real contemporaries. It’s easier to compare her to the great figures of other sports than to anyone she plays against. And the most analogous recent athletes to Williams might be two basketball players: Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal. To understand why, check out this wiki-chart of Williams’ career Grand Slam performance.

Look at that stretch from the French in 2005 to Wimbledon in 2008. Between those tournaments, Williams made only a single Grand Slam final, her Australian win in 2007. In ‘05 and ‘06 she went seven tournaments without even making it to a quarterfinals. This was Serena Williams’ time in the desert. She was injured, she wasn’t in good shape, she was recovering from the shooting death of her half-sister in Los Angeles, and she says she spent several months in 2006 not playing tennis at all because she didn’t feel like it. This was all taking place when she was between 23 and 26 years old, prime time for an athlete. Meanwhile, she’s spent her entire adulthood pursuing a side career in fashion.

Williams’ career is like a combination of Jordan’s and O’Neal’s. Jordan, of course, took two years off basketball in the middle of his prime following his father’s murder. O’Neal was always pursuing some sort of show business side project during a career in which he was often, as Kobe Bryant put it, “fat and out of shape”. In other words, Jordan and O’Neal, at different points and in different ways, chose not to “play up to their potential.” This is usually a cardinal sin for an athlete in the public’s eye. Those of us who never had the talent to be high-level athletes can find it annoying when someone is seeming to waste the opportunity. But for Jordan and to a lesser extent O’Neal, these intentional self-sidetrackings have actually enhanced their legend. Their talent was so spectacularly above and beyond their peers’ that they were able to let themselves wander mentally and physically for long stretches before returning to domination. (Unlike O’Neal and Williams, Jordan didn’t let himself wander mentally while he was actually playing; he went out on a championship and when he came back, he was 100% back.)

Going even further back, Williams’ career tracks that of Muhammad Ali. Ali had interests outside athletics — namely religion and politics — that contributed to a three-year hiatus from boxing, starting at age 25, when he was blackballed for refusal to serve in the army. Like Jordan, he climbed back to the top of his sport after this mid-career absence, twice again becoming heavyweight champion. Williams has perhaps matched these achievements in winning three Grand Slams after age 30, which is old age by women’s tennis standards.

In a way, Jordan, Ali, and Williams have achieved a level of greatness that even superstars like Tigers Woods and Roger Federer can’t match. For as good as Woods was, he’s as of yet been unable to pull off his own sports version of a return from a mid-life crisis. Jordan, Ali, and Williams were good enough to sink the bottom before coming back to the top. It’s the arc of an epic trilogy; it’s the plot of The Natural. Right now, elsewhere in the sports world, LeBron James, an almost unbelievably dominant basketball player, is in a dogfight with the San Antonio Spurs to try and win his second title. But even if he wins, which will probably ensure he goes down as one of the five greatest players ever, he still won’t be on Jordan, Ali, and Williams’ level. A lot of players are good. Some of them are great. But you’ll only see a few athletes in a lifetime who are great enough that they can afford to get bored, and one of them won the French Open yesterday.

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