The Greatest? Serena Williams Or Roger Federer

A Comparative Analysis by Ahmed Sule, CFA

Serena Williams and Roger Federer are one of the most accomplished sports personality of their generation. In the tennis world, they reign supreme. Coincidentally, they were both born in 1981 and still dominate their peers who are many years younger. At the recently concluded 2017 Australian Open, Serena and Federer won their 23rd and 18th Grand Slam titles respectively.

A couple of days ago, GQ Magazine did an interview with Federer and sent a tweet which contained an image of Federer holding the Australian Open trophy captioned, “We caught up with the greatest tennis player of all times.

The response to the tweet was swift with many Serena fans responding that Serena is the #GOAT. Fader Magazine, which had earlier carried out an interview with Serena in late 2016 replied GQ’s tweet with an image of Serena along with the caption, “We caught up with the greatest tennis player of all times.” Federer fans came out claiming their idol as the #GOAT while #RenasArmy pushed back saying, “hell to the naw to the naw.”

So who actually is the greatest tennis player of all time? Without a doubt, Federer is the greatest male tennis player of all times while Serena is the greatest female tennis player of all times. Some Federer fans claim he is the #GOAT because they think that if he played Serena, he would thrash her while many Serena fans argue that she is the #GOAT because she has 23 Grand Slams compared to Federer’s 18 Grand Slams.

Despite the difficulty in comparing players of different genders competing in the same sports, I will attempt to do a comparative analysis between these two great superstars. I must confess from the onset that I am a Serena fan but please be rest assured that I will put my bias aside by looking only at the facts which are all available in the public domain. I hope that the reader would be better informed to judge who is the Greatest Tennis Player of all Times.

To equalize both players accomplishment, I will exclude exploits in the doubles event. This is because it would put Federer at a disadvantage because unlike Serena who is also a doubles specialist with 14 Grand Slam Double titles, Federer does not have that opportunity as his matches during the Grand Slams are the best of five sets. In contrast, Serena plays the best of three sets which gives her the time and energy to take part in the Doubles competitions.

STREAKS: Both players have achieved remarkable streaks. In the ten Grand Slams between the US Open 2014 to Australia Open 2017, Serena has reached at least the semi-finals. Her longest winning streak is 34 matches which she achieved in 2013. Federer’s streak is even more impressive. He has made 10 consecutive Grand Slam singles final, 23 consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals, 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarter-finals and he has played in 65 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments.

SIGNIFICANT CHAMPIONSHIP WINS: The gold standard in tennis is the Grand Slam championships. In this respect, Serena has a superior 23 to 18 advantage over Federer. When you include other significant championships like the Masters/WTA Premier Mandatory, Tour Finals, Olympics, Federer has a superior total of 90 titles compared to Serena’s 72.

However, a breakdown of these significant championship wins detailed below reveals more. While Federer has won more titles, Serena has been more efficient. She has won 79% of the Grand Slam finals she has been in (compared to Federer’s 64%). Overall, Serena has won 78% of the total significant Championship finals she has been in. Federer’s has a 65% winning rate in significant finals. This demonstrates that Serena feels less pressure at the biggest stage.

VERSATILITY: Is the ability of a player to prevail under different conditions. Tennis is played on different surfaces. For instance of the four Grand Slams, one is played on grass (Wimbledon) , one on clay (French Open) and two on hard courts (Australian Open and U S Open).

Below is an analysis of Serena and Federer’s Grand Slam exploits.

From the above, it can be seen that Serena’s Grand Slam wins are more evenly spread than those of Federer. She has seven Grand Slam wins at Australian Open and Wimbledon and six at the U S Open. Even on her worst surface at Roland Garros, she can still boast of three titles. Federer has seven Wimbledon crowns, five Australian Open and five U S Open titles. While Serena has won 13% of her Grand Slams on clay, Federer has only managed 6% on his worst surface.

When one looks at all the significant competitions combined (Table 3), one can see that Federer’s victories are more skewed towards hard Courts and grass surfaces. He is less efficient on clay and carpet courts with a win/loss ratio of 42% and 33% respectively. In contrast, Serena is more rounded. She has an average success rate of 78% on all surfaces with her lowest rate of 77% on hard court and highest success rate of 83% on carpet.

OLYMPIC GLORY: Although the Olympics is not a Grand Slam event, it is an event which tennis players aspire to excel. Federer and Serena are both Olympians and have competed in the singles and doubles event. The Olympics tennis matches are the best of three sets for both male and female and unlike most competitions established players tend to compete in the doubles event and Federer is no exception. As far as Olympic success is concerned, Serena tops the chart having won four gold medals compared to Federer’s one gold and one silver. Furthermore, Serena has a gold medal in the singles Olympic event, while Federer can only boast of a silver medal.

CONSISTENCY: Federer and Serena have been at the pinnacle of the tennis world for a very long time. Federer turned professional in 1998 at the age of 17 while Serena turned professional in 1995 at the age of 14. As at March 2017, both players are still waxing strong. Who is the more consistent?

Table 5 contains the year-end ranking for Serena and Federer starting from the year that each first broke into the top 100 (1997 for Serena and 1999 for Federer). The number of Grand Slam won in each year is also highlighted. The table shows that Federer has had a more consistent year-end ranking. His average year-end ranking is 8, however, this is significantly affected by his lowest ranking of 64 in 1999. Serena’s average year-end ranking is much lower at 14. Federer’s lowest year-end ranking since he won his first Grand Slam in 2003 is 16 seed, whereas Serena’s lowest year-end ranking since she won her first Grand Slam title in 1999 is 95. On a ranking basis, Federer has been more consistent although it is important to note that Serena’s outliers are due to injuries.

When the year-end ranking is linked to Grand Slam wins, a different picture begins to emerge. Of Federer’s eighteen Grand Slam titles, seventeen of them were won when he ended the year as either first or second seed. In the case of Serena, she won Grand Slam titles in 2005, 2007 and 2010 when she ended the year ranked eleventh, seventh and fourth respectively. This is indicative of Serena’s ability to win Grand Slams even when she is the underdog.

In addition, a frequency count of the drought years (a year in which no Grand Slam title was won) reveals that Federer has had more drought years than Serena (9 versus 7) even though Serena started playing Grand Slams before Federer. In the last ten years, Serena has had only one year of drought (2011) compared to Federer’s five years of drought (2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016).

Table 6 below details the gap between winning Grand Slams. In Serena’s case, the longest gap was 2.75 years which occurred between her first and second Grand Slam title. She also had a two-year gap between 2005 and 2007 and 2010 and 2012 when she was sick. Federer’s longest gap was 4.58 years which occurred between his 2012 Wimbledon title and 2017 Australian Open triumph. While Federer was experiencing a severe drought between this period, Serena was reaping a harvest amassing a total of nine Grand Slam titles.

OVERCOMING ADVERSITY: The mark of a true champion is the ability to rise up after having a terrible fall. In this section, I will try to chronicle some of the adversities faced by both players and discuss how they managed to overcome the barriers and curve balls thrown at them.

Federer was born into a privileged middle-class family and has had a fairly comfortable ride. For the most part of his career, he has been injury free. His record of playing in 65 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments is a testament to his good health. However, in recent years, he has been dealing with a few injuries. In 2013 he struggled with back injuries and his ranking dropped from 2nd to 6th. 2016 was his annus horribilis as he was plagued with a serious knee injury and back problems. In February 2016, he had knee surgery and he called his season early in July 2016 to recover from his injuries. Against all the odds, Federer won his 18th Grand Slam at Melbourne thus cementing his place as the best male tennis player that ever lived. Since his first serious injury in 2013 to date, Federer has won only one Grand Slam title.

Unlike Federer who has had a drop of adversity, Serena has had an overdose of adversity. While growing up, she trained with her sister Venus Williams on the rough courts of Compton in front of gang members and drug dealers. Her father Richard Williams had to physically fight these gang members in order to get space to train his children. Richard Williams eventually prevailed in getting his daughters to train on the courts, but it was at the expense of his front teeth, bruised face and a few broken bones. In 2006 Serena suffered from a troika of injuries, lack of fitness and depression and saw her ranking plummeted to number 139. At the 2007 Australian Open, an out of shape and out of form Serena defied the pundits by humiliating the number one seed Maria Sharapova 6–1;6–2 in the final.

In July 2010 Serena stepped on a broken glass and had to end her season early. In March 2011, she revealed that she suffered a hematoma and pulmonary embolism. She nearly lost her life and she had part of her lungs removed. As a result of her leave of absence from the courts, her ranking dropped to 169. Despite all these setbacks, Serena bounced back. Since her, near death experience, she has won ten Grand Slams, three WTA Tour titles and two Olympic Gold medals.

Serena had to deal with the tragic death of her sister Yetunde who was killed in 2003. Ever since she picked up her racquet, she has battled racism. She has been subjected to racist attacks from her tennis mates, tennis fans, tennis establishment figures and tennis pundits. In London 2012 Olympics she was condemned for dancing after her victory; at Indian Wells an American crowd racially abused her and her sister ( despite the insult, she won the tournament); at the French Open she was once heckled by the crowd. Her clothes, hair, weight and body have all been condemned by key figures in the media. Besides racism, Serena has to deal with sexism and classism. Despite these attacks, Serena continues to prevail.

In contrast to Federer who is likeable, Serena is a polarising figure. Whenever Federer plays, he is well supported by fans even if he is playing the home favourite. Serena does not have that luxury. In most places where she competes, the fans usually support the opposing player. In many instances Serena finds herself playing against the crowd. However, this doesn’t appear to bother her.

In summary, Serena has done a much better job in overcoming adversity.

DOMINATING THE COMPETITION: The hallmark of a true Great is the ability to not only dominate your era but also the competition. Legends like Muhammad Ali, Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps dominated all that came before them. Ali prevailed against Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Usain Bolt dominated the likes of Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell and Justin Gatlin. Michael Phelps excelled against Chad Clos and Ian Crocker.

Let’s see how Serena and Federer fare against the competition.

The career of most athletes is usually in three phases. The first stage is the early year where the athlete bursts onto the scene. Success is usually limited at this stage. The next phase is the prime years when the athlete is at their peak of sporting prowess. The final phase is the sunset stage where the athlete begins to age and newcomers take over.

Serena and Federer have been able to still remain relevant throughout their athletic life cycle.

Since athletes are in the business of competing with each other, one of the most effective measures of determining dominance besides trophy wins is to analyse the Head to Head (H2H) statistics with the opposition.

Tables 7 and 8 below details Serena and Federer’s H2H with past Grand Slam champions and the top five seeded players respectively.

In analysing the H2H with previous Grand Slam champions, I only included champions starting from when Federer and Serena won their first Grand Slam in 2003 and 1999 respectively. As a result, it excludes the likes of Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

Serena has a superior H2H with all previous Grand Slam champions since September 1999. Her lowest win/loss ratio is with Justine Henin whom Serena has defeated 57% of the time. Most of her losses have been to her sister Venus Williams. Serena has prevailed over five-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova 90% of the time.

Some people level the accusation that Serena is dominant because she plays against a weak women field while Federer plays in a tough men field. This claim is far from the truth. Serena has dominated her peers over different eras. She had a superior H2H of 4–1 against Monica Seles who was at the tail end of her career. She had a 1–1 H2H against the great Steffi Graf. She then dominated the likes of Henin, Clijsters, Davenport and Pierce. Today, Serena continues to dominate the likes of Bencic, Madison Keys and Genie Bouchard.

In contrast, Federer was dominant in the early and mid-part of his career dominating the likes of Andy Roddick, Marin Cilic and Gaston Gaudio. Once Rafa Nadal became the player to beat, Federer could not overcome him. Federer has an inferior 13–23 H2H with Nadal whom he has lost to 64% of the time. The same applies to Novak Djokovic who Federer has lost to 23 times. To put these numbers into perspective, Federer’s combined loss to Djokovic and Nadal is just nine short of Serena’s combined losses to 20 Grand Slam champions.

The same pattern persists when one looks at the H2H against the top 5 seeded players. Serena has defeated the top 5 seeded players 77% of the time during her career which is 5% more than Federer. Serena boasts of a superior win/loss ratio against number one seeded players, which is 72% compared to Federer who has won 60% of his matches against the top seeded players.

Without a doubt, Serena has proven to be the dominant player of her era dominating all who come her way. In Federer’s case, his dominance is limited to between 2003 and 2010 before Nadal and Djokovic upped their game.

OTHER FACTORS: On other measures such as prize money, Federer has earned $102.8 million compared to Serena’s career earning of £84.5m. As at 2016, Federer earned $60m in endorsements compared to Serena’s £20m. In a survey conducted by ESPN, Federer ranked number 5 as the most popular sports athlete in the world. Serena does not even make the list.

CONCLUSION: In the past couple of paragraphs I have done a comparative analysis between Serena Williams and Roger Federer. I know in my heart who is the GREATEST, but this time around, I leave it to the reader to decide who is the GREATEST.


Ahmed Sule, CFA

Writer and social critic