There is none greater than Serena Williams. We’ll come back to that.
I have been a rabid tennis fan for nearly 40 years, long enough to have seen a lot of shifts in the culture, fashion, gear, fitness, playing styles, and criteria by which fans, journalists, and historians evaluate greatness. They say you can’t really compare athletes across eras, and whoever “they” are, they’re right. But we keep doing it and it reveals something about our desire to rank and to anoint.
In music I see this all the time, and I’m fascinated by the widespread fixation on ranking. When I make my Top 10 lists, I make it clear that I’m discussing personal favorites (to offer a glimpse into the sounds that molded me) but lists of “bests” are inherently absurd. The greatest album ever was of course by the Beatles. Except, no, it was by Marvin Gaye. Or Beyoncé. Or Captain Beefheart. Or . . . never mind. When it comes to individuals and their total legacies (as opposed to a singular work of art), it’s even harder and absurd-er.
And yet as much as I try to bypass those conversations, as a music educator I can’t entirely do so. Every time I make a syllabus or plan a lecture, I’m drawing attention to some artists, glossing over others, and skipping others entirely. On the plus side, this offers an invitation to assess my criteria. Does the topic at hand demand that I evaluate musicians based on a certain type of accomplishment? And if so, what exactly is it? Or is it making my best attempt to measure level of influence? And if so, does someone who is a direct forebear of a particular lineage take precedence over an iconoclast? Am I thinking about someone who happens to have created work that is particularly demonstrative of a certain sound or technique? If so, are there any ethical connotations to choosing their work over someone “greater” or more “influential” who happens not to have created work in the particular wheelhouse I’ve deemed most relevant to my students’ needs?
I’ve learned a lot from forcing myself to engage in these awkward contemplations. What I have not learned, however, and don’t expect I ever will is the answer to the question of who can be referred to as “the greatest” without further explanation. And most people who care about art will accept the notion that it’s impossible to measure artists in that way. They may accept it grudgingly or accept it with qualification (e.g. “but you can measure such-and-such, and the greatest by that metric is so-and-so”) or accept it while maintaining that competitions that purport to anoint the greatest are for the greater good (giving attention and funds to deserving artists even if the guise of them being inherently more deserving than others is a fabrication) or accept it in principle while pointing out that of course their favorite avant-garde trombonist or Canadian hair metal band is actually the greatest. Ultimately, though, it’s hard to find someone who loves music and believes that greatness is that quantifiable. It’s not like sports, after all.
Except sports aren’t like sports either. Yes, on a competition-by-competition or statistic-by-statistic level you can quantify accomplishment (Most points! Won the big match!), and there are cases in which someone’s belonging on a rarefied list of the greatest practitioners of that sport is beyond debate due to their superlative achievement by one or more of those metrics (e.g. Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Jenny Thompson, Wayne Gretzky, Carl Lewis, Willie Mays, etc.). And yet arguments persist about THE greatest, both because the metrics aren’t universally agreed upon and because people are naturally attached to the folks they’re attached to and will look to cherry pick the stats that make the case for their favorites, a phenomenon ultimately not that different from those lobbying for overlooked bands to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This becomes particularly difficult to navigate across eras as the criteria driving an athlete’s decisions may be at odds with the ones retroactively used to judge them generations later, and all the more difficult when that athlete has chosen a less-common career path. I see this often in music when assessing the stature or defending the greatness of a “quirky” artist. I have, for example, observed as the apocryphal stories come out about iconoclastic musicians demonstrating their never-publicly-documented ability to excel at creating more conventional music. It comes off akin to “my dad is a pacifist, but if he weren’t he could beat up your dad,” but at the same time I do understand the urge to defend their “greatness” from naysayers using different criteria.
In the end an accomplished and paradigm-shifting artist should be recognized as such without having to rank, not just because ranking is silly, but because it’s particularly silly when talking about someone whose disregard for convention renders the usual criteria even less relevant. I think back to an early mentor, the jazz historian Phil Schaap (who was appropriately enough, the cousin of Dick Schaap and uncle of Jeremy Schaap, both accomplished sports writers and broadcasters). When talking about one of the superlative musicians in jazz, he would say “there was none greater.” I’ve really come to appreciate the precision of wording in this – he acknowledged that hierarchies like this are a real thing, while refusing to engage in apples-to-oranges debates over whether Duke Ellington was better than Miles Davis. Frankly, I find that this respects all involved parties more than anointing one of them as the greatest. There was none greater than Charles Mingus, but I highly doubt that he himself would suggest that he was “greater” than Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong except perhaps at being Charles Mingus.
And so it is that there is and has been none greater than Serena Williams. She is certainly the greatest Serena Williams there has ever been and her accomplishments on and off the court, as a technician, tactician, competitor, fighter, overcomer, activist, and cultural figure, are so mind-boggling that it is literally impossible for me to imagine them ever being surpassed. If others find that to be inadequate and enjoy getting deeper into the weeds of ranking and justifying, that’s perfectly harmless and far be it from me to protest. And if labeling her as the GOAT feels like the best way to emphasize her obliteration of the glass ceiling for women of color, then amen to that too. But I would make the case that getting into that level of superlative-measuring doesn’t entirely do justice to her actual greatness. Like Stevie, Thelonious, Joni, and other such groundbreakers who only need one name to identify them, the enormity of her greatness transcends those conversations. However you like to talk about such things, I hope you will join me in basking in and appreciating that transcendence.