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Serena Williams could be best female athlete ever

Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all-time and just might be the greatest female athlete who has ever lived, Tom Jones writes. [AP photo]
Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all-time and just might be the greatest female athlete who has ever lived, Tom Jones writes. [AP photo]
Published Jul. 9, 2015

For much of the past 15 years, we've heard as much about what Serena Williams isn't as opposed to what she is.

She isn't a hard worker. She isn't committed to her sport. She isn't about tennis as much as she's about fashion and pop culture and being a celebrity.

Can we just stop already? If you say such things, you'll soon find yourself on the wrong side of history.

Let's talk about what she is instead.

Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time and just might be the greatest female athlete who has ever lived.

Today she takes on Maria Sharapova in the semifinals at Wimbledon. A win today and another in the final Saturday would be another step in her march toward history.

A tournament victory across the pond would produce a slew of remarkable achievements for Williams. It would be her sixth Wimbledon title, tying her for fourth all time. It would be her 21st major title, third all time, and just one behind Steffi Graf and three behind Margaret Court.

It would give her the "Serena Slam." She would simultaneously hold the titles in all four majors — the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open — for the second time in her career. And she would be a U.S. Open title away from a true calendar-year Grand Slam, last achieved by Graf in 1988.

Even though Williams is 33 (she turns 34 in September), which is practically ancient in tennis, she encompasses all the trappings of youth. She is incredibly fit, she remains hungry and she is most definitely sharp, suggesting her dominance of the women's game is nowhere close to being over.

Simply put, she is the best in the game and will be for quite a while.

That doesn't mean she is unbeatable. Williams has looked vulnerable in this tournament, having been extended to three sets twice already. But her resourcefulness, her determination, her ability to dig deep when she isn't at her best, seem to have given her only more drive. Her survival instincts, her ability to turn them on when she needs them the most, have pushed her to a level we have rarely seen during a career in which she is used to simply steamrolling opponents.

This time around, she is working for her victories, and it's as impressive as it is entertaining to watch.

Along the way, because the victories are harder earned, she seems more appreciative of her accomplishments, and in turn, we should be more grateful for what she is accomplishing. She seems to be a kinder and classier Williams, not the one who is known to occasionally bully officials and disrespect her opponents.

So about this business of being the best to play the game.

There are those who swear by Martina Navratilova or Chris Evert. Graf's career numbers suggest she is the best. If you want to go old school, you can go with Court.

Comparing players from different eras is always an impossible task, and it's easier to favor the current player over ones in previous generations, who just feel slower and smaller. Still, based on nothing more than gut feeling — as well as a serve that has hit 120 mph — Williams, I believe, would win an all-time tournament. Unless something unforeseen happens, Williams will end up with more single major wins than anyone.

Plus, there's no surface that doesn't suit her game, whether it's fast grass or slow clay or the hardcourts.

Her six Australian Open titles are second all time to Court. Her three French Open titles are more than Navratilova. Her five Wimbledon trophies are more than Evert. No one in the Open era — since 1968 — has more than her six U.S. Open titles. This mastery of all styles would indicate that she is the most well-rounded player who has ever lived.

So why doesn't Williams always get credit for all she has done?

Well, she has never had a true rival. Martina and Chrissie had each other. Graf and Monica Seles had one another.

But Serena has never had that one someone to test her year after year, major after major. Instead, she has had to deal with a revolving door of would-be challengers from Martina Hingis to Lindsay Davenport to Justine Henin. She has beaten Sharapova 16 consecutive times. The only one who ever has seemed a genuine threat is her sister Venus. Serena leads the all-time series between the two 15-11. She has won six of the past seven meetings and has pulled away in the sibling rankings.

Maybe Williams has never had a major rival because she is too good to lose enough to anyone for that player to become a rival.

Have there been times when it feels as if she hasn't been all-in on her career? Well, that has been the knock, but any time she has gone through a drought in majors, it usually can be attributed to injuries. She won her first major in 1999 and her most recent last month. She won 18 others between those two. She is 278-39 lifetime in majors. When, exactly, were the moments when she was healthy and supposedly flittered through her career?

If you don't believe she is 100 percent committed to her career, then yeesh, what does her overwhelming success say about how talented she is?

Besides, just watching her in this Wimbledon, with all that fist-pumping and screams after big points, you can see how much this means to her. She's on the verge of putting her name above all others in the history of the game. She knows it. She wants it.

Pity the rest of the women out there, but blessed are those of us who get to witness the best the sport has to offer.