Steffi Graf vs. Serena Williams
Steffi Graf and Serena Williams are two of the greatest women’s tennis players ever. In their prime, they ruled their eras with their own dominating styles.
Graf beat opponents with spectacular precision, and Williams had a power game, unlike any woman in professional tennis.
Despite their differences, their careers, on and off the court, share some uncanny similarities. But in a head-to-head matchup, who wins — Steffi or Serena?
Note: All statistics are updated through June 1, 2023
By the numbers, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams are the greatest women’s tennis players of their generation.
Each has won more than 85 percent of her career singles matches against tough competition. Graf, in particular, was winning matches right up to her final days on the court in 1999, and Williams is still going at the age of 37, overcoming injuries and returning from a pregnancy that kept her out for most of the 2017 season.
While Williams is the more well-rounded player if we include doubles (mainly with sister Venus) and mixed doubles, Graf has more career singles victories.
Graf: 900-115 singles (.887 winning percentage), 173-72 doubles (.706 winning percentage), 9-7 mixed doubles (.563 winning percentage)
Williams: 858-156 singles (.846 winning percentage), 192-35 doubles (.846 winning percentage), 29-5 mixed doubles (.852 winning percentage)
Steffi Graf is one of the few tennis players who played the game well on any surface. She could control matches on a hard surface, clay or grass.
Serena Williams, on the other hand, has struggled at times with clay, but she can be a terror on hard surfaces, dominating the U.S. Open and Australian Open, and grass, particularly when competing at Wimbledon.
However, Graf’s ability to adapt her game at a high level to a variety of conditions, and the amazing number of victories she achieved, shows why she belongs in the discussion of best women’s tennis player ever.
Graf: 107 singles titles, 11 doubles titles
Williams: 72 singles titles, 23 doubles titles
Grand Slam Titles
When it comes to Grand Slams, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams both knew how to step up their games in big matches. In fact, they did better than any woman who has played professional tennis not named Margaret Court.
Williams is second behind Court in Grand Slam singles titles, and Graf is third. But since Williams is still playing, Court’s record of 24 Grand Slams could fall.
Graf: 22 Grand Slam titles in singles, 1 in doubles
Williams: 23 Grand Slam titles in singles, 14 in doubles
Grand Slam Match Wins
Both Steffi and Serena could make winning look easy, but determining who's the biggest winner is not easy. True, we could say Williams is the clear choice in Grand Slams, recording 53 more victories and counting.
But a look at the winning percentages shows Graf won 89 percent of her matches, with Williams at 88 percent, a virtual tie.
The tiebreaker goes to Williams for her longevity and continuing to be a force to reckon with on the court in her late 30s.
Graf: 282-32 in singles (.890 winning percentage)
Williams: 343-48 in singles (.877 winning percentage)
No. 1 Rankings
How dominant was each player? During their heydays, Graf was the best player in tennis toward the end of the 1980s and the 1990s, while Williams has controlled things from the start of the 21st century.
Both players were ranked No. 1 for the same number of consecutive weeks, but Graf held the top spot in tennis for the most weeks.
If you string together the number of weeks Graf held the No. 1 spot, it would equal over seven years.
Graf: 377 weeks ranked No. 1, including 186 consecutive weeks
Williams: 319 weeks ranked No. 1, including 186 consecutive weeks
Steffi Graf competed in two Olympics, representing West Germany in the 1988 Seoul Games and Germany in the 1992 Barcelona Games. Serena Williams competed in four Olympics, representing the United States in the 2000 Sydney Games, 2008 Beijing Games, 2012 London Games and 2016 Rio De Janeiro Games.
Both showed how dominating they can be in Olympics matches. Graf won the gold medal in Seoul and silver in Barcelona. Williams won gold in London. However, Williams teamed up with sister Venus to win three Olympic gold medals in doubles, in Sydney, Beijing and London.
Of note here, and it’s significant, Graf is the only tennis player, male or female, to win the Golden Slam, winning an Olympic gold medal and all four majors singles titles in the same calendar year, in 1988.
Williams won a Career Golden Slam.
So even though Serena has more overall Olympic gold, the Golden Slam is an equalizer for Steffi and gives us a tie.
Graf: 1 singles gold medal, 1 singles silver medal
Williams: 1 singles gold medal, 3 doubles gold medals
Edge: Push, since Graf won a Golden Slam
Career earnings might be the most unfair comparison.
Williams is the highest-paid women’s tennis player of all time, and Graf stands at 14th all-time among money winners.
However, prize money for tennis tournaments over the past decade or so has increased, so while Williams and Graf have had near equal success, the price of winning in the 21st century has been extra kind to Williams.
Graf has been successful on any surface, but she might concede that clay is her worst surface.
Yet she still won six French Open titles, reached the final nine times and carried a 90 percent success rate with a record of 273-30. Her quickness on the court with a strong backhand slice and strong serves made her style a fit for clay.
Williams is the best clay-court player among active players with a record of 174-35 and a winning percentage of over 83 percent, but at times, her power game was not as sharp on clay.
Graf: 273-30 on clay (.901 winning percentage)
Williams: 174-35 on clay (.832 winning percentage)
While Graf excelled on any type of court, Williams tends to do better on a grass surface
Grass is more suited toward Williams' aggressive style of play because there tend to be fewer rallies, and it rewards speed and power. Some of Williams’ greatest victories have come on grass, including seven Grand Slam wins at Wimbledon.
However, Graf also won seven times on grass in Grand Slam play, including three straight Wimbledon titles from 1991 to 1993.
But Williams has been more dominant against opponents on grass and an eighth Wimbledon title is a real possibility.
Graf: 85-15 on grass (.850 winning percentage)
Williams: 107-14 on grass (.884 winning percentage)
This is where we enter Serena Williams’ wheelhouse. She is the queen of the hardcourt surface — it’s where she learned the game in Compton, California.
Williams leads the all-time list of WTA hardcourt victories with 505, rank Graf ranks just outside the top 10 with 343 victories.
However, when it comes to winning percentage, Graf is the all-time leader at 89.6 while Williams carries a winning percentage of 85.6.
As far as Grand Slam events on hardcourt, Williams has the most wins at the Australian Open (7) and the U.S. Open (6, tied with Chris Evert), while Graf is second all-time in Australia (4) and third at the U.S. Open (5).
Graf: 343-40 on hardcourt (.896 winning percentage)
Williams: 505-85 on hardcourt (.856 winning percentage)
Graf and Williams have taken different paths to success on the tennis court as far as their styles of winning.
Graf showed us perhaps the greatest footwork of all time. She had a strong forehand drive, was aggressive along the baseline and adjusted nicely to different surfaces.
Williams, on the other hand, is a pure power player, a once-in-a-lifetime talent in women’s professional tennis. Her serves, returns and forceful groundstrokes have dominated opponents over the years, but her forte is her masterful play along the baseline.
Graf: Great footwork, strong forehand, aggressive along the baseline, versatile on any surface.
Williams: One of the most powerful forehands ever, returns and forceful groundstrokes. Known as a baseline player.
Edge: Pick 'em
It’s hard to say who gets the edge here, but it’s understandable that Graf, to utilize her footwork, would be a little smaller in size than Williams, whose muscular shape is more liking to her power game.
Graf: 5-foot-9, 141 pounds
Williams: 5-foot-9, 155 pounds
Edge: Pick 'em
Steffi Graf and Serena Williams always strived to get better, even as they sat on the throne as the greatest players in their prime. What helped them both become champions was their mental approach.
In Williams’ case, if something bad happens, how quickly can she bounce back. And, in Graf’s case, focus on the goals and forget about winning or losing.
Graf:"You can't measure success if you have never failed. My father has taught me that if you really do want to reach your goals, you can't spend any time worrying about whether you're going to win or lose. Focus only on getting better."
Williams:"I really think a champion is defined not by their wins but by how they can recover when they fall."
Edge: Pick 'em
Patrick Mouratoglou became Serena Williams’ coach after she was stunned in a first-round defeat at the 2012 French Open, the first time she’s made such an early exit in a Grand Slam tournament. Since then, she has won 10 Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal.
She learned the game from her father, Richard Williams, who also remains as her coach, but not as hands-on as Mouratoglou.
Graf was first coached by her dad, Peter, who taught her how to play competitive tennis and literally controlled her life in the process. Later, Graf was coached for five years by Pavel Slozil, and Heinz Gunthardt for over seven years until Graf retired in 1999.
Well-known tennis coach Craig Webster worked with Graf when she was a teenager and said, “The first key to her success was that although she was 15-and-a-half years old chronologically, she was much older, wiser and mentally mature, probably around 30. Due to this skill of being advanced beyond her years, she was able to manage herself, both on and off the court, in terms of her expectations around her daily preparations in her warm-up and on-court preparation."
Mouratoglou said about Williams, “I think she’s also very responsible. Like, she doesn’t blame others for her problems. She loses a match, she doesn’t say it’s my fault even though I think it’s my fault, too. She’s strong enough and courageous enough, and confident enough to be able to look at herself and say, 'I failed.' "
Edge: Pick 'em
Williams has had her moments with the press, but the latest one after the third round of the 2019 French Open where she lost, then kicked Dominic Thiem out of his news conference was eye-opening.
Williams also has been known to shut down reporters asking questions and skip a news conference or two. For the most part, Williams has a pretty good relationship with the media, although there are critics who say the media often gives Williams a bad rap.
Graf also had an up-and-down relationship with the media during her career, especially when she struggled in 1990 and her personal problems became public. "In Paris and Berlin, I indeed did not just lose against Monica Seles. I was defeated by an opponent that wasn't even on the court," Graf told online site Stern. "Yes, I also lost the two finals against the German press."
Edge: Pick ‘em
Dealing With Tennis Officials
Williams has been involved in numerous run-ins with tennis officials and has had her fair share of on-court blowups.
In a 2009 U.S. Open semifinal match against Kim Clijsters, Clijsters frustrated Williams to the point where Williams received a warning for racquet abuse and later was called for a foot fault, which set her off, telling a line judge that she was going to "shove this ball down your f---ing throat." She was assessed a point penalty, which just happened to be match point. That wasn’t the worst.
Williams' biggest meltdown was at the 2018 U.S. Open, when verbal attacks directed at umpire Carlos Ramos cost her a shot at winning a 24th major that would’ve tied her with Margaret Court for the most major victories.
With Williams down a set to Naomi Osaka, Ramos warned her for a coaching violation (accusing coach Patrick Mouratoglou of giving signals). That set in motion Serena’s anger who snapped back at Ramos, "I don’t cheat to win."
Later, frustrated with her play, Serena smashed her racquet on the court, and Ramos docked her a point. During a changeover, she called Ramos "a liar," and he awarded a game to Osaka.
At another point, Williams halted the match to confer — and seek support — from tournament referee Brian Earley and the WTA supervisor Donna Kelso. Eventually, Williams lost the match.
One of Graf’s rare dealings with judges came in 1993 at Wimbledon in her first-round match against Australian Kirrily Sharpe where she was pleading for the judge to act on a fan who was having an exchange with her, and who we later learned had stalked Graf all over Europe and came a few months after Monica Seles was stabbed during a match in Hamburg.
Graf already was upset by the Seles incident as the spectator was located across from the umpire’s chair. Graf walked across the court several times during the 38-minute match.
The fan, a 29-year-old German named Kurt zum Felde, had yelled, "Steffi, you’re responsible for everything," in reference to the Seles stabbing. (Seles’ assailant said he stabbed her to help Graf reach No. 1 in the world.)
Security did not eject zum Felde until well after Graf had left, and he was banned from the tournament.
Edge: Williams for most tirades, but not to discount Graf’s fears
Relationships (In Chronological Order)
Williams had more dates with different men than Graf, but it's difficult to say who really gets the edge. Let’s face it, despite the number of dates they had with an assortment of men, they both wound up happily married and raising children with their respective husbands.
Here are the lists of relationships in chronological order:
Graf: Alexander Mronz (1989), a German tennis player. English pop singer and famous womanizer Mick Hucknall (1991-92). German race car driver Michael Bartels (1992-99). Tennis player Andre Agassi (1999-present), who she married in October 2001.
Williams: Columbus Short, dancer and actor; a short romance. Football player Keyshawn Johnson (2002-03). Film director Brett Ratner (2004-06). Recording artist Common, aka Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., (2007-10) Actor and musician Jackie Long (2007-08). Actor Hosea Chanchez (2008). Basketball player Amar’e Stoudemire (2010). Canadian rapper Aubrey Graham (2011). Bulgarian tennis player Grigor Dimitrov (2012). Her tennis coach Patrick Mouratoglou (2012-15). Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian (2016-present), who she married in November 2017.
Edge: Pick 'em
Being in the public eye is part of the job description for superstar athletes, and Graf and Williams have had their share of controversies.
For Graf, it was her father, Peter, who was known in the press as "Papa Merciless" for the way he tried to control his daughter’s life.
After mishandling some of her income, Graf's father was convicted of tax fraud in 1997 and spent 25 months in prison. Although Steffi was cleared of any wrongdoing, people began to notice that her game was affected by the scandal.
Graf's father died in 2013 from pancreatic cancer.
Williams has had run-ins with tennis officials. Along with her sister Venus, Serena has had to deal with obstacles aimed at them from various bodies that control the sport, such as rules about how they dress and how they do their hair. She also reportedly has been subjected to more drug testing than fellow players.
At the same time, Williams had to deal with racism and sexism on and off the court, including racist remarks made from fans during matches.
Edge: Pick 'em
Graf has done endorsements for T-Mobile, Head sports equipment, Wilson Sporting Goods, Dunlop Sports, Rexona, Canon Inc., Kerala Tourism, Barilla Pasta, Opel Automobiles, Aramis Always Fragrance (with Andre Agassi), Adidas, and Longines watches.
Williams has appeared in many TV commercials, such as McDonald’s, Doublemint Gum, Cadbury’s Oreo, and Beats by Dre (2015).
In addition, she has made print appearances in ads by Close-Up toothpaste, Wilson Hyper Hammer 6.3 Tennis Racket, Doublemint Chewing Gum, Avon, America’s Milk Processors’ "Got milk?," DayQuil & NyQuil Sinus by Vicks, Wilson K Blade Racquet, Sports Drink Gatorade, and O.P.I. Nail Polish.
She also has endorsed Aston Martin, Pepsi, Berlei bras, Puma, Nike, Audemars Piguet, Delta Airlines, Chase Bank, and Mission Athletecare.
It’s clear that Williams has possessed more marketing power than Graf. Mix in Serena's charisma and strength on and off the court, and her powerful game has made her popular among tennis fans and women, in general.
And business continues to be good for Williams, who has an estimated fortune of $225 million and recently became the first woman athlete to make the Forbes richest self-made women list.
The careers of Steffi Graf and Serena Williams have been similar in many ways.
Perhaps the most defining quality is how they rose to become the greatest players of their generations. They have racked up numerous titles, and they have found that extra gear when a Grand Slam title is on the line. They are so similar that their personal record for most consecutive weeks at No. 1 is the same.
Even their personal lives have a pattern. They dated many men before getting married, and they are enjoying raising their children. They have had personal difficulties off the court, and they have had their moments with the press.
Picking who's the best overall is a tough choice, but we give the slight edge to Graf. The reason is her versatility as a player, since she could succeed on any surface thanks to remarkable footwork and a deadly forehand.
However, if Williams can regain her form and get back to her winning ways, this opinion could change. And soon. Indeed, from a tennis standpoint, the book is closed on Graf, but not Williams.
Related: Why Serena Williams Is the GOAT