Billie Jean King gave Serena Williams the kind of compliment athletes rarely give each other.
Despite Serena Williams' stunning U.S. Open loss, she still has a huge fan in one of tennis' all-time greats: Billie Jean King.
King was a monster back in the day. She won 12 Grand Slam singles titles and was #1 in the world for five years running. She even beat former men's #1 Bobby Riggs head-to-head.
And yet, despite all that, King thinks Serena is, unequivocally, the greatest of all time.
She dropped the bomb in an interview with the Huffington Post shortly before Williams' semifinal defeat:
Billie Jean King demonstrated the tennis version of "it takes one to know one" on Wednesday while speaking to HuffPost Live's Zerlina Maxwell. When asked whether she thinks Serena Williams is the best tennis player ever, the 12-time Grand Slam winner and Women's Tennis Association founder answered unambiguously: "Yes. I think we all do. I think every generation gets better."
Three things about this stand out.
1. This sort of thing just doesn't happen in sports. Basically ever.
Imagine Michael Jordan sitting down for an interview and saying, "Hey everyone, I thought about it, took a look through the numbers, and you know what? LeBron is actually better than me and everyone I played with."
Most athletes remain competitive with their rivals to the bitter end, even across generations. For an all-time-great tennis player to admit that Williams is superior, it must really be obvious.
2. She didn't just say "women's tennis."
This wasn't "she's the greatest ... for a girl." This was "She's the greatest ... period. Full stop."
That's not to say Serena would necessarily beat the top men in tennis (though it's impossible to know for sure — most ex-players and commentators seem to think she wouldn't,). It is saying that Serena has dominated the sport for longer and with more authority than anyone before her. That's pretty hard to argue with.
3. Serena is finally getting the recognition she deserves.
At the end of the day, the fact that she went down in this year's U.S. Open is irrelevant.
69 singles titles. 21 Grand Slams. 732 career wins to only 123 losses — an .856 winning percentage. (For comparison, the 2001 Seattle Mariners, the winningest baseball team in history, had a .716 winning percentage). And still dominating at age 33.
We all knew she was good, but King is right. Williams deserves to be up there with the greats: Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Pelé, Bobby Orr, and whoever dominates curling. The fact that Williams is a black woman in a sport whose upper ranks have been dominated by white men since the fuzzy green ball was invented makes it all the more important to recognize her as such.
It takes guts to admit that someone else is better than you. But Billie Jean King spoke the truth.