Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

A provocative Nike ad suggests that Serena Williams is not just the best female athlete of all time, but the best athlete, man or woman, of all time period.

That’s interesting, especially since in the past Serena would always bristle when she was asked how she would do if she were matched up against a male player.

In any case, the ad campaign prompted us to have the following dialogue with Serena:

INSIDE TENNIS: There have been a lot of fabulous athletes who are females: Althea Gibson, Nadia Comaneci, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King all come to mind. In your mind, who do you feel is at the very top of the list, the two or three finest?

SERENA WILLIAMS: Everyone you named is someone that’s spectacular…Jackie Joyner-Kersee was someone that [when we were] growing up you just watched [at] the Olympics and you’re like, “Wow, you know, that was pretty amazing.” Nadia Comaneci [was] an amazing gymnast. Like she was pretty cool.

Obviously, playing tennis you’re looking at someone like Martina Navratilova. You only can dream of doing half as good as them. It’s hard to compare three different amazing athletes from all kinds of different sport, but they’re all great, all great athletes.

INSIDE TENNIS: And, tennis’ Althea Gibson would be among them.

SERENA WILLIAMS: I think so. She had to break so many barriers and had to play against things that a lot of us never have had to face. She had to sleep in cars because hotels wouldn’t accept her. [She had] to overcome that mentality and still be able to perform.

INSIDE TENNIS: Nike’s greatest athlete campaign has struck a chord. You just spoke about many of the wonderful athletes who are women, and of course with men there’s Jordan, Bill Russell, Ali, Roger Federer and so forth. Which of these iconic men’s athletes impresses you the most?

SERENA WILLIAMS: It’s hard to say someone against Jordan and Ali. I think they are really impressive. I would say Ali mostly because, again, not only what he did in his field, but also what he did outside. I think that’s what makes someone truly great.


Serena went on to tell the media that she felt “there is a difference between the way male and female athletes are treated … [and] as women we have still a lot [to do] to be going forward…Tennis has made huge, huge improvements. We just have to keep that going for all other female sports as well…There is a huge pay difference in terms of male and female athletes in lots of sports. Still so in tennis a little bit, as well. Also, male athletes – it’s just a big difference, you know.

“But, it’s just taking one step at a time. Tennis players were really fortunate to have pioneers like Billie Jean King…[who took] a stance for women in tennis…We got really, really fortunate to have that. So now we’re able to benefit and still preach the message and have an easier time. Just hopefully that can work out for other females, as well.”