Serena Williams owns 20 Grand Slam singles titles, just four short of Margaret Court’s record 24, and two behind Steffi Graf’s 22. But one tennis legend—who has a cool 18 major titles herself—isn’t waiting for Williams to break the record to declare her the best women’s player ever. “She is the greatest of all-time,” says Chris Evert, who spoke to TIME for our profile of Serena Williams that appears in the June 29 issue, available on newsstands starting Friday.
Evert cites Williams’ record in the finals of Grand Slam tournaments—20-4—and her lack of a rival as reasons for declaring her the GOAT. The absence of a consistent challenger for Williams usually works against her in this debate. After all, Court had Billie Jean King, Evert had Martina Navratilova, Graf had Monica Seles. Any of these Hall of Famers would dominate the competition Williams is currently facing—and pile up major championships.
Five or six years ago, Evert says, she bought the argument. But not anymore. “After watching her matches and watching her closely, these players get close, they’re doing really well, and then she’ll get to another level where she slaps winners and she starts acing people,” says Evert. “It’s not one level. All of a sudden, she’s up two or three levels better than the field. It’s not about the other women. It’s about how good Serena is.”
Evert is rooting for Williams to become the first player since Graf in 1988 to win the calendar year Grand Slam—a sweep of the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens, plus Wimbledon, which starts on June 29. She’s halfway there, having become the first player since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win the Australian and the French (the U.S. Open begins in late August).
“I think we want to look up to somebody larger than life, and kind of go along for the ride,” says Evert. “We like to be in awe of somebody, it’s superhuman what they do, it’s just nice to feel like you’re part of that journey with them.”