Sport: Match Point for Tennis Legends
Roger Federer and Serena Williams both left the court for the last time this summer
2022 was the end of an era in tennis.
As I took in the poignant conclusion of Roger Federer’s final pro tennis match at the Laver Cup, an event he himself spearheaded in honor of Australian tennis legend Rod Laver, a familiar image appeared on the TV screen. The retiring Swiss champion was overcome by the moment and began to weep as he had on so many other important occasions throughout his illustrious career. These tears were brought on by defeat, but not from the de facto exhibition he and longtime rival Rafael Nadal had just lost as teammates against the talented American duo of Francis Tiafoe and Jack Sock.
It was Father Time who finally conquered the ageless one.
Six years prior, at the ripe tennis age of 35, Federer came back from knee surgery and six months of rehab to win the Australian Open in an epic five-set final against none other than Nadal. A year later, on the heels of two more historic Grand Slam victories, he would become the oldest player ever to be ranked #1 in the history of the ATP rankings, a record he retains to this day.
This night however, glory was more elusive than nostalgia. As Federer wandered around the court hugging everyone in sight, I found myself grinning along with the memories of his most glorious wins and devastating losses, which were shuffling through my mind like an old photographic projection: his first Grand Slam triumph at Wimbledon in 2003; his three consecutive Grand Slam final losses to Nadal in 2008 and 2009, including a Wimbledon match dubbed by many as the greatest ever; and his final major win at the Australian Open in 2018. In defeat and in victory, Roger always wore his heart on his sleeve, leaving no doubt as to how much this sport means to him.
After Federer delivered an emotional farewell speech to the London crowd, my thoughts shifted to the retirement of arguably the most dominant and decorated athlete ever, Serena Williams. Only a few weeks earlier at the U.S. Open, Williams played in what she was calling her final tournament as a pro. Although the powerful and dramatic aesthetic of Serena’s game may have been in sharp contrast to Federer’s grace and nearly unshakeable sang-froid, I was struck by the similarity of these two all-time greats: two ruthless, emotional competitors.
The circumstances around Serena’s supreme athletic prowess and eventual rise to stardom are well documented. Coached from an early age alongside her older sister Venus by their father Richard Williams, she developed and began to hone her skills on the public courts of Compton, becoming the top-ranked U.S. junior in the ten and under category. By the time Serena was ten years old, her father, weary of pushing his daughters too hard and dismayed by the racism they encountered at national tournaments, made the decision to end his daughters’ junior tennis careers.
Serena was only fourteen years old at the time of her professional debut in 1995. Williams won her first Grand Slam a few years later as a seventeen-year-old at the 1999 U.S. Open, in the process becoming only the second African American woman ever to win a Grand Slam after Althea Gibson all the way back in the 1950s.
It was another couple of years before she established herself as the dominant force in women’s tennis, but once she did, there was no turning back. With 23 Grand Slam singles titles and another 14 major doubles titles (all with Venus, and with an unblemished 14-0 record in major doubles finals), her career speaks for itself.
Unfortunately, part of their stories has always been the differing public reactions to the dominance of Serena and Roger. Tennis has always been and continues to be a largely white sport; the tennis media has always been and continues to be largely white and male. This is something Serena was reminded of time and time again throughout her career. Federer never experienced excessively harsh treatment from fans and sexist critiques of his body and outfits from journalists clinging to antiquated gender norms and notions of tennis etiquette.
Serena’s pained grimaces, frustrated gesticulations, and occasional over-the-top outbursts led to criticisms of her demeanor on court, often from tennis gate-keepers who couldn’t understand her. There were certain times, in moments of extreme self-exhortation, Serena bent over with her fist clenched and face contorted as she unleashed an emphatic “Come on!”, that gave the impression she was psyching herself up not only for the battle against her opponent, but also against the tennis establishment itself.
When Ajla Tomljanovic, the winner of the match, joined the crowd in praise for Serena in a humble and touching speech, it was clear that no matter how many battles she had lost, the younger Williams Sister had won the war.
With the Laver Cup coverage concluding, I got my last few glimpses of Roger soaking in the atmosphere; Roger holding hands with Rafa as both men wept; Roger being lifted up by his teammates like the king he is. Although the circumstances were different, I was reminded of Serena’s tearful post-match interview after she lost her final match at the U.S. Open, and I was left again with the strong sense that, even though they emoted in different ways, and their drive may have come from different places, Roger Federer and Serena Williams were both deeply emotional competitors who propelled tennis forward with their natural gifts, passion, and dedication to the game they clearly love.
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