Serena Williams, just one Slam shy of Margaret Court's record, is ready for 2019
They are the twin rails on which the game has traveled for nearly two decades, like some great locomotive powering its way across the public’s imagination. Serena Williams and
Roger Federer, hailed by most as the greatest players of all time in their respective divisions of the sport, are like railroad tracks: their careers progressed on parallel paths, forever in great proximity.
Rail tracks never meet, not even at the end of the line, except by optical illusion on the distant horizon. One of the rails never stops while the other goes on. After she won her first-round match at Wimbledon last July, Serena bantered with the press, saying of her future in the game: “Oh, I’m just playing until Roger stops. As long as he’s here, I’m going to try to be here.”
Williams’ words came in the wake of the headlines Federer generated when he told The Wall Street Journal that Serena was the greatest tennis player of all time—“overall,” not just female, he clarified.
“I feel the same about him,” Williams promptly lobbed back.
Born about six weeks apart but to well-chronicled, vastly different circumstances in profoundly different cultures, Federer and Williams are both 37 years old. Williams has 23 Grand Slam singles titles and Federer has a men’s record 20, but although both remain threats to add to those totals, 37 is the more pertinent number. It’s an age when injury lurks beneath every explosive move; when inspiration and consistency are no longer automatic; when shocking losses bear down, unseen in the rear-view mirror, until it’s too late.
If you’re a sentimentalist or superstitious, you might be inclined to believe one player will invariably go the way of the other in 2019. The way 2018 played out suggests that assumption is reasonable, but also that this will be a challenging year for both.
2018 Record: 18-6Australian Open: DNP French Open: 4R Wimbledon: F US Open: F
Our final image of Williams in 2018 was that of an overwrought player caught in a vortex of emotions, arguing and drifting farther and farther from the fact that she, the imperious queen of women’s tennis, was locked in a perilously tight match with Naomi Osaka, a 20-year old, first-time Grand Slam finalist. Forget the rights and wrongs of the incident for the moment. It represented a disastrous loss of focus—a miscalculation that could only be put down to Williams feeling pressure, so much pressure that it blew a valve.
Williams resolutely denies feeling pressure as a matter of course, yet how can she not? There she was in September, losing to a youngster who grew up idolizing her. There’s also the matter of that single, elusive major title she still needs to equal Margaret Court’s record. Williams imposed an embargo on the topic well before her maternity leave, but don’t believe she’s forgotten its significance.
When Williams began her comeback at Indian Wells, six months after giving birth to a daughter, Alexis Olympia Jr., her goal was simply to find her game.
“I’m out there, and I can’t really replicate the situation no matter how much I do in practice, or [if] I make those shots 10 times out of 10 in practice,” she said after losing to her sister, Venus, in her third match. “It’s just the nerves, the anticipation you feel naturally. You know, it’s a little bit of everything that comes in a match that just doesn’t normally happen.”
After a first-round loss to Osaka in Miami, Williams had an excellent French Open, winning three matches before she was obliged to withdraw with an injured pectoral muscle. She was philosophical about the setback, saying, “I can only take solace in the fact I’m going to continue to get better—and I’m coming up on surfaces that are my absolute favorite to play on, and that I do best on.”
True to her prediction, Williams was lethal at Wimbledon, if buoyed by a favorable draw. In the final she met Angelique Kerber, the woman she’d beaten for the title in 2016. Surprising everyone but herself, Kerber played a brilliant match to win, 6–3, 6–3. A disappointed Williams nonetheless took something away from the event.
“I feel really proud to be a role model,” Williams said at Wimbledon of her status as a mother on tour. “I’ve embraced it. . . I think it’s so important for me. It’s one of my life goals.”
With the US Open on the horizon, Serena was everywhere—on television, on billboards, on social media. But her game was nowhere to be found.
She went just 1–2 before the Open, and her 6–1, 6–0 blowout loss to Johanna Konta in San Jose was the worst of her career in terms of games won.
A few days later, she took to Instagram, writing in part: “Last week was not easy for me. Not only was I accepting some tough personal stuff, but I just was in a funk. Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom. I read several articles that said postpartum emotions can last up to three years if not dealt with.”
It became clear in the dog days of August that even as Williams’ game was fraying, her celebrity was bourgeoning. That put her in a difficult position at the US Open, where she already had a checkered history. Sometimes it seems that the sheer volume of hype and the glitz of Gotham simply gets to Williams and keeps her from playing her finest, most relaxed tennis.
Still, Williams played admirably up until she ran off the rails in the final, where she received three code violations, launched into a tirade against chair umpire Carlos Ramos and, soon after, lost to Osaka, 6–2, 6–4.
Williams will return to the tour under different, potentially less stressful conditions. She ought to be less distracted, better able to focus on tennis, fitter and stronger. On a given day, she can still demolish any opponent.
But the fluctuations she experienced in 2018 are a warning sign. The tour is brimming with gifted young players whose respect for Williams is undiminished but whose awe of her has declined. She hasn’t won a major in nearly two years, since she became the oldest woman in the Open era to claim one. The next one, if she can win it, will stand as her greatest victory.
2018 Record: 48-10Australian Open: W French Open: DNP Wimbledon: QF US Open: 4R
In mid-September at the Laver Cup, the event Federer helped conceive to honor his role model, Rod Laver, I sat chatting with the player-founder about his immediate future. He was enthusiastic about the Asian swing, undecided about the Paris Indoors. He nonchalantly mentioned that the 2019 clay-court season was “under review.” When I pressed, he explained that Euroclay, the April to mid-June segment that he has avoided for the past three seasons, “is not off the table.”
I nearly did a double take, because the conventional wisdom held that Federer’s spectacular, post-knee surgery resurgence at age 35 was partly due to his decision to cut red clay from his schedule. More relevant, at the moment, was that given Federer’s history and his struggles in the second half of 2018, returning to clay and all its potential troubles seemed foolhardy.
But that’s Federer. The clay issue wasn’t a calculation; it was, as he said, “A full on passion thing.” And it’s hard to get someone invigorated by passion to focus on the past and its shortcomings instead of the future and its promises.
Federer launched his 2018 campaign with another age-defying statement, a win at the Australian Open. He then slashed his way through the field in Rotterdam. He was 17–0 on the year when his run was finally halted in the Indian Wells final by Juan Martin del Potro, after holding match points.
The first big surprise came a week later in Miami, when Federer took an opening-round loss to Thanasi Kokkinakis. It set the tone for the coming months, during which Federer won just one title until late October, when he triumphed for the ninth time in his hometown of Basel.
Far from an alarming record, Federer’s 2018 mark is one most players would give their eye tooth for. He went 48–10 with four titles, including a major. Federer also regained the No. 1 ranking, albeit briefly, three times.
So what is so concerning about 2019? The answer lies in the big matches Federer uncharacteristically lost in the second half of the season.
He lost them in unexpected ways, and in some cases to players he was widely expected to beat. Borna Coric, who’s never been within shouting distance of a Grand Slam final, beat Federer twice in 2018, including in the Halle grass final. Despite holding a ranking between No. 1 and No. 3 all year, Federer went just 4–6 against Top 10 players, including a loss at the ATP Finals to Kei Nishikori, who had lost his previous six matches to the Swiss.
It would be one thing if Federer were taking puzzling or close-call defeats in small events. But it was in the biggest tournaments that his game let him down. He lost a bitterly contested, five-set Wimbledon quarterfinal to Kevin Anderson despite leading by two sets and holding a match point.
“You have moments when you rise to the occasion,” Federer said afterward at the All England Club. “Just today, when I needed it, I couldn’t get up. That’s why it’s an average performance and not a good one.”
Then, at the US Open, Federer lost in the fourth round, in stifling heat and humidity, to journeyman John Millman.
“It was just hot. No shame there,” Federer said. “Just I think these are the things that unfortunately sometimes happen. . . hopefully [I’ll] finish the year strong.”
Federer is a superbly resilient player, whose sheer love of the game is a great hedge against disillusion, or loss of confidence. After the US Open, the 37-year-old made three semifinals and won the Swiss Indoors for his 99th career title. One of those semifinal defeats, at the Paris Masters, came against Novak Djokovic in one the season’s best matches.
At the year-end ATP Finals, Federer seemed poised to challenge Djokovic one last time, perhaps end the year in a blaze of glory. But after going 2–1 in round-robin play, Federer lost a straight-set semifinal to the eventual champion, Alexander Zverev.
“Maybe I didn’t push enough, or I didn’t have enough today to make the difference, to be honest.” Federer told reporters afterward. “[But] I’m very proud that at 37, I’m still so competitive and so happy playing tennis. If I take a step back, I’m actually very happy about the season.”
True to their parallel careers, Williams and Federer have the same excellent hole card to play at the start of 2019—their success at the Australian Open. Federer launched his resurgence in Melbourne in 2017, and defended successfully in 2018. Williams has won the event seven times. There’s no better place for the twin tracks to get the train rolling again.
This Week on Tennis Channel Plus:
Hopman Cup (Sat - Sat 12.29 - 1.5) • Roger Federer, Alexander Zverev, Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber headline the Hopman Cup. Watch live coverage on Tennis Channel Plus beginning Saturday 12/29 at 9:00pm ET.
ATP/WTA Brisbane (Sun - Sun 12.30 - 1.6) • Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens open their 2019 seasons in Brisbane. Live coverage from three courts begins on Tennis Channel Plus on Sunday 12/30 at 8:00pm ET.
WTA Auckland (Sun - Sun 12.30 - 1.6) • Catch the action from the ASB Classic including Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki. Live coverage begins on Tennis Channel Plus on Sunday 12/30 at 8:00pm ET.
WTA Shenzhen (Sat - Sat 12.29 - 1.5) • Watch first to last ball action from the Shenzhen Open featuring Maria Sharapova and Jelena Ostapenko beginning Saturday 12/29 at 11:00pm ET.
ATP Pune (Mon - Sat 12.31 - 1.5) • Watch Kevin Anderson, Marin Cilic and Hyeon Chung live from Pune starting Monday 12/31 at 6:30am ET.
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[Artwork details: Julie Mehretu. “Refuge.”