Serena Williams and Roger Federer, two 39-year-old legends of sport, exited the 2021 French Open on Sunday in contrasting fashions.
Williams was downed in straight sets by 21-year-old Elena Rybakina who was playing her first Grand Slam fourth round match. It was a tough but achingly familiar loss for this recent version of Williams.
Federer, after playing past midnight to win a gruelling four-set battle against Dominik Koepfer, withdrew from his fourth-round match “listening to his body and making sure he didn’t push himself too quickly on the road to recovery.”
The manners of exit were as different as they could be but there was a strange shared sense of melancholy and hopefulness. Melancholy, at the thought that this was perhaps the final time the most enduring athletes in the sport competed at Roland Garros. Hopefulness, at the picture the two provided of their immediate future.
For the Open era Grand Slam chart-leading champions in their respective categories, the grass is greener on the other side of the English Channel.
Both Williams and Federer have they were looking forward to playing at Wimbledon later this month and to that end were pleased with their performance at Roland Garros. It is no secret that the grass courts of All England Club offer them their best chance for more Grand Slam glory.
Both ended up with the runner-up plate in 2019, the tournament was cancelled in 2019 and there really isn’t telling how many chances they will get at it.
But there was another, somewhat strange and rather troubling, reaction to Sunday’s exits.
Federer came under the scanner from some sections on social media for his decision to withdraw in the middle of the Major after a win. It was seen as unfair and even arrogant that he pulled out seemingly without an injury, choosing to not play further the clay-court Grand Slam and instead rest up for the grass season.
For Williams, the naysayers came up with the more usual argument. She just doesn’t have it her anymore to win big points, tough matches or the elusive and supposedly all-consuming 24th Grand Slam which will bring her level with Margaret Court’s record from the amateur era. And if the 23-time Major winner can’t fight or move or beat down opponents as she once could, she shouldn’t be at the level.
Now the battle-hardened players are no stranger to this aspect of public life, but these snap judgements underline recency bias.
The points raised ranged from how Federer should have forfeited after reaching match point if he didn’t intend to continue the tournament to how Williams is continuing on just to earn that one elusive record.
But the one point that should be talked about more is this – we have two of the sport’s greatest athletes raging against the dying light, so to speak — to quite some success. Isn’t that enough for now?
After more than two decades and 20 Majors, their ability and ambition has altered.
We have to acknowledge the change in time and the game and accordingly change the lens we see them. We can’t just see them as players with 20 Grand Slam titles, but also as people months away from turning 40. The extraordinary champions are now affected by ordinary things like age and form, physical wear-and-tear and mental doubts. Both had injury layoffs just last year and have compressed their calendar. But none of that hasn’t dimmed the drive at the big stage, clearly.
They are not in their prime anymore but are still capable of persistent brilliance. The post-surgery body is not as sturdy but the mind and will are still capable of pulling through special wins. Williams at Australian Open was phenomenal till she ran into Osaka, Federer pulled a surprise Houdini act in an empty stadium just days back.
In 2021, after a pandemic-induced layoff added to the injury breaks, there would be recalibration of targets for most.
They want the joy of playing, the thrill of close wins, the pride of another title… yes. But also a realistic goal and both have been honest to that end.
So it’s logical that Federer preserves his energy at a time when the gap between clay and grass seasons are reduced, even if it isn’t completely right in another time. Rather than being disrespectful to his beaten previous opponent, it was respectful to his next (and the sport in general) to not simply show up and perform at less than 100%. It should be noted that Federer has never retired from a match in over 1500 matches and withdrawn from just five tournaments in his 22-year-old career (and never before at a Major).
Similarly, it’s tough watching Williams physically struggle against much younger opponents and be anguished over other missed chances. But it’s also admirable that she perseveres: travels with her toddler daughter in tow and trains hard when players a decade younger than her have retired. Remember, the American reached the second week at Roland Garros despite winning just one match on clay before and was ready to get back on the grind for Wimbledon soon after. Why should she carry on playing when it’s clear her most consistent days are behind her? Because she has the drive to be a champion again, the love for what she does and a hunger to succeed.
It is this will of the two all-time greats that should provide context to why they are still playing, and not just the losses or occasional liberties they are taking. Williams and Federer are once-in-a-generation athletes and unprecedented people sometimes deserve unprecedented chances.