It has been five months to the day since the Swiss played his final point
Is it too soon to miss Roger Federer and Serena Williams? In Federer’s case, it has been five months to the day since he played his final point, with his friend Rafael Nadal by his side, in a Laver Cup doubles match in London. Serena made her own last stand, against Ajla Tomljanovic at the US Open, three weeks earlier.
That’s not a lot of time to let their absences sink in, especially when you consider how long we had been watching them. Together, these two 41-year-olds, who were born a month apart, defined pro tennis in the 20th century. Together, they were the best players of the Open era’s first 50 seasons. That covers 1968 to 2018, the year Federer won the last of their combined 43 Grand Slam singles titles.
Their retirements also didn’t come out of the blue. Neither Federer nor Serena had played much, or mounted any major challenges, over the previous two seasons. They gave us time to get used to life without them before they signed off for good.
Yet over the past five months there have been moments when I’ve had to remind myself that they really aren’t coming back, and that their long co-era is over. Here are five things I’ve missed about Roger and Serena, which no one is likely to match this year, or anytime soon.
Federer’s 60-second service hold
We’ve seen dominant performances in 2023: Novak Djokovic’s single dropped set at the Australian Open, Iga Swiatek’s bagel-heavy run through Doha and Dubai so far. But Federer set the standard for casual mastery with his customary one-minute holds, which often came in the opening game of a match. Playing quickly and with decisive elan, it only took him 60 seconds or so to back his opponent up against the ropes. An ace, a service winner, a good serve and a forehand winner, and maybe a quick rally, and Federer was off to the races. Some players make tennis look easy; Federer could make you wonder if it was a sport at all, or a solo performance masquerading as a competition.
Serena’s ace walk
You know the moment. Serena has reached game point on her serve, but her opponent has just won a rally against her, maybe with a winner that Serena didn’t expect, and a fist-pump she didn’t appreciate. So she takes a deep breath, gathers herself, gets the ball from the ball person, and starts drumming it into the court with her racquet as she slowly prepares to serve. Then she tosses the ball into that perfect spot a few feet above her head, and-with a little extra venom and racquet speed-pummels it into a corner of the box for an ace that (a) wins her the game and (b) makes her opponent wonder if it was wise to hit a winner past Serena in the first place. The service hold complete, she walks to the sideline with her head high, her back straight, and her face a mask of steely command.
Serena’s expressiveness, and Roger’s reticence
Roger and Serena are the same age, their careers spanned the same 20-odd years, and each of them brought a new playing style to the sport that proved to be highly influential. But when it came to their on-court demeanors and ways of showing their emotions, they could hardly have been more different.
There had been vocal players before Serena, but few used their emotions with such passionate effectiveness. She had an expression for every occasion. The “come on”/fist-pump combination that kicked her into gear. The “come on”/double fist-pump combination that she unleashed after a big point. The high cry of exasperation after a wild miss. The slow, authoritative walk between service points that let everyone know the match would be played at her pace. The victory twirl when another win was secure. For her opponents, the most ominous may have been those periods of time when she made no noise at all. But they usually didn’t last long. Serena had to let us, her opponent, and herself know how much she wanted to win.
If Serena was a pioneer of expressiveness, Federer was a throwback to the sport’s self-contained past. He could bark out his frustrations, and shake his racquet to show his intensity, but his ability to maintain an even keel, and think through his next moves, was part of his success. Federer may have been the last player who didn’t look or rage at his player box while he was on court. Part of tennis’ traditional do-it-yourself ethos will pass on without him.
If Serena was a pioneer of expressiveness, Federer was a throwback to the sport’s self-contained past.
Their Aussie Open Love
When Federer was introduced in Rod Laver Arena, an announcer with a booming voice would go through a long list of his accomplishments, before finishing with these four drama-filled words: “He is”-pause for effect-”Roger Federer.”
Federer had a special connection to the Australian game. His first coach, the late Peter Carter, was an Aussie, and he loved being in a place where tennis was central to the sporting culture. Federer in Melbourne was a long-running emotional roller-coaster, and it produced some of the game’s most indelible moments of this century. He cried when Laver handed him the winner’s trophy in 2006; he cried when he lost it to Rafael Nadal in 2009; and he cried when he took it back from Rafa in 2017.
For Serena, the long trip across the Pacific seemed to be a way for her to put all the other aspects of her life at bay and concentrate on tennis for a solid month. “I love the Australian Open,” she said, and she also produced some of her greatest moments there: her fierce three-set win over Maria Sharapova in the 2005 semifinals, which tipped the scales in her favor for good against the Russian; her three-set win over Justine Henin in the 2010 final, which left her with a winning record against her closest rival; her 23rd and final Slam title, over her sister, Venus, while carrying her daughter, Alexis Olympia.
With these moments, and with their love for the tournament, Federer and Serena ensured that the Australian Open, once the least-relevant of the Slams, took its rightful place alongside the others.
How their match days felt like high holy days
From 2010 to 2017, Federer and Serena defied the usual age limits for tennis players. From 2018 to 2022, they didn’t. During both periods, though, everything else stopped for their matches. When you watched, you knew the world was watching with you. When they were on the court, tennis wasn’t a niche sport, and the emotional connection that lies at its heart was revealed. Their send-offs, at the US Open and Laver Cup, were a long time coming, and like nothing in tennis before. Yet they only left us wanting more. –Tennis.com