20 years in, Serena Williams and Roger Federer are still in the hunt
How many times has Serena Williams taken an injury timeout over the expanse of years? How many times has she sat in her chair on a blue court, on grass, on red clay, as a trainer leaned down to tape a part of her body that was not cooperating? Against her fourth-round opponent at the US Open, that part was her right ankle, and Williams warily gestured to show how she wanted compression applied.
“I had a really bad ankle sprain in January,” Williams said. “I was like, instantly, No, this can't happen. I'm finally healthy.”
Not now. Not here.
It has been 20 years since Williams won her first U.S. Open Championship. After dispatching No. 22 Petra Martic 6-3, 6-4, the eighth-seeded Williams is back in a U.S. Open quarterfinal for the 16th time. Each rolled ankle potentially robs her of the fleeting chances she has to earn a long-sought milestone; Margaret Court’s record 24 Grand Slam titles.
Serena and her older sister Venus Williams always said they would leave tennis to pursue other interests, and yet they are both still playing at an age when their peers have long retired. For Serena, the fire is still there.
“I always said I would wake up one day and say, I'm done,” Serena Williams said. “That day hasn't come yet for me. I'm still playing pretty good tennis.”
Pretty good is one way to put it. Williams is still dominant, an impediment, an icon and a force to be reckoned with all at the same time.
Her partner in defying the usual expectations of age and flesh, Roger Federer, reached his 13th U.S. Open quarterfinal just a few hours earlier. Federer, 38, needed just one hour and nine minutes to dispatch No. 15 David Goffin, and the 28-year-old Belgian lamented that playing Federer — or Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic — remains an impossible challenge.
“They are just mentally really, really strong,” Goffin said. “They want to win everything. They want to stay there. They want to win trophy all the time. All the time they are improving. Even if they are more than 30, more than 35, they are still there physically. It's tough to beat them for the moment.”
Two years after having daughter Olympia, Williams has had three chances at Court’s number, and fallen short each time. The failure was spectacular against Naomi Osaka at the U.S. Open last year, more mundane against Angelique Kerber at Wimbledon that summer. The result was the same however; 23.
“She was able to still reach three Grand Slam finals, which I think was really an incredible effort,” said Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou. “But I said that, and I feel that time works for her, and I know it can sound strange because she’s not very young, but still I think so for the reasons I just explained. So I feel she’s moving better now than she was a few months ago.”
Federer, who has two sets of twins, has said that having such a solid family structure has been grounding for him during his career. Federer can relate to Williams’ task of tying 24, and said chasing records can be frustrating.
“Sometimes (records have) definitely motivated me,” Federer said. “Sometimes they’ve pushed me. Sometimes they also created so much pressure it was almost not funny any more to some extent. I’m complaining on a very high level now, when you’re trying to go for your fifth Wimbledon, trying to break the all-time Grand Slam record, and Pete (Sampras) is sitting there or (Bjorn) Borg sitting there, and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, what are they going to be thinking?’”
It has been 11 years since Federer won a title here. Yet he still has won 20 titles in 31 Grand Slam finals. From 2004 to 2007, he won every major each year save the French Open, which he finally won in 2009. His most recent was in 2018 at the Australian Open.
“I mean, success has played a big part in Serena’s and my career, for sure,” Federer said. “Maybe traveling and only winning 50percent of the matches on tour, then maybe also we wouldn’t be playing any more. But because we know we can still beat the best, win the biggest tournaments, it’s so worthwhile to stay there and see if you can go back to these emotions, see if you can do it at a later stage in your career, and be a totally different person almost, a different player sort of 20 years later.
It's quite exciting actually.”
With both Williams and Federer as quarter-finalists again, that’s exactly the point.