They were born just 49 days apart, although in vastly different corners of the world.
Think of the Serena Williams and Roger Federer catalogs as a portrait of contrasting forces. Stylistically different, but content wise they are two of the most decorated players of the Open Era, almost without rivals.
It feels fitting that they have chosen to retire from professional tennis within five weeks. Williams’ retirement news appeared in an essay from Vogue magazine on August 9, the day after Federer turned 41. His announcement came Thursday, 11 days before her 41st birthday.
“This is a bittersweet decision because I will miss everything the tour has given me,” Federer wrote in his retirement letter. “But at the same time, there is so much to celebrate. I consider myself one of the happiest people on the planet. I got a special talent for tennis, and I did it at a level I could never have imagined, much longer than I ever thought possible.”
Williams had previously expressed similar sentiments at parting with fans.
“I’m terrible at saying goodbye, the world’s worst,” she wrote. “But please know that I am more grateful to you than I can ever express in words. You have taken me to so many victories and so many trophies. I’m going to miss that version of me, that girl who played tennis. And I’m going to miss you.”
While saying goodbye is bittersweet – at best – it might be wise to adopt Williams’ mindset and see it as an inevitable evolution. Sure, these two will always be in and around tennis. In the future, their love for the game will keep them engaged.
But what about the sport itself? In times like these, there are always questions about how the void will be filled. When Stefanie Graf retired in 1999, won at Roland Garros and reached the final at Wimbledon, coincidentally or not, that was the year Williams won her first major. When Pete Sampras ran away after the 2002 US Open, he had already lost to Federer at Wimbledon the year before – a year before the Swiss champion would take his first major win at the same venue.
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It turns out, just as those blank questions are rearing their heads again, your freshly minted US Open champions might be a good place to start.
Iga Swiatek, 20, is the youngest Hologic WTA Tour player to rack up three major titles since Maria Sharapova in 2008. Players like Ons Jabeur and 18-year-old Coco Gauff have elevated themselves to mainstream sport in the spotlight. Currently, four of the Top 10 players in the world are under the age of 25.
Carlos Alcaraz, aged 19, is the youngest No. 1 player in the history of Pepperstone ATP Rankings (since 1973). And in case you forgot, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the two most successful players of all time on the Grand Slam podium, took home three of the four majors this year.
Not so long ago, Williams and Federer were the faces of the game’s future.
Williams grew up on the public courts of Compton, California; Federer was a ball boy at the tournament in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland. Their disparate environments would define the way they played the game. Williams was in-your-face raw power and speed and shameless desire. Federer was more fluid, a magician who beat you with finesse — and amazing hand-eye coordination.
She came first on the Grand Slam board, winning the US Open at the age of 17. Federer broke through at Wimbledon in 2003 and would go on to win three of the four majors in four years, from 2004 to 2007. Williams’ career was more scattered, marked by injuries and long sabbaticals. Remarkably, the two times she won three majors in one season was in 2002—and 13 years later in 2015.
Federer won 16 of his 20 major titles before he was 30; Williams managed to get 10 out of her 23 after turning 30. Both were masters on grass: Federer won eight titles at Wimbledon, while Williams had seven. In Melbourne and New York it was Williams 7-6 and 6-5 respectively. On clay, which was less conducive to their skills, Williams won three and Federer one.
Roger Federer cutting the ribbon at the 2019 Miami Open.” />
Six times – the number somehow seems low – they won the same Grand Slam event. The first was in 2003, and the photo of Wimbledon’s Winners’ Ball reflects their emotions on the pitch.
Williams, dressed in a black strappy dress, hair pulled back, grins broadly. Federer, long brown hair behind and well below his ears, wears a black tuxedo and red bow tie.
More than 14 years later, it happened for the last time, in Australia. Already pregnant with daughter Olympia, Williams defeated sister Venus for her last major triumph, at age 35. Federer, hair significantly shorter, was a five-set winner in 2017 against rival Rafael Nadal. A year later, at the age of 36, he would complete his last major in Melbourne.
Even if Federer played nearly 500 more games, their career achievements have been cut from the same cloth. Federer won 103 titles, 30 more than Serena. But Williams won more Slams and twice held the four major titles simultaneously, in 2002-03 and 2014-15. She won four Olympic gold medals, three in doubles, versus Federer’s silver and bronze in singles and a gold in doubles.
Williams’ win rate (858-156, .846) is slightly better than Federer’s (1.251-275, .820). Perhaps the statistic that best reflects their consistent, unwavering brilliance is their relationship with the No. 1 rankings. Williams was on top for 319 weeks, nine more than Federer. Her first accession to the throne came in 2002, the last some 15 years later. Federer’s first (2004) and last (2018) were no less impressive. It may be some time before tennis enthusiasts wonder how Williams and Federer will be replaced. They entered the tennis world at the same time, dominated for almost two decades and are now leaving together. It just fits.