Over the past week, it's been tempting to compare Roger Federer with Serena Williams, two tennis greats approaching the same bad end of the aging curve in very different ways. Federer, 32, lost last week to Tommy Robredo in a three-set blowout in the fourth round. Federer didn't win a Grand Slam this year and has only three majors since 2009. Williams, who turns 32 in two weeks, won her fifth U.S. Open last night, and has collected eight Grand Slam titles in the last four years.
She's in the midst of a career renaissance at an age when Roger has become a sort of grand old man of tennis. Maybe it's a matter of style. "Roger's an artist and that might hurt him for the rest of his career because he doesn't grind," CBS color commentator Mary Carillo told me last week. Williams grinds where Roger is left pressing the ever-thinning advantage of his technique.
There are obviously any number of problems with comparing the two—not least the fact that a lifetime of five-setters wears down a body quicker than a career of best-of-three. Excellence is more sustainable in the women's game. Federer's 17 Grand Slam titles make him the all-time leader among men in the open era; Serena's 17 titles have her in fourth place among women.
But if you want to get a sense of the shadow they cast across their respective halves of the sport, you have to compare the quality of their opponents. Since 2008—when Nadal broke out and won his first non-French Open Grand Slam—Federer's faced intense competition. Rafa has a legitimate claim at GOAT; Novak Djokovic's 2011 was one of the greatest tennis seasons ever; and Andy Murray is no schlub. It's still an elite era in men's tennis, thanks, in part, to Federer's setting the bar so insanely high.
Williams, on the other hand, has stood astride a wasteland. That's what made Sunday's three-set U.S. Open victory over Victoria Azarenka so thrilling. For the first time since Justine Henin's (final) retirement, it finally feels as if Serena has a worthy competitor again.
Carillo has lamented for years that Serena doesn't have a match for her in mental toughness. Azarenka pushed Serena in a way yesterday we haven't seen before. Serena was having trouble with Flushing's gusty winds, but she took the first set, 7-5. and she was up two breaks and had a 4-1 lead in the second. It looked like a by-the-numbers Serena Grand Slam: a little token competition and a straight-sets win. Except Azarenka, playing cleanly and fearlessly, got the breaks back, sent it to a tiebreak, and beat Serena there.
“What is really interesting is that Vika is not at all intimidated by her opponent,” Azarenka's coach told The New York Times. "And that is good because we know Serena is very, very strong but also likes to use intimidation to gain a bit of the edge over her opponents, and it’s good to see that doesn’t work with Vika."
The third set was a blowout, yes, but it was a match and that's saying something. The U.S. Open women's final hadn't had a three-set match in 17 years until last year, when Serena and—ahem—Azarenka snapped that streak. The final last night lasted two hours and 45 minutes, the longest women's final in U.S. Open history (or, at least, since 1980 when someone finally decided to bring a stopwatch to the match).
Just consider what Serena has had to face in her last eight Grand Slam wins. It's not all that much. Here's the player and her number of Grand Slam wins:
- U.S. Open 2013, Victoria Azarenka (2)
- French Open 2013, Maria Sharapova (4)
- U.S. Open 2012, Victoria Azarenka (2)
- Wimbledon 2012, Aggie Radwanksa (0)
- Wimbledon 2010, Vera Zvonareva (0)
- Australian Open 2010, Justine Henin (7)
- Wimbledon 2009, Venus Williams (7)
- Australian Open 2009, Dinara Safina (0)
It's worth mentioning: Venus hasn't won a Grand Slam since; Henin hadn't won a Grand Slam since 2007; Sharapova's won one Grand Slam in the last five years. Safina's since retired; Radwanska hasn't been to a Grand Slam final since; and Zvonareva's been hurt for over a year. As you'll see, other than Azarenka, there's not one repeat opponent. (Meanwhile, Rafa and Novak will meet later this afternoon in the men's final at the U.S. Open for the third time in four years.)
Tennis needs its rivalries. The sport thrives in the polarity created by its best players. Women's tennis may finally have one. Azarenka's never beaten Serena at a Grand Slam before, but she beat her in Cincinnati last month and she's most definitely getting closer.
"It showed a different—maybe not Serena—but it showed a different me as a player today," Azarenka told the press last night. "And I felt that way. So I think that, you know, it's important to just try to go for those chances. I can't wait for the next chance."