Tennis fans don’t like to think about the day, even if we can bring ourselves to admit that it will arrive. The opening rounds of Wimbledon are certainly just about the furthest distance from picturing the day when Serena Williams and Roger Federer won’t be playing anymore. This is where they’ve strutted best, after all. Where they’ve played their most enthralling stuff. They’ve both won this Slam as much as any other (Serena also has seven Aussie Opens to go with her seven Wimbledons), and the grass courts suit their games even as they get into advanced age. This is the point in the tennis calendar when fans can get most excited about a last hurrah from both, at least in the beginning. Always want to get in on the ground floor, just in case.
But the excitement, buffeted by Wimbledon not taking place at all last year, was quickly snuffed out by reality, and inevitability, smacking everyone in the face today. Both Serena and Roger couldn’t even keep the challenges and obstacles of age away for even one match.
It’s not fair to blame Serena’s retirement in the first round today on age. Anyone can slip and injure themselves. And the courts have been said to be slipperier than normal, even more so when the roof is closed. But Serena was carrying something into the match, her right leg heavily wrapped before her injury. Either way, the pain from it had her in tears even before a second slip — or her leg giving way — forced her to end her tournament before it really even began. These things get harder to recover from at 39, and the more nagging injuries can become more serious more easily as well.
Federer will get to keep playing, but he advanced only because his opponent, Adrian Mannarino, retired. And until that point, Federer had looked every bit of the guy about to be 40 coming off two knee surgeries and who’s played barely a handful of matches the past year and a half. While his serve still looked at times like the kind that has netted him a slew of Wimbledon trophies, the rest of the game very much did not. We’re used to seeing him spray backhands all over when he goes off the boil, but it was the forehand today that he couldn’t place, with 22-unforced errors on that wing through four sets.
Mannarino is a tougher assignment than one would normally get in the first round, currently ranked 41st, but he also shouldn’t have too much of anything to give Federer such problems. The usual spark of genius wasn’t anywhere to be found. He had to grind to get to even at two sets apiece. It was hardly a guarantee that Federer would have taken a fifth set. He was that scratchy. It was hard to not think about just how hard Federer’s climb back from a year-plus out and surgery is, and will be as you watched him just kind of muddle around.
Maybe Federer can play his way into the tournament, and get better as he goes along before he has to face a real heavy. Or maybe this is what it’s going to be, that even a god like Federer can only do so much to his body for so long before the path to recovery is just too long. And how much longer does he really want to do this? You can’t see Federer showing up just to show up for a few years, even if he was well within his rights to do so for as long as he pleases. While we don’t know, the conclusion that this layoff and this surgery at this age has taken away the last vestige of prime Federer is certainly sitting in the room, picking at the buffet.
It’s also hard to see Serena settling for having this as the lasting image of her career at the All England Club. And it would be totally in character for her to use this as fuel to go on a run in the second half of the summer, culminating in Queens. But it’s also easy to see that there will always be something biting at her, because who in their late 30s doesn’t have something biting at them, and the challengers are always better than they were before. They should be, Serena inspired them to be so.
Both Federer and Serena have redefined the sport they play. They will always be linked. It feels like for the first time, today linked the end for both as well.