With Serena Williams withdrawing from US Open, and Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal out, we’re about to get a peek at tennis without its icons
With Serena Williams withdrawing from the US Open today, the final Grand Slam of the year is severely lacking in star power.
Rafael Nadal is out, as is Roger Federer, and you’d have to go all the way back to 1997 to see another field without those three legends. Back to the first season of South Park and Ally McBeal, when Hanson’s MMMBop was an inescapable earworm.
Williams withdrew due to a hamstring injury that has kept her out of competition since Wimbledon.
“After careful consideration and following the advice of my doctors and medical team, I have decided to withdraw from the US Open to allow my body to heal completely from a torn hamstring,” she posted on her Instagram account. “New York is one of the most exciting cities in the world and one of my favorite places to play — I’ll miss seeing the fans but will be cheering everyone on from afar. Thank you for your continued support and love. I’ll see you soon.”
We’ve been really lucky, haven’t we? Tennis fans have had decades to get to know and watch some of the best players of all time. And the longevity they’ve had has been absolutely unmatched in the Open era. The very best players have seemed like near immortals over the past 15 years.
These might have been the years that these three, and Novak Djokovic, added to their legends and their championships. Instead, between age, injuries and the coronavirus, we may not get to see a triumphant ending. Williams is just one Grand Slam short of tying Margaret Court’s record 24, but it’s a mark she no longer needs to meet to be considered the best of all time in many eyes.
Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi… tennis has had other eras with great players and rivalries, but it’s hard to appreciate what you have until it’s gone. Sampras was able to craft a US Open title in 2002 to conclude his storied career, and retired officially the next year. An American saying goodbye on home turf, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting way to go out.
Sampras was 31.
Let’s do a little of the math. Williams is 39 and hasn’t won a Grand Slam event since she was pregnant with Olympia at the Australian Open in 2017. Federer, 40, is having surgery on his right knee after playing just 13 matches this year.
Nadal, 35, will miss the Open for the second straight year, this time with a foot injury. Last year, the fifth-ranked Spaniard stayed away from New York City due to COVID-19.
And so that’s it. It’s another disappointment for sports fans in two years filled with them. The US Open was closed to fans last year, but this year was supposed to be a triumphant return. And it still will be, with new players who will add to their own wins and titles.
But tennis has, for the past 20 years, had a fairly stable lineup. We’ve gotten used to the big three, and the big four with Andy Murray. To Serena and Venus and the way the demographics of American women’s tennis changed on their watch. Now we can see Serena Williams face off against women she sparked to play tennis, like Sloane Stevens, Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka.
Williams, Federer and Nadal have made the game better. Not only do they have distinctive artistry – Federer’s footwork or Williams’ powerful serve – but they’ve been the best kind of ambassadors for the game. It hasn’t been all smiles and roses for Williams — her disappointment with the chair umpire as Osaka won her first major at the 2018 US Open, as an example — but that pales compared to what she has done for the game and women’s sports generally.
Tennis has had a golden era of greats on the men’s and women’s side. And at the US Open this year, we can start to imagine what it will be like without them. Die-hard tennis fans are going to have no problem adapting, but the tournaments have benefitted from a steady cast of players that pulled in casual sports fans as much as the club players.
Ratings, tickets… the icons drove those. And there is no guarantee that they become regular parts of the game, like Amelie Mauresmo as a coach, or John and Patrick McEnroe as commentators. Both Sampras and Agassi returned to more private lives after their careers concluded.
But not to get ahead of things. There is still the possibility that Serena Williams returns next year, at 40, to get No. 24. She can celebrate with her fans like Sampras did, raising a silver chalice above her head in recognition of a long-held goal: met.