They are both well into their 30s, one of them a father of four. They’ve been written off more than once in their storied careers.
And yet, here they are again, Serena Williams and Roger Federer, arguably the greatest players of all time, winners of a combined 38 Grand Slam titles, still chasing milestones and grabbing the spotlight as the U.S. Open gets under way in New York on Monday.
Top-ranked Williams, who turns 34 on Sept. 26, swept the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon this year, and is trying to become the first player since Steffi Graf in 1988 to complete a calendar Grand Slam with a win at the U.S. Open.
As defending champion of the tournament, she already holds all four major titles concurrently, which is remarkable enough. But winning all four in a calendar year almost never happens. The last male player to do it was Rod Laver in 1969. That Williams is even on the cusp of this historic achievement is astounding considering she plummeted to No. 140 in the rankings in 2006.
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She has completely dominated the tour this season, going 48-2 and last week beating No. 3 Simona Halep in straight sets in the Cincinnati final.
Federer, meanwhile, the 34-year-old father of two sets of twins, is older than retired Andy Roddick. Nevertheless, he has climbed back up to No. 2 after sliding to No. 7, and is coming off a title run in Cincinnati during which he knocked off then-No. 2 Andy Murray and No. 1 Novak Djokovic back to back. It was the first time in Federer’s career he beat the top two players in the same tournament.
He won the title without losing serve or dropping a set.
Two years ago, Federer was mired in a slump, losing to the likes of 114th-ranked Federico Delbonis and No. 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky. His back was bothering him. His racket-changing experiment didn’t work. He was frustrated and facing questions about retirement.
Now, he is having fun again, playing with a style and ease that belie his age. He is even adding new wrinkles to his game, surprising opponents by charging into the service box to return serves. Federer was so delighted with his latest title he made a rare celebratory visit to his box to hug his family.
“I think it’s amazing, it’s great for tennis,” ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe said of Williams and Federer. “Thank goodness for the people that run professional tennis that they still have Federer, Serena, people like this to continue to promote and drive ticket sales and sponsorships.”
In addition to the quest for a calendar Slam, Williams could tie Graf with a 22nd major title.
“I feel there’s always another record and always another person to catch up to,” Williams said Thursday. “I never thought I’d be in this position, talking about passing Steffi Graf, mentioning Margaret Court. I just grew up trying to be the best I could.”
As for dealing with pressure to win, Williams said: “I decided I prefer to have that pressure than the pressure of not winning. Not everyone can handle that pressure, but I’m OK with it. I would rather be in this position than another one.”
The tennis world continues to wait for new stars to emerge. In the meantime, all eyes will be on veterans Williams and Federer the next two weeks. And there’s no reason to think they won’t win titles.
“[Andre Agassi] got the finals of the Open at 35,” said John McEnroe, also working for ESPN. “Roger absolutely loves to play. That’s the key. He loves to be out there. He does his homework. He’s training. You get an appreciation as you get older. Because of the technology about training and recovery, what to eat, the right time to get a massage. Everything is analyzed to the ‘Nth’ degree. That’s allowed players to peak at a later age.”
The anticipation of the U.S. Open is the hardest part, Williams said. The pressure began to mount when she won Wimbledon and has amped up with every passing day.
“I’m ready,” she said. “I don’t care if I win or lose or break even. I’m ready to start it, get it over with, and be done and go on to the next event. But I’m so ready for New York. Let’s go, right? It’s all up to me.”
When: Monday-Sept. 13.
Where: New York.
TV: ESPN and ESPN2.
Defending champions: Marin Cilic, Serena Williams.
Prize money: $40 million total. Singles winners get $3.3 million, runners-up $1.6million.
Players to watch
Novak Djokovic: The world No. 1 has dominated this season with Australian Open and Wimbledon titles and a run to the French Open final. His loss to Federer last week in the Cincinnati final showed he is vulnerable, but he has reached the final of the past 11 big tournaments, and chances are, he’ll do it again.
Roger Federer: Rejuvinated at 34 years old, the Swiss is back up to No. 2 and coming off title in Cincinnati with back-to-back wins over Andy Murray and Djokovic. He has won five U.S. Opens, the last in 2008.
Andy Murray: Third-seeded Brit beat Djokovic to win the Montreal title a few weeks ago, and reached the semis in Cincinnati before losing to Federer.
Rafael Nadal: The former world No. 1 is down to No. 8, his lowest ranking in past decade, and his confidence was rocked after a quarterfinal loss at the French Open (his second loss ever there) and an early exit from Wimbledon.
Stan Wawrinka: The reigning French Open champion, ranked No. 5, made headlines two weeks ago after Australian bad boy Nick Kyrgios insulted him and his girlfriend during a match in Montreal.
Others: Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dmitrov.
Serena Williams: World No. 1 swept the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, and has a chance to complete the calendar Grand Slam, which hasn’t been done since Steffi Graf did it 27 years ago. She has won the U.S. Open six times, including the past two years.
Victoria Azarenka: One of the few players with the power and courage to give Williams fits, but she has not won a tournament this year and beating Williams at the Open will be tough.
Maria Sharapova: Like Azarenka, Sharapova has the game and guts to challenge Williams, but she is 2-18 against Williams and has lost the past 17 meetings.
Simona Halep: Ranked No. 2 in the world, and has three titles this year. Lost to Belinda Bencic in the Toronto final.
Petra Kvitova: Never count her out. But it would take her best tennis and a bad day by Williams.
Others: Garbine Muguruza, Bencic, Caroline Wozniacki.