With power, finesse and sheer will ROGER FEDERER and SERENA WILLIAMS, both 35, became Australian Open champs and served notice that they're still at the top of their game
In summer of 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark reigned at the box office, Hall and Oates infected us with a string of objectively awful but undeniably catchy pop hits, and President Ronald Reagan, in his first year on the job, enjoyed encouraging popularity. It was a hell of a season for tennis, too, though that had nothing to do with John McEnroe and Tracy Austin winning the U.S. Open.
Under unfathomably, almost comically, different circumstances, the two best players in tennis came into the world. On Aug. 8, 1981, Roger Federer was born in Basel, Switzerland, to parents so fiercely middle class that they would have giggled at the notion that their only son would become a professional athlete, much less a star. The following month, in Saginaw, Mich., Serena Williams was loosed upon the world, a child who, according to her father, was conceived for the express purpose of becoming a tennis champion.
Their backgrounds, their career paths, their dispositions, their entire modes of being ... contrast sharply. But Federer and Williams also share a remarkable symmetry. Ultimately, they arrived at the same place: not merely champions, but transcendent figures who have redefined their line of work. And for all their gifts, their ultimate validation might be their longevity. At age 35, here they are, still at the peak of their profession, making balloon animals out of time.
Perhaps never was their greatness more evident than at the 2017 Australian Open. Zigging when the rest of the world seemed to be zagging, globalization and pluralism and multiculturalism thrived, a climate of what you might call xenophilia in the air. It was somehow fitting that both the men's and women's finals featured a rivalry that doesn't polarize, but unites. Serena played her older sister Venus for the 28th time, triggering the inevitable chants of "C'mon, Williams." And when Federer met his nemesis, Rafael Nadal, the following night, the fan holding a sign reading GO FEDAL: I CAN'T DECIDE WHO I WANT expressed the thoughts of many.
While there exists an abundance of choices—23 for her; 18 for him—you could make the case that, for both of them, this event marked the most meaningful Grand Slam title. Over seven rounds, against a field of 127 opponents—128, if you count Time—they put their greatness on display. Sometimes they won with power, other times with shotmaking and still other times with sheer will.
In Serena's case she arrived in Melbourne seeking answers. If momentum could be quantified, hers would have fit comfortably in an overhead bin. After winning only one major in 2016 and surrendering her No. 1 ranking to Angelique Kerber of Germany, she took time off in the fall and went weeks without playing a tournament. In her first tournament back (the ASB Classic in Auckland in early January), Serena committed a ghastly 88 unforced errors and bowed out to journeywoman Madison Brengle. There were happy distractions, too: before New Year's she announced her engagement to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. But when the Australian Open oddsmakers insisted that Serena was still the pretournament favorite, you wondered if they had stopped watching women's tennis.
There are two elements of the game that players can control, independent of the opponent: their serve and their attitude. Serena has mastered both. Winning all 14 sets she played in Australia, Serena blasted 54 aces. But it was her attitude that carried the day. "I'm always thinking, I want to stay out there as long as I can," she said midway through the tournament. Her coach suggested this was mere modesty: "There are not really moral victories with Serena," says Patrick Mouratoglou, who has worked with her since 2012, encompassing 10 major titles. "She feels she should win every time she plays. And to be honest, she's right."
In the Australian final, she had the familiar challenge of facing Venus, now 36. While the salon marveled at the latest chapter of The Greatest Sports Story Ever Told, Serena was not sentimental. She instructed Mouratoglou to scout the opponent, watch tape, and fashion a game plan. With the trophy on the line, Serena executed, winning their 28th intra-family match 6--4, 6--4. "Playing Venus, it's stuff that legends are made of," she says. "I couldn't have written a better story."
Meanwhile, Federer was on a parallel track in the men's draw. Like Serena, he had played only seven events in 2016, done in by a bum left knee he had injured while drawing a bath for his twin daughters in January 2016. He came to Melbourne seeded No. 17, and it was unclear whether he was there to launch a comeback or a farewell tour. The answer came when he beat three Top 10 players to reach the final.
To win his first major title since 2012, Federer would have to beat his great nemesis, Nadal. Fed-Nadal Bowl XXXV came freighted with so much history, and such significant implications. You can argue that Federer's credentials as the GOAT rode on the outcome. A Nadal victory would whittle the career Slam title gap to 17--15—this, after having given Federer a two-year head start—with the French Open, in his personal sandbox, next. Entering the match with a whopping 23--11 head-to-head record, if Nadal continued his dominance over Federer, he would amplify the skeptics' question, How can Federer be the best ever when he's not necessarily the best in his own era?
It was moot, as Federer played the money match of his life. Marrying his extravagant shotmaking and movement with uncommon aggression, especially on the backhand side—"I told myself, Be free in your head, be free in your shots"—he won the first and third sets. When Nadal made his predictable comeback to win the fourth set and Federer received treatment for an upper leg injury, the match had a familiar ring. In the final set, though, Federer out-Nadaled his opponent, showing a taste for battle not always in evidence and reeling off the last five games to win an insta-classic 6--4, 3--6, 6--1, 3--6, 6--3. "It's all about the comeback," he said, "about an epic match with Rafa again."
Federer became the second-oldest man to win a title in the Open era (behind Ken Rosewall, who won in Australia at age 37 in 1972). Serena became the oldest female. For perspective: During the Australian Open, the International Tennis Hall of Fame announced its class of 2017. Both of this year's inductees—Andy Roddick of the U.S. and Kim Clijsters of Belgium—are younger than Federer and Serena. "People don't always realize what it takes not just to be good but to stay good," says Roddick. "What they're doing is a joke."
As is the case when, say, the Super Bowl star quarterback is almost 40, the question "How have they been able to do it?" has been much discussed among the sport's chattering class. Some explanations:
• "The sport has never been more physical" has become tennis's unofficial slogan. Full physical maturity is required. The notion of waifish teenagers competing with men in a best-of-five format is laughable. (There are currently no teenagers in either tour's Top 10, and six of the eight semifinalists in Melbourne were over 30.)
• Federer and Williams both make tens of millions of dollars annually, between prize money and endorsements. This enables them to travel with physios and hire nutritionists and fly privately, all reducing wear and tear.
• The days of top players entering 20-plus events per season are gone. Much in the same way we entitle NBA veterans to take off the occasional regular-season game, Serena played only seven tournaments in 2016. She, Federer and Nadal all took the fall off. After Australia, neither she nor Federer may play until March. Keeping the odometer down adds years to a car—same for these finely tuned instruments.
• While less scientific, there's also this: Federer and Serena are really, really good, once-in-a-generation talents who resist historical trends. With their skills, the usual metrics aren't relevant. "You have to realize what special players these two are," says Paul Annacone, a Tennis Channel analyst and Federer's former coach. "It was 'Why stop at 30?' Now it's 'Why stop at 35?'"
There's little to suggest that the Australian Open isn't a prologue to the rest of the season. Serena is back at No. 1 and has reached the final in eight of the last 10 Slams. If she comes anywhere close to replicating the level she displayed in Melbourne, she'll return to juggernaut mode, almost assured of surpassing Margaret Court's record of 24 majors. "I [am] feeling good about my game; I don't want it to stop!" she says. "One thing about a champion—they keep fighting, they keep going." For Federer, too, it's easy to envision more winning in his future. It has been two years since he entered a major and didn't reach at least the semifinals. Novak Djokovic, the unrivaled king at this point last year, is still struggling with "personal issues." Andy Murray is ranked No. 1, but he has exited early at the last two majors.
Not only is there no sense that the machines are winding down; there's no sense that their motivation is diminishing. Federer still enjoys competing and winning, but he also still enjoys his role as the sport's moral compass. He has the means to travel with his wife and four kids but readily refers to the tennis caravan as "my second family."
Serena is galvanized by something less abstract: history, especially the all-time Slam record. And, as was the case when she started her career, it helps that she has her sister around. "The motivation she gives me, it's really second to nothing," she says. After winning the title in Australia, she celebrated with friends in the players' lounge and treated herself to her usual post-tournament snack, Kentucky Fried Chicken. When she finished off a wing and announced, "I'm still hungry," she could have been talking about her career.
Speaking of not being fully Fed.... Moments after winning the title in Melbourne, a giddy Federer declared he was "going to party like a rock star." Immediately social media lit up. Was this a veiled suggestion of finality? But at well past midnight he was still making the rounds inside and outside the arena. He orbited a secondary court ringed with fans who had been watching on a monitor, the benevolent king acknowledging his acolytes. He sat for interviews, glad-handed choice sponsors and other tennis bigwigs. At one point, his wife, Mirka, shot him a glance suggesting that perhaps it was time to leave. He shrugged and sent back a warm look that, unmistakably, implied, There's still business to tend to. Why the rush?
BY THE NUMBERS
LEAGUE OF MAJORS
Serena (above, with Venus) and Federer are going strong at 35. Here's when other greats won their last majors.
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA 33
ANDRE AGASSI 32
AUSTRALIAN OPEN '03
PETE SAMPRAS 31
U.S. OPEN '02
STEFFI GRAF 29
FRENCH OPEN '99
VENUS WILLIAMS 28
BJORN BORG 25
FRENCH OPEN '81
JOHN MCENROE 25
U.S. OPEN '84