And so we come to the end of this year’s Championships. For the first time since 1975 the men’s and women’s (or in Wimbledon parlance “gentlemen’s and ladies'”) champions were both in their 30’s. Actually, both are 30. By tennis standards this is ancient, and yet both Roger Federer and Serena Williams looked like they can go on for years. They may be the greatest two players to have ever played the game. If not, they are at least in the conversation.
Serena Williams actually won two titles, the singles and the doubles with her sister Venus. With these wins Serena and Venus joined the “5 and 5 Club,” which I had never heard of, but which was discussed a few times during the final couple days of this tournament. To be in the 5 and 5 Club means that you have won both singles and doubles five or more times. As of yesterday, both Venus and Serena have five singles titles apiece and five doubles titles which they won together. (Just in case you are interested, the only other members are Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Suzanne Lenglen, William “Willie” Renshaw, and Lawrence “Laurie” Doherty. If you never heard of these last two, they played before World War I. Renshaw played in the 1800’s, almost at the very beginning of Wimbledon.)
Serena is perhaps the most fascinating player, male or female, since Suzanne Lenglen and quite possibly the only player whose personality could compete with that of La Divine. Like Lenglen, when Serena turns on the competitive urge, she is practically invincible. Unlike Lenglen, Serena does not turn it on all the time. It is entirely possible that Serena is the greatest player ever (although Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova may dispute that) and also the greatest underachiever ever too. Serena won her first major title 13 years ago at the 1999 US Open. Now she has 14 singles titles. Discounting the time lost to a severe life-threatening injury and the mental trauma of her sister’s brutal murder (neither of which could she be faulted for), Serena let a lot of her potential victories slip away by being distracted with outside interests–the acting career being one infamous example. And yet when Serena plays her best, could even Graf or Navratilova compete with her? I don’t know for sure, but it would be fascinating.
The Williams sisters are a tennis oddity. The rules that govern how most players spend their careers just don’t seem to apply to them, especially Serena. Look at the sisters’ doubles victory. The last time they played together competitively was 2010. Yet this fortnight, they swept aside the best doubles players in the world en route to the title. For mere mortals this is impossible, but for the Williams sisters this is normal. (One thing though that unfortunately cannot be overcome is that Venus suffers from the autoimmune disease Sjögren’s Syndrome, which went undiagnosed for years, and which kept her out of the game for a significant period of time recently. That also explains why Venus’s form mysteriously fell. This is an immense loss to tennis.) The sisters have practically owned Wimbledon. Venus first won Wimbledon in 2000. Of the last 13 tournaments at Wimbledon, the House of Williams has won 10.
As for Serena, if she can hold her form–which at 30 and with her history is never a sure thing–she could equal or surpass the 18 titles won by Navratilova and her arch-rival Chris Evert. (The 22 of Graf and the 24 of Margaret Court is probably unreachable at this point.) How badly does Serena want it? That is the eternal question. But both Ever and Navratilova know that Serena is breathing down their neck.
In the men’s tournament, Roger Federer ruthlessly broke the collective hearts of Andy Murray, his family, the nation of Great Britain, and Pete Sampras (probably) by winning his 7th Wimbledon title. Not only has Federer now won 17 major titles, not only has he won a record-tying 7 Wimbledon titles (Sampras and Renshaw), not only has he regained the #1 ranking, but he is now going to tie and probably surpass the record for number of weeks at the top spot (286 weeks, held by Sampras). Federer stopped chasing history a couple of years ago; history is now chasing him.
Federer’s game is the perfect combination of silk and steel. Tennis has had a few (a very few) players who inspire art and poetry with their game. It’s not just that they have all the shots and the intelligence to use them, it’s that their form is perfect while making those shots. Freeze these players mid-stroke, and their position is sculpture-worthy. The problem is that most of these players don’t have the mental fortitude or physical health to be truly great champions. It is rare among the women, and practically unheard of among the men. Federer is perhaps the lone man who was able to turn his perfect style into worldwide domination. Even for Federer it took years to put it together, and along the way he had to suffer embarrassing first round losses and the dreaded “brilliant headcase” label. But when he did put it together, it was like a bolt from the blue. Nothing like Federer had ever been seen before, at least not in recent memory. Silk and steel. Perfection and utter ruthlessness.
That is why Federer inspires such awe and devotion among tennis fans. It is also why his fans are ecstatic when he wins and devastated when he loses.
In all this, one has to really feel for Andy Murray. This was his best shot yet to win that elusive major title. The weight of his entire country was behind him and unlike Tim Henman, he appeared to be able to deal well with the pressure. Murray has grown as a player. He is poised and composed. His game was looking very sharp, and he did not get down on himself when things got rough. Ivan Lendl was coaching him now, and the player he was meeting in the final is one that he actually had a winning record against.
But he wasn’t just meeting some top player, he was meeting Federer. Federer, although Swiss not British, fully believes Wimbledon is his house and the trophy his property. Murray actually played exceptionally well for the first set and most of the second, but then Federer remembered who he was. He found a tiny opening and drove a truck through it, completely devastating Murray (who, to his credit, did not lose the match; he was just beaten). To quote Omar Little of The Wire, “If you come at the king, you best not miss.”
Center Court at Wimbledon is where Federer is at his greatest. It was where he met Sampras for the first and only time, and ended the champion’s reign in 5 tough sets. It was the site of Federer’s first title. It was the site of his apotheosis, where he won his record-breaking 15th title and made his case for best ever–a match made all the more dramatic by taking place under the stoic gaze of the other three major men’s tennis gods: Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, and Sampras (with demigod John McEnroe commentating in the booth).
Roger Federer’s game is tennis’s gift to the world. Wimbledon, the holiest site in tennis, is where we were given that gift and where we kept receiving it. Long may the king reign.