LONDON—Think of them as the 20th-century kids. Roger Federer and Venus Williams both made their Wimbledon debuts back in the now-mythic 1990s, as talented but raw 17-year-olds.
Despite high expectations and obvious skills, neither made it out of the first round. In 1997, Venus lost to Magdalena Gryzybowska of Poland in three sets. “I was so nervous in my first match here, it was a total disaster,” Williams said with a laugh yesterday. “Poor young V.” Two years later, Federer, a wild card, lost to Jiri Novak in five sets.
Neither let those setbacks discourage them. There are few tennis players who don’t love Wimbledon, but Federer and Venus identified themselves with this place and this event right from the start, and every year since they’ve made winning it their first order of business. The same is true for the Olympics, which they made cool for tennis players to care about. Venus and Federer were from the first generation of pros who grew up watching tennis at the Games, and they were the first to fully embrace it when they had the opportunity. The thrill of their first Olympics, which came in Sydney in 2000 for both of them, never wore off. Venus and Federer have always been, first and foremost, tennis enthusiasts.
The thrill of winning Wimbledon has obviously never worn off for them, either. In 2000, Venus won her first title here; in 2001, Federer upset seven-time champ Pete Sampras in the fourth round in the first undeniable sign of his potential. Venus would go on to win Wimbledon five times, and Federer would tie Sampras with seven.
Until this week, those numbers appeared to be set in stone. Williams, now 37, won her last Wimbledon as a wide-eyed 28-year-old in 2009; Federer won his last in 2012, at 30, an age that used to be seen as a Rubicon for tennis players—to go past it meant to go into terminal decline. Now, in a remarkable co-story—a story for the aged, as it were—they’re both back in the final. For Federer, it’s his 11th in 19 trips to Wimbledon; for Venus, it’s her ninth in 20 trips. Federer is the oldest man to reach the final here since Ken Rosewall in 1974; Venus is the oldest woman since Martina Navratilova in 1994.
Each has played this tournament with a similar sense of resolve and tenacity; they’ve been determined not to let the chance slip, and as Grand Slam champions tend to do, they’ve improved with each match.