NEW YORK—When it comes to the business and culture of tennis, Roger Federer and Serena Williams personify the notion of someone being so important that when they sneeze, hundreds get pneumonia. They are those rare tennis players known to the world on a first-name basis. They drive the tennis ecosystem, from sponsorship to rules to revenue to popularity to events; to shaping perceptions of fitness, coaching, diet, equipment and more. Fashion editors, social critics and other cultural cognoscenti who wouldn’t know a volley from a valley find these two among the rare tennis players worthy of deep analysis.
Federer and Williams landed on the global tennis radar at 17, he as a promising junior, she taking it even further by winning the 1999 US Open singles title. Of the 43 Grand Slam singles titles they’ve collectively won, 11 have come here in New York, five for him, six for her.
To see each in full glory is to witness this game as well as it has ever been played—be it his liquid-smooth movement and tranquility or her unsurpassed serve and tenacity. He turned 38 in August. She’ll hit that number later this month.
But while the world engages in non-stop dialogue about these two—what Pete Sampras once referred to as “commentary”—there remains the same simple task each has had since childhood: playing tennis matches.
That shared appetite for competition might well be exceptionally vivid at this year’s US Open. It has been more than a decade since Federer last won the title here, his best efforts since a pair of finals in ’09 and ’15. Williams’ last US Open championship run came in 2014. The pursuit and attainment of these major results is supremely motivational.
“Success has played a big part in Serena's and my career, for sure,” said Federer. “Maybe traveling and only winning 50 percent of the matches on tour, then maybe also we wouldn't be playing any more. But because we know we can still beat the best, win the biggest tournaments—it's so worthwhile to stay there and see if you can go back to these emotions, see if you can do it at a later stage in your career, and be a totally different person almost, a different player sort of 20 years later. It's quite exciting actually.”
Williams offered her own thoughts on longevity.
“I always said I would wake up one day and say, I'm done,” she said. “That day hasn't come yet for me. I'm still playing pretty good tennis. I do look at Roger, like today, and the guy is incredible. His game is shockingly amazing. So there is no reason that he shouldn't be out there with his ability, and I feel the same way about mine.”
So it was that the two entered Arthur Ashe Stadium today to play their round-of-16 matches versus opponents best described as mildly challenging.
Federer took on 15th-seeded David Goffin, the Belgian who in his childhood had idolized the Swiss. Given that Federer had only lost once to Goffin in nine prior matches, it was hard to imagine he was particularly worried. After all, stylistically, Goffin is a less forceful version of Novak Djokovic.
Williams was set to play 22nd-seeded Petra Martic for the first time. Much like Goffin, Martic is a fine ball-striker, slightly more versatile than the Belgian. It was also hard to believe Martic could trouble Williams in a sustainable way.
Federer’s match was ostensibly decided in the first set. Goffin served at 2-1, 30-30—at which point Federer won 16 straight points. The biggest noise of the first set came with Goffin serving at 2-5, 30-30 in the form of a loud train, clanging its way past the grounds. It might as well have carried Goffin on it. In 79 minutes, Federer won 6-2, 6-2, 6-0.
For Federer, an impressive 35 winners and just 17 unforced errors, properly in tune with the desired two-to-one ratio. For Goffin, abysmal: eight winners and 17 unforced errors.
“It's tough because against him you don't know why you miss easy shots," said Goffin. "You have 20 percent of first serve. You don't know why you missing everything, easy balls. All of a sudden he's playing well. As soon as he's ahead, he has a set, then another set, then it's getting tough.”
“Sometimes these scores just happen,” said Federer. “You catch a good day, the opponent doesn't, then things happen very quickly. Maybe he struggled a bit early on. But I found my groove after a while and was able to roll really. Never looked back. David wasn't nearly as good as I expected him to be. He was struggling a little bit today. I was able to take advantage of it, and I think that's the key.”
Williams’ tennis was equally business-like. In the first set she broke Martic at 3-4 and then fought off two break points at 5-3, 15-40 before ending the first set with a forehand drop shot winner. In the second set, Williams broke Martic at 2-all and ran out the set, 6-4, closing it out at 15 with a trademark ace, 113 M.P.H. down the T. The Williams’ stat line was as impressive as Federer’s: 38 winners, 19 unforced errors.
But the more significant moment had come in that fifth game of the second set. With Martic serving at 15-30, Williams charged the net, lunged for a backhand volley and then rolled on her right ankle, falling to the ground. On the changeover, Williams had the ankle retaped and was given a brace by the trainer.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened to her in 2019. In the quarterfinals of this year’s Australian Open, with Williams match point up against Karolina Pliskova, she’d suffered a left ankle injury, neglected to see the trainer and ended up surrendering 25 of the next 31 points to lose the match.
“I usually know if it's horrible early on,” said Williams. It wasn’t. Williams also noted that January’s ankle twist was on her mind when she hurt herself. “But I'll see tomorrow,” she said. “So far I'm good. I have been managing it. We'll see tomorrow.”
Today is also the day Williams’ daughter, Alexis Olympia, turns two. Asked how soon it would be before she came to watch the tennis, Williams said, “She's a little bit loud and obnoxious right now, so I'm not sure she should come to the matches. I'm hoping, like, next year she'll be at an age where she can sit—maybe I'll start at smaller tournaments and see how she does and go from there.”
Williams and Federer, at the 2019 Hopman Cup. (Getty Images)
As Williams waxed on her daughter, Federer spoke of his own childhood.
“I was a silly, good boy,” said Federer. “I was an honest kid to my parents. My coaches I think always liked me because they thought that I would improve quickly, but also I would be sometimes difficult but in the right way.”
That’s quite a contrast with the way Federer conducts himself these days.
“What’s helped me so much is stability with my relationship with my wife, my relationship with my sister and my parents, then just the friends we were able to keep throughout my career on the road. It didn't make me feel like if ever I came home I had nobody. I always felt like our friends couldn't wait to come either meet us at the tournaments or wait for us at home. That just made time away or at home so much fun. That has helped me a lot.”
There is the business at hand. When it comes to competition, the prevailing attitude in tennis is to speak of process—all the steps required for successful performance. But it’s also true that nothing validates a process more emphatically than a good outcome.
As Williams said, “Honestly, simply, I like the wins most. That's it.”
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