It is January 2017. Roger Federer and Serena Williams have won the Australian Open. Little did we know, this was their last dance together.
2017 was the year of the throwback. It wasn’t long after Roger, Rafa, Serena and Venus had all been declared “done,” “over,” or “washed” (depending on what part of the world you were from). Roger and Rafa went on to split all four Grand Slams that year. Serena beat Venus in the 2017 Australian Open final while she was two months pregnant. As someone who grew up in the era of the “Big 3” and as an unapologetic Rafa Nadal fan, the Australian Open in 2017 was the most fun I have had watching a Grand Slam, despite the result (Federer beat Nadal in the fifth set after beating a breakdown). It was one of those times I was truly appreciative of the golden generation of tennis and what a privilege it was to witness it.
2022 proved to be Federer and Serena’s swan song. In a year plagued by retirements (Juan Martin Del Potro, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Ash Barty all retired this year), Roger Federer’s and Serena Williams’s goodbyes could hardly have come as a massive surprise. Both players had been missing from the tennis circuit for more than a year, recuperating from injury. Serena Williams has often taken time off from tennis due to injuries but has managed to come back stronger every time. For Federer, on the other hand, such extended breaks from the game were rare, though more common in the later part of his career. Roger Federer has never retired from a match (one of his more mind boggling stats), so losing him to injury feels almost unfair.
It seems fitting that they announced their retirements within weeks of each other. Roger and Serena ruled much of 2000’s tennis, though their tennis styles could not be more different. While one is renowned for his beautiful technique and elegant gameplay, the other is known for the raw power, the speed of her groundstrokes and the precision of her shots. While Federer would play like nothing could ever ruffle him, Serena felt everything on the court. Without Federer, there is no “Fedal,” the legendary rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Serena arguably broke glass ceilings herself, navigating a world that did not always welcome her or her sister, doing so with remarkable grace.
Their stats speak for themselves – Serena’s 23 Grand Slams is an Open Era record for both men and women; she has held all four major titles simultaneously twice (the “Serena Slam” as she called it) and spent 319 weeks as World No.1. Federer has spent 310 weeks as World No. 1, winning 20 Grand Slams and winning three slams in the same year three times. But it’s not just the stats that make them the legends they are – it’s also their unreal consistency, incredible mental strength and impeccable grace off court.
Serena Williams is not just one of the game’s greatest ever players, she is a phenomenon. Serena’s retirement sparked renewed (or perhaps, just new) interest in the game. For her third round and ultimately, final tour level match vs. Alja Tomljanovic, the cheapest tickets up high in the Promenade section of the Arthur Ashe stadium cost as much as $500, with those in the mid-level going for $3,000 and those at the lowest level at $9,000 according to one report from the New York Times. Such was the interest in Serena’s retirement tour, the drop off after her loss was staggering. Tickets for the women’s final were going at an average of $1,900 before Serena’s loss; after, the average ticket price for the women’s final fell to $300. Her last match broke tennis viewership records on ESPN, with an average of 4.6 million viewers tuning in (the previous record of 3.9 million was for the 2012 Wimbledon men’s final when Roger Federer defeated Andy Murray, in ESPN’s first year with exclusivity according to an ESPN press release). It was surreal watching Serena play Tomljanovic, wondering which point could be her last.
And yet even her run to the third round looked in doubt. Before coming into the US Open, she had only played three singles tournaments, and won just one match. But the New York crowds seemed to spur her on. After winning her second round match at the US Open, she was asked if she was surprised at her level. “I mean… I’m just Serena,” she replied.
In her Vogue article announcing her retirement, Serena was exceptionally blunt, writing, “There is no happiness in this topic for me. I know it’s not the usual thing to say, but I feel a great deal of pain. It’s the hardest thing that I could ever imagine. I hate it. I hate that I have to be at this crossroads. I keep saying to myself, I wish it could be easy for me, but it’s not. I’m torn: I don’t want it to be over, but at the same time I’m ready for what’s next. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to look at this magazine when it comes out, knowing that this is it, the end of a story that started in Compton, California, with a little Black girl who just wanted to play tennis.”
Federer’s last tour level match turned out to be in the quarter finals of Wimbledon last year, when he lost 6-0 in the third set to Hubert Hurkacz. He later went on to call this the “worst moment of his career”. Though he took time off to get surgery and hopefully get back to the game, it was not to be.
His goodbye came at the Laver Cup, an exhibition team tennis event featuring Team World and Team Europe, of which Federer is an investor. This was the first time all the Big 3 (or 4, depending on whom you ask) featured at the event. Taking the court for the last time alongside Rafael Nadal in a doubles match vs. Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe rather than across from him was poetic way of saying goodbye to the game, as well as to one of the most celebrated rivalries in sport. Rafael Nadal, who only decided to play the Laver Cup after Federer informed him it would be his last tournament, seemed jittery from the start, as though he were afraid of letting his famous teammate down. In the end, the duo ended up losing, but it made little difference to the ceremony afterwards.
What I didn’t expect was how moving the whole thing would be – with Federer bidding an emotional farewell, and every one of his Big 4 rivals in tears alongside him. This photo of Federer and Nadal holding hands while the arena pays him tribute will forever be one of the most iconic pictures ever taken in sport. “When Roger leaves the Tour, an important part of my life is leaving too,” Nadal said later.
Federer had a typically eloquent response when questioned about his feelings on his retirement in an interview with Christopher Clarey from the New York Times, “I think I feel complete. I lost my last singles match. I lost my last doubles match. I lost my voice from screaming and supporting the team. I lost the last time as a team. I lost my job, but I’m very happy. I’m good. I’m really good. That’s the ironic part, is everybody thinks about happy fairy-tale endings, you know? And for me, actually it ended up being that but in a way that I never thought was going to happen.”
It is difficult to put into words the impact of the end of this golden generation of tennis. With Federer and Serena both out, it is only a matter of time before Rafa Nadal, Venus Williams and Novak Djokovic hang up their rackets too (although it may be some time for Djokovic, who continues to look as formidable as ever). I can only speak for myself. I was surprised at how devastated I felt when I watched Serena and Roger bid goodbye to tennis. Having grown up watching Roger and Serena win everything in sight, it shouldn’t have been surprising. As a Rafa Nadal fan, I spent most of my tennis watching years rooting vehemently against Federer, knowing if he got knocked out of a Grand Slam early, that was a third of the battle won. But as the years went by, watching the four of them continue to dominate was oddly comforting – a near-constant in an ever-changing world.
However, the future of tennis is bright. While it will be a long time before they can be spoken of in the same breath as the Big 3 and Serena Williams, Iga Swiatek, Carlos Alcaraz, Casper Ruud, Jannik Sinner all seem poised for great things. We look forward to ushering in a new era of tennis greats.