It’s been nearly a quarter of a century since Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal all sat out the same Grand Slam tennis tournament.
That changes next week, when the U.S. Open will start at Flushing Meadows without any member of that distinguished and dominant trio. Williams, whose 40th birthday is in September, withdrew on Wednesday, joining Federer, who turned 40 this month, and Nadal, who is 35, on the sideline because of injuries. Williams‘ older sister, 41-year-old Venus, also pulled out of the field Wednesday.
Everyone knows they can’t play forever, of course, and that this grand era will end at some point. Now fans, other players, the tours, tournaments, sponsors, TV executives and the rest of the world are getting a glimpse of what the probably-not-too-distant future holds for tennis.
Is that as daunting as it sounds?
“We have been asking ourselves that question for many years. They’ve defied the odds with their legacy and their dominance of the sport well beyond other champions. Without question, our sport does go through the passing of the baton,” U.S. Open tournament director Stacey Allaster said in a telephone interview from New York after Serena‘s announcement but before Venus’. “The athletes that are here, they’re ready for it. We’re starting to see who those potential next Grand Slam champions will be. We’ve gone through this cycle before, and our athletes have risen to the occasion and they’ve stood on all champions’ shoulders and taken the sport to the next level.”
That certainly can be said of the Williams sisters, Federer and Nadal, who all managed to become global superstars and remain relevant for long past the usual time frame in tennis. Not since the Australian Open in 1997, the year Venus Williams made her major debut at the French Open, has any Grand Slam tournament been contested without at least one of the four.
Because the right hamstring she tore at Wimbledon in late June is not sufficiently healed, Serena again will not be able to pursue what would be a 24th Grand Slam singles title, tying Margaret Court for the most in the sport’s history. (As it is, Serena holds the Open era mark of 23, because more than half of Court’s total came before professionals were permitted to enter major tournaments in 1968).
Since returning from maternity leave in 2018, Serena has reached four Slam finals, going 0-4. Her 2017 Australian Open title while pregnant at age 35 makes her the oldest woman to win a major singles championship in the Open era. Ken Rosewall set the men’s mark of 37 at the 1972 Australian Open.
Federer, the first man to reach 20 Slam trophies, is done for 2021 because he needs a third operation on a right knee that was repaired twice last year. Nadal, who matched his rival’s total by getting his 20th major at the 2020 French Open, is also done for the season, troubled by recurring left foot pain.
What no one knows for sure, right now, is when - or, truthfully, if - each will return.
In Serena’s social media post Wednesday about her withdrawal from the U.S. Open, she closed with this pledge: “I’ll see you soon.”
In Federer’s announcement 10 days earlier, he spoke about wanting “to give myself a glimmer of hope, also, to return to the tour in some shape or form.”
Nadal, the youngest of the group, vowed last week that he still has “a couple of beautiful years” left in his career.
“I’ve always thought - each and every year, as their careers got into the twilight years - every time we had them here in the U.S. Open, we were incredibly fortunate,” Allaster said. “They have done so much for our sport and for this tournament.”
Now, though, there will be even more attention on Novak Djokovic as he tries to complete the first calendar-year Grand Slam by a man since Rod Laver in 1969 and break his tie with Federer and Nadal by claiming a 21st major title.
And extra attention on reigning U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka as she returns to Grand Slam action for the first time since pulling out of the French Open, then Wimbledon, for a mental health break.
“We are disappointed for our fans. How could they not be disappointed? They’re fan favorites, without question. They are just such exceptional champions,” Allaster said about Serena, Federer and Nadal. “At the same time, the show goes on.”
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