Roger Federer, Serena Williams Continue Pursuit of Becoming the Greatest of All Time at Wimbledon Late in Their Careers

No matter what happens at Wimbledon this year, Roger Federer will retain the famous, though unofficial, GOAT title in men’s tennis: Greatest of All Time. But it’s about time we stop discussing it until both Federer and Rafael Nadal—and for that matter, Novak Djokovic—finish their careers.

Why? Because the last few years of tennis have been unthinkable. Many people thought that Federer, then in his mid-30s, was finished by the end of 2016, when he was injured and hadn’t won a major title since 2012. The same for Nadal, who went without a Slam for three years and looked like he would never solve Djokovic. And then everything changed. Since the beginning of 2017, Federer and Nadal have won three more major titles each. Federer, who will be 37 years old in August, now has 20 Grand Slam titles—the most in men’s tennis history. Nadal, 32, has 17, the second-best.

With all that has happened, there’s no reason to think they couldn’t win more, starting with Federer—and Nadal, too—at this year’s Wimbledon. There’s little question they will be the most prestigious pros in men’s history for a long while, unless Djokovic somehow recovers from recent injuries (and a loss of confidence) and goes wild in the next few years to add to his 12 major titles. The top rookies are incredibly far away: Players like Alexander Zverev, Borna Coric, and Denis Shapovalov—all 21 years old or younger—could dominate in coming seasons, but none has reached a Slam semifinal.

The main thing to learn from this is that tennis is unpredictable. When Pete Sampras won his 14th Grand Slam title in 2002, Federer had yet to win one—and no one, even his early fans, expected him to come close to that. He was seen as an incredible talent, but one that didn’t understand how to control himself in Slams.

There’s an even larger change in the women’s game. From the end of 2010 to the middle of 2012, Serena Williams—the best player since Steffi Graf—seemed finished. Williams missed three straight Slams because of injury. In 2012, she lost in the first round of the French Open. Williams then changed everything. She started working with a new coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, and soon it all clicked into place. That year she won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and she has won 10 Slams overall since 2012, for a total of 23.

Federer might, remarkably, get to where Williams is now. First things first: He would have to win Wimbledon this year and stay healthy enough to challenge for a title at the U.S. Open. The chances are small, because the young competition is getting stronger. Consider Coric, who, at age 21, played the best match of his life against Federer in the Halle Open final in Germany in June. Coric won in three sets, closing out the match with two consecutive breaks of serve. The circumstances are different at Wimbledon—Coric lost in the first round—but a few strong opponents remain.

Whatever happens in the next few years, Federer’s accomplishments will be difficult to eclipse. It also helps that he has beaten Nadal, who is four-and-a-half years younger, the last five times they’ve played, including the 2017 Australian Open final. Federer still trails Nadal in their overall record against each other (23-15). But when you take clay, Nadal’s dominant surface, out of the equation, Federer leads, 13-10.

Federer and Nadal will likely play each other again (a meeting in this year’s Wimbledon final would be their first here since 2008). Whoever wins improves his GOAT claim, especially Federer, whose age makes big wins all the more remarkable. All I hope for is that these two have at least two more years near the top of the sport, because they are so lovely to watch—no matter who wins.

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