1981 was a very good year when it comes to tennis talent. Serena Williams and Roger Federer were both born that year September 26 and August 8, respectively. While their accomplishments are obviously amazing, what’s less celebrated is the longevity they have displayed. At the age of 39, both competitors still put in elite performances and are still capable of trouncing younger competition.
Just looking at tennis players roughly the same age drives home how long Federer and Williams have been around.
Federer’s peers include:
- Andy Roddick
- Juan Carlos Ferrero
- David Nalbandian
- Lleyton Hewitt
- Mardy Fish
- James Blake
- Robin Soderling
- Marat Safin
Serena Williams’ peers include:
- Martina Hingis
- Venus Williams
- Anna Kournikova
- Elena Dementieva
- Amelie Mauresmo
- Kim Clijsters
- Justine Henin
- Li Na
- Maria Sharapova( who is six years Williams’s junior).
Both lists read like a who’s-who of tennis history past. It’s really incredible that Federer and Williams are competing, much less relevant.
Considering the player Federer grew into (GOAT maybe?), it’s hard to imagine him as just another player. But in 1998, when he made his professional ATP debut, that’s exactly what he was. Still, somewhat amazingly, he only played 3 tournaments but still managed to end the year ranked 301. The next year, he played enough to be full time, 14 tournaments, and ended the year ranked 64th. For the next four years, Federer jammed tournaments into his schedule as he climbed the rankings: 29 tournaments (2000), 21 tournaments (2001), 25 tournaments (2002), 23 tournaments (2003). In 2004, he achieved the number 1 ranking while “only” playing 17 tournaments.
During the span of his career, he has played less than 10 tournaments in a year 3 times. The first time was during his aforementioned rookie year. Nothing to see there. His last time was during 2020 aka the year of the pandemic aka not your regular sports season. Nothing to really see there, though if you look close, Federer took advantage of what would be a shambles of a season to have surgery on his knees… twice. The only other year he played less than ten matches was in 2016 when he played 7 matches. That year, the wear and tear of 17 consecutive seasons of playing in 15 or more tournaments caught up with him. The fact that he’d hit 35 years old surely didn’t help by any means. For someone who’d been admirably resilient (which isn’t to say he never suffered any injuries), it was a doozy of a year. He had knee surgery, suffered a back injury, then took an extended break to recuperate.
While he experienced a bit of a health hiccup in 2008 when he came down with mononucleosis followed by a back injury at the end of the year, Federer’s struggles really took hold in 2013 when he was 32 years old. That was when back injuries really began to affect his game and, still worse, his ability to compete. His attempt at playing through injuries the way he had when he was younger did more harm than good. It was the first real sign that age was catching up with him. His 2016 problems were just the culmination of his body breaking down. With 2021 looming it’s actually a miracle he is still contending because over the course of his career, he has played in 362 tournaments. That’s Herculean. Just for comparison, Nadal has played in 285 tourneys. Djokovic has played in 257 tourneys. That’s over a hundred less.
In terms of performance, Federer has fared well against the majority of younger upstarts not named Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. His talent and skill level more than compensated for age difference. However, he did have his occasional shock early round losses every now and again, Including his worst Grand Slam tournament defeat since 2003 in the second round against Sergiy Stakhovsky. Still, there’s no denying that between 2010 and 2015 he was consistently outclassed by Nadal and Djokovic. With the Big 4-0 it’s fair to say that there is a major question mark hanging over Federer’s career, especially his ability to compete ar the top level consistently.
A quick glance at title wins and finals appearances during his last full year — 2014 — is actually in line with his average. He won 4 tournaments while making 6 finals appearances. That has basically been his numbers since 2010, though in 2017 he won the most tournaments (7) since 2007 (8). It’s worth noting that in 2006, Federer won 12 tournaments. Of course, he was 25 at the time.
Henri Leconte recently commented on Federer’s chances of coming back for the 2021 season saying, “Noone can predict his limits; we would like him to fight for Major titles again, but it will not be easy to match the younger generation, which has shifted into a higher gear in recent years. Roger has done so many things, that’s why he makes us dream; we would like to see him at the top. Still, it will be very hard.”
Interestingly, Leconte cites motivation as the greatest hurdle for Federer to overcome.
The fact that Serena Williams is still winning grand slams is even more of a wonder than Roger Federer. On a scale of 1-10 on the amazing scale, she comes in at a clean 12.
Williams played her first professional tournament in 1995 but it took three years to officially turn pro in 1998. That year, she played 11 tournaments, compiled a 29-11 record, and ended the year ranked 20th. The following season, she played 12 tournaments, compiled a 41-7 record and ended the year ranked 4th. In 2002, she finally reached the ranking pinnacle, ending the year in the WTA top slot. From 1998-2002, Williams played the most matches of her career: 11 tournaments (1998), 12 tournaments (1999), 11 tournaments (2000), 10 tournaments (2001), 13 tournaments (2002). She’d never string together a healthy run like that again. Over the course of her career, she played 7 tournaments or less due to injury 7 times. Needless to say, it hasn’t been easy for Williams, particularly from a fitness standpoint.
Williams’ stay at the top of women’s tennis is all the more impressive when taking into account her history battling injuries. They cut into her performances early on. During the 1999 Wimbledon and 2000 French Open, injuries cost her. In 2002 she played hurt, took a little time off, but then returned in force to win her first “Serena Slam.” In 2004, she suffered an abdominal injury in a Wimbledon finals loss against Maria Sharapova. The list goes on and on, year after year. Niggling injuries would continue to plague her during most of her career. In particular, her knees and ankles have given her problems, but those are common ailments for tennis players.
Williams has had major health scares and challenges, the first being a serious bout of depression that kept her sidelined for six months in 2006. In 2011, she suffered life threatening pulmonary embolism that almost ended her career. Nevermind the fact that she suffered a serious foot injury at the end of 2010 when she stepped on glass in a restaurant and cut her foot badly.
And then In 2017, Williams had a baby at the age of 36. Put Fed, Rafa, and Nole together and they’ll never have to recover the form lost due to pregnancy (obviously). On one level, simply having a baby in her mid-30s certainly taxed her body, but then to work all the way back to tournament form at that age isn’t just a testament to her athleticism but also to her mental toughness and tenacity. It really is amazing that she’s managed to get to three Grand Slam finals since her return from pregnancy.
It’s unlikely that both Federer and Williams will be able to play the same amount of tournaments as they did during healthy younger years. For a few years already, Williams has prioritized playing in Grand Slams over racking up wins in smaller competitions. That won’t change. Expect Federer to do the same. Both players could do with making points shorter. Historically, aging players have done this by attacking the net more. Federer has attempted to shift in that direction, but Williams not so much. The violence and mechanics of her ground strokes also work against her (though adds to the miracle that she is still putting in elite performances at her age). Federer’s mechanics are much smoother and more compact. That works in his favor.