Sports can be cruel, especially for fans. We have favorites we stick by through thick and thin. Just think of those die-hard Chicago Cubs fans who waited over 100 years to see their North Siders win the World Series in 2016. Now that’s loyalty.
It’s the same thing in tennis, really. On this court, though, longevity can sway fandom. Roger Federer and Serena Williams are the elder champions in tennis. They have the biggest followings because, well, they’ve been around the longest and have done the best. They evoke crowds’ passions. When one loses, hearts and minds sink, especially when their loss is unexpected,.
Tuesday night at The U.S. Open an unlikely opponent, unseeded Grigor Dimitrov, upset Federer in the quarterfinals. Federer had never lost to the Bulgarian in their previous seven matches. But no one can predict that a lopsided head-to-head will continue to exist without blemish.
Their match went five sets, at one point Federer up two sets to one.
“I had moments I was in the lead most of the time,” Federer told the press, after his loss, “and a chance to come back in the fourth.” However, he took a medical timeout for treatment on his neck and upper back, which spoke loudly for the 38-year-old. He hurt. He couldn’t fight any harder than he was fighting, which obviously wasn’t enough.
Federer’s back has been a problem in the past, but rarely have we seen him call a medical timeout.
The loss and the disappointment in his voice during the press conference serve as a precursor to what inevitably will be Federer’s swan song performance. Then the world will cry, just as it will when Serena Williams departs the courts.
So far, though, Williams is showing a youthful portrait of a 37-year-old athlete poised to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles. How could she fail now, after seeing her crush Qiang Wang in that quarterfinal — 6-0, 6-1 in 45 minutes — and maintain her perfect record for quarterfinal wins at the Open, one she has held for 15 years.
Even the ESPN commentators seemed reserved and awed by Williams’ power, precision and tough-mindedness during her performance. But all that means little, because each match is new and each time she steps on court, her opponent goes full-out with one goal in mind: Beat the champion.
Expectations are set around Williams. Fans don’t want to see another hero fall, so she should do it this time — tie Court at 24 — we silently hope. However, she has stumbled three times in Grand Slam finals since the last one she won, the 2017 Australian Open: Wimbledon twice and last year’s U. S. Open, that memorable one won by Naomi Osaka.
Like Federer, she is vulnerable physically and mentally, because physical challenges, her back and knees, prod the mind to question self-belief.
When Serena retired, down 1-3 in the final at the Rogers Cup last month, she didn’t bother to call a trainer. She knew her body. Her mind was set. There would be no more tennis that day. Bianca Andreescu was gracious in victory, as she soothed the obviously distressed Williams.
We love our tennis heroes. We all know, whether we admit it, that they will retire. Federer has said that he’s ready to pack up his court bag as soon as his family gives him the signal. If his family doesn’t want to do the tour anymore, he will leave the game. Serena, too, probably wouldn’t mind just relaxing to enjoy her family, at least for a time.
As we move into the last weekend of this U.S. Open, only Rafael Nadal and Williams remain as the players with the biggest following, the ones who command the biggest ticket prices. Nadal, at 33, looks like a maniac on a mission and could win his fourth title in New York, given the competition and his time on court. Williams, too, could wear the crown.
However, if they lose, who will you cheer for?