Venus Williams has been eligible to play International Tennis Federation over-35 events since 2015. As for Roger Federer, he came of age for senior play at the start of last year.
Williams turned 37 last month and Federer will be 36 next month. Poised as they are to show they’re the best in the world by winning the grandest of tournaments this weekend, they’re about as far removed as a player can possibly be from age-class competition.
Both have travelled a long road to success in recent years, but the longer journey has certainly been the one Williams has gone through. Just before the 2011 Rogers Cup in Toronto, she withdrew with what was believed to be a virus. About a month later she pulled out of a second-round match at the US Open after being diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome – an autoimmune condition that causes fatigue and muscle and joint pain.
Over the ensuing years she has struggled to find the form that earned her seven Grand Slam titles and the No. 1 ranking in 2002. But in the last three years there were signs she was coping better with Sjogren’s and thus having better results.
She hadn’t won a tournament since 2012 when she triumphed in Dubai in 2014. Since then she has had additional success in Auckland and Wuhan in 2015 and Koahsiung in 2016 but really signalled she was back as a force when she reached the final of the Australian Open in January, losing 6-4, 6-4 to her sister Serena, who earned an historic 23rd Grand Slam title.
“There were definitely some issues,” Williams said on Thursday after beating local favourite Johanna Konta. “I had a lot of issues. This year has been amazing in terms of my play, playing deep into the big events.”
Almost six years after the Sjogren’s diagnosis, Williams seems to have worked out how to lessen its effect on her performances. Today her 6-foot-1 frame is as slim as it has been in a while and her mental acuity is off the charts.
“You don’t see anything or hear anything except the ball and what’s going on in your head,” she said about her focus on the court these days.
Her serving, backhand, sometimes vulnerable forehand and movement have been almost impeccable.
The match-up against Garbiñe Muguruza in Saturday’s final will provide a fascinating conclusion to a 2017 Wimbledon women’s event that was in flux with the absence of heretofore dominant Serena Williams and to a lesser extent with Maria Sharapova not playing and more established competitors such as world No. 1 Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova and Victoria Azarenka not making it to the final stages of the tournament.
But Williams vs. Muguruza brings a coherence to the championship match with Williams representing the established order of the game while 23-year-old Spaniard, the 2016 French Open champion and now playing in her second Wimbledon final, is an emerging star from the younger generation.
Picking a winner isn’t easy because Muguruza has shown fine form and mental toughness – especially in her 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 win over Kerber in the round-of-16 – but Williams appears so driven to get her sixth Wimbledon and eighth Grand Slam title overall that it’s hard to imagine her not having the appropriately named Venus Rosewater Dish in her grasp sometime late Saturday afternoon.
While Williams goes for her eighth Grand Slam victory (her first since Wimbledon in 2008), Federer will be aiming for No. 19 and a record eighth title at Wimbledon when he faces Marin Cilic in Sunday’s men’s final.
It’s borderline unbelievable what he has done this in 2017. No doubt he has been helped by the off-years of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, but it remains that he can only beat the players he has to face and he has done that with conviction and flair.
From that fateful fall in the fifth set of his Wimbledon semifinal against Milos Raonic 12 months ago, he has resurrected what was the greatest career in tennis history and made it even more glorious.
His clear-headedness in making the decision to take six months off after Wimbledon last year to get things right with his body, as well as to entirely skip this year’s clay-court season, has paid huge dividends.
It is likely that others – Murray and Djokovic immediately come to mind – will find an example in the sublime Swiss when it comes to how to schedule with an eye to extending a career.
Federer’s response to a question on Wednesday about how hard it was to pull out of the 2016 French Open, ending a record streak of 65 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments, provides a glimpse into his approach to these late stages of his career. “I mean, it wasn’t that simple,” he explained about that decision. “It was simple in the sense that I went to Paris. That was the first one (Grand Slam event) I missed. I went there and I was doing fitness with my fitness coach. After like 10 minutes, I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t know what we’re doing in Paris seriously. My knee is swollen. I don’t feel ready to go. It’s maybe the toughest tournament out there. My back is funny. My knee is not well. What are we doing?’
“Instead of doing fitness or warm-ups, whatever we were trying to do, we were talking for an hour and a half until we got kicked out of the room because somebody else had booked it.
“That’s when I went to practice that afternoon or that next day. I was like, ‘actually, I don’t feel so bad.’ But I was like, ‘no, this is not going to work out.’
“As a team, we just decided that it’s best to skip it. So it wasn’t should I or shouldn’t I. The body didn’t really allow me to play, in my opinion.
“It was hard. The first moment I felt relieved taking the decision. Then when it went official, people knew around the world I was not going to play in Paris, I got a little sad, I must admit, because I felt like it was a great record for me to keep going, 65 slams in a row.
“But health is so much more important than trying to hang onto some sort of a record.”
Now, based on current form, Federer should prevail over Marin Cilic in Sunday’s final. The 28-year-old Croat has beaten some solid opposition at Wimbledon – including Gilles Muller [3-6, 7-6(6), 7-5, 5-7, 6-1] in the quarter-finals and Sam Querrey [6-7(6), 6-4, 7-6(3), 7-5] in the semifinals on Friday – and three weeks ago reached the final of Queen’s Club, where he lost after having a match point against Feliciano Lopez.
Federer leads their head-to-head 6-1 but that’s misleading. It may be better to examine the only three matches they have played since 2012:
2016: Wimbledon QF: Federer 6-7(4), 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(9), 6-3 (saved 3 match points).
2014: US Open SF: Cilic 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
2014: Rogers Cup (Toronto) R16: Federer 7-6(5), 6-7(3), 6-4.
There was obviously a physical issue last year at Wimbledon but that 2014 US Open victory by Cilic was as comprehensive a Grand Slam match win as anyone has had over Federer – except for a certain Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.
It will surely be in the back of Federer’s mind, as well as their titanic Wimbledon quarter-final 12 months ago.
Federer remains the strong pick to win on Sunday. But bubbles do burst and the run he is on so far this year won’t last forever, so he will likely have to be extremely vigilant against the massive firepower of the 6-foot-6 Croatian if he is to attain that record eighth Wimbledon championship and an overall amazing 19th Grand Slam title.
It was a thrill for the Centre Court fans and for Heather Watson and Henri Kontinen – but not so much for Gabriela Dabrowski and Rohan Bopanna.
The early evening quarter-final mixed doubles match on Thursday was moved into Centre Court and Watson and Kontinen, the unseeded defending champions, defeated the 10th-seeded Dabrowski and Bopanna 6-7(4), 6-4, 7-5 in a match played before a highly-partisan, pro-Briton Watson, and by association Kontinen, crowd.
It reached its climax at 3-all in the final set with Dabrowski serving in an exciting five-deuce game when she and Bopanna saved four break points. There were many moments of comedic byplay with the crowd. For example Kontinen – as if he were on a theatre stage – turning and offering his apologies, to much laughter, directly to spectators when he missed an easy volley on a big point. There was also Watson and Kontinen nearly colliding near the net when he called for an overhead smash before she actually hit it and put it away to the amusement of excitable spectators.
After Dabrowski held serve, Watson similarly went through a prolonged three-deuce game hold (saving a break point) to make it 4-all. Both men then held serve to 5-5 before Dabrowski was broken to allow Watson to serve for the match at 6-5. But there was still more drama as Dabrowski and Bopanna led love-30 in an attempt to make it 6-all. But Bopanna missed a service return into the net off a Watson serve and three points later Watson and Kontinen had the victory and a spot in the semifinals.
As for Dabrowski and Bopanna, that ended a seven-match winning streak that took them to the title at Roland Garros and into the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.
Carson Branstine was beaten on Thursday in the quarter-finals of the girls singles – losing 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 to No. 3 seed Claire Liu of the U.S.
In the first set Branstine, from Montreal and Orange County, California, used her big serve and forehand to take charge and unsettle Liu.
In the first game of the second set, Branstine, already bothered by a right-knee issue, began to limp and gradually Liu took over. She was more consistent off the ground and Branstine was increasingly anxious and erratic on her side of the net,
The degree to which the 5-foot-11 Branstine tailed off in the last two sets was evident in the serving stats as she won only 65 per cent of first serve points while the 5-foot-6 Liu won 81 per cent.
Liu, 17 and from Thousand Oaks, California, has now beaten Bianca Andreescu at the French Open and Branstine at Wimbledon this year.
In girls doubles on Thursday, Branstine and her Ukrainian partner Marta Kostyuk won their quarter-final 6-3, 6-3 over the Swiss pairing of Ylena In-Albon and Simona Waltert.
Branstine and Kostyuk reached the semifinals on Friday, beating Emiliana Arango of Colombia and Ellie Douglas of the U.S. 4-6, 6-4, 6-3
In Saturday’s semifinals, the Canadian/Ukrainian No. 1 seeds will face the American fourth seeds – Catherine McNally and Roland Garros junior singles champion Whitney Osuigwe.
This is the crossroads of Wimbledon for many people – the junction of Church Road and High Street Wimbledon. Going off to the left and down toward the All England Club is Church Road, and to the right is the High Street which ultimately leads to Wimbledon Hill Road and down toward the Wimbledon tube station where many people arrive on their way to the tennis. The High Street has a variety of restaurants and shops and, of course, the Dog and Fox pub.
(NOTE: Next blog will be Tebbutt Tuesday on July 18.)
Feature photo by: Susan Mullane