Caveat emptor in Latin means “let the buyer beware.”
It is with significant trepidation that anyone would suggest Serena Williams or Roger Federer – two 34-year-olds – could be at the end of their best days as dominant players on their respective tours.
That particularly applies with Williams, who has had her share of rising from the ashes to fly higher than ever.
This writer remembers all too well the 2007 Australian Open. The previous year Williams had only played four tournaments – winning none – as she struggled with a left knee injury. She played the 2006 Australian Open but, as she walked out ranked No. 15 and as defending champion to play Daniela Hantuchova in the third round, she asked a member of the tour staff how far she would fall in the rankings if she lost the match. That kind of doubt is certainly not something one associates with the haughty Williams and she did indeed lose the match 6-1, 7-6(5). The knee kept her out of action for seven months until Cincinnati in August and by then her ranking had tumbled to No. 139. She needed a wild card to play the US Open where she lost in the fourth round to Amélie Mauresmo.
That was it for 2006 and set the stage for her entering the 2007 Australian Open. A highly-respected tennis writing colleague wrote a story before that year’s event about how Williams appeared out of shape and unlikely to be a factor after ending 2006 ranked No. 95 and losing 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 to Austrian mother Sybille Bammer in the quarter-finals of the pre-Aussie Open event in Hobart.
What happened? Williams won that Australian Open beating Nicole Vaidisova 7-6(5), 6-4 in the semifinals and Maria Sharapova by a whopping 6-1, 6-2 score in the final.
Still, she then only got to the quarter-finals of her next four Grand Slams, including losing to Justine Henin at the next three in 2007 – Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open.
Since then, she has won 13 of her now total of 21 Grand Slams.
Last year was her best ever as she won the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon before falling two matches short of a calendar Grand Slam when she melted down against Roberta Vinci in the US Open semifinals.
When Williams decided to call it a year after Flushing Meadows, including missing the WTA Finals in October where she was defending champion, she said, “it’s no secret I’ve played injured most of the year – whether it was my elbow, my knee or, in the final moments of a certain match in Flushing, my heart.”
The pressure on her to complete the Grand Slam had proved to be unbearable. This writer recalls watching ESPN during the US Open and seeing the names of various sports – NFL, MLB, Soccer, Golf etc. – on the results crawl at the bottom of the screen. But there was no “Tennis,” the whole sport simply had been replaced by “Serena” as if nothing else was happening at Flushing Meadows.
Williams, hoping to tie Steffi Graf with 22 career Grand Slams, started 2016 at the Hopman Cup but had to withdraw from her first match with a knee problem trailing Australia’s Jarmila (Gajdosova) Wolfe 7-5, 2-1.
“I just have some inflammation that’s been going away very slowly,” Williams explained at the time. “It’s going away, but it needs a little more time.
“Mainly I was afraid to move, and I need to get in the space where I’m not afraid to move. Maybe a day off or two will really make the world of difference.”
It definitely seemed to once she got to Melbourne Park. She sailed though her matches after a 6-4, 7-5 tussle with Camila Giorgi in the opening round – beating Sharapova 6-4, 6-1 in the quarter-finals and Agnieszka Radwanska 6-0, 6-4 in the semifinals.
But nerves suddenly entered the picture in the final and she played uncharacteristically erratic tennis in a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 loss to an inspired Angelique Kerber.
Following that there have been withdrawals from Dubai and Doha with the flu in February, and in March a 6-4, 6-4 defeat in the final of Indian Wells against Victoria Azarenka when she again showed some unusual vulnerability. Then, it was a 6-7(3), 6-1, 6-1 loss in her third match at the Miami Open to the unpredictable Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Her 2016 losses have come against the 28-year-old Kerber, the 26-year-old Azarenka and the 31-year-old Kuznetsova. Could it be that Williams has lost some of her aura against the older, more experienced players on the tour?
Williams pulled out of this week’s WTA Premier Mandatory event in Madrid with “illness” but still was able to post on Instagram above showing her in a ballet outfit as well as another one in a bathing suit by a swimming pool.
(Side note here: Williams is far from the only player who has done this, but shouldn’t big-name players lay low after withdrawing from a tournament? It can’t be amusing for organizers to see players, supposedly too ill or injured to participate, tweeting about having a good time when their event has lost an important marquee attraction.)
Williams will now likely play the Premier 5 tournament in Rome next week. If she does, it will be interesting to see how good her form is.
Currently she ranks No. 1 with 8,625 points, 2,850 ahead of No. 2 Radwanska. But she has a total of 4,000 points to defend at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
She has revived her career so many times, it’s foolhardy to suggest tennis has seen the last of the dominance of a woman who it’s not hard to argue is the greatest of all–time. But the decline – both physically and mentally – is going to happen soon enough. Just how soon is the most intriguing question in women’s tennis at the moment.
From 2015 all the way back through to 2003, Roger Federer has finished the season ranked in the top three – including five times at No. 1 and five times at No. 2 – with one exception. That was 2013 when he was No. 6 after a year battling a back issue.
The 2013 season was tough to watch for Federer devotees as, struggling with the back, he lost to No. 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round at Wimbledon and in the fourth round at the US Open to No. 22 Tommy Robredo, ending his one-sided 10-0 head-to-head versus the Spaniard.
But the hardest losses to witness occurred after Wimbledon. He went back to European red clay and suffered ignominious losses to No. 114 Federico Delbonis in Hamburg and No. 55 Daniel Brands in Gstaad.
Those were tough days for the Federer fan base as, approaching his 32nd birthday, it seemed possible that the end was nigh. Though he fell as low as No. 8 in the rankings, by late July 2014, he was back to No. 3 two weeks before his 33rd birthday. He also made it to three more Grand Slam finals – all loses to Novak Djokovic in the 2014 and 2015 Wimbledon finals and the 2015 US Open final.
His recovery from the back issue, helped by his long-time fitness man Pierre Paganini, only had one blip – he had to withdraw because of it from the 2014 ATP World Tour Finals title match against Djokovic and semi-miraculously recovered enough to lead Switzerland to the Davis Cup championship the following weekend – until Monday’s news that he was pulling out of this week’s Mutua Madrid Open citing the back.
He said it was precautionary and added, “this is normal back things I’ve had in the past, which I guess is good because I know how to handle it. I know how long it can take.”
While Federer has not been as dominant among the men as Williams has with the women, he really hasn’t seemed to have lost much from his game and his lagging behind the immaculate Djokovic is just common currency for all players on the tour at the moment.
But, as with Williams, little things can add up as players age. Federer, exactly seven weeks older than Williams, had his first-ever surgery, arthroscopy on his left knee after this year’s Australian Open. Then there was a stomach virus that forced him to withdraw from the Miami Open in March and now the back issue in Madrid. Williams has also had a left knee surgery in 2003 and other ailments in a career that began 21 years ago when she played the qualifying at the WTA event in Quebec City.
No one wants to see Williams and Federer depart after such illustrious careers. But a year from now they will be turning 36, the age Andre Agassi was when he retired 10 years ago in 2006. Agassi went out with a lot of flair at the US Open. It will be fascinating to see if Williams and Federer eventually choose to orchestrate their good-byes in a similar fashion.
Genie, Milos and Vasek in Madrid
Genie Bouchard exited the Mutua Madrid Open on Sunday, beaten 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 by Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania.
It was Bouchard’s first match since retiring with an abdominal problem at the Charleston WTA event a month ago and she probably couldn’t be expected to be at her best. Still, she started well leading 4-1 in the opening set and then some tentativeness took over and the No. 35-ranked Begu rallied to take the set. In the second, Bouchard regrouped and, the better player, got matters back to evens. In the third, twice, leading 2-0 and 4-3, Begu interrupted play to be treated for two separate foot blister issues.
Bouchard expressed some annoyance at the medical time-outs when her coach at the event, sometime hitting partner Cyril Saulnier of France, went out on court to see her while Begu was treated the second time. Saulnier gave her some solid advice, including that she should hit more to Begu’s sometimes sketchy forehand. Bouchard probably didn’t target that side enough in the final three games. Also, after marginally being the better player in that set, she played an abysmal final game – losing it to 15 with two backhand unforced errors into the net and two unforced forehand errors into the net.
A day later the loss didn’t look quite so bad when Begu upset No. 3 seed Garbine Muguruza 5-7, 7-6(4), 6-3.
With all the cataclysms of her 2015 year, and the recurrence of the abdominal problem this year, Bouchard is still in a phase of gradually attempting to find her best form again. She will have former and long-time coach Nick Saviano with her at the French Open in a couple of weeks.
In the meantime the best news is what she said in an interview in the Montreal Gazette this week about the concussion that dates back to her fall at the US Open last September.
“This year, I pretty much feel no symptoms,” Bouchard said. “In Malaysia (the Malaysian Open in early March), though, I felt like some came back. And once in a while I may get a headache, though I never used to get headaches… It’s something that takes longer to be completely cleared up. It doesn’t affect me on the court right now, so I’d say now I’m mostly 98-per-cent good. I’m grateful for that and I’m confident about my complete recovery.”
As for Raonic, he battled hard against an in-form Thomaz Bellucci in the first set of his opening round on Monday before taking control to win 7-6(4), 6-1. Raonic didn’t face a single break point and will next play Alexandr Dolgopolov later Tuesday. Their head-to-head features straight-set wins for both of them at Indian Wells – the Ukrainian’s in 2014 and Raonic’s last year.
For those keeping score, sleeveless Milos is 4-1 since appearing bare right-armed in Monte Carlo three weeks ago.
It was another disappointing and frustrating loss for Vasek Pospisil – beaten 6-1, 6-7(4), 6-4 by the ageless (37) Radek Stepanek on Monday. Currently ranked No. 47 and now 4-11 in 2016, Pospisil started poorly and finished poorly, so the decent tennis he played in the second set and until 3-all in the third proved to be all for naught.
Stepanek will face No. 2 seed Andy Murray Tuesday evening at 8 p.m. (2 p.m. EDT in Canada) and is also in the doubles draw. That could be a lot to ask of the Czech. After four singles matches in four days, he might not be as fresh as he (or his partner Daniel Nestor) might like for their first-round doubles against Treat Huey and Max Mirnyi.
Milos mimics Drake
Drake’s latest musical release “Views” features an image of him up on the CN Tower in Toronto. Posted on his Instagram above, Milos Raonic offered his personal imitation of the superstar Toronto music mogul.
The art of destruction
— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) May 1, 2016
New York Times writer Christopher Clarey had this clever take on Grigor Dimitrov’s racquet busting following his humiliating 6-7(5), 7-6(4), 6-0 upset loss to No. 87-ranked Diego Schwartzman, 5-foot-7, in the final of the Istanbul ATP 250 tournament last Sunday.
Feature photo: Peter Figura