‘ I’m a lit­tle wor­ried about it’

What hap­pens to ten­nis when Wil­liams and Fed­erer re­tire?

The Daily Press (Timmins) - - SPORTS - Howard Fen­drich

It was a ter­rific mo­ment for ten­nis, draw­ing tons of at­ten­tion to an oth­er­wise mean­ing­less ex­hi­bi­tion event in a sport just start­ing its new sea­son: Ser­ena Wil­liams and Roger Fed­erer shar­ing a court for the first — only? — time.

There they were, try­ing to re­turn each other’s sub­lime serves dur­ing a mixed dou­bles match, then kid­ding around and show­er­ing mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion on each other dur­ing a joint in­ter­view, be­fore pos­ing for a selfie seen ’ round the world.

A fan’s dream. A pro­moter’s, too. Also, po­ten­tially, a scary mo­ment for ten­nis.

Wil­liams, owner of a pro­fes­sion­alera- record 23 Grand Slam sin­gles ti­tles, and Fed­erer, owner of a men’s- record 20, are both 37 years old, both par­ents and both far closer to the ends of their ca­reers than any­one with a stake in the sport would care to think about. And so the whole scene on New Year’s Day at the Hop­man Cup raised a key ques­tion, one that will be a back­drop at the Aus­tralian Open when play be­gins in Mel­bourne on Mon­day: What will hap­pen to ten­nis when these two GOATs (“Great­est of All Time”) are gone?

“I’m a lit­tle wor­ried about it. When they’re done, it’s go­ing to be a real loss. When Fed­erer goes, it’s a loss, not only for in­di­vid­ual tour­na­ments but the tour it­self. He drives so much sup­port and fan rev­enue. It’s sim­i­lar with Ser­ena. They’re so well known out­side of ten­nis. At the end of the day, I’m happy I can say I played against one of them and kind of along­side the other one,” said Sam Quer­rey, a for­mer mem­ber of the top 20 who reached Wim­ble­don’s semi­fi­nals in 2017. “Hope­fully some­one can step up and take their place in terms of pop­u­lar­ity.”

That’s not all that likely.

Not any­time soon, any­way. It has be­come a pop­u­lar par­lour game to try to point to which play­ers in their 20s now will fill the gap when­ever it is that these two su­per­stars move on.

Among the names bandied about these days are Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens and Je­lena Ostapenko among the women, and Alexan­der Zverev, Se­fanos Tsit­si­pas and De­nis Shapo­valov among the men. That group of a half- dozen owns a to­tal of three Grand Slam ti­tles so far ( one each for the trio of women).

There are those, such as ATP Ex­ec­u­tive Chair­man Chris Ker­mode and WTA CEO Steve Si­mon, who ac­knowl­edge that Fed­erer and Wil­liams are, as Si­mon put it, “very spe­cial,” but also be­lieve ten­nis can sur­vive their even­tual and in­evitable depar­tures.

“When­ever we see them on the court these days, it’s some­thing every­body should em­brace and cel­e­brate. They ... raised the pro­file and qual­ity of ten­nis,” Si­mon said. “If there are con­ver­sa­tions about them re­tir­ing, I’d say that we’ll cer­tainly miss them, but it’s also some­thing that hap­pens in sports: Icons re­tire and great new icons come up be­hind them. No one thought any­one would ever re­place Michael Jor­dan, and I don’t think LeBron James has done too bad a job of fol­low­ing him up.”

Added Si­mon: “I hope they play for an­other 10 years, but if they don’t, the sport will, of course, move on while also re­mem­ber­ing their great­ness for­ever.”

Fed­erer and Wil­liams have built up reser­voirs of suc­cess on the court and good will off it over nearly two decades: Wil­liams’ first Grand Slam ti­tle came in 1999; Fed­erer’s first ar­rived in 2003.

Her take on Fed­erer: “Both on the court and off the court, he has such charisma.”

His take on Wil­liams: “You see how fo­cused and de­ter­mined she is, and I love that about her.”

While Fed­erer has man­aged to avoid any sort of real con­tro­versy at all — “His con­tri­bu­tions have been im­mense both in terms of cap­ti­vat­ing au­di­ences world­wide on the court, as well as lead­ing by ex­am­ple away from the court,” Ker­mode said — Wil­liams most re­cently faced back­lash after a mid- match flare- up dur­ing a loss to Osaka in the U. S. Open fi­nal last Sep­tem­ber.

The Aus­tralian Open will be Wil­liams’ first real tour­na­ment since that out­burst, which led to her be­ing docked a game by the chair um­pire and fined $ 17,000 by the U. S. Ten­nis As­so­ci­a­tion, so it will be fas­ci­nat­ing to see how things play out in Mel­bourne, where she has won seven ti­tles.

What ev­ery­one seems to be able to agree on is that when­ever Wil­liams and Fed­erer — a six- time cham­pion at the Aus­tralian Open, in­clud­ing in 2017 and 2018 — do de­cide to walk away, their im­prints will be last­ing ones.

“They are both leg­ends. They are cham­pi­ons. To see both of them still com­pet­ing on a real high level was quite fun and ex­cit­ing,” said three- time ma­jor cham­pion An­gelique Ker­ber, who was at the Hop­man Cup. “I hope they will still play a few more years, as long as they can, be­cause they are re­ally im­por­tant for ten­nis.”

Paul Kane/ Gett y Im­ages

Ser­ena Wil­liams, left, and Roger Fed­erer take a selfie on court fol­low­ing their mixed dou­bles match ear­lier this month in Perth, Aus­tralia.

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