Wimbledon 2018

Wimbledon 2018: Champions Federer and Williams hit 20 at 36: ‘We in it together!’

Roger Federer and Serena Williams both get their Wimbledon title defences off to winning starts at SW19

They are the two most prolific Wimbledon champions in the draws at the All England Club this year: Roger Federer has won the singles title eight times, and Serena Williams has won it seven times. But they have a lot more in common than that.

Both have won more Majors in the Open era than their fellow players: Federer 20—an all-time record—and Williams 23—bettered only by Margaret Court across pre- and post-Open, and only by one title.

Both have resided at No1 for great swathes of their careers. Federer has the longest streak at No1, 237 weeks, Williams the joint longest streak with Steffi Graf, 186. Federer has spent the most total weeks at the top of the men’s rankings, 310, Williams has topped the women’s for 319—not quite enough to outnumber Graf, but impressive nonetheless.

And both have continued to dominate their sport well into their 30s. Federer won the Australian Open, his third Major in 18 months, this January at 36. Williams won her 23rd Major in Australia last January, age 35—and while two months pregnant. And not surprisingly, the two have ticked of ‘oldest evers’ several times over, including both becoming the oldest No1s.

Williams was told that Federer regarded her as perhaps the greatest ever. She responded:

“I feel the same way about him. I think he’s clearly the greatest player. I just feel like he’s such a great player and also an incredible, humble human being.”

He talked of her remarkable comeback after maternity leave:

“It’s great, exciting. I’m happy she chose to take that route and not walk away from the game. After everything she’s done, it would have been the perfect excuse and exit to say, I’ve had it. I’m very excited to see her attempting an amazing comeback, this time with a baby. It’s a different life. Massive challenge for her, but I’m sure one she’s up for.”

On the opening day of The Championships, these two champions had one last thing in common: the number 20.

It is exactly 20 years ago that a 16-year-old Serena made her debut in the main draw at the All England Club, and she would reach the third round both here and at the US Open. She won the first of seven Wimbledon titles age 20, in 2002. And in a sense, she was returning to defend her title: She won here in 2015 and 2016, but was two months short of her daughter’s birth last year.

Federer, also defending champion here, was making his 20th consecutive appearance in the main draw, having won the junior title the year before, in 1998.

His circumstances this year were certainly different from those of his female counterpart: He arrived with the Stuttgart title and Halle final in his kit bag, Williams had played just seven matches since her return to the tour at Indian Wells, and only three tournaments—and had not been near the grass until she arrived here a week ago to begin her preparation. She had also never faced her opponent, the Dutch No105-ranked Arantxa Rus, before.

It proved to be a real test of Williams’ fitness and readiness for the Wimbledon challenge, one that quickly brought that old passion and power to bear. She broke for a 2-0 lead, only to be broken back, and she then had a real fight on her hands in what looked to be heading to a first-set tie-break.

But with 44 minutes on the clock, Williams struck hard and broke for the set, 7-5, having notched up 12 winners.

Rus was making the champion work hard, dragging her to the net, throwing up lobs, and Williams faced several deuces at the start of the second set. The Dutchwoman got her reward in the third game, a break as her serve and aggressive position on the baseline drew errors from her opponent.

But it was a sequence of errors from Rus that was her downfall, including a netted forehand off a low ball on break point: Williams got that timely break again, 5-3.

But it would take a long serving game, more than seven minutes and multiple deuces, to finally get the win—her first here in two years—and she looked both relieved and happy. She spent a long time signing for fans and taking selfies—it has, after all, been a while since she played here.

And she admitted afterwards:

“I was happy to get through that… It’s a great feeling. It’s been a couple of years since I played on grass. It’s definitely different, so I’m trying to find my bearings out there.”

She looked as though she was feeling increasingly at home, even after the hour and half it took her to reach the second round, whereas Federer took only an hour and 20 minutes to come through his three-set opener in the smoothest possible form.

He played the same man he had beaten here in the second round last year, Dusan Lajovic. But that one and only previous meeting proved to be a tougher test—the Serb had, 12 months back, taken Federer to a first-set tie-break.

This time, Federer would break three times in the first set, 6-1, in just 20 minutes. He broke for a 3-0 lead in the second and served it out with an ace, 6-3. The third set flashed by, 6-4, with Federer facing not a break point in the 79-minute match.

The Swiss looked sharp, fast, and a different animal from the tired and tetchy player who battled his way through the cold and cut-up turf of Halle. Dressed in his crisp new whites from Uniqlo, he dropped only four points in 45 first serves, won 23 points from 28 net attacks, and had the entire centre court on its feet—just as he had when he walked onto court.

He next plays Lukas Lacko or Benjamin Bonzi, but already knows that his first scheduled seed, No32 Leonardo Mayer, is out to Jan-Lennard Struff in a three and a half hour five-setter.

He also knows that the talented young Croat, No16 seed Borna Coric, is out of his way in the fourth round, losing to another strong young player, Daniil Medvedev. That had been a contest that jumped off the page when the draw was made: Coric pressed Federer to the limit in Indian Wells this year, and stormed to the title in three sets in Halle just a fortnight ago.

In the same quarter, there were also wins for No8 seed Kevin Anderson, who next plays Andreas Seppi, for No25 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber, who takes on Gilles Muller in the second round, and for No22 Adrian Mannarino.

Gael Monfils beat No23 seed Richard Gasquet and No11 seed Sam Querrey advanced to a second-round meeting with wild card Sergiy Stakhovsky.

In the other top-half quarter, seeds Milos Raonic, John Isner, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Lucas Pouille and No3 Marin Cilic all came through.

And in one of the stand-out contests of the first round, the No6 seed Grigor Dimitrov made a surprise exit to the Stan Wawrinka. In truth, the 33-year-old Swiss, ranked just 225 after a long absence and double knee surgery, looked closer to his old No3-ranked, three-time Major winning self than he had since reaching the final of the French Open in 2017.

As for Williams, she will not look too far ahead in a quarter headed by friend Caroline Wozniacki, who took under an hour to reach the second round.

Fellow mother Victoria Azarenka will take on No7 seed Karolina Pliskova in the next round, and there were also wins for No20 seed Kiki Bertens and the elder Williams sister Venus. The two ‘veteran’ former champions cannot meet until the semi-finals, but what an occasion that would be—the two oldest women in the draw meeting for a 30th time.

But to end where we began, and the ‘rivalry’ between Williams and her male counterpart. Federer said he hoped to play long enough that his four-year-old sons would remember the significance of what he has achieved. So how long did Williams envisage continuing?

“Oh, I’m just playing until Roger stops. How long? Did he put a time limit on it? Well, here I am. We in it together. As long as he’s here, I’m going to try to be here.”

Competitive to her very bones—rather like Federer.

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