On Monday, July 11, for the first time since 1997, Serena Williams and Roger Federer will both be unranked in the WTA and ATP rankings.
This was slated to happen long before Williams’ early exit at Wimbledon — because of the decision not to award ranking points at the tournament. But it doesn’t make it any less jarring. Are we witnessing the end of an era? Or are these two greats gearing up for a monumental return? We asked our panel of experts.
What stood out to you from Serena Williams’ appearances at Wimbledon and Eastbourne? What do you think it means for her future?
Pam Shriver: What stood out in her three comeback matches was her passion and love for competing. Obviously rusty and not in peak fitness from 12 months off at 40 years of age, the one constant for Williams is her willingness to fight for every point — singles, doubles, mixed or tiddlywinks. Williams looked like she did not have enough time to prepare properly for Wimbledon, but maybe the taste of the crowd’s enthusiasm for her comeback will fuel her to gain improved fitness leading into the US Open. It’s hard to imagine Williams will play past the US Open of 2022.
Luke Jensen: My evaluation was a player without a match experience over the last year. The elements are present, but nothing can replace pressure situations on the match court. Billie Jean King stresses « Champions adjust. » I believe Serena will play more events in singles leading into a New York City campaign.
Brad Gilbert: Williams needs more matches and tournaments this summer if she wants to be in better position for the US Open. It will be difficult to play very little and be at the mercy of the draw, ranked low, to make deep runs, I think. I know to never underestimate her greatness and ability to get way better quickly, though.
Rennae Stubbs: I think it was fantastic to see her back on court, entertaining everyone and letting everyone know how much she still loves this sport and competes to win. I think that her performance at Wimbledon was not surprising as it’s been a year since she’s played a match, but I suspect we will see her play through the US Open and hopefully with some success.
Alexandra Stevenson: Like Muhammad Ali, Williams is the greatest. After the match, she said this was the best she did for that day. She was not prepared to play a three-hour grass match. Harmony Tan’s forehand slice dismantled Serena’s grass game — a game that had always brought her the « greatest » moniker.
Williams will be back. She will train and be ready for the US Open. Anything can happen in women’s tennis — Williams can win another Grand Slam event. She needs to adjust her approach to preparing for a Grand Slam. Everyone wants to beat her, especially at this point in her career. She needs to come in mentally strong and in « fighting » shape.
D’Arcy Maine: There were so many things that impressed me about the state of her game, especially considering her lengthy time off and limited practice schedule. She still is Serena Williams [insert GOAT noise here], and I have no doubt she could rediscover even more of her previous level if she wanted to commit to regular practice and competition. But, with all that said, I can’t stop thinking about her quote after her semifinal exit at the Australian Open in 2021: « If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone. » Even though she hinted she might play at the US Open after her loss on Tuesday, I can’t shake the suspicion we really might not see her play again and this was her unofficial goodbye.
Tom Hamilton: There’s still those moments of brilliance there with Williams. Those trademark volleys where she attacks the ball and spins it off for a winner bang in the corner are still there; it’s just those little instinctive shots which are slipping wide rather than in. That was the difference against Tan on Tuesday. She needs match time to fine-tune her all-court offering as her Wimbledon venture only came off the back of two doubles matches. She’s not back to her dominant best, but if she has laid out a plan with her team to go back on tour for the next couple of years, then expect to see that consistency return — and who are we to write her off?
Simon Cambers: At Eastbourne I was impressed with Williams’ ballstriking. But it was only doubles and only half the court to cover. In singles at Wimbledon, she competed well and, with more practice and training, would surely have won. She’s a long way from her best, that’s for sure, but there were hints in what she said that she wants to play on. I’d be surprised if she wants that to be her last performance at Wimbledon and expect to see her at the US Open. But there’s a lot of work to be done for her to be competitive.
Aishwarya Kumar: Two things stood out to me. First, her incredible ability to dominate points with her forehand. Even though she lost to Tan, you could see the sparks of her best game at various points in the match. Her lethal forehand, followed by the fist pump. It was incredible to fathom, considering she has been off-court for a year before.
Second, she is having so much fun on the court! Both at Eastbourne and Wimbledon, she looked so happy to be back. After her doubles partner, Ons Jabeur, finished a long rally with a beautiful drop shot, Williams laughed and placed her hand on her mouth, in shock and awe at her partner. She joked around during interviews (when Jabeur asked her if she’d play doubles with her at this year’s US Open, Williams smiled and said, « Sign me up. ») All of this is indication that she still enjoys the sport and wants to keep it in her life, in some form or shape. I will be surprised if she doesn’t find her way to Flushing Meadows come Aug. 29.
Bill Connelly: She definitely didn’t look like someone ready to retire. She was absolutely enjoying herself at Eastbourne, and she spent a solid percentage of her match against Tan looking like Serena Williams. It’s tricky to get a read on what she might be capable of moving forward, though. When you officially pass the point of no return from an age perspective, it’s your footwork that starts to go first — not on every shot, of course, but more and more frequently. At the same time, when you’re incredibly rusty, as she clearly was, the footwork is the last thing to return. Rust was definitely a factor, especially in the moments when you could tell she wasn’t sure what she could and couldn’t get away with and played things safe. But we won’t know how much of a factor it was until she plays a few more times.
What do you expect from Federer when he returns after such a long absence?
Shriver: Federer is giving fans a better idea of his rehab process after his knee surgery of last summer. His social media posts and quotes indicate a late-season return to competition. A big question will be: Can Roger play the best-of-five format the majors demand in 2023, when he will be 41 years old. Regardless of Federer’s comeback pathway, winning a 21st singles major seems impossible given his knees, age and the effort it takes to win seven matches with a three-of-five-set format.
Jensen: Federer was not match-tough returning in 2021, and this latest layoff is longer than the last. The ATP Tour is loaded with eager young talent that will make every round challenging.
Gilbert: Federer is in a way different situation than Williams. With the knee surgeries, I hope he can get healthy and go out on his own terms. I need to see him play first before I can say much more. He will be 41 soon, so playing and making a deep run in a Slam would be extremely difficult.
Stubbs: I don’t think Federer is going to play unless he feels he can be competitive, so I expect him to do just that. It won’t be easy as he’s not getting any younger, but with his game and his experience and success, I would suspect he will do very well.
Stevenson: I grew up playing world juniors when Federer played. He was always extraordinary. Of course he can win another Grand Slam. A lot goes into it. He has an amazing team. If his strength is there — Federer will be there. He’s not done.
Federer loves the chase, the surfaces, being a tennis player. The locker room. He loves to walk among the fans. We will see new talents — but we will never witness another Roger Federer.
Maine: I know Federer said he « definitely » plans to return to the tour in 2023, and for the Laver Cup and Basel later this year, but… I definitely plan on winning the lottery next year too. I have no doubt that is his goal and he is doing everything he can to achieve it, but he’s been away from the game on a regular basis for quite a while now and playing consistent tour-level tennis is a lot to ask of an almost-41-year-old knee that has undergone three surgeries in recent years. While I think it will be great for the sport to have him back on court, no matter how he plays, I don’t have particularly high expectations for his level.
Hamilton: We’ve missed Federer at Wimbledon this year. The tournament feels as if it’s missing something without his passionate faithful following his every move — perhaps that’s a reason attendance is down a little? But when he makes his comeback in September, we’ll have a glimpse of where Federer is now, and where he can be with more match time. Tennis still needs Federer, and it sounds like Federer still needs the sport. So if this is the case, then with a run of matches, the ideal scenario is he’ll be challenging for major honors again next year. That’s all if his knee holds up, however.
Cambers: I was thinking the other day that if you had dropped Federer in the Wimbledon draw, even after a year out, he’d have a great chance of at least making the semifinals. That’s how good he is, especially on grass.
Everything depends on his knee. If he’s fit again, with no knee issues, then I expect him to try to play at least through next year’s Wimbledon and really give it one more big shot at another title. Of course, it’s a tall order at age 40/41, but I gave up writing Federer off years ago and am not about to do it again.
Kumar: The last time we saw Federer play a long enough tournament was Wimbledon 2021, where he made it to the quarterfinals before losing to Hubert Hurkacz in straight sets (he was bageled in the third set). The last time we saw him come anywhere close to winning a Grand Slam event was three years ago in Wimbledon when he lost an incredible five-setter against Djokovic. The last time he won a Slam event was at the Australian Open in 2018 — four years ago — when he was 36. All that being said, he is still Federer, and despite the fact that he has been injury prone and would be 41 before he makes a comeback, he will still try to make the comeback count. But I would be shocked if he plays at the level he used to play even three years ago.
Connelly: I figure we’re not going to see him again unless he can move and play at a certain level. So if he makes it back to the court as planned, I assume we’ll see a pretty good version of him. A rusty version, for sure, and a version I won’t predict to win the first tournament he plays in, but a pretty good version. For now, that’s enough. If he can string together a few events from there and keep looking solid, I’ll be incredibly excited.
Will we ever see one of them win another major title?
Shriver: Federer and Williams don’t need to win another match in their GOAT careers. They are two iconic champions we have been lucky to watch for over two decades.
Jensen: In singles? I just don’t see it. Majors are two weeks of the most grueling competition in the game.
Stubbs: I don’t think so.
Stevenson: Ask Serena. Ask Roger. They will tell you they are still in the game. An athlete knows in their heart when they are done. They are not. When they step out on the court in a first round, they expect to win the event. Always. They each do it their own way.
Maine: It would be incredible for the sport if either one of them was able, and I love the enthusiasm here about their futures, but I sadly just don’t see it. However, if they wanted to team up for mixed doubles somewhere, then they really might have a chance. (A girl can dream, right?)
Hamilton: These two don’t conform to usual logic. Both will have seen Nadal’s Lazarus-esque 2022 and taken inspiration from this. The tour is more rigorous now than ever, but there is still room for the old guard to put the youngsters back in their place. Of the two, Federer is more likely to win another Grand Slam event — but that’s only because we’ve got this great unknown about what it’ll be like when he returns. And there’s also that added fire of writing a new chapter for Federer — there’s no way he will want his last Wimbledon outing to be his quarterfinal exit last year.
Cambers: It’s very unlikely. Williams, I feel, is too far away from her best shape and form to have a genuine chance. There will always be one or two players who are too good, and her intimidation factor has gone. Federer, though, if he’s fully fit, will always have a shot at Wimbledon. It’s 10-90 in favor of no, but there’s always that glimmer of hope because these are two of the greatest of all time. They’re not normal athletes.
Kumar: This is such a hard question to answer. Do I want to see them lift another Grand Slam trophy? Absolutely. Do I realistically think it’s going to happen? Likely not. They’re both 40, and especially with Williams — because we saw her play recently — you could see that age was catching up to her. She stopped to catch her breath sometimes, and she moved just a tad bit slower. It would be a miraculous feat if they make it to the second week of tournament, let alone win a major, with youngsters like Iga Swiatek and Carlos Alcaraz exuding energy and youth in the last hour of play.
Connelly: Federer: no. Serena: probably not. It would be the most incredible thing in the world, but it’s hard to predict either one winning another.