They are thirty and thriving. They are the reigning Wimbledon champions. They both had to weather out a storm to get back into the Grand Slam winners’ circle. They are the yardstick against which their peers are measured.
But that’s about where the similarities between Roger Federer and Serena Williams end.He floats like a butterfly; she stings like a bee.
He is the Swiss master, wielder of the most beautiful tennis shots in the world; she is the racquet bully, owner of the most powerful serve and every other stroke in the women’s game.
He is the popular champion, with a fan base stretching across the globe. She struggles, though not necessarily cares, to even get the crowd at her home Slam, the US Open, completely on her side. (The reasons behind this , including dormant racism, have been debated, but things are not as black and white. And Serena is much above such issues as popularity votes.)
He is the quintessential leader of Europe’s tennis brigade. She is the American rebel still standing strong against the East European wave.
He comes from a multi-cultural family-- Swiss father, South African mother— of four and a stable upbringing in one of the richest countries in the world. Federer also had the luxury of playing multiple sports that may have helped in developing a keen facility for his chosen career. She comes from the ghettos of Compton, Los Angeles. The youngest of five sisters, she grew up in a tough neighbourhood, where her half-sister Yetunde was gunned down in 2003. Serena had an unconventional tennis education—her dad, Richard, moulding her and sister, Venus, for a future greatness on public courts and stellar ambition.
At 16, he won the boys’ crown at Wimbledon. At 13, she played her first professional match.
He took some time coming, proving his flair when he stunned Pete Sampras in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2001 before finally capturing his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon 2003. She burst onto the stage by winning the 1999 US Open, at the age of 17, signaling the beginning of the Williams rule in women’s tennis.
Who’s the leader?
He was the temperamental tennis talent, who has learnt to put a lid on his frustration and outbursts on court. She is still emotional, choosing the biggest stage in the world: a Grand Slam tournament, to throw the ugliest of tantrums.Not once but twice.
He is the front-runner, a player who set the bar so high that others have spent the best part of the last decade catching up to him, thus ushering in the golden era in men’s tennis. She could’ve commanded the reins of women’s game but has too often let the grip slip. The game is poorer for the want of a strong leader-- a leader Serena refused to be.
He has been in a committed relationship with the game, and has reaped the rewards. She has flirted with fashion and movies, endured heartbreaks and personal tragedies before finally falling in love with tennis, and has acquired salvation.
At 17, he has the most majors in the men’s game. At 14, she is still 10 short of the women’s record for most Slams.
His career has progressed at a high-octane: he not only holds the record for the most Grand Slams in the men’s game, but also of the most finals, semi-finals, consecutive and otherwise, and quarterfinals, consecutive and otherwise. The last time he lost before the quarterfinal was when he lost in the third round of 2004 French Open.
Her career has followed more dips and rises than a ship on rough seas. The last time she lost before a quarterfinal was when she was knocked out in the first round of the 2012 French Open.
But if he’s Mr Consistent, she’s the Comeback Queen.
With time, the rivals have grown for Federer. First came Rafael Nadal, then Novak Djokovic and the rest.
Through time, Serena has been her biggest rival. Though women’s Grand Slam champions have come and gone none have been able to match her for sheer quality. Two years ago, Federer was left pondering over his lost kingdom: a quarterfinal exit at Wimbledon when he was defending the title, and was stuck with a label of fading champion. Two years ago, Serena had hit another high, winning Wimbledon and back on the highway to greatness.
He went back to the drawing board. She landed on the surgeon’s table: Serena stepped on broken glass in a restaurant and the cut was deeper than expected. For two years, Federer fought off younger rivals, doubts and criticism. Serena fought off injuries and a serious medical condition: blood clots in her lungs.
They emerged stronger. The grass at Wimbledon proved to be a willing ally as Federer and Serena laid doubts to rest. In victory, he fell to his knees; she jumped for joy.
If his journey was a tale of continued brilliance, hers was of unrelenting will. The champions in arms showed there’s more than one way to get there. Who says they are done yet!