For the last two decades, a golden generation has dominated tennis’ biggest tournaments. But does this year’s Wimbledon mark the end of an era?
“It is my great pleasure to present to you, the 1999 US Open Women’s single’s trophy to Serena Williams!”US Open Tennis Championships
That’s Serena Williams winning her first Grand Slam title at just 17.
Her victory marked the beginning of a golden generation of tennis, dominated by four giants: Roger Federer; Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the men’s game; and of course, Serena Williams in the women’s.
It’s a sporting era that spans two decades… a gift that keeps on giving.
To date, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have both gone on to win 20 Grand Slams, while Rafael Nadal has collected an amazing haul of 22.
And Serena Williams currently trumps them all, having won 23 Grand Slams – in Melbourne, Paris, New York, and seven times at Wimbledon.
“There we are! It’s Serena Williams again, 14 years after that first victory here. Irresistible, majestic, and the judgement of history will surely be that she was in a class of her own.”Wimbledon, YouTube
But she’s still one Grand Slam short of matching Margaret Court’s record of 24 singles titles.
And for 40-year-old Serena Williams, matching that record is an increasingly tall order.
“Oh no. But now… it looks like that dream is becoming a bit of a nightmare. Oh dear.”Wimbledon, YouTube
At Wimbledon last year, Serena Williams was forced to withdraw in the first round due to an ankle injury. She left the court in tears… and she hasn’t competed in a tournament since, missing the Australian Open in January and the French Open in May.
But it’s not just Serena Williams who’s battling with injury.
“Well I mean he’s got a decision to make here… this is not good to see and you can hear a sort of hush and stunned silence around this place.”Tennis TV
At 36, Rafael Nadal’s chronic foot injury also makes his future look uncertain.
“I don’t know how to say in English the thing that we did but we played with no feeling on the foot. No… we played with an injection on the nerve distanced so that the foot was asleep.”EuroSport
And yet, with one foot “asleep”, he still managed to win his 14th French Open earlier this month.
So, with Roger Federer absent from Wimbledon too, are we approaching the end for tennis’ golden generation?
“I think I will always enjoy the competitive side and I think there’s a part of me that will always, no matter what happens, will always miss it.”Serena Williams
Last week, in preparation for Wimbledon, Serena Williams competed in the Eastbourne International’s doubles tournament with Ons Jabeur.
“Yeah it’s been good. I’ve had some really good training leading up to Wimbledon, and up to this tournament and just really hitting the ball well and just working out… it’s been working.”Serena Williams
Nicknamed “Onserena”, the pair managed to reach the semi-finals before withdrawing because of Ons Jabeur’s knee injury.
For Serena Williams though, it was all just a warm up act for Wimbledon.
“My body feels great. I mean it’s doubles, I’m only playing half of the court but I’ve been doing a lot of training and so it definitely feels good…”Serena Williams
This week, she’ll have to cover the whole court after receiving a wildcard to play in the singles tournament.
Now Serena might be able to power her way through the draw based almost purely on force of will, but it’s been five years since she won a slam, and at 40, her chances are definitely slim.
In the Men’s draw Rafael Nadal’s chances look a lot more promising.
He has already won the slams in Australia and France this year. But after Paris, he made clear that he was suffering from a degenerative condition in his foot and was unwilling to carry on if he needs injections to endure intolerable pain.
So this tournament may well be the last we see of the two great champions at Wimbledon.
“[I] went through a lot of challenging moments, a lot of days of hard work without seeing the light there.”Rafael Nadal speaking at the Australian Open
That’s Rafael Nadal speaking in January at the Australian Open.
“I mean a lot of conversations with the team, with the family, about what can happen or what’s gonna happen if things continue like this. Thinking that maybe it’s a chance to say goodbye”Rafael Nadal speaking at the Australian Open
But unlike Nadal, Serena Williams is less sure of what comes next…
“I don’t know, I don’t know. I can’t answer that. You know I love tennis and I love playing or else I wouldn’t be out here but I also love what I do off the court… so it’s a lot.”Serena Williams
And she’s hinted she might never definitively quit…
“I don’t know if I’d ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone…”Serena Williams
Since her return from maternity leave four years ago, Serena Williams has reached four Grand Slam finals but never won.
New, fitter, players are stepping onto the court now.
Iga Swiatek and Coco Gauff weren’t even born when Serena Williams won that first Grand Slam in 1999.
And Rafael Nadal has new opponents too. Italy’s Matteo Berrettini just retained his Queen’s title, while 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz recently beat both Nadal and Djokovic on consecutive days on his way to winning a tournament in Madrid in May.
Williams and Nadal, this century’s most decorated tennis giants, never know when they are beaten but this might be the last time we see them on the grass of SW19. Enjoy watching them while it lasts.
Today’s episode was written and mixed by Imy Harper.