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Tom Hamilton Senior Writer, ESPN UK
In the second game of the first set in his Round 3 match against Jan-Lennard Struff, a ball boy slipped near Federer. As he returned to his feet, Federer stretched out his racket like a frying pan; the ball boy duly put the ball on the strings, and casually distributed it to another ball boy at the other end of the court. Cue applause and approving looks from spectator to spectator. “That’s so Roger,” one adoring voice behind the press benches said. Federer walked around this famous arena like it was his back garden, knowing each blade of grass and familiar face.
It took Serena Williams until just after she had won match point versus Kristina Mladenovic to acknowledge anyone watching her, other than those integral to her game. She was in her zone; even as she walked onto court the recognition of the crowd was a half-wave built into rearranging her bag. But this isn’t rudeness or a dismissive nature, more her inherent competitiveness. When match point landed in her favour, there was the customary scream of accomplishment, the fist pump, and then a wave to one side of the court, a 180-degree pirouette and a wave to the others. All the while people waved back, finally noticed.
The competition of the match itself is almost an afterthought. You are waiting for that Federer flash of cross-court brilliance, or the booming Williams forehand, or grass-chopping ace. They are what the people come to watch, their heroes, tennis royalty on the sport’s grandest stage — Wimbledon’s Centre Court.
When you tell friends and family you are covering your first Wimbledon, the immediate question is usually, “Will you get to see Serena, or Roger?” Surnames are rendered superfluous. They are box office; just like Usain Bolt, or Tiger Woods in his prime, or Sachin Tendulkar, or Tom Brady, they are part of that sporting pantheon where name alone attracts over-subscription for seats, regardless of whom they are playing, or the level of competition they are likely to face. Watching Federer and Williams in the early stages of Wimbledon is the sporting equivalent of seeing a timeless music gig. You pay to see them “play” Centre Court, rather than compete “on.”
The fandom around Williams and Federer is fascinating. With Williams, there is not the same quantity of paraphernalia as Federer, nor the same casual support. On Centre Court Friday, as she went through in two sets against Mladenovic (7-5, 7-6), it was her opponent who got the more raucous cheers as she caused Williams problems. But then Williams would unload one of her rocket forehands, or an ace would skid off the service line and into the green netting, with Mladenovic’s racket flailing, and immediately everyone bowed in awe at her prowess and power.
Federer’s fandom borders on obsessive; a set uniform of “RF” apparel — they were dotted around Centre Court with a frequency usually reserved for freebies — following his every point, cross-court backhand and break point won as he put out Struff 6-3, 7-6, 6-2. One of the loudest cheers was a return on Struff’s second serve, which he met on the half-volley at the service line and closed out the point at the net.
The All England Lawn Tennis Club has seen stars come and go; statues and names on the trophies are timeless, just like the photographs on the wall, ghosts of champions past. Those who have seen more than most are the Honorary Stewards, who stand above the spectators’ entrances. One, who said he’d prefer not to be named, has been here for 21 years. He rates Federer as the best he’s seen, says the Williams sisters brought a new level of power to the women’s game, name-checks Amelie Mauresmo as someone else he was impressed by, but puts the Williams sisters on a pedestal as the best of their generation. He goes on to mention Albert Costa as his own personal favorite, mainly because of how neat he always looked — a delightfully nuanced recollection. Tennis is ever-subjective, but it seems to revolve around the fulcrum of Federer-Williams.
Federer’s allure is as much an attraction to his stunning, beautiful, sometimes geometry-defying play, as it is to his personal styling. And the same goes for Williams. The Black Panther-inspired catsuit she wore for Roland Garros, her first Grand Slam since having her daughter, Alexis Olympia, sent social media into overdrive. Federer’s new Uniqlo deal, worth a reported $300 million over 10 years, did the same. Williams’ trousers she wore for warm-up on Tuesday were the talk of Wimbledon, just like when Federer started wearing a cream blazer. Their on-court iconography is lapped up, year on year.
Attire aside, there are details you become familiar with. For instance, the way Federer changes his racket where the ball boy or girl takes the plastic off. It is part of his routine. When he wore that blazer, he used to fold it pristinely on the back of the seat. Williams was more laissez-faire with hers Thursday, but it still hung perfectly alongside the neatly followed towel.
Then there’s their pre-serve preparation. It doesn’t get the same recognition as the Nadal shorts tug, but it was equally intriguing watching them in the most personal of moments as they got themselves ready to serve. Williams didn’t seem to have a set pattern of bounces but takes only one ball per serve. Federer’s routine was two bounces for the first serve, three for the second. Those who sat wearing red tops and red caps would already know that. He probably has a pattern for how he gets prepared for practice, or a match. Left unworn sock on first, right unworn sock on second, or along those lines.
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They have both been here long before this tennis cathedral had a roof. Federer’s first game on Centre Court was back in 2001, when he defeated the great Pete Sampras. Afterward amid fighting off questions over whether his career had finished, Sampras said of Federer: “I think Roger is something extra-special.” Eight prophetic words, proved by his record of 92 Open-era Wimbledon wins (eight more than Jimmy Connors), and 332 Grand Slam match victories. For good measure, he overtook Connors for grass-court wins in the Open era with 175 with Friday’s victory. He is out on his own, enjoying an ever-lengthening twilight to his career aged 36. Williams’ Centre Court debut came in 2000, when she lost to sister Venus in the semifinals. But that match was the hors d’oeuvre to a dynasty.
Both are now in the latter stages of their careers — Serena is six weeks younger than Federer — but don’t mistake this as the start of long goodbyes; tennis isn’t ready, just yet. They are still bringing their games, mixing tennis’ version of drum ‘n’ bass moulded with calming, acoustic guitar.
They sometimes concede a self-awareness over this. Williams in her postmatch news conference was asked how difficult it is to predict how opponents will play when they usually mix up their game prior to facing her. Her response was rooted in confidence: “That’s what makes me great: I always play everyone at their greatest, so I have to be greater.”
Wimbledon is their arena. They have no intention of exiting stage left, and those who sat watching want them to carry on, encore after encore.