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Tennis legends’ chase for final glory put on pause by coronavirus

Will some goals end up too far out of reach for Serena Williams and Roger Federer?
Serena Williams reacts after scoring a point against Latvia's Anastasija Sevastova during a Fed Cup qualifying match Feb. 8 in Everett, Wash.
Serena Williams reacts after scoring a point against Latvia's Anastasija Sevastova during a Fed Cup qualifying match Feb. 8 in Everett, Wash. [ ELAINE THOMPSON | AP ]
Published Apr. 5, 2020

Serena Williams’ quest for the record books has been well documented. Unquestionably one of the greatest to ever pick up a tennis racket, after she won the Australian Open in 2017 while pregnant, Williams was one major away from tying Margaret Court’s record of 24 Gland Slam singles titles.

Then came the hiatus. Williams missed four Grand Slams before she returned to competition, but in 2018 she reached the fourth round of the French Open and then the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. In eight attempts in her return, she has reached four finals. She has lost all of them.

Williams remains so close to Court’s record. It has always seemed inevitable that she’d reach it.

And now, as her runway to that milestone shortens at age 38, sports at large are taking a necessary pause. Though this means different things for athletes at different stages in their careers, for Williams and Roger Federer, who turns 39 in August, it might put some goals too far out of reach.

“They won’t have 20 more opportunities,” Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova said. “They’ll have a couple more years and then father time will catch up with you, and that goes for Serena and Roger, but also Novak (Djokovic, 33 next month) and Rafa (Nadal, 34 in June).”

We had it so good. Tennis was populated with a mix of greats and younger talents, and the last decade has produced some of the greatest matches and rivalries ever. It’s hard to think that era could have a premature end.

Bit by bit, the spring sports calendar is eroding as an effect of the coronavirus pandemic. There are cancellations and postponements, with uncertainty and a sense of foreboding about what may lie beyond the end of May.

Last week, Wimbledon, usually the third major of the year, announced its cancellation for the first time since World War II. The French Open was rescheduled from late spring to September. Meanwhile in New York, the indoor space at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is being converted into a temporary hospital for coronavirus patients.

The U.S. Open has not been canceled. Yet it seems increasingly unrealistic that the hospital beds will be empty by Aug. 24, when the tournament is set to begin, or for the qualifying tournament the weeks before.

Tennis is not the most important thing here. No less a legend than King said the decision to convert the facility was absolutely suitable given the circumstances. She has always stood for equity and access, though that means something different here.

But for players like Williams and Federer, what were short-term goals are now medium-term goals, if not longer term.

There is a rhythm to the tennis year. Small tournaments lead to big ones. Training regimens put players in peak physical shape leading into May and late August. An athlete doesn’t usually stay in top shape without a tournament on the horizon, without a training goal on the calendar.

“If I’m Serena or Roger and I want one more Slam and I’m on hold, I kind of liken it to being in a rain delay,” Navratilova said. “You know you’re going to play again; you just don’t know when. You have to eat just enough, rest just enough to stay fresh for the match.”

She said there are other ways to train as well, whether it’s looking at film of the players who will likely be top contenders when tennis is back. Rest can be good for veteran players. Federer recently had knee surgery and was set to miss the French anyway as regularly scheduled.

“There is a rest period,” Navratilova said, “but not knowing is weird and you don’t have a timeline.”

And athletes are dealing with the same concerns and uncertainty as the rest of us. What is their income going to look like with cancellations? How do you protect your family? Wealth and fame offer insulation, but it isn’t complete.

The bigger challenge might just be keeping up the hunger for another major. Williams and Federer are likely getting a sense of what life after tennis will look like. They may be able to spend more time with their kids — Williams’ daughter, Olympia, is 2; Federer has two sets of twins, ages 5 and 10.

It is hard to know what tennis will look like when it gets back. Air travel may have new restrictions. Travel between countries may require health certification or quarantine. Competitions still may require same-day testing for staff and players. Will sponsorships still be there? Will tournaments still be in business? Will cities have the tourism core intact enough to host tournaments?

It’s impossible to know the answers and hard not to project. The sports world that functioned like clockwork before the pandemic may not be the one we emerge back into. It could take years for things to return to normal — if they do at all — and might be contingent on a vaccine, or quick turnaround testing, or economic variables.

All that is out of the control of players like Williams and Federer. But they will likely face a bigger question: If there is a six-month hold on the sport, or longer, will every player return with the same mindset with which they left?

“Billie Jean always said, ‘Champions adjust,’ “ Navratilova said. “This is what you have to do.”

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