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The Australian Open Is a Blast From the Past

The Federer-Nadal and Venus-Serena matchups are great nostalgia, but tennis needs a future

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Serena Williams became Serena Williams at the 2007 Australian Open. Things were different then: the Open’s courts were green, and Williams was ranked outside of the world’s top 80 after spending the 2006 season struggling with injury and depression. But Serena breezed through to the third round, where she would top fifth-ranked Nadia Petrova and upset the world’s 11th-, 16th-, and 10th-ranked players en route to a final against top-ranked Maria Sharapova. The massive ranking gap between the two players meant nothing, and Serena hoisted the trophy after a 6–1, 6–2 drubbing.

That tournament began a spell of control that has now lasted, more or less, for a decade. A drop out of the top 50 was (and still is) usually a sign that a player will never be the same — but Serena, like Andre Agassi before her, is an exception to this rule. Though Williams has had down years since then (like her major-less 2011, or even like the second half of 2016), the 2007 Australian Open gave us a clear understanding of how the rest of her career would play out: no matter how things looked, she’d be back until she told us otherwise.

So, it is unsurprising that Serena, the 2017 Australian Open’s second seed, is now 35 and has been untroubled on the way to her third consecutive final Down Under. But Venus Williams’s presence — at 36 years old, and nearly nine years removed from her last major final — is stunning. This cannot be oversold: her first appearance in a major final came in the same year that Michael Jordan won his fifth ring. Venus is the oldest women’s singles finalist in the history of the Australian Open, and she’s returning after an absence caused by injuries and an autoimmune disease that, itself, lasted longer than many careers. Fast courts have always suited Venus; she’s a power player who thrived on the speedy grass of Wimbledon. Five of her seven major titles came at the All England Club, and her last non-Wimbledon slam final was an Australian match against Serena in 2003.

There’s been a lot of talk from players about the courts playing quicker and balls moving faster at this year’s tournament. That’s helped old-school serve-and-volley players like Mischa Zverev succeed over the past two weeks, and it’s undoubtedly worked to Venus’s advantage as well. But as joyful and nostalgic as Venus’s run has been, it’s impossible not to notice the way that the rest of the draw set itself on fire and ran off a cliff. On the way to the final, Venus played only one seeded player: 24th-ranked Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Top-ranked Angelique Kerber and French Open champion Garbine Muguruza looked uninspired as they were routed by unseeded CoCo Vandeweghe in the round of 16 and quarterfinals, respectively. A handful of the tour’s more imposing players — including Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka — missed the tournament, but regardless, the field of challengers looked helpless.

The tournament’s final will be a remarkable spectacle; a near incomprehensible return to the past. The story of the Williams sisters is a cornerstone of tennis history, but, as far as singles has been concerned recently, it’s been exactly that: history. The Venus vs. Serena narrative is one we’d left behind years ago. Michael Phelps’s performance during the Rio Olympics was transfixing because it bent our perception of time. This final will do that as well.

But it’s worth considering: Since Justine Henin retired (for the first time) in 2008, the no. 1 ranking has been held by nine players and has changed hands 19 times. Before the tournament, I wrote about how tennis is struggling to find rivals for its established and aging mainstays. Many of the WTA’s top-ranked competitors from the past decade have turned out to be paper champions, and there seems to be relatively little consistency from tournament to tournament, even among top-10 players. Kerber’s 2016 season was one of the best we’ve seen in recent years, and her early exit is by no means a confirmation that she isn’t the real deal, but the lack of fight that she showed in her loss to Vandeweghe is a troubling microcosm of the unsteady play we’ve seen from most top players not named Williams.

For those anxious about the state of the tour in a post-Serena world, the past two weeks should be concerning. After she wins her 23rd major, whether that happens at this tournament or in the future, Serena will own the game’s most prestigious record. She will surely start thinking of retirement, and when she does decide to step away, who will shoulder the weight of the game?

Roger Federer found his peak at the same Australian Open where Serena began her second act. In 2006, he made the finals in 16 of the 17 tournaments he played and won 12 titles; at the 2007 Australian Open, he didn’t drop a set. After winning his next tournament in Dubai, Federer would reach 41 consecutive match wins, his career-best streak, and only six wins removed from Guillermo Vilas’s record.

But Federer’s streak came to an end after Dubai, when he lost his Indian Wells opener to unseeded Guillermo Canas. That loss, in my mind, has always been the inflection point in Federer’s career, which is to say that it triggered the slowest fall from grace in the history of tennis. That the Swiss could make 16 major finals and win seven of them while in decline should make it clear how untouchable he was from 2004 through the beginning of 2007.

That decline has been in progress for 10 years now, and this Australian Open comes on the heels of a six-month layoff caused by injury. Older players have been stretching the boundaries of our imaginations in tennis, but a significant injury in a player’s mid-30s is usually a death knell for his or her competitive career. Federer’s performance at this tournament has been stunning, even with full comprehension of his late-period brilliance. He started slow: In his first two rounds, against qualifiers Jurgen Melzer and Noah Rubin, Federer was unmistakably diminished. He framed forehands. His usual glide-hop looked almost like a sprint. That vicious, winding serve still kicked unforgivingly out of the side of the deuce court, but surely against more established players, that wouldn’t be enough.

But in the third round, against a longtime foil, 10th-seeded Tomas Berdych, Federer looked like his old self again; quick about the court with sweeping, cutting strokes. It took him only 90 minutes to blow Berdych off the court. Federer’s form persisted through five-setters against fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori in the round of 16 and then his fourth-seeded countryman, Stan Wawrinka, in the semifinals, with a quarterfinal respite against unseeded Mischa Zverev, who spared Federer from a matchup with Andy Murray, in between.

The championship match will be no cakewalk for Federer, who will face a resurgent Rafa Nadal for the ninth time in a major final. The two players have been important parts of the tour in recent years, but their rivalry was the definitive story of the last decade, not this one. Their first slam final was 11 years ago and their last title fight in Australia was in 2009, less than two weeks after Barack Obama had taken office.

Last year, I wrote Nadal off after watching him struggle through more than two seasons without reaching even a slam semifinal. Even at the peak of his powers, the talk around the Spaniard was that his body wouldn’t last; his style of play, a series of twists in hyperdrive, would be too damaging once the quick recovery of youth left him. He’d been so inconsistent for entire seasons that it was assumed that this wasn’t some temporary setback: this was the sharp downfall we’d all predicted. But after rehabbing a wrist injury at the end of last season, Nadal has looked as resilient and springy as ever. He outlasted no. 24 seed Alexander Zverev, Mischa’s brother and one of the game’s rising stars, in a four-hour third-round match and subsequently disposed of no. 6 seed Gael Monfils and no. 3 seed Milos Raonic in seven quick sets. In a preview of the final, Nadal cracked Grigor Dimitrov, the no. 15 seed who is playing the best tennis of his life, in a five-hour match that had shades of an old Federer-Nadal heavyweight bout. Dimitrov’s nickname is “Baby Fed” because of his fluid play and stately one-hander. But this weekend, we won’t have to squint and pretend. Somehow, we will see the real thing.

This tournament has given us few answers about where we’re going, but it has given us a show that is at once familiar and fresh. Venus and Serena, once again, stand alone, and Federer and Nadal, once again, look strong. But they are all thriving on borrowed time. Federer, who has kept his on-court facade of health uncracked for almost two decades, made a call for a trainer before his fifth set with Wawrinka. The clock ticks, and often, we don’t care to notice. But we are acutely aware of what we’ve taken for granted this time. Eventually, we will need to go somewhere new. But, for now, it doesn’t seem so wrong to hope that we can stay here forever.