First Serena Williams, now Roger Federer - tennis' worst nightmare has come true

First Serena Williams, now Roger Federer - tennis' worst nightmare has come true - GETTY IMAGES
First Serena Williams, now Roger Federer - tennis' worst nightmare has come true - GETTY IMAGES

In the summer of 1981 two sporting greats were born: Roger Federer and Serena Williams. Forty-one summers on, both decided to put down their rackets for the final time in the very same month.

Federer and Williams were born 49 days apart all those years ago. Together, almost in tandem, they came to dominate the tennis court at the very top level, setting new records, new standards and joining the exclusive list of sports icons recognisable in every corner of the globe.

It is fitting then that they have both ended their careers mere days apart. But for all the poignant symmetry of their exits, this September may be remembered as a devastating one for tennis as a whole. Retirements in sport are inevitable, and these two were a long time coming. They are both in their 40s and neither Williams nor Federer have competed consistently in recent years. And yet, even still, the void they leave is clear and comes at a moment where tennis feels in flux.

On the women's side there had been recent signs of potential heirs, not least with three-time major champion Ash Barty and Naomi Osaka, who has already collected four majors. But Osaka's physical and mental struggles in the last couple of seasons plus Barty's premature retirement aged 25 earlier this year ended that dream of a rivalry. World No 1 Iga Swiatek showed her ability to dominate this year with her 37-match winning streak, is a proven champion and a brilliant spokesperson from everything from mental health to the war in Ukraine, but her cut-through is still not widespread.

On the men's side, the subject of a 'Next Gen' in men's tennis has been ongoing for at least a decade. The lack of succession planning owes in large part to the Big Three's dominance. In the last five years, Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have won 19 of 22 major titles. Their longevity, achieving such success late into their 30s, is remarkable and changed the expectations we have for athletes. Federer's retirement announcement has come just days after Spain's Carlos Alcaraz properly announced himself to the world, as the youngest ever world No 1 in ATP history. We could look back and see it as a direct and clean changing of the guard. But at 19 it feels too soon to mount Alcaraz with the pressures of carrying a sport on his shoulders, or to predict a rivalry for him that can compare to those the Big Three enjoyed.

Their time at the top made tennis relevant to the masses in a way the sport had never experienced, as did the story of tenacity, talent and against-all-odds success Williams and sister Venus brought from the late 1990s. They all opened up the sport to new fans, and the fear is that interest might trickle away as the star power of this generation fizzles out for good. The pull Williams continues to have remains unparalleled. Her farewell at the US Open event earlier this month was a testament to that, as she drew record crowds to Flushing Meadows in New York, and every match she played had the atmosphere of a Grand Slam final.

Fans flocked in their thousands for Serena Williams' swansong - AP
Fans flocked in their thousands for Serena Williams' swansong - AP

Federer will not get that final raucous applause at a major event, due to the knee injury that ended his career, but the Laver Cup will serve as a reminder that the most popular and relevant men in tennis are all toeing a path precariously close to retirement. Despite Nadal miraculously winning two majors earlier this year, when he pulled out of the Wimbledon semi-final through injury it pointed to just how close his body is to finally giving up. Complex champion Djokovic's absence from both the Australian and US Open, due to his refusal to get vaccinated, showed that - for all his brilliance on court - he cannot compete with the same freedom of movement he used to in this final phase of his career. Andy Murray's metal hip has gifted him the final resurgence he craved on court, but he has still been unable to go deep at a major since.

They are all battered and bruised, and yet it still does not feel like they have been overtaken. Alcaraz readily admitted this week that he stepped into the open space in New York, with Nadal far from his best, Djokovic absent and Daniil Medvedev still lacking the consistency the fans crave. It is probably an unfair request for fans to make of these very young new champions. The bar the Big Three, led by Federer, have set remains too high for mere mortals to reach. Maybe they just need time. Or maybe we will never have heirs ready to completely replace them, as this is the best era we are likely to ever witness.

Williams continues to prolong the long goodbye, toying with the emotions of tennis fans this week by suggesting she may well come back, in the way NFL quarterback Tom Brady did post-retirement announcement. But her story, Federer's and this golden generation's will end. The astounding thing is that, even nearly 25 years on, we are not ready to say goodbye. And that says as much about those making their final bows as the sport they are leaving behind.