The US Open begins on Monday, and while many of the world’s best players, after a pandemic-impacted tournament in 2020, will return to New York, as will a near-capacity-level of fans in all their rowdy glory, it will be who isn’t in attendance that might be felt most of all.
Serena Williams announced she wouldn’t be playing in the year’s final Grand Slam on Wednesday, joining Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on the star-studded withdrawal list. Williams said her torn hamstring still hasn’t fully recovered since Wimbledon, while Federer will need yet another surgery on his right knee and Nadal declared he’ll miss the remainder of the season with a recurring left foot issue.
It will be the first major that none of the three will participate in since the US Open in 1997, when Puff Daddy and Faith Evans’ “I’ll Be Missing You” was the top song on the charts and “G.I. Jane” was the No. 1 movie in America. If that feels like a lifetime ago, well, it’s because it was — five players currently ranked in the WTA’s top 10 weren’t yet born then.
Since then, the trio have combined for 63 major singles titles — with Williams adding another 16 in doubles and mixed doubles — and an astounding 838 weeks atop the world rankings. While Novak Djokovic is considered the third member of the sport’s “Big Three” and could very well ultimately surpass all of them in titles and records, Williams has been the true owner of the distinction for the better part of the past two decades alongside Federer and Nadal.
They are arguably the biggest superstar trio tennis has ever seen, with unparalleled on-court success and an A+-level of fame, popularity and endorsements to match. Williams has won more major titles than anyone during the Open era, and Federer and Nadal are tied (with Djokovic) for the most ever among men. They’ve taken tennis to the mainstream and become one-name phenomena — Serena, Roger and Rafa — along the way, as comfortable on red carpets and talk shows as they are on the tennis court.
While none of the three have mentioned retirement and expressed varying promises of return in their statements ahead of the US Open, it seems clear the end of an era is rapidly nearing.
Sure, on a practical level, that should be no surprise. Athletes age, and one day, no matter how many records they’ve broken or accolades they’ve achieved, they can no longer outrun Father Time. Williams turns 40 next month, joining Federer, who reached the milestone birthday a few weeks ago. Nadal is 35.
Yet despite their advanced ages (for professional sports, that is), for so long it seemed as if the three defied the laws of time and aging. Williams won the 2017 Australian Open at 35 and while pregnant, then returned to make the final in just her second major back after giving birth. Of course she could play at a high level into her 40s, right?
We’ve almost taken for granted their improbable dominance because it felt like they had been around forever, and would always continue to be. There have been obvious hints of the end in recent years, as the recoveries from injuries took longer than they once did and the level of play from the next generation of players continued to rise.
Despite that, the three have remained stalwarts in the top 10 and contenders in nearly every event they’ve played. Williams just fell out of the top 20 this month for the first time since her comeback in 2018, while Federer and Nadal are still in the top 10.
The 2017 Australian Open was Williams’ most recent Grand Slam victory, but she has reached four finals since returning from childbirth and made the semifinals at the last two hardcourt majors. Federer hasn’t won a major title since the Australian Open in 2018, but he played in one of the more memorable Wimbledon finals in 2019 and even made a quarterfinal run this summer at the All England Club despite having played a limited schedule leading in after recovering from multiple knee surgeries.
Heck, Nadal won the (coronavirus-delayed) 2020 French Open less than a year ago. For so long, every time it seemed one of the three was counted out, they found a way to stave off the doubters yet again.
But it doesn’t feel like that now. While they all certainly could play again and make runs at their favorite majors in 2022, that no longer is a given. And each tournament they enter, each match they’re able to play, could be the last.
No one knew 24 years ago at the US Open that the tides of the sport were about to change and three of the greatest athletes of all time would soon be ascending up the ranks and into the history books. Just like no one knew the 2020 French Open might have been the last time Williams, Federer and Nadal would all be playing in the same major.
After Williams lost to Naomi Osaka in the semifinals at the Australian Open in February, she put her hand over her heart before emotionally waving to the crowd. She declined to answer when asked if it was a farewell to the Melbourne fans, but ultimately tearfully conceded: “I don’t know. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
In her statement on social media on Wednesday, Williams said she wanted to give her hamstring time to heal and concluded with, “I’ll see you soon.” Whether that means in a tennis tournament or elsewhere remains to be seen, but no matter what happens next for her, Federer or Nadal, their mark on the game will be felt for generations.
There may never be such a bright group of superstars playing at the same time again, but their indelible legacy will live on through all of the current and future players who first picked up a racket after watching Williams, Federer or Nadal.