French Open: As big birthdays loom, will Serena and Federer still have 40 love for tennis?

By Sports Desk May 29, 2021

Roland Garros, Wimbledon, the US Open, the Olympic Games, Indian Wells: this year's tennis calendar is not lacking in red-ringed dates.

But August 8 and September 26 are majorly notable in that they will mark the 40th birthdays of Roger Federer and Serena Williams, respectively.

Federer's birthday falls on the final day of the Tokyo Olympics, while Williams reaches the same landmark a fortnight after the US Open women's singles final.

Both have kept their future plans quiet, but it would come as no major surprise if one, or both, were to retire by the end of the year.

Fellow grand slam greats Venus Williams, Andy Murray and Kim Clijsters may also be a matter of months away from bowing out of the professional ranks.

Will life after tennis begin at 40 for Williams and Federer, or could the superstar pair return to the French Open in 2022?

Stats Perform looked at the players who may be considering their futures, what they still want to achieve, and their prospects of attaining those remaining goals.

Federer's final fling?

Ahead of his 30th, Federer was asked what it felt like to hit such a milestone.

"Birthdays happen. They're part of life," Federer said. "I'm happy I'm getting older. I'd rather be 30 than 20, to be honest. To me it's a nice time."

A decade on, Federer may be similarly equanimous about hitting 40. Family life is good, he'll never need to borrow a dollar, and he has advanced from 16 grand slams to 20.

But the knees would sooner be 30 than 40, and Federer, remarkable sportsman though he is, is coming to the end of the line in his tennis career. It will hurt the Fedfans to think so, but all the evidence points to it. We are probably witnessing a lap of honour.

Having won Roland Garros only once at his peak, we can surely forget the prospect of any heroics in Paris. Federer needs to win a few rounds though, in order to be sharp and battle-hardened for the grass season. Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open are events where you might give a fit Federer a chance, even at such a veteran age, but he has played only three matches since the 2020 Australian Open, losing two of those.

Target: Federer has never settled for second best, so he will want to be a tournament winner again, no doubt about it. The hunger does not go away after 20 grand slams, but it can be more difficult to sate.

Prospects: Slim, but not forlorn. So much of Federer's game is about feel and ease of movement, and assuming that knee surgery last year means the body is in good shape again, he should be able to call on those staples of his game. Key missing ingredients are the confidence that comes with beating rivals, and match fitness. Federer's 1,243 wins and 103 singles titles count for an awful lot still, and there could be one final hurrah before the Swiss great signs off.

Serena still one short of Court

From precocious teenager to queen of the tour, Williams' tennis journey has been a 25-year odyssey and there is nobody more driven to succeed than the great American.

It must be an intense frustration that she remains rooted on 23 grand slams, one short of Margaret Court's record haul, and the four grand slam final losses she has suffered while on that mark have been cruel blows.

As her 40th birthday approaches, it would not be a surprise if Williams reached that target, but what once felt inevitable now only has the air of being a possibility. She is becoming less of a factor when looking at title favourites, but Williams is still capable of beating top players, still a threat wherever she shows up.

Target: The 24th slam remains the must-have for Williams. Tour titles feel like an irrelevance, and Williams has won just one of those since January 2017, her calendar built around peaking for the majors since returning from giving birth to daughter Olympia.

Prospects: Beating Aryna Sabalenka and Simona Halep at the Australian Open demonstrated Williams still has the game for the big stage, and a semi-final defeat to Naomi Osaka, to whom she has now lost in three of four encounters, should not particularly detract from that. Williams is playing on clay primarily to get in great shape for grass, because Wimbledon, where she plays the surface with a command that others can only envy, is where that elusive 24th slam looks most likely to come.

Amid losing streak, tennis waits to learn what Venus infers

Some suspect that the Williams sisters, having arrived on tour together, might bow out at the same time too. Venus has won 49 WTA Tour-level titles but has recently slipped out of the top 100 for the first time since early 2012. Ahead of turning 41 in June, it is hard to see her being a reliable force again.

The seven-time slam winner will be needing wildcards for the grand slams unless the wins start to flow, and naturally she should have no trouble getting those backdoor tournament entries, but for a player of her stature, losing in the first round most weeks can offer little satisfaction.

It is 21 years since Venus' greatest tennis summer, when she won the Wimbledon, Stanford, San Diego, New Haven, US Open and Olympics singles titles, along with doubles glory alongside Serena at the Olympics and Wimbledon.

Nevertheless, she said at the Australian Open in February: "I'm trying to get better every day. I think that no matter what happens to you in life, you always hold your head up high, you give a hundred million percent. That's what I do every single day. That's something that I can be proud of."

Target: Venus last won a singles slam in 2008, so forget that. A run to the second week of a slam is not entirely unimaginable, or she could stun a big name early on. Venus will want to wring every last drop from her career, but you suspect more than that, she would love to be there to watch her little sister win that 24th slam.

Prospects: Since a second-round exit to Elina Svitolina at the 2019 US Open, Venus has won only four matches at WTA level, and she is presently on a run of five consecutive defeats, which began with a 6-1 6-0 trouncing by Sara Errani at the last-64 stage of the Australian Open. Her last Wimbledon appearance resulted in a first-round loss to the then 15-year-old Coco Gauff two years ago, so even hopes of a resurgence at the event she has won five times appear somewhat remote.

We wish you a Murray summer

Once a grand slam nearly man, Murray banished that reputation with his US Open triumph and twin Wimbledon titles, not to mention the two Olympic gold medals, the Davis Cup victory, and the 14 Masters 1000 tournaments he won along the way, a big-time champion on every surface.

What a career, and it deserves a fitting ending. Murray is battling one injury after another and will miss the French Open, hoping his tired frame holds up to see him through Queen's Club, Wimbledon, the Olympic hat-trick bid and the US Open.

Target: He would probably say another slam is possible, if he can get healthy and stay that way. The 'if' there is doing an awful lot of heavy lifting though.

Prospects: Should Murray manage to stay injury-free, then it will be enthralling to see what he can achieve. However, since an unexpected title in Antwerp in October 2019, he has won just four matches on the ATP Tour and one in the Davis Cup. The resurfaced hip, the troublesome groin, the pains of being Andy Murray aged 34 are proving wearing on the Scot. If he is fit enough to feature at Wimbledon, it would be a joy to see him play even just one more great singles match on Centre Court. Admirers must hope Murray follows the pattern of his career by exceeding expectations, which are logically low.

Kim wildcard wonder?

If you missed the Clijsters comeback, it is hardly surprising, given she returned to the WTA tour after a near eight-year absence just weeks before the pandemic shut down tennis, and she has barely been seen since. The three-time US Open winner was dealt bum draws in her comeback year but gave Garbine Muguruza, Johanna Konta and Ekaterina Alexandrova enough to think about in the course of three first-round defeats.

Since losing behind closed doors in three sets to Alexandrova at the US Open, Clijsters has undergone knee surgery and had COVID-19, and she does not plan to play again until after Wimbledon.

Target: If Clijsters, who turns 38 in June, can build up form and fitness, then some kinder draws would be a fitting reward for persistence. She could have quietly called time on this comeback, but the former world number one is a fighter, and it would be fitting, perhaps, if her career were to end with a night session match in front of a packed Arthur Ashe Court at Flushing Meadows. The Belgian's intentions are not entirely clear, but that prospect must have crossed her mind.

Prospects: The New York wildcard would be assured if Clijsters can show she is in any sort of form, given her US Open history. Clijsters' immediate potential is entirely unclear, but she had the highest game-winning percentage (66.7 per cent) of any woman in World Team Tennis last year, and Jessica Pegula, Sofia Kenin and Jennifer Brady were all part of that competition. Bring that game to a major and we're talking.

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    A British singles wipe-out looked to be on the cards for the second time in four editions in Paris when Norrie trailed 4-2 in the deciding set on Suzanne Lenglen but he fought back to defeat Frenchman Paire 7-5 4-6 3-6 6-1 6-4 and silence the lively home crowd.

    A key moment occurred in the third game of the second set when, with Norrie serving at 30-30, umpire Nico Helwerth docked the 14th seed a point for a hindrance, claiming he had shouted out during play.

    Paire went on to break serve and, although Norrie kept his protest brief on court, he made it clear in the press conference room just how unhappy he was.

    “I think both of us didn’t know why he called it,” said Norrie. “I think Benoit thought it was for him, both of us were a bit confused. It was for sure a grunt. It was a big point. I don’t know why he felt it was necessary to get involved there. He gave me no warning whatsoever.

    “It ultimately changed the momentum of the match. I was holding pretty comfortably, for the most part, up until that point. The next point Benoit had a winner and then I was a break down.

    “It was strange. He must have thought that I said something, and I think for him to get involved there was absurd.”

    Norrie cited another decision on Sunday against Dan Evans, when the British player was foot-faulted by a line judge at the far end of the court for his back foot crossing the centre line.

    “I watched that and he was nowhere near foot-faulting and the guy is calling him on the other side of the net,” said Norrie.

    “What are we doing here? I’m here playing tennis, competing as hard as I can, and to do that, a pretty big point. Maybe if I spoke to him now he thinks he’s wrong but, at the end of the day, I’m fighting my a**e off and one call could obviously influence the match.

    “I did my best to try and not let it bother me. I’ve never been called for that before ever. I think it’s obviously unacceptable – that’s my point of view – but, if he makes a decision wrong, there’s no consequences. And, for me, if I do something wrong, there’s consequences.”

    Paire, possessor of one of the best beards in sport but not one of the best temperaments, has toyed with retirement at the age of 34 and came into the event as a wild card ranked 134.

    When they met in the same round at the US Open last summer, Norrie won two lightning quick sets 6-0 either side of a competitive second, with Paire packing up his bag before the match had finished.

    But his attitude was very different here and he probably should have won a scrappy first set after leading by a break and having seven more break points.

    Norrie has struggled for form over the past couple of months and was unable to wrest the momentum back from Paire during the second and third sets, with the crowd getting ever more involved, breaking out the Marseillaise and the Mexican wave.

    The Frenchman seemed to settle for a decider after going an early break down in the fourth, and he looked on his way to victory when Norrie handed over another break to start the fifth, but the British number one was eventually rewarded for his probing.

    He can expect a similar atmosphere in the next round, when he takes on a resurgent Lucas Pouille, who has been the toast of Roland Garros this week after coming through qualifying following injury and personal problems.

    Norrie relishes such occasions, saying: “I think it’s great to play those matches in grand slams against home favourites, and I think that’s why I play tennis. That’s why I love those moments.

    “To be on the flip side of that is difficult at times. I think the crowd can be tough at times, but I keep reminding myself it’s good to be playing, that I want to be out there competing and being in those tough moments when the crowd is against me.

    “It makes it even better to come through those matches, so it was really cool to play on that court and against Benoit, who was competing really hard and also he came with a good level today.

    “I didn’t play my best, and there’s a lot of the things I want to work on in practice tomorrow, but it’s good to get through it and nice to win a five-set match.”

  • Jack Draper is ‘mentally destroyed’ after injury forces French Open retirement Jack Draper is ‘mentally destroyed’ after injury forces French Open retirement

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    The 21-year-old has struggled with hip and abdominal issues this season but declared himself fully fit ahead of the year’s second grand slam.

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    “Yesterday during practice when I was hitting serves, I started to feel a bit of a twinge at the bottom of my shoulder,” said Draper.

    “I took all the things I needed to go on court today, hoping it would settle down. But it didn’t. It got worse. I had every intention to try to compete and play well, but after the first game it was clear that it was very sore.

    “I hate being the guy who is injured a lot. It’s difficult. Mentally, it’s extremely tough, tougher than playing and losing almost.

    “I put in a lot of work. I had a good week last week and I’m coming here feeling optimistic but it’s not meant to be. I feel a bit mentally destroyed.”

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    He is optimistic this issue will not seriously impact his grass-court prospects, with Wimbledon starting in five weeks.

    “I said to my coach in the first set, ‘I’m not retiring from another match’,” said a dejected Draper. “I don’t want to do this. Even if I had to play three sets serving underarm, I don’t care, I just wanted to play.

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    “I’d almost maybe be happier in the future if I lost first or second round, to make sure I’m not coming back off a five week lay-off and winning three or two matches at a high level,” he said.

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  • Cameron Norrie comes through five-set battle with home favourite Benoit Paire Cameron Norrie comes through five-set battle with home favourite Benoit Paire

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    There looked set to be a British wipe-out for the second time in four editions in Paris when Norrie trailed 4-2 in the deciding set on Suzanne Lenglen after Jack Draper was forced to retire injured.

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    And he can expect more of the same in the second round when he takes on a resurgent Lucas Pouille, who has been the toast of Roland Garros this week after coming through qualifying following injury and personal problems.

    “It was an amazing match,” said Norrie. “All credit to Benoit. He played really well. He made it really difficult. Great atmosphere, thank you to everyone for the support both ways, it was amazing. I’m pleased to be through after a really tough one.”

    Paire, possessor of one of the best beards in sport but not one of the best temperaments, has toyed with retirement at the age of 34 and came into the event as a wild card ranked 134.

    When they met in the same round at the US Open last summer, Norrie won two lightning quick sets 6-0 either side of a competitive second, with Paire packing up his bag before the match had finished.

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    The crowd were in full voice when Paire managed to hold to level the match, and the French national anthem boomed around Suzanne Lenglen when their man broke again to lead 2-1 in the third set.

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    But the British number one did not allow his head to drop and his probing earned dividends with a break back for 4-4 before Paire finally cracked.

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