The Return of Two Very Different Champions

Roger Federer and Serena Williams are US Open champions and two very different people.

I’m not really sure how he did it. Roger Federer lost to Gilles Simon, Ivo Karlovic, and James Blake in consecutive hard court events and yet here he is, US Open champion for the fifth straight year.

I know how Serena Williams did it. She won her US Open title with superior will. Roger and Serena are an interesting study in contrast. Federer depends on settling into his fluid game so he can just forget about it and focus on a strategy to beat the other guy. Serena has been known to take notes onto the court with reminders for her game. When it comes to strategy, she relies on overpowering her opponent as much as outthinking them.

And Roger did outthink Andy Murray. The most he’d say about his strategy was the following:

I realized coming in against him, chip and charging in the third set was going to be a good solution.

I’m pretty sure Murray has never seen that many slices in his entire life. The poor guy didn’t seem to know whether he was coming or going. To the net, that is. Though he didn’t elaborate beyond that when it came to strategy, Roger was outright sharing when it came to his state of mind:

You know, I lost quite a few matches I should have never lost, and they hurt.

And then there was this:

I actually beat some really good players in tough conditions, and the relief was enormous as I was progressing in the tournament.

and this:

Those are the reasons I had to four times show a lot of emotion at the very end [of his semifinal with Djokovic]. But it’s true that I am trying to push myself, you know, not to be actually more emotional, but to try to play well.

which clarifies the situation. I think. He’s not pushing himself to be more emotional, he’s using emotion to get himself to play better. By which, I take it, he means that he was so dominant in past years and his game was so automatic that he didn’t need to do anything but stay relaxed enough to hit his strokes well and carry out his game strategy.

And that brings up emotional contrasts between Roger and Serena. Roger depends on an easygoing existence with little or no controversy. I think he once called out Novak Djokovic for injury timeouts and he suffered through the death of his mentor Peter Carter early in his career, but no one on tour has a bad thing to say about him and life has been a bowl of cherries for the past five years except for a bout of mononucleosis and some unexpected losses this year. Those don’t qualify as controversy as much as physical hardship and, to some degree, the result of playing a high level of tennis for a long time.

Serena has had dealt with more controversy than any other current player I can think of except maybe her sister Venus. Their father Richard often makes absurd comments about race but the sisters have heard racist taunts from spectators. Serena was mercilessly booed when Venus pulled out a semifinal match against Serena at the last minute in the 2001 Indian Wells tournament. Two years later, her older sister Yetunde was shot and killed about a mile away from the courts in Compton where Serena and Venus played growing up.

The Williams family may have been complicit in what happened in Indian Wells but the other stuff is indicative of life as a black family in the US. You can only outrun your neighborhood so far in this country. And for all the stability of life in Switzerland that Roger works hard to maintain in his own life, Serena hasn’t even been able to limit herself to the life of a tennis player. Life is nothing if not complex for her. By the way, how’d you like to have to go through your sister to win your championship? Most people probably don’t even know that Roger has a sister.

Both Serena and Venus have their own lines of clothing though they studied at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, not at the feet of Vogue editor Anna Wintour – friend of Roger. I’m not being catty here as much as pointing out that the celebrity thing is also complex. Oscar de la Renta came to Roger’s final but the sisters actually have their own lines of clothing.

Roger seems perfectly comfortable in the limelight as a famous tennis player but Serena actively pursues celebrity beyond the world of tennis. She’s appeared in movie and television roles and dated a Hollywood director for which she received endless grief from people like Chris Evert because, we keep telling her, tennis is a demanding parent. You can’t hope to be one of the best of all time without slavish devotion to the task. But that wasn’t the task she was devoted to and she doesn’t plan to change that as she explained last week:

There are some things I’m doing outside with ANERES [her clothing line] and I have meetings right after this tournament with ANERES. Those are going to be long and tedious, but that’s what I have to do. It’s the time of year I start looking at scripts again.

Roger and Serena are two very different personalities from different cultures and their careers have mirrored that difference. At this moment, though, they’re both in the same position at the top of the tennis world. Welcome back, both of you.