One grew up on an outer island in the Mediterranean. The other was reared in the inner city in California.
Everyone knows Rafa Nadal is the king of clay. Many say Serena is the queen of everything.
Both Serena and Rafa were raised by close-knit clans. Richard Williams was long Serena’s coach and Uncle Toni Nadal insisted Rafa play left-handed and guided him to glory.
Both Williams and Nadal began their careers with distinct but soon-to-be discarded accessories. Serena played with colorful beads in her hair. No one but Rafa has won a Slam in pirate pants. Of course, both he and Serena have singular bodies that impress, and unique forehands that impose.
Serena has won 23 Slams, just one short of Margaret Court, while Rafa “only” has 22. But that’s two more than Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Both Serena and Rafa are prone to fist pumps after key winners that turn matches around, although Serena yells “C’mon!” and Rafa barks “Vamos!” The duo have long been the most intense competitors in the game.
Serena now has a four-year-old daughter, and Rafa will soon be a dad. Both have wide-ranging interests. While Serena isn’t into other sports, Rafa loves the solitude of fishing, and he’s real good at right-handed golf (he came in fourth at a recent tournament). Unlike Serena, the Spaniard didn’t recently raise $111 million for a capital fund, and we haven’t yet seen him at the Academy Awards, in a Super Bowl commercial or at a Met Gala. But he has his own tennis Academy. Goodness, to win his 14th French Open earlier this month he had to beat a graduate of his own academy, Casper Ruud.
Serena has had to beat many foes who idolized her, but she never had to do that. Then again, Rafa doesn’t have a sibling with a planetary name who’s won seven Slams. And while it’s true that, perhaps more than anyone, Rafa has fire in his belly, he’s never won a major, like the pregnant Serena did in 2017, with a baby in his belly.
When Rafa Nadal told a hushed Paris press conference after he won the French Open that he would need surgery, most imagined he’d miss Wimbledon. But Rafa defies medical logic. Soon he put aside his crutches and laced up his Nikes. For the first time in three years he was on Centre Court, against No. 41 Francisco Cerundolo. But the Argentine took the third set and was up a break in the fourth. Nadal was on his back feet and reeling. But not for long.
Rafa tapped into his inner Rafa. “After being on his back foot for over an hour,” noted the BBC, “he went from total despair to total joy.” He prevailed 6-4, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. “The calendar Slam is still alive and so is the dream of his 23rd Slam.”
More than anything, Nadal was ecstatic to survive and forge on. “The most important thing,” said Rafa, “is that I am in Wimbledon 2022 and I won.”
The other day Serena said, “I’ve always been a Rafa fan. I named my dog after him…I’m always rooting for Rafa. He’s been really inspiring.”
Rafa responded, “It’s great to hear these beautiful things from one of the biggest female athletes in the history of sport…[Her comeback] shows the passion and love for the game…[it] is so difficult to come back, no?…And that’s a great example.”
But there was doubt.
“This is Serena Williams, this is Wimbledon, we don’t know what to expect,” said Martina Navratilova.
At 7:16 PM Tuesday, after a long year of absence, the greatest woman to ever lift a racket was back. But Serena’s game wasn’t. Her serve was slow and she netted a forehand. Then came a wide backhand and a wild swinging forehand volley. In two minutes she lost the first game. There were murmurs and nervous applause. After all, her well-named French foe, Harmony Tan, rarely strikes fear. Her shots are soft, her ranking is low – No. 113.
The mood was tense. “C’mon, Serena!” quickly became a mantra.
Williams, whose serve is the best in WTA history, was only hitting 94-mph first serves and 79-mph second serves. She lost six of the first eight points. “Voila!” (there you have it) called out a fan.
Deep into a marathon fourth game of the opening set there was a classic sequence. Harmony hit a drop shot, then a lob, then another drop shot, breaking Serena. But Serena had had enough. She blasted a not very harmonious overhead and soon broke back to regain the momentum and even the first set 2-2. The GOAT seemed back in gear. Surely she would dominate. She broke Tan, who was playing her first Wimbledon and was just 2-6 in Slams. Serena was 365-54.
But this is a different era. These days Serena doesn’t intimidate like before. She doesn’t win matches before she steps out on court. Players have hope. And Tan is different, too. A Parisian, whose parents are from Vietnam and Cambodia, Tan hits softly and loves drop shots. She serves and volleys, keeps the ball low and has more side slices than your local deli. “I haven’t ever seen the ball move backwards so much,” quipped Jo Konta.
Harmony frustrated Wonder Woman. Serena’s serve failed to punish. She lunged, was off balance, had little rhythm and too much rust. There were pained expressions. She slapped her thigh.
Tan battled and opened the court, broke at 5-5 and captured the first set. Then the roof closed and Serena prevailed on her eighth break point of the nearly 20-minute second game of the second set. She gained the second set in a flash, 6-1, and raced to a 3-1 third set lead.
But Tan struck back. Alert, believing, and running Serena to the corners, Tan drew errors and shrieks and came back to lead 4-3. Then Serena held and soon hit a fabulous crosscourt forehand drop shot that kissed the line and Tan netted a nervous volley. Serena broke and lifted her fists to the sky – sheer ecstasy. But Tan now hit out more and broke back to lead 6-5. Soon she had a match point.
One thought of other brave but aging legends. Willie Mays playing for the New York Mets, Muhammad Ali fighting too many fights. But never underestimate Serena. She blasted a forehand volley to survive her match point and won seven points in a row to go up 4-0 in the decisive tiebreak. But Harmony once again struck back. Never mind hitting 69-mph serves, won five points in a row to go up 5-4. Tan slowly ground down the laboring champion and on her second match point, after 3:11, Serena hit a rally forehand into the net and Tan prevailed 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (7).
Centre Court is now in its 100th year, but there have been few mightier first-round battles.
Twenty-four years after her first Wimbledon match, Serena fell. Not screaming and in agony like last year, but after a gallant battle. Ten years ago Serena lost to another French woman Virginie Razzano. The match was a mid-career crisis that turned a lot around for Williams. But now we wonder, “Will she ever come back to Centre Court? Can she ever tie Margaret Court’s record 24 Slams?”
On this day, in which the 35-year-old Rafa Nadal managed to survive, the greatest woman athlete of all time fell in a glorious battle that will be long remembered.
SERENA THE GAME CHANGER: Serena came into her press conference wearing a shirt that read, “Be a game changer.” When we asked her what it meant to be a game changer she said, “Just don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t be afraid to stand out…That’s been me. I love changing the game. I think that’s something that I never kind of set out to do, and then somehow I did it. Somehow I’m Serena. That’s pretty awesome.”
COVID STRIKES: While COVID had devastating effects on the Australian and US Opens, Wimbledon seemed to have fared relatively well. It had bought crisis insurance so it was not devastated financially when play was canceled in 2020. Last year the crowds were limited, but the tourney went on. Today there was stunning news. Both last year’s finalist, Matteo Berrettini, and former US Open champion Marin Cilic withdrew due to COVID. Both are on Rafa’s half of the draw.
OF NOTE: UCLA product Max Cressy upset No. 6 Felix Auger-Alliasime in four sets…John Isner hit 54 aces in his first match, which was just one less than all of the aces hit in a men’s singles match on Centre Court this year….Coco Gauff came from behind to prevail in three sets against Romanian Elena Ruse…Steve Johnson advanced when Grigor Dimitrov had to pull out of their first-round match.
YESTERDAY’S FOOL IS TODAY’S GENIUS: Nick Kyrgios recalled that when he first hit an underarm serve a few years ago against Rafa Nadal in Acapulco, people were shocked. “What an ethical violation!” they claimed – the game had been disrespected. But last night when Andy Murray hit an underarm serve for a winner he was considered a genius.