NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe talks with ESPN’s Chris Fowler about what the retirements of two tennis stars, Serena Williams and Roger Federer, mean for the sport.
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
For more than 20 years, two names have dominated the world of tennis – Serena Williams and Roger Federer. The two can brag about winning a whopping 43 Grand Slam titles between them. But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. In just a five-week span, the two veteran superstars announced their retirements. Chris Fowler of ESPN joins us now to talk about these two amazing careers and more. Welcome to the program.
CHRIS FOWLER: Well, thank you. I appreciate it.
RASCOE: You know, for so many of us, it’s like we can’t even remember what tennis was like before Serena and Roger. Like, that’s a testament to their longevity, right?
FOWLER: Absolutely. I mean, I feel blessed to be along for the ride as they’ve played far longer than they thought and achieved more than they thought they would. And they’ve been, you know, two of the most popular athletes, period.
RASCOE: I mean, these retirements – they’re not super surprising because tennis is, like, really a young person’s game, right? Not that their ages are old, but for tennis, they’re on up there.
FOWLER: Yeah, they have. But, you know, I think they’ve helped reshape people’s ideas about what’s up there and when over the hill is because, yes, in the old days when tennis was far less physical, there were players who played into the late 30s. But then as the sport became so much more demanding and the schedule more punishing, it was definitely a young person’s sport. And then along comes Serena and wins a Grand Slam when she’s pregnant and then goes and plays four more Grand Slam finals as a mom. And Roger just continues to, you know, age gracefully. I think people began to realize that with these examples more was possible than they thought.
RASCOE: Williams is 40 and Federer is 41. So what legacy are these two amazing players leaving behind?
FOWLER: Well, what they achieved is one thing. But even more important than that, as Maya Angelou said, it’s how they make us feel. How did Serena make people feel with her competitiveness, her ferocity, her tenacity, her will? Roger, obviously, on court, a very different persona. Yes, he was tough, and he could win a street fight if he had to. But that wasn’t his MO. The sheer beauty of the points that he played, I think, was something that people will never forget.
RASCOE: And, you know, I don’t want to get emotional, but my grandmother was a huge fan of the Williams sisters, and she started watching tennis because of them. And she became a huge tennis fan. She would watch every match, even if it was, like, 2 in the morning. She’d be like, I have to watch my girls. Obviously, she grew up in the ’20s in the very segregated South, so she was not able to play tennis. But she would say, if I could’ve, I would’ve played tennis. I would’ve been out there.
FOWLER: I love that. I love that.
RASCOE: I think that’s the sort of legacy that they left – it was just that they inspired people and – who had never even thought of things like that.
FOWLER: Yeah, regular folks to get on the court and also look at the obvious legacy in women’s tennis that Serena has left, you know, with Black players in the US and abroad who are very vocal about why they picked up a racket, why they thought that all things were possible for them – is because of her example.
RASCOE: You obviously were up close for many of their matches. Do you have a favorite memory from each of them?
FOWLER: Man, it’s hard. What I’ll remember about Roger is that he could handle these stinging defeats, you know, losing the lead in the fifth set. So Nadal of the – Wimbledon Final, before they had a roof, when the darkness was closing in – you know, the losses were far outnumbered by the wins. But the way he took those losses – his fans were devastated. Roger would just bounce back quicker. And I think that’s one of the things that led to his longevity and his love and his passion for the game.
RASCOE: And what about Serena?
FOWLER: Serena, I just think of the fighter. I just think of those Serena roars. I mean, that’s just a sound that reverberated from the court to the cheapest seats in Arthur Ashe Stadium and everywhere she played. Unforgettable battles where she would pull back matches that seemed to be lost.
RASCOE: Many tennis writers say that the past 10 to 20 years have been a golden age of professional tennis. Is this the end of that era?
FOWLER: I mean, it’s the end of an era for sure. I mean, the effect that Serena had elevating women’s tennis, forcing players to improve, to work on their games. And Federer had the same impact on men’s tennis. But, you know, the beautiful thing about sport is that the void and the vacuums are filled. And because of the example they set, the sport is better and touches more people from different backgrounds and groups than ever before. So I think it’s in good hands. But yeah, that era was a golden era.
RASCOE: Chris Fowler of ESPN, thank you so much for being with us.
FOWLER: My pleasure. Enjoyed it.
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