Still, arguments for a player’s G.O.A.T. status have never relied solely on statistical justification; the full picture of an athlete’s career matters, too. Williams’s narrative has always been heavily grounded in the circumstances of her ascension. She’s the quintessential outsider-turned-icon, having overcome remarkable odds to enter a sport that didn’t welcome her with open arms before proceeding to dominate it. She began playing tennis during her childhood in Compton, California, far from a traditional hotbed of tennis talent, where she worked under the instruction of her father and coach, Richard Williams. She spent the early stages of her career in the shadow of her big sister, Venus Williams, a former world No. 1 who has won seven grand-slam singles titles of her own.
On the court, Serena Williams combines raw power with courageous shot making in a manner that tends to overwhelm even her most talented opponents. In the first round of this year’s U.S. Open, she will face the five-time grand-slam singles champion Maria Sharapova, an accomplished player whose game breaks down just about every time she faces Williams. Everything that Williams has achieved—often despite inordinately hostile conditions—affirms her virtuosity.
In the case of Federer, it’s the specific way he plays the game that’s always enthralled so many. The quality of his shot making and the seeming ease with which he annihilates competitors are unparalleled in the history of men’s tennis. There are legions of YouTube playlists documenting the incredible winners Federer has hit over the years. As the American player Sam Querrey so succinctly put it, “He hits shots that other guys don’t hit,” and Federer tends to do so without ever evincing a sense of effort. Even John McEnroe, who in his day was considered the game’s greatest shot maker and a true artist with a racket, made tennis look grueling. Federer is the rare athlete capable of inspiring a literary wunderkind to liken the experience of watching him play to religious fervor, and a dance critic to rhapsodize about the grace of his physical presence. Federer’s staunchest advocates present him as less an athlete than as the Platonic ideal of a sport in which aesthetic appeal holds special cachet.
Unfortunately for them and their fans, Williams and Federer face uphill battles at the 2019 U.S. Open. Williams hasn’t won a grand-slam title since the 2017 Australian Open; she’s played in three grand-slam finals since then and lost each of those contests in straight sets. Federer hasn’t won a grand-slam title since 2018 and has failed to advance past the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in each of the past two years. (Last year, Federer lost to the Australian journeyman John Millman in the fourth round, one of the few matches in which his tennis looked anything but effortless.) Should Williams advance to the final of the women’s draw, she’ll have to overcome her recent struggles in culminating matches of majors. For his part, Federer will have to prove that he has put the 2019 Wimbledon final, which he lost to Djokovic despite holding two match points on his serve, behind him.
It’s not every day that an athlete who has already achieved the unprecedented steps onto the field of play with so much on the line, but that’s the best way to describe Serena Williams and Roger Federer at the onset of the U.S. Open. These two champions are as compelling now as they’ve ever been.