LONDON. — It might not be quite the end of an era at Wimbledon this year but we appear to be approaching it with Serena Williams only confirming last week that she would play after 12 months out, while Swiss tennis star Roger Federer is absent from the main draw for the first time since 1998.
Rafael Nadal’s participation has been in doubt because of a chronic foot injury that has the potential to end his career, while Andy Murray’s preparations have been hampered by an abdominal strain that forced him to miss Queen’s.
Defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic is due on Centre Court on the opening Monday, but with 2020 women’s victor Ashleigh Barty retiring in March, many of the multiple Grand Slam champions have had an anxious build-up to SW19.
We assess whether this could be the endgame for at least some of the players who have dominated the race to be crowned the GOAT — greatest of all time — of tennis. And we take a look at the youngsters hoping to step into the spotlight.
END OF AN ERA?
The last time Wimbledon was held without a Williams sister was 1996, when Steffi Graf won her seventh and final title, a 21-year-old Tim Henman made his first run into the second week and the old Court One was still in use.
American Venus Williams – herself a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion — made her Wimbledon singles debut in 1997 with Serena joining her from the following year.
Venus, who was 42 on June 17, has only missed one Wimbledon since 1997 but has not played since last summer and will not be in London this year.
Serena (40) has been absent since last year’s tournament, when she tearfully retired from her first-round match after injuring herself slipping on Centre Court.
She only returned to the tour this week, taking a wildcard into the doubles at Eastbourne as preparation for participation in the singles at Wimbledon, where she also needed a wildcard.
Given her age, injury issues and long absence from the tour, could this be her Wimbledon farewell? The Centre Court spectators are sure to be studying her body language when she walks off for the final time at this year’s tournament.
Barring an incredible comeback, it seems highly likely her Grand Slam singles title tally will forever remain on 23, one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record. She reached four Grand Slam finals after returning from maternity leave in 2018 but, so far, has been unable to secure the coveted 24th.
Absent from the entry list for this year’s Wimbledon is fellow 40-year-old Federer.
Similarly, he hasn’t been seen on a tennis court since the 2021 tournament, when he also endured a painful exit, losing in straight sets to Hubert Hurkacz in the quarter-finals.
The Centre Court crowd watched uneasily as the third of those sets was lost 6-0 and within weeks he required a third knee operation, which he said would give him “a glimmer of hope” to return to action.
Swiss Federer, the winner of eight Wimbledons and 20 Grand Slam titles overall, has been very careful in his rehabilitation. He is scheduled to play the Laver Cup in London in September before a return to the ATP Tour in his home city of Basel in October. He said earlier this month he “definitely” wanted to continue playing in 2023.
However, having played only 19 competitive matches since the start of 2020, there has to be serious doubt over whether his body will allow a meaningful comeback.
His long-time rival Nadal (36) has had to manage his own injury problems in recent years, most notably that foot problem, but he has somehow managed to win the Australian and French Opens in 2022 to move clear of Federer and Djokovic on 22 Grand Slams, a men’s record.
Straight after his record-extending 14th Roland Garros title, the Spaniard said he “doesn’t want to keep playing” if he continues to need anaesthetic injections to numb his chronic pain, which is caused by Mueller-Weiss syndrome – a rare degenerative condition that affects bones in the feet.
Nadal had radiofrequency ablation treatment – a procedure which uses heat on the nerve to quell long-term pain – after returning from Paris. He has since said he “intends” to play Wimbledon after the pain “subsided”.
Britain’s Murray (35) has been even more affected by injuries, requiring a hip resurfacing operation in January 2019. The 2013 and 2016 Wimbledon champion has had to deal with a series of niggling issues since then, the latest being the abdominal problem that flared up in the Stuttgart Open final, which he lost to Matteo Berrettini.
If he manages to recover for Wimbledon, no player would be happy to draw the unseeded Murray in the first round.
Djokovic, a week younger than Murray, seems to be clear of serious injury concerns and appears likeliest to be the last man standing. However, his push to move clear in the GOAT race stalled when he was deported from Australia before the Australian Open in January for not having the Covid-19 vaccine. While there are no such restrictions for Wimbledon, he could still be prevented from entering the United States for the US Open if he remains unvaccinated.
WHO COMES NEXT?
The post-GOAT era has long been anticipated but is yet to properly arrive, at least on the men’s side. Since the start of 2004, Nadal, Djokovic and Federer have hoovered up 61 of the 73 Grand Slam singles titles, with Murray and Stan Wawrinka sharing six of the remaining 12. — BBC Sport.