Roger Federer took the guesswork out of tennis from 2004 through 2007. Serena Williams is doing just the same thing nowadays.
In contrast, Pete Sampras was money in the bank at Wimbledon and a good bet to make a run at the US Open year in and year out. But he was far less reliable down under, and never mounted anything of a serious run at the French Open, thanks to his style of play.
For those mid-2000s, there was no surer bet than the Federer Express to make at least the quarterfinals, and usually the semifinals, too (he made 23 consecutive semifinals from 2004-2010 and 36 consecutive quarterfinals from 2004-2013). The men’s game had never seen such consistent dominance, the women’s not for 20 years.
At every tournament he entered, the salient question on the minds of spectators was not “Who will compete for the title?” but rather “How many sets did Federer lose en route to the title?” Before we entered the Federer era, and really the subsequent Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic-and-possibly-Andy Murray era, a player would have to get hot as a tournament began in order to make a run. Indeed, this happened often with many of Federer’s opponents during his heyday, memorably with players like Marcos Baghdatis (defeated in the 2006 Australian Open final) and Fernando Gonzalez (his victim at the same tournament in 2007).
Both had good draws, got hot at the right time, and made great runs to the final before hitting the brick wall that Federer was in those days. What set him apart, in my opinion, was that nobody turned defense into offense faster. For added background, remember that the Cypriot Baghdatis is tough as nails and never went down without a fight, and Gonzalez, a Chilean with a powerful serve, had never made much noise outside of the Olympics, where he won a bronze medal in singles and a gold in doubles at Athens in 2004 to go along with his singles silver won in Beijing four years later. The only person in those days who could dream of touching him was Nadal on the red clay of Paris, and in 2005, 2006, and 2007, his losses to Nadal represented one of less than ten defeats in each season (four, five, and nine, respectively). It was a staggering display of dominance that Nadal is now replicating in many ways.
Serena Williams is exhibiting a level of dominance not seen since the late 1980s, the apex of Steffi Graf’s abilities. Not since then, I think, has the competition been so definitively left behind.
The current number two is Victoria Azarenka, no slouch herself and a two-time Grand Slam winner. She is also one of the most notorious practitioners of gamesmanship, rarely ceding credit to her opponent when she can put it on herself or blame defeats on other factors. But even she can’t escape the fact that Serena has everyone’s number, saying after her loss, “It is a tough loss, but to be in the final and play against the best player — who deserves to win today — it’s incredible.”
Again, the defining characteristic of this dominance is when the pundits, in preparation for a tournament, toss around phrases like “It’s hard to pick against her,” or “Everything has to go right for so-and-so to have a chance.” Nobody in the 1990s, not Martina Hingis, not Jennifer Capriati, not even Justine Henin a few years later (though she was getting there) had that sort of consistency.
Don’t get me wrong; I love great, competitive, back and forth tennis. But I’m also a creature of habit. It’s comforting to know that in a world with so many variables, there are things that don’t change so easily. Maybe I just like seeing champions stay on top for a long time rather than just being flashes in the pan. Maybe I just like seeing them earn their way to the top and then figure out ways to stay there as long as possible. All I know is, I wasn’t a fan of Serena in her younger days, but winning changes everything. Federer changed everything. And that’s why they’re two of the greatest of all time.