What is common between the 2008 Wimbledon and the 2017 Australian Open finals? Well, no idea? No problem. It is hard to remember even the recent sporting facts when we get so much information through traditional and social media. The two tournaments have an amusing commonality. Both have the same finalists. The same players appeared in both the Men’s and Women’s sections despite the nine years that separated the tournaments.

Evergreen Heroes and Heroines

Sibling rivalry was on in the Women’s section in both the tournaments as Serene Williams took on Venus Williams. And the rivalry of big brothers illuminated the Men’s section as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal charged in for gladiatorial battles.

The Williams sisters first met each other in a final way back in 2001 – at the Flushing Meadows for the US Open crown. Venus won that final. Federer and Nadal first came head to head in a grand slam final in 2006 – at the Rolland Garros for the French Open title. Nadal reigned supreme in that match. After more than a decade of their first meeting at the grand stage, here they were at the Australian Open finals: the four contemporary tennis legends, shrugging off the challenges from the younger lot and standing tall to the myriad challenges posed by the passage of time.

All these players have their elite places in the pantheon of tennis greats. Among the four, only Venus can be accused of under-achieving. All the others have won everything that is there to win. So, another grand slam crown in the form of Australian Open is not a big deal. But it is not just a triumph in a tennis tournament. It is a counter-revolution of the athletes against Father Time.

Each player has played their part in this. Let us follow their journeys that culminated in the final of this year’s Australian Open.

Venus Williams

Venus Williams, born in 1980, was the first to make debut in tennis among the four players. She turned pro in 1994 at the unusually tender age of 14. She had almost all the skills she has now. As her physical strength increased, she started to win more matches. She reached the final of the US Open in 1997. She lost to Martina Hingis. Hingis was in top form at that time and Venus struggled to match her. However, she scaled greater heights from there.

The year 2000 was her breakthrough year. Even though she was just 20 years old at the time, she had already a seasoned pro with almost six years of experience. She won the Wimbledon and US Open that year. She repeated the feat next year too. By that time Serena had also established herself as a top rival. Venus found it hard to get past her sister in big matches. She reached several grand slam finals in the next few years. Still a title would not come. By 2004, Serena had established herself as the top player of the era. Venus’s form nosedived. She excelled only in the grass courts of the Wimbledon and other tournaments.

She kept on fighting hard and reaped the rewards in the Wimbledon. She won the Wimbledon title in 2005, 2007 and 2008. She defeated Serena in the final in 2008. Many predicted this would be a turn-around of fortunes for Venus. However, it was not. The 2008 win remains her last triumph at the grand slam arena. Even though she reached the final in the 2009 Wimbledon, she lost to Serena. From 2010 to 2016, Venus failed to reach the final of any grand slam event. In recent times, she had looked easily beatable. She celebrated her 36th birthday last year. People were hinting about her retirement.

This was the context in which she came to the Australian Open this year. Nobody expected her to reach even the semi finals. She is currently ranked 11th in the ATP rankings. Yet she defied all the odds and defeated much younger players. She could not win the title, but showed that age cannot diminish the tennis skills beyond an extent.

Serena Williams

Serena is one year younger to Venus. She made her debut one year after Venus too. But it was she who won the first grand slam in family. In 1999, Serena defeated Martina Hingis in the US Open final to lift her maiden grand slam title. She could not win a title in the next two years, as Venus dominated the courts. Serena snatched the upper hand in 2002. She won the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open that year. And she defeated Venus in the final of all three. There was no looking back for Serena from then on. Except in 2006, she managed to reach the final of at least one grand slam in every subsequent year. In 2006, she drifted away from tennis to concentrate more her fashion business and clothing line. She failed to win at least a grand slam title only in three seasons after 2002: 2004, 2006 and 2011. For the last 15 years, she is inarguably the top woman tennis player.

She is currently ranked number one in the world. She swept three grand slams in 2015. Many had expected her to win all the grand slams in 2016. But she faltered in the finals of the Australian Open and French Open. Though she won the Wimbledon, she lost out in the semi final of the US Open.

She is 35 now. But none of the younger contenders appear to have edge over her. It would not be a surprise if she wins all grand slams this year. It is a possibility. She was the favourite in Australian Open too. Unlike Venus, she still retains her agility and killer instincts. Among the four players in the Australian Open finals, she was the one certainty there. Everybody expected her to reach the finals and win the title. She duly obliged.

Roger Federer

Federer, born in 1981, is same age as Serena. He turned pro in 1998 – a year before Serena won her first grand slam. Federer had to wait for five more years to win his first grand slam. It happened in the 2003 Wimbledon. By that time he had stolen the hearts of tennis lovers all the over the world with his silken stroke-making, breathtakingly precise placements and graceful body language on the court. From 2004 to 2010, Federer was at his best. He was virtually unbeatable on grass and hard courts. In clay courts, especially in the French Open, Federer had two challenges. He had to slightly remodel his game. He was good enough to do that. However, the second challenge was almost beyond his ability: that of beating Rafael Nadal in Rolland Garros. Between 2003 and 2010, Federer won 16 grand slams. In three seasons – 2004, 2006 and 2007 – he won three of the four grand slam titles of the season. In 2006 and 2007, he reached the French Open finals but lost to Nadal. Finally in 2009, he won the French Open too. It has to be added that he did not face Nadal in the final, as the Spaniard had already been ousted. He looked well on course to win more matches. In 2010, he started well by winning the Australian Open.

He was playing well and his strokes were still deadly. But after the 2010 Australian Open, he struggled in the grand slams. He also had to deal with a new threat than Nadal: Novak Djokovic. Federer found it hard to overcome these two players. The fact that he was into his thirties did not help either. He managed to win the Wimbledon in 2012, beating Andy Murray. But that was that. He looked down and out in the subsequent years – getting beaten even by obscure players. Almost everybody wanted him to retire.

Sports champions are nothing if not their determination. Federer took all those defeats and humiliations in his stride and hung on gamely. He came to the Australian Open as the 17th seed. Nobody expected him to reach even the semi finals. His wins in the first rounds did not even attract much attention. His path was made easier by the exits of top seeds Andy Murray and Djokovic at the earlier round. He was at his best in the quarter final and semi final. His form improved as the tournament went on. Only when he reached the finals did the reality hit the tennis fans: that Federer is on the cusp of a 17th title at the age of 36.

Rafael Nadal

Nadal is the youngest of the four players covered here. He is only 31. He made his debut at the age 15 in 2003. At that time, like most Spanish players, he was labeled as a clay court specialist. He lived up to the label by winning the French Open in 2005 at the age of 19. For the next nine years till 2014, he was the undisputed king in clay courts. He won nine French Open crowns, losing out only in 2009. As the years passed by he improved his game in other surfaces as well. He won his first Wimbledon in 2008 and first Australian Open in 2009. For him, 2010 was the marquee year, in which he won all grand slam titles except the Australian Open. He was the only player who stood up to Federer and beat him more times than any other player.

After the French Open triumph in 2014, Nadal’s form nosedived as he started to fight with various injuries. Nadal plays an extremely physical game which focuses more on retrieving the ball than hitting the winner quickly. His style of play put a heavy toll on his body. As the years passed by, Nadal seemed unable to retain maintain his top game. He has not won any major title in the last few years. He was seeded ninth in the Australian Open. Nobody expected him to reach the finals as well. Not only did he reach the final, but he almost won the title too. He ultimately lost to Federer in a thrilling five-set contest.

Will the late spring continue?

Here they were, playing in the finals of Australian Open. All are past 30 and all are past their prime. Will there be an encore? Or, will the veterans’ charge keep going? The circumstances are helpful. Apart from Nadal, none of them fancy much at the French Open. However, Venus, Serena, Federer and Nadal are usually good at Wimbledon. If they can tame the likes of Murray and Djokovic, the same set of players could meet in the Wimbledon final. At least some of them may feature in the Wimbledon finals – if not all. But beyond that it is doubtful that this late spring will last. Let us enjoy while it is still in full bloom.

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