Top Dog Roger Federer and Queen Bee Serena Williams Make Roman Return

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Top Dog Roger Federer and Queen Bee Serena Williams Make Roman Return
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Roger Federer and Serena Williams bestride their respective tennis worlds rather as Everest and K2 dominate the Himalayas.

They may be just two amongst many world-beating champions, yet they remain the standard against which those others are measured.

They can be conquered by the fittest, most ambitious, most determined of individuals, just as those two mighty mountains can, but they remain head and shoulders above the rest. The rankings say it all.

Williams has topped the women’s tour since November 2009 and is currently more than 1,500 points clear of the field. Federer has topped the ATP rankings since Wimbledon 2009 and currently towers over the chasing pack by more than 3,000 points.

This is all the more striking because the two No. 1s of tennis have been notable by their absence since they both reasserted their superiority over the competition on the Grand Slam stage of the Australian Open.

Take Williams. Though she is clear of the pack in the rankings, she has played eight fewer tournaments in the last 12 months than second-place Caroline Wozniacki: just 16 events.

In fact, only one other player in the top 20 has played fewer tournaments than Williams, and that is Kim Clijsters, who only rejoined the tour last August.

Even more remarkable, though, is that Williams has played just two tournaments this year, reaching the finals in Sydney and winning the Australian Open. That’s just 11 matches, 10 of them wins.

She did add some court time to her year by playing—and winning—the doubles in Melbourne as well. But since then, she has been laid low by a knee injury, so she has not played a single match since the end of January.

Then last week, Williams pulled out of the Premier event in Charleston. She was not scheduled to play at Rome either, but the good news is that she just announced she has taken a wild-card entry for the Italian Open after all.

The return will be intriguing. How will her fitness be after three months with no match-play? Will she be prepared for the sudden transition to clay after her intensive fortnight in Melbourne brought the curtain down on her hard court season?

Well, somewhat surprisingly, she could actually gain ranking points over the next month or so. Last year, she was bounced out of Marbella, Rome, and Madrid in the first rounds, so she only has to win a few matches in Rome and Madrid to add substantial points.

Meanwhile, the rest of the top five women all have points to defend over the same period.

So despite her long break, and her failure to gain any court time or match wins since Australia, she is likely to hold that top spot for a while longer.

Federer’s time-line has been very similar. He has played just 16 matches so far in 2010, and lost three of them. Even taking into account Federer’s usual careful scheduling, this is a restrained start to the season.

For two years in succession, he was forced to pull out of Dubai: this year with a lung infection, last year with back problems.

Yet by this week a year ago—the second round of Monte Carlo—he had played 23 matches, for during March last year, Federer reached the semi-finals of both Indian Wells and Miami. This March, he lost early in both tournaments.

It came as a shock, therefore, that he declined the proffered wild card to the Monte Carlo Masters this week.

It’s surprising for several reasons.

It means he will have played just five matches in the three months between his victory in Melbourne and his appearance in Rome. During the same period last year, he played 12.

It also means he will have played no matches at all on clay once he does reach the Eternal City. Yet he squeezed in two rounds at Monte Carlo last year, despite getting married just a week earlier.

He appeared unaffected by either injury or illness during the North American tournaments, and left his final press conference saying that his early losses had made him all the more keen to get back to practice—after a short holiday. But he has not been seen since.

He may be soaking up sun in the Maldives, he could be holed up in his Dubai training camp, or he might be laying low in his Swiss home.

Whether he’s after some respite from the media, or some rest due to the lingering effects of that lung infection, he’s done it under the radar: no mean feat for one of the most sought-out sportsmen on the planet.

What stands out about these two champions, and their decisions so far in 2010 demonstrate this, is that they’ve both determined to achieve their own aims in their own way.

They have shunned calls to conformity: they don’t play more tournaments than they consider good for them, nor pull in coaches when things are not going right.

They are self-reliant, out-spoken, and strong-willed. They keep their family and friends close, seeming to draw confidence from their presence.

And if there is any doubt that their very individual handling of their careers is successful, look at the similarities in their records.

Williams has reached 15 Grand Slam singles finals and won 12, tying her in sixth place with Billie Jean King (Williams has 25 titles if doubles are added). Federer has reached 22 finals and won 16—an outright record.

Both are 28, and so have notched up Grand Slams over a wide time span. Williams’ first was in 1998 and her latest was this year, making her one of only three women ever to win a Slam in three different decades. Federer’s first was in 2003 and his most recent, too, was this year.

Their longevity also means they have outstanding statistics when it comes to holding the No. 1 ranking. Federer has the longest consecutive span at over four-and-a-half years. He is now only eight weeks shy of the total number of weeks held by Sampras.

Williams has accumulated rather fewer weeks, 98, the seventh highest by a woman. But she was year-end No. 1 as far back as 2002 and again, of course, in 2009.

Federer won his first ATP title in 2001 and has won at least three every year since (though he has failed to find a win so far in 2010).

Williams won her first WTA title in 1999 and has taken another title in every subsequent year barring 2006: a remarkable achievement bearing in mind her recurrent knee injuries and surgery through the middle of the last decade.

Both Federer and Williams, incidentally, won Olympic doubles gold in Beijing, too.

The durability and quality of their careers has had one further benefit commensurate with their achievements. They hold the records for both single-year earnings and career earnings.

And the figures are eye-watering: Williams has earned, respectively, $6.5 million and $30.5 million; Federer has earned more than $10 million and approaching $55.5 million.

So despite their unusual and, on the surface, undercooked preparations for Rome, and ultimately the French Open, it’s impossible to take issue with their decisions.

Williams won her first Italian Open title in 2002, and Federer was runner-up in 2003 and 2006, so both have a considerable incentive to lift the trophy this year.

They may march to their own tune when it comes to managing their tennis, but that tune seems to have reaped plenty of success up to now, as a glance at the their career win-loss stats confirms: Williams’ percentage is 82.4, Federer’s is 80.9.

It would therefore be foolhardy to bet against them sharing the spoils in the Foro Italico at the end of the month. And one thing's for sure: it will be good to have them back in the mix.

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