With the sad news of Serena Williams’ withdrawal from the 2021 US Open we can now be certain that none of the great trio of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Serena Williams’ names will appear in the draw of a Grand Slam. With Venus Williams also withdrawing, this leaves only Novak Djokovic recent great Grand Slam title winners that will take to the court.
It is, in fact, the first time in 24 years that this has happened. 1997 was the year. Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls had just won their fourth NBA title of the decade, Tiger Woods had just won his FIRST golf Major, destroying the field by 12 strokes at Augusta National, and Pat Rafter and Martina Hingis were the 1997 US Open champions. That was the last time that Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer were all absent from a Grand Slam draw.
1997 US Open
Just for nostalgia, let’s check some of those fabulous names in that 1997 draw. Amazingly, the other finalist in the women’s draw was Serena’s sister, Venus Williams. The U.S. had four women seeded in that draw: Monica Seles (2), Lindsay Davenport (6), Mary Jo Fernandez (12,) and Kimberly Po (16).
Greg Rusedski was the defeated men’s finalist, his only Grand Slam final appearance. Pete Sampras and Michael Chang were seeded #1 and #2, Chang losing to Rafter in the semifinals. Spain had five men in the top 16 seeds in that draw as well, quite a remarkable achievement.
But who out of the current crop of players was even born then?
Novak Djokovic was already showing potential as a youngster in Serbia in 1997. But some of his main challengers were yet to be a twinkle in their fathers’ eyes. Stefanos Tsitsipas, who, ironically, will have said father in the stands (probably texting), was only born in August 1998. Mrs. Rublev would have been carrying Andrey during the tournament, as he was born in the October of 1997, but look around the rest of the seeds and there is a whole raft of tennis stars who came along whilst Serena, Nadal, and Federer were making their early appearances in tournaments.
Young Canadian stars Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime were 1999 and 2000 births respectively. Casper Ruud was born December 1998 and Jannik Sinner was born August 2001, four years later.
Alex De Minaur, Ugo Humbert, and Alejandro Davidovich Fokina round out the likely men’s seeds that weren’t even born when the 1997 US Open was taking place. Interestingly, Reilly Opelka wasn’t born when the tournament started but made an appearance in St. Joseph, Michigan whilst the second round took place on the 28th August 1997!
The youngest member of the top 100 is currently Carlos Alcaraz. Remarkably, Serena Williams already had five Grand Slam titles by the time he was born in May 2003.
And on the Women’s Side?
It is almost an easier question to ask who WAS born by 1997 in the women’s draw. Defending champion Naomi Osaka was born in October 1997–how fateful that she would be one of the key players in denying Serena Williams her 24th Grand Slam title. Other members of the top ten who weren’t around back then include Aryna Sabalenka (1998), Bianca Andreescu (2000), and Iga Swiatek (2001). Sofia Kenin was also born in 1998, though she withdrew with a positive COVID test. That’s half of the top 10 players in the world, three of whom have a Grand Slam title already.
The other seeded players that were born post US Open 1997 include Cori Gauff. The American was born in 2004(!) by which time Roger Federer was World #1 and beginning his period of domination. Elena Rybakina and Paula Badosa round out the seeded women born pre-Serena/Rafa/Roger Grand Slam presence.
What happens next?
No doubt the Flushing Meadows crowd will miss the trio of heroes on court this year. The vast majority will be desperately hoping that all three will return next year, but is that too much to hope for?
It will be interesting to see if it is indeed the young players not even on this planet the last time those three weren’t in the draw who are the ones who rise up and are victorious in 2021.
Main Photo from Getty.