Thursday October 20th, 2011

Roger Federer and Serena Williams have combined to win 29 majors, including both winning the U.S. Open in 2008. (Zumapress)

Last week's Toss debated the upside of two teenagers, Ryan Harrison and Bernard Tomic. More than 66 percent of readers voted that Tomic has more potential. This week, we examine the other end of the spectrum -- the Grand Slam hopes of two proven champions who enter 2012 in their 30s.

Today's Toss: Which 30-year-old has a better chance of winning a Grand Slam tournament in 2012, Roger Federer or Serena Williams?

Courtney Nguyen: At what point do you start betting against great champions being, well, great? For the first time since 2002, Federer will finish a year without a Slam title. Similarly, it's the first time since 2006 for Williams. They're both 30 and they're suffering more shocking losses as the years tick by. Has the inevitable decline arrived?

Yes and no. Yes, they won't be dominant week in and week out, but I'm not ready to close the book on either of them. I'd like to think that's a credit to their greatness and not my idiocy. But if I had to choose between which former No. 1 will have greater success in 2012, I'm going with Serena by a hair for one main reason: The gap has closed between Federer and the field.

With Novak Djokovic raising his level and Federer still unable to solve the riddle that is Rafael Nadal, the world No. 4 looks more vulnerable now than he ever has. Contrast that with Serena, who can still blitz the top players and play at higher level than everybody else. The question for Serena is whether she can keep it together over the course of two weeks, and I think that she can. Her outburst at the U.S. Open aside, Serena was composed throughout that fortnight, and it took an incredible effort from Sam Stosur (and a subpar performance from Williams) to take the trophy. Nine times out of 10, Serena's level in that final would have been enough to win.

I see only three players who can give Williams consistent problems: Petra Kvitova, Stosur and Serena Williams. The first two are so up and down that there's no guarantee they'll be around in the later rounds of a major to make a difference. That leaves Serena fighting herself. If she can maintain her motivation and, of course, stay healthy, I have a hard time believing that she will finish 2012 without another major title. At 30, she's still just plain better than the rest.

C.W. Sesno, tennis producer, There's no question the gap has closed on Federer. Nadal has always had his number, and Djokovic is practically reinventing the whole numeral system. But I’ll still take Federer, and you already touched on one of the main reasons.

Serena simply doesn’t play enough. As Bruce Jenkins notes, she’s mastered the “show up to majors and play my way into shape” approach. She looked solid at the U.S. Open, not dropping a set (despite a thrillingly close second set against Victoria Azarenka in the third round) until the final. But after playing in only six tournaments all year, it just doesn’t seem like a sustainable approach. Who knows how much she’ll play in 2012, and when she does, can she string together enough matches to win a two-week Slam?

I don’t think so. As you say, she’s her own worst enemy. Stosur added more proof that if you turn the tables on Serena and bully her around the court, she’ll start to break down. You could even see signs of frustration in the second set of her match against Azarenka. If Vika had been able to able to pull out that set, I bet she’d have won the match. I just simply don’t think Serena has the fitness anymore to go the distance in long, grueling matches or deep into majors.

Federer, on the other hand, is still in good shape. He’s one of three to have beaten Djokovic this year, and their semifinal showing at the U.S. Open produced some of the most spectacular tennis ever. If it’s not for “That Forehand,” this is a whole different debate. Roland Garros is likely Nadal’s to lose, but I see Federer winning Wimbledon and a few Masters events. Oh, and he’s got his sights set on Olympic gold. Serena won't even be eligible for London unless she plays at least two weekends of Fed Cup in 2012, an event she hasn’t played since 2007.

Federer’s not ready to “go quietly into the night” just yet.

Nguyen: But does Serena have to play a full schedule to win majors? Her track record shows that she doesn't. In fact, given the way she rolled through the summer -- demolishing the field on the way to back-to-back titles in Stanford (beating Maria Sharapova, Sabine Lisicki and Marion Bartoli) and Toronto (defeating Azarenka and Stosur) -- I can't help but wonder: If the U.S. Open were in August, as opposed to September, would anyone else have had a chance?

Serena actually plays better after a long break than when she has to grind through a season. She's won five Australian Opens, the first Slam of the year and a tournament she prepares for by typically playing only one lead-up event. And she's won four Wimbledons despite rarely playing any lead-up events. She doesn't need to play a whole lot to dominate the field for two weeks.

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This would be a completely different question if we were talking about whether Serena could ever recapture the top ranking. I don't think she can do that because, you're right, she doesn't play enough. But if we're talking about winning majors, at least on hardcourts and grass, the trophy is still Serena's if she wants it.

Like I said, the only players who can cause her problems right now are Kvitova and Stosur -- and, to your point, Azarenka if she keeps improving. If Serena can play well enough to keep her ranking near the top 10, then she won't have to fight as hard in the early rounds like she did against Vika in New York and she can go into the later rounds with more energy. She looked a bit gassed against Stosur in the final, for sure, but that's just not a big enough sample size for me to say that she doesn't have what it takes to prevail over the course of two weeks.

The reason I tip Williams over Federer is that Serena doesn't have to bring her A-game to give herself a chance at the majors. On the other hand, given the quality of the two guys ahead of him (or three, if we want to throw Andy Murray into the mix), Federer has to play his best. That pressure can wear on you and cause you to lock up when things don't go well. To be fair, that happened to both Williams and Federer in New York, with the American snapping after "The Call" and the Swiss unable to refocus after "The Shot."

But Williams has to know and believe that she's flat-out better than the other women if she plays her game. As for Federer, after the last two years, he has to have some doubts.

Sesno: True, Serena probably doesn’t have to bring her A-game to make a deep run in a Slam. But Federer hasn’t been challenged much in the early rounds, either.

In all four majors this year, Federer dropped just eight total sets before the semifinals, including the miraculous five-setter that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga pulled off in the Wimbledon quarters. That’s 15 out of 20 matches at the Slams -- prior to the semis -- that Federer won in straight sets, and only two of those 20 went to five sets (vs. Gilles Simon in Melbourne and Tsonga at Wimbledon). Even Djokovic was able to get only one set off him at Roland Garros. That suggests Federer is just as capable as Serena to breeze through the early rounds and tune his game as he prepares to meet Djokovic, Nadal or Murray in the semifinals.

You’re right that the U.S. Open final and third-round match against Azarenka probably isn’t a big enough sample size to make a definitive case against Serena. But that’s exactly the point. She doesn’t have a big enough sample size in 2011 to make a case in her favor, either. Williams didn’t play this year until June, when she lost to Vera Zvonareva in Eastbourne and then followed that with a fourth-round exit to Bartoli in Wimbledon. We all know how much she loves her time off; Williams has even tweeted about how much she's enjoying vacation.  Can we really be sure she’ll play more in 2012?

And then there’s fitness. Details around her foot injury that kept her sidelined for nearly a year have been vague, but her rehab time seems to get longer and longer with each injury. And I’m not convinced she’s ready to put the work into her body needed to get back into shape. While defensive players like Caroline Wozniacki will have a tough time beating Serena regardless of her fitness level, attacking players like those mentioned (and I'd throw Bartoli in there too) have been able to push Serena around the court. I haven't seen enough proof lately that she can maintain her play when pushed to the highest levels. Federer, however, can still move well and play at least up to the level of the three guys ahead of him in the rankings. Plus, he's hungry. He was clearly agitated after losing to Djokovic at the U.S. Open and has said he's focusing on the Slams in 2012. Though likely no longer a favorite, the former No. 1 will be a top contender at all four majors in 2012.

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