Imagine if they could bottle a drink called “Just Serena”.
That was Serena Williams’ succinct, smiling explanation for how she’d managed—at nearly 41, and match rust—to beat the world’s second-ranked player and advance to the third round of a US Open on Wednesday that has hitherto happened. Admittedly, it doesn’t feel much like a goodbye. “I’m just Serena,” she told roaring fans.
There is clearly only one Serena. But as superhuman as many found her performance, some older fans in particular — middle-aged or older — said they also saw a very human and recognizable takeaway in Williams’ latest run. Namely the idea that they too could perform better and longer than they ever thought possible – through fitness, exercise and grit.
“It makes me feel good about what I’m still doing at my age,” said Bess Brodsky Goldstein, 63, a lifelong tennis enthusiast who attended the Open Thursday, the day after Williams’ win over 26-year-old Anett Kontaveit.
Goldstein pursues her passion for the sport more vigorously than most women her age. She plays multiple times a week and competes in a 55 and over USTA mixed-double league in New England. (She also plays competitive golf.)
Still, like any athlete, Goldstein suffers her share of aches and pains, such as a recent knee problem that held her back for a few weeks. Watching Williams, she said, shows ordinary people that injuries — or, in Williams’s case, a life-threatening childbirth experience from five years ago — can be overcome. “She gives you the inspiration that you can do your best even if you’re in your early 60s,” said Goldstein, who also had high praise for Venus Williams, Serena’s older sister, who entered this year at age 42.
Evelyn David was also watching tennis at the Open on Thursday, and she too was thinking about the night before.
“Everyone goes, ‘WHOA!'” said David, who smiled at her age as “over 60” and is the site director of New York Junior Tennis Learning, which works with children and teens. She mentioned the physicality of Williams’ game and the role of fitness in tennis today. “The rigorous training that athletes now go through is different,” said David. “She goes, ‘I’m not falling over. I can get to the ball.’”
“A total inspiration,” David called Williams’ performance – and she had a prominent company.
“Can I put something in perspective here?” former champion and ESPN commentator Chris Evert on Wednesday’s broadcast. “This is a 40-year-old mother. It blows me away.”
Evert retired in 1989 at the age of 34, long before fitness and nutrition were the most important factors in the tennis they are today. That was even less true when pioneer Billie Jean King, now 78, was in her prime.
“For us elderly people, it gives us hope and it’s fun,” King said in an interview about Williams on Thursday. “Put a pep in your step. Gives you energy.” She noted how the condition on the tour has changed since the 1960s and 1970s.
“We didn’t have the information and we didn’t have the money,” King said. “Now when people win a tournament, they say, ‘Thank you to my team.’ They are so lucky to have all those people, we didn’t even have a coach.”
Jessica Pegula, the number 8 who won on Thursday, is 28 half a century younger than King. She knows very well the difference fitness has made.
“It’s been a big part of it,” she said. “Athletes, how they take care of their bodies, sports nutrition, the science behind training and nutrition – (it) has changed so much. You used to see a player sitting on the sidelines drinking a Coke or having a beer after the game. Now… health is has been the number 1 priority, be it physical or mental.” She said she remembered thinking Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Williams would all retire, but “they kept pushing the boundaries.”
Federer, 41, has not played since Wimbledon last year due to surgery on his right knee, but has said he will try to play Wimbledon next year shortly before his 42nd birthday. And Nadal, 36, known for his intense dedication to fitness, has won two Grand Slam titles this year to boost his tally to a men’s record of 22. No one would be surprised if he won another major. By contrast, Jimmy Connors’ famous run to the 1991 US Open semifinals at the age of 39 was considered an event for the history books.
In the women’s game, Martina Navratilova was a longtime fitness pioneer, winning her last Grand Slam title, the 2006 US Open Mixed Doubles, at the age of 49.
Of course, fitness is just one building block for greatness – in any sport. Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons, who is 28 like Pegula, noted that while it’s inspiring to see Williams maintain an athletic advantage, partly through preparation, “not everyone is Serena and Venus Williams. Maybe there are genes that not everyone is blessed enough to have, but it’s still cool to know that, hey, even though she’s genetically gifted, there are some things she’s done that helped her in a great way to extend her career.”
dr. Michael J. Joyner, who studies human performance at the Mayo Clinic, said Williams shares many traits with other superstar athletes, including star quarterback Tom Brady (45 and famously not retired) who have had long careers.
“What you see in all these people is that they stay motivated, that they have avoided catastrophic injuries … or that they have come back because they have recovered,” he said. Also important: they live in ‘the modern era of sports medicine’.
The question, he posed, is whether Williams can perform at the same level every other day to win an entire tournament? He hopes so.
Williams fan Jamie Martin, who has worked in physical therapy since 1985 and has a chain of clinics in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, said she sees many women into middle age and beyond practicing vigorous, competitive sports. Some return to their sport, or take up a new sport, after years of focusing on work or family.
Williams’ pursuit of another US Open title at age 40 is a reminder that not only can women stay competitive longer, but now compete for the joy of it, she notes.
“She really likes to play,” said Martin, 59. “That’s what’s fun to watch now.”
Brooklyn teacher Mwezi Pugh says both Williams sisters are great examples of living on their own terms — including deciding how long to play.
“They’re still on their own script,” said Pugh, 51. “‘Are you ready to retire yet, Serena?’ “I don’t like that word. I’d rather say evolution.” “Are you ready to retire, Venus?” ‘Not today.'”
“The older you are, the more you should be able to organize your life the way you want and what works best for you,” Pugh said. “That’s what the sisters do, and they teach us all a lesson.”