LONDON -- Despite all the improvements they keep making at the All England Club, despite the way they keep Wimbledon current and modern and ahead of everybody else, it is still the place that reveres tennis history the most. It is the capital of old. Except that there is not as much good history with old players at Wimbledon, which means ones past the age of 30, as you might think.
The oldest player to ever win Wimbledon was a 41-year-old guy named Arthur Gore, back in 1909, not so long after the Cubs won what would be their last World Series for 108 years. Since Gore, though, the oldest men's champ has been another Arthur, the great Arthur Ashe, back in 1975 when Ashe upset Jimmy Connors and won Wimbledon at the age of 31, about a week shy of Ashe's 32nd birthday. The oldest singles champ in the modern era is Serena Williams, who won another Wimbledon last year a couple of months short of her 35th birthday.
You may have heard that Serena, the greatest player of all time on her side of the sport with 23 major titles in singles, isn't here this year. She's not going for No. 24 because she announced after winning the Australian Open that she was eight weeks pregnant when she did, eight months short of her 36th birthday.
But Roger Federer, the greatest champ on his side of the sport, born a month before Serena in '81, sure is here, trying to win his 19th major, a month short of his own 36th birthday. Federer is the GOAT in tennis even more than Serena is, even though she has more majors and even though Rafael Nadal has gotten the better of him in their head-to-head rivalry (23-14 for Nadal) and in the Grand Slam finals (Nadal has him 6-3) they have played.
Serena has been a force and a wonder in her sport for a long time. But her greatest opponent was her sister, Venus, who has won seven major titles. Federer had gone up against Nadal in his prime, and Novak Djokovic, two of the greatest major champions of all time in men's tennis, with a combined 27 majors between them. Everybody knows you can only play who you play in sports. It doesn't change the fact that there has never been a heavyweight division in tennis like the one Federer has encountered. And that's before you talk about guys like Andy Murray, the defending champ at Wimbledon, going for his third Wimbledon title, and Stan Wawrinka, who has won three of the four Grand Slam tournaments himself.
Roger Federer, more than ever, is the player to watch at this Wimbledon, the favorite to win five years after he won Wimbledon for the seventh time, and what started to look like the last time. And the way he has played over the past six months of 2017 makes you take another look back at the Australian Open in January, and a half-hour at the end of the Federer-Nadal final that was the most important the two of them have ever played, just because of how much history was on the line that night in Melbourne. And how much history for both men was in play.
Think about it: If Nadal wins the match, he gets his 15th major, before going and winning another French Open, his 10th. That would have put him at 16 coming into this Wimbledon, just one behind Federer, who still wouldn't have won a Grand Slam singles titles since Wimbledon in 2012. Maybe it would have made Nadal the best bet to get to 18, the same number of majors Jack Nicklaus has won in golf. Maybe it would have been Nadal still thinking he could be the GOAT in men's tennis, tying Federer at 17 this year, coming here with a chance to still win the calendar Grand Slam.
Then everything changed as Federer came back from 1-3 down, as he won the last five games of the match and looked like Nicklaus trying to birdie the whole back nine at Augusta in '86 the day he won his last major in golf, at the age of 46. And you know the deal: Federer doing what he did to Nadal that day at his age felt exactly like what Jack did at his age in '86.
A match, in all way, for the ages.
Federer has gone on from there to twice win finals from Nadal, on hardcourts, Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, elevating his game one more time, especially with a game-changing backhand that helped him dominate Nadal the last two times they met the way he did over the last five games in Melbourne. Federer skipped the French, preferring to give himself his best chance to win another Wimbledon. He was back at Centre Court on Tuesday afternoon -- briefly, until his opponent Alexandr Dolgopolov quit with injury in the second set -- providing another day in 2017 when it appeared he clearly has forgotten what year it is in tennis. And that old isn't supposed to look this way or play this way.
Federer dug low balls out of the dirt at the back of the court, almost like hitting half-volleys, and hit shots so good that Dolgopolov had no chance. He got himself to a 3-1 lead in the first set with an effortless screamer of a crosscourt forehand that caused another error. Once a game, in less than an hour, he hit shots that reminded you, as if you needed reminding, just who it was you were watching. Guy born a month before Serena was in '81.
It was all cool and efficient from him, with all of his old-time tennis grace, until his opponent did his "No mas" and quit a match he never should have started. Federer was the only one having any fun or providing any, all of it with his Wilson racket, except for the moment when a guy yelled "Marry me, Roger" from the crowd and didn't just get a laugh out of the Centre Court crowd, but Federer, too, as he was bouncing a ball getting ready to serve. Later, in the second set, Federer hit a backhand winner from such a ridiculous angle that he held up a hand and apologized, almost for being as good at tennis as he still is.
Federer wants one more Wimbledon. So does Nadal. So, by the way, do Murray and Djokovic. The four of them are still here. When you add everything up, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have won 45 majors among them. Borg and McEnroe and Connors, in comparison, won 26.
I saw an old friend, Vijay Amritraj, who played Borg and Mac and Connors and even beat an aging Rod Laver when Vijay was a kid, on the grounds on Monday and asked him how Federer can do it one more time here. Vijay smiled and said, "No 5-setters the first week." Now Fed gets to the second round on Thursday playing a set-and-a-half.
"I'm not 24 anymore," Federer said after he beat Nadal in Key Biscayne. He has just played that way over the past six months when he's played.
Only a handful of modern players have won Wimbledons after their 30th birthday. Arthur did it. Serena did it. Martina Navratilova won her ninth Wimbledon at the age of 33 and lost a final to Conchita Martinez four years later when she was 37. Billie Jean King won her last Wimbledon singles when she was 31. Federer was 30 when he won his last Wimbledon five years ago. And playing as well now as he did then. And more joyously.
"He's not old," Billie Jean King said to me on Wednesday. "He's just Roger."
He is back to being the headliner here. In so many ways, he looks like the hot kid all over again, the one who put his first big points on the board at Centre Court as a teenager when he beat Pete Sampras there. He's Jack, sitting on 18 majors. He's Michael. He plays tennis now the way Tom Brady plays football in the late rounds of his own career. Now he tries to become the oldest player to win Wimbledon in 108 years. A Cubs number. A magical player, the GOAT for all times in tennis, any tennis, looking for one more magic number. Playing young in the capital of old.