So it has come to this at Wimbledon, where they still try to stop time, every single year, where the players still wear white, where the biggest tennis tournament in the world is still played on grass: Roger Federer and Venus Williams attempt to go back in time this weekend, first Venus on Saturday, then Federer on Sunday, as they try to become the two oldest singles champions of modern times. The All England Club has seen just about everything else in tennis. Now it gets a Back to the Future weekend at Centre Court like this. You don't have to love tennis to understand that this is very big stuff, in any sport. And worth your time.
Federer, three weeks short of his 36th birthday, tries to become the oldest man to win Wimbledon in 108 years, since a guy named Arthur Gore did it in 1909 at the age of 41. Going for his eighth title, what would be a Wimbledon record in men's tennis, Federer also tries to become the oldest man to win Wimbledon since Arthur Ashe did it at the age of 31, in 1975.
Venus? All she does is try to win her sixth Wimbledon singles title. Her kid sister, Serena, has seven. Martina Navratilova won nine, even made it to the finals when she was 37, the way Venus has. Martina lost that year (1994) to Conchita Martinez, who just happens to be coaching Venus' opponent in Saturday's final, Garbine Muguruza.
If Venus wins this match, against a gifted young player who once beat Serena in a French Open final, it will mean that in the history of women's tennis, the only American-born women who will have won more Wimbledons than Venus is Serena and Helen Wills Moody, who won eight.
In the end, then, this is the Wimbledon where everything old has become new again. Federer, who has not lost a set in six matches, hasn't won at Wimbledon since 2012. Venus hasn't won Wimbledon since 2008. Now here they are. Serena is home, scheduled to give birth to her first child before the summer is over. With her out of the way, a door opened wide for her older sister, the Williams sister who made the first headlines in the family, the first of the two sisters to evoke the memory and history of the great Althea Gibson, the first African-American woman to become a major tennis champion. Now Venus has walked through that open door and into a moment like this, 20 years after she first played Wimbledon as a teenager.
She lost that year in the first round in 1997 -- yeah, 1997 -- to a player named Magdalena Grzybowska in three sets. She was asked about that match the other day, in this, her 75th major championship.
"I was so nervous. It was a total disaster," Venus said. "Poor young V. But I've definitely come up since that time. I don't think I could ever be that nervous. Also I know how to handle it a lot better. There's moments where maybe you aren't as relaxed as other moments but it's about handling it."
Venus handles this particular moment, with grace out of her tennis past, out of her sister's immense shadow at Wimbledon 2017. And if she wins on Saturday, which is no sure thing, not the way Muguruza has been playing, it will mean the two sisters out of Compton, Calif., will have won 31 major singles titles between them, and 13 Wimbledons. Nothing like this, these two amazing siblings, will ever happen again in American sports.
It is an extraordinary thing, of course, to have two quarterbacking brothers like Peyton and Eli Manning. And it is unlikely that we will ever again see two brothers not only quarterback their teams to victory in consecutive Super Bowls, but also be named the MVPs of those games. They have certainly made history. Serena and Venus have made more. And now Venus, no longer poor young V now that she is 37, tries to make even more, in one more Wimbledon final.
And then there is Federer.
Roger Federer: old man in a young man's game, playing young the way Tom Brady was still playing young at the last Super Bowl at 39, going on 40. He made it to the Wimbledon semis last year, was already hurt by then, had knee surgery, took the rest of the year off. But came all the way back in Australia, made it to the finals when even he had no big ideas or great expectations, found Rafael Nadal waiting for him one more time, found himself down 1-3 in the fifth set.
He never lost another game that night. Beat Nadal in two finals after that on hardcourts. Took the clay court season off. Now, in the timeless tennis place, the place that reveres the past more than any other in tennis and perhaps more than any other in sports, he has stopped time. And gone back in time. And made the good old days now. If he wins Wimbledon on Sunday, he will, in what surely was supposed to be the twilight of the greatest career in the history of men's tennis, clearly establish himself as the best player in the world once again.
He was not at his best against Tomas Berdych on Friday, even as Berdych, up against Federer, on Centre Court, Wimbledon semis, was playing the best grass-court tennis of his life. But when Federer needed to raise his level in a first set tiebreaker, he did that. And when it was 1-1 in the second set tiebreaker, Federer hit these three amazing forehands in a row to make the score 4-1 for him. Then there was one more inside-out forehand, one that must have sounded to Berdych like a siren on its way across the net, and before long Federer was up two sets, and one set away from another Wimbledon final Sunday.
In the middle of the third set, there was one last moment, one last reminder, about the genius in the old tennis hall. Federer got down 15-40 on his serve. Two break points for Berdych at 2-3. This is what Berdych saw next:
This had been Berdych's best chance to create some distance in the third set, to give himself his last chance to extend the thing to four. On the next four points, his racket touched the ball once. On a day when he couldn't touch Federer when it mattered.
By the way? Fed is no sure thing against Marin Cilic, anymore than Venus is a sure thing against Muguruza. The first Wimbledon I ever saw, Ken Rosewall made a romantic run at the age of 39, and got six games against 21-year-old Jimmy Connors in the men's final. Last year, Cilic had him down two sets in the Wimbledon quarterfinals before Federer came back to win the match. Three years ago, Cilic hit Federer off the court in the U.S. Open semis, on his way to winning the only major championship he's ever won, in the only major final he's ever played. He will show up on Sunday, with a big service game and a big baseline game, and some muscle memory against Federer.
Here is something Federer said the other day after beating Milos Raonic, who beat him last year in the semis, when we thought Federer was ready to win his eighth Wimbledon with Novak Djokovic out of the way:
"I feel like it's coming along nicely, to be quite honest."
For him. For Venus. Back to the future. Back to what they were at Wimbledon, when they were young, and so often acted like they owned the place. Two of the biggest champs in the history of that place, making the last weekend at Wimbledon feel as big as it ever has just by still being around.