Commentary

Finality of some stars coming soon

Updated: June 30, 2012, 6:54 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- So many snatches of the past two Grand Slam tournaments, in Paris at Roland Garros and the first week of The Championships at Wimbledon, have felt sepia toned. Feel is the most personal of emotions, for it lives in the imagination. It is only partly real, and it is dependent only on sight.

In Paris, when Serena Williams disappeared in the first round, there were surprise faces in street clothes. Justine Henin, in makeup and high heels, is a television commentator. Martina Hingis, fit and out of the game, played legends doubles. Monica Seles stood on the podium to award Maria Sharapova her title. Yesterday stood in front of us.

[+] EnlargeAndy Roddick
Paul Gilham/Getty ImagesHow many more moments in the sun will Andy Roddick have?

The sights of the week here reinforce the feel, the feel that times are changing, a special era is passing and these remaining pieces must be savored. Roger Federer, defiant but mortal at 30, possessor of unconditional love from Centre Court and still an immense aura to anyone opposing him, for the second time this month came back from two sets down to win a Grand Slam match. In Paris, it was against Juan Martin del Potro who weakened and withered and lost. Here, it was Julien Benneteau who raced out to a two-set lead only to run out of gas, never reaching a match point. Injured an unable to overcome the Federer onslaught, Benneteau went quickly and softly in a 6-1 fifth and final set. The old man is still the gladiator, and while Benneteau limped back to the service line to receive one of Federer's final two serves of the evening, a man yelled from the deep recesses of Centre Court, directly to Federer, addressing his aura.

"FINISH HIM!" he said, to laughter and applause -- and Federer did. The Centre Court crowd loves their six-time champion, even more so to see him pushed by a veteran but pedestrian player but not to fail. Federer hasn't won here since 2009, but judging by the roars and fears and exhaling as the danger passed, it almost doesn't matter. They have come for memories and Federer has never failed to provide.

On Court 2, Andy Roddick, he of the epic Wimbledon 2009 final and three-time victim of Federer on this court, has won two matches, ripping through Bjorn Phau in three quick sets. He of the poor results and weakened body, Roddick is simultaneously polite and feisty, for he knows the collective feel is mounting, the feel that this may be his last Wimbledon hardening without his permission into fact. He is a tough, obdurate competitor. This isn't a victory lap into the sunset. It may feel that way, he says, but he isn't going anywhere.

The roof across from Court 18 was ringed with television people -- producers, talent and production staff -- all hanging over the railing looking down at the court. The rooftops surrounding 18 were equally full with fans all soaking in what might be a final look at a familiar staple: Venus and Serena Williams playing doubles. They will do so again here in a little under six weeks at the Olympics. But the feel of the moment -- with Oracene Price watching from behind the bench and Richard Williams a row behind snapping photos -- was one of finality, if not this year, then perhaps next.

A Dutch journalist had just spoken to Richard for an interview and said, "He was great. Has he always been this mellow?" I realized that the question was a tribute to the past. Richard Williams won as his daughters did, victory soothing the ferocity to be accepted, to belong. The fights are over. The scoreboard doesn't lie. Venus has won five times here, Serena four. They have won four doubles titles here. Combined, the two have 36 singles, doubles and mixed doubles Grand Slam titles. Over the past 20 years, there have been two dominant women's Wimbledon champions: Steffi Graf and Venus Williams.

The Williams sisters destroyed the overmatched pair of Vesna Dolonc of Serbia and Olga Savchuk of Ukraine 6-0, 6-3. Each time they walked back to the baseline to talk strategy for the next point, there was a wistfulness about it. Just days ago, after being destroyed herself 6-1, 6-3 by Elena Vesnina in her first-round singles match, Venus Williams walked the grounds to the main locker room beaten and tired, looking every minute of her 32 athlete years. Like Roddick, Venus Williams was defiant about not going quietly into the retirement home, not making the narrative of the lioness in winter so convenient. She, too, regardless of how it may look or feel, believes she is not going anywhere, either.

It was the appropriate athletic response. The fighter inside should always be the last to go. It should, in fact, stay as long as it desires, for in sports, at least on Centre Court, there are few second acts.

Kim Clijsters has already said this fortnight will be her last at Wimbledon, and with that she defies the athletic conventions. The athlete is usually, if not always, the last to know. The fighter avoids the quit, for whether it is rational because a player has reached a certain age or emotional after a difficult loss or circumstance, choosing to no longer continue is anathema to the profession. They don't know how.

The doers do, the thinkers think and the watchers watch. It explains the gap between the nostalgia in the crowd for Roddick and Clijsters and Venus and the players' view of themselves as viable championship threats. Federer has defeated this narrative simply by winning and continuing to win. With Rafael Nadal's stunning second-round loss, Federer will again become the No. 2 player in the world. Roddick, ranked 30th in the world and the 30th seed in the tournament, had no such protections. Venus Williams, for the first time in more than a dozen years, received a wild card to enter the tournament and didn't win a set.

Feel isn't merely nostalgia playing tricks on the mind. It is real enough, a contrast made even starker by the kids running around making their reputations: 19-year-old Sloane Stephens, 20-year-old Heather Watson and 20-year-old Christina McHale. The champions of each era since the 1960s, both male and female, have been replaced by another dynasty.

When his desire and hamstrings and body ultimately give out, Roddick leaves the U.S. to an uncertain, certainly less-celebrated future. Clijsters and Serena and Venus -- heirs to Graf and Seles, who were heirs to Martina and Chrissie, who were heirs to Billie Jean King and Margaret Court -- will do the same, and that explained the throngs hanging over the railing, getting a look, maybe a last look at Court 18. They got to see royalty.