Right now in Paris, there are two 31-year-olds looking for a second French Open title. Both are champions of a rare vintage, once dominant forces who have been consigned to history time and again but have kept rebounding and returning to the top. Both began their French campaigns with easy first-round wins Sunday.
After going undefeated on clay so far this season, Williams is the favorite to win the women's title. It doesn't seem to matter that she has not returned to the final since winning the title in 2002. The clay-court powerhouses of the intervening years are mostly gone, and the only two other players who have performed consistently well over the past year and a half, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, have both struggled against Williams. Others, such as 2011 champion Li Na, must start rounding into form before threatening for the title.
Williams, meanwhile, is more than a decade removed from her most dominant stretch but has perhaps never played so much and so consistently. Her effort to get back to the top has included new equipment, new coaching and a new commitment to training and practice, resulting in a fearsome package that has the field clearly intimidated. She probably will be tested at some point during the two weeks, but the candidates have yet to declare themselves.
For 2009 champ Federer, the challenges are far clearer. In the days leading up to the event, he was almost an afterthought behind No. 1 Novak Djokovic and seven-time champion Rafael Nadal, but a kind draw has suddenly thrust the Swiss right back into the mix. With Djokovic and Nadal as potential semifinal opponents, Federer has Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (dangerous but 3-9 against Federer) in his quarter and David Ferrer (rock solid but 0-14 against Federer) in his half. Fifth seed Tomas Berdych is already out, and there are few other threatening names apart from Gael Monfils and Ernests Gulbis, one of whom will also be out after they play each other in the second round. But Federer, with back problems earlier in the year and some inconsistent performances on the clay, must navigate carefully.
As though trying to win the title weren't enough, Williams has set herself an extra challenge for this tournament. After winning her opening match, she conducted her courtside interview speaking French. "It's way, way, more nerve-racking than playing tennis," she said afterward.
The 15-time Grand Slam champion has owned an apartment in Paris since 2007 and now trains near the city at the academy owned by her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, whom she reportedly is also dating. But she has yet to be fully embraced by the crowds, something the language initiative might help change.
She had originally planned to give her first interview in French after her opening match last year. "But it didn't work out for me," she said, referring to her shocking loss to Virginie Razzano.
"I have been speaking French for years and years, but I don't really have a lot of confidence. I just had to kind of jump in."
That's all just part of the routine for French-speaking Federer, who is as popular at the tournament as any local player. Instead, the Swiss has waded into Twitter, where Williams is a big presence. She has 3.7 million followers, second among players only to Nadal. After a quick start toward the end of last week, Federer was at about a quarter million Tuesday, so he has some catching up to do after arriving late on the scene.
Federer also went on Reddit to do a Q-and-A with fans, fielding questions such as which other records he would like to have. "There are some great new CDs out that I haven't bought yet," he joked, before going on to name another Wimbledon victory, another ATP World Tour title and a return to No. 1 as some tennis ones he would like to get.
Asked how he kept his hair so perfect, Federer said, "I really don't. I fight it every day like everybody else. But thanks."
That question was a little ironic, as Federer seems less than pleased with the new short haircut he is sporting, which he apparently got just hours before his first-round match two weeks ago in Rome. "Don't worry, it will grow," he told reporters ahead of the tournament.
Back on the court, Williams and Federer crossed significant markers with their first-round victories. For Williams, of course, it represented a year since she had lost in the first round of a Grand Slam, something that had never previously happened in her career.
For Federer, it represented 10 years since he last lost in the first round of a major -- a defeat to Luis Horna at the 2003 French Open shortly before he won Wimbledon for the first time. After a third-round loss to Gustavo Kuerten the next year, Federer has not lost before the quarterfinals of a major since, and he will be trying to take another step toward his 36th straight Grand Slam quarter when he faces India's Somdev Devvarman in the second round. The qualifier, whose ranking dropped after injury last year, is a steady player who is not expected to trouble Federer unduly.
Williams' effort to win the crowd over will have to wait as she goes up against young French hope Caroline Garcia, who has made a habit of troubling big names but is likely to be overwhelmed by Williams' power.
Still going after all these years, this pair of 31-year-old legends have a clear road ahead for the next few days.