It was the modern tennis world’s Battle of the Sexes – Serena Williams and Roger Federer, two giants of the game, battling it out for the very first time.
Forty-five years after Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in a historic victory, all eyes were on Williams to see whether she could repeat the win.
It was not to be, with Federer and his partner, Belinda Bencic, beating Williams and Frances Tiafoe 4-2 4-3 in a mixed doubles contest at the Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia.
But Federer was left in awe of Williams’s powerful serve, and Williams joked afterwards: “I was just warming up.”
Federer admitted the prospect of facing his opponent was “nerve-racking”, particularly returning her serve. “People talk about her serve so much and you see why it’s a wonderful serve because you just can’t read it,” he said.
“What a pleasure. What an honour. She is a great champion. You see how focused and determined she is and I love that about her.”
The pair, who have 43 Grand Slam singles titles between them, posed for an on-court selfie which Federer posted on social media along with the caption: “Oh what a night.”
The clash was certainly a more good-tempered affair than the original Battle of the Sexes in 1973, when self-confessed “chauvinist pig” Riggs challenged King to a $100,000 contest. King beat Riggs in straight sets before an estimated audience of 90 million people, and the episode was turned into a Hollywood film starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell in 2017.
A crowd of around 14,000 watched Williams and Federer in the Team USA versus Team Switzerland match at RAC Arena. “It was so much fun. It was super-cool,” Williams said afterwards. “He is the greatest of all time, both on and off the court. He has such charisma.
“I don’t know if this is the right thing to say but his serve is super-underestimated. He has a killer serve. Hopefully I can get some tips later on.”
Federer insisted: “Yours is better.”
In 2017, John McEnroe prompted controversy when he claimed that Williams was capable of beating some male players “but if she had to just play the circuit – the men’s circuit – that would be an entirely different story. She’d be, like, 700 in the world.” Williams responded at the time: “Dear John, I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based.”
The last face-off between big male and female names in the tennis world was in 1992, when Jimmy Connors played Martina Navratilova in the Battle of Champions in Las Vegas.
Connors revealed in his autobiography that, in a grip of a gambling addiction, he bet $1 million that he would win in straight sets and lose no more than eight games. He won 7-5, 6-2.
Williams and Federer are friends off court, bonding over the trials of travelling the world with young children in tow. In the run-up to the match, Williams praised Federer for juggling a tennis career with being father to two sets of twins.
She brought her one-year-old daughter, Alexis Olympia, to Perth and a day before the clash posted a picture of herself warming up while holding the little girl. “I am getting ready for the first match of the year and my dear sweet baby was tired and sad and simply needed mama’s love. So if it means warming up and stretching while holding my baby that’s what this mama will do,” she wrote.