There’s a massive, tectonic shift underway in the sports hierarchy right this moment. Like any tectonic shift, it’s happening right under our feet, so slowly that you might not even notice unless you know where to look.
A week ago, Tiger Woods withdrew from the Northern Trust Open with an oblique sprain. Two days later, Serena Williams retired from a Rogers Cup championship match, suffering from back spasms. Then, on Thursday, Roger Federer got his backside served up to him in a straight-set, 61-minute Cincinnati Open blowout by a 21-year-old named Andre Rublev.
Three of the all-time greats. Three of the Mount Rushmore heads of their own particular sports, to use a reheated sports radio bit. And three players who are staring their career mortality in the face. This may not be the end of the road, but if their careers were a GPS track, we’d see it up ahead on the screen.
When you reach one-name status — Serena, Tiger, Fed — you don’t need your achievements announced; they’re etched in stone. A combined 58 majors between them, dominance that’s lasted since the 1990s. Wealth, fame, power — they’ve had it all for so long it’s tough to remember a time when they didn’t own their three worlds.
But once you reach the fifth set or the Sunday back nine of your career — choose your own metaphor — things change. The younger players get faster, better, sharper. The losses, once so infrequent as to be headline news on their own, pile up. Your body, so long an ally, becomes an unreliable partner.
“The most frustrating part is,” Williams said of her back after her withdrawal, “I’ve had this before, and it’s like 24, 36 hours where I’m just in crazy spasm, and then it’s, like, gone. That’s a little bit frustrating for me because I know that I could play. I just can’t play today.”
Woods, days before his own withdrawal, touched on the same challenges. “If it's not one thing, it's another,” he said last week. “Things just pop up. That's been one of the biggest challenges coming back from last year. You saw I'm making tweaks and changes trying to play around this back and trying to be explosive and have enough rest time and training time. That's been the biggest challenge of it all.”
What’s been maddening for their fans is how close all three have gotten to reclaiming their dominance even in this late twilight:
Woods crafted one of the great sports moments in recent history when he won at Augusta earlier this year. But the farther that recedes in the distance, the more it’s becoming apparent that the 2019 Masters could have been Woods’ curtain call. Missed cuts in two of the other three majors, substandard play in the few other tournaments where he teed it up … Woods hasn’t looked anything like a guy who could climb a final leaderboard.
Williams has lost three straight Grand Slam finals, each in more decisive fashion than the last. She won the Australian Open while pregnant, then fought through life-threatening complications to get back to the summit. That’s an astounding achievement in itself, but you know she’s not happy with a finals participation trophy, much less three of them.
Federer had two championship points against Novak Djokovic at this year’s Wimbledon and couldn’t manage to put away the Joker. He looked completely overmatched at Roland Garros against Rafael Nadal. And now, this humiliating waxing at the hands of a player who was literally still in diapers when Federer started playing professionally.
Federer is the most philosophical of the three, and prior to his Cincinnati Open loss he delved into the concept of acclaim versus achievement. “You want everybody to do well, and that's why I'm generally happy when somebody does well,”he said. “Not everybody can attain [a championship], but what you can attain is the best of yourself.”
None of the three has to worry an instant about their legacies; those have been cemented for a decade, and even these late misfires won’t alter that. Granted, the burn-through news cycle, where anything older than five days is a hopeless irrelevancy, doesn’t much value achievements from the early 2000s, and present-day failures take on added magnitude. But leave it to Federer to put that in perspective.
He was speaking of players who never quite got over the mountain that he, Nadal and Djokovic have created, but he may as well have been speaking about his own late-career slide, about how he’ll never again match his own history:
“Sometimes it gets a bit rough,” he said. “You achieve your dream and you have been told you're terrible because you didn't win so-and-so. You're, like, ‘OK, you know what? Get lost. I don't care what you say.’”
You can probably count the combined seasons that these three have left on two hands with several fingers left over. But how their stories end won’t change how high they flew. Enjoy whatever moments of greatness from Serena, Tiger and Fed we have left, because — tough as it is to imagine — there aren’t many.
More from Yahoo Sports: