At the Open, Federer loses a set and Venus loses a match

© Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

NEW YORK — Roger Federer lost a set. Venus Williams lost a match. Time isn’t on their side, but they understand, even if the rest of us don’t.

The rain came to the U.S. Open tennis championships Wednesday. Most matches were postponed, but Roger and Venus were under cover, roofs that had been constructed in the last few years, Federer at massive Arthur Ashe Stadium, the big one at Flushing Meadows, while Venus was at Louis Armstrong.

You’re never supposed to ask or tell a lady’s age, but for Venus the number is unavoidable and, unfortunately, pertinent. She is 39, and that’s old for any athlete in any action sport.

But obviously not old enough to make Williams discuss retirement, despite the expected questions and implications after she was beaten, 6-4, 6-4, by Elina Svitolina, in a second-round match.

“I love the challenge of playing tennis,” said Venus. “It’s beautiful.“

Beauty, we’re told is in the eye of the beholder, but what could be attractive about getting knocked out in the first week of tournaments that you used to win, or not long ago made it to the finals or semifinals?

Federer isn’t what he was either, but Roger did reach the Wimbledon final in July, losing in five sets to Novak Djokovic, if faltering at match point, which some observers insist never would have happened a year or two earlier.

In his second-round match Wednesday against Damir Dzumhur, Federer dropped the opening set — or is it more appropriate to say Dzumhur, of Bosnia-Herzegovina, won the set? In either case, Federer, No. 3 in the world, took the match, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4.

Then he took on the doubters.

“I have been in that position many times where you don’t start so well,” said Federer, “and everybody asks you right away, ‘What are you going to do?’ You’re like, I don’t know, just go back to the drawing board and do the same things again. You hope for a better outcome.”

Tennis is a funny sport, and tennis watchers are persistent critics. You get behind in a baseball game 2-0 in the first inning or 7-0 in the opening minutes of a football game, and nobody cares — if you win. It’s the final score that’s important.

Yet, get behind a Dzumhur or as in Monday’s first round, Sumit Nagal of India, and it’s as if you whiffed on an easy lob. How dare you, Roger?

Federer, who was 38 a few days ago, has a quick response. He understands he has played himself into a situation where, to his fans, anything less than perfection is unacceptable.

“I got exactly what I expected from both guys,” he said of the matches. “I knew what Nagal was going to give me, but I didn’t expect to hit 15 to 20 unforced errors, which I basically donated the entire set.”

Federer’s success is legendary and lasting. Part of it is attributable to the graceful, seemingly effortless style of his game.

Richard Evans is an Englishman who shifted to America. He wrote about John McEnroe at Wimbledon in the 1980s and writes now about Federer (and Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal) in the 2010s.

“When I think of Roger,” said Evans, “I think of white socks. He was playing Richard Gasquet in a Swiss-French Davis Cup match a few years ago on a red clay court. Gasquet’s socks were full of the red clay. Roger’s were still clean, white. He practically flies across the surface.”

The Open is held on hard courts, not dirt. Hey, the man won the Open five consecutive years, although admittedly not since 2008, and a record 19 Grand Slams overall. If he loses a set, loses a match, so what?

“Starting poorly,” said Federer, “what does that mean for later? Most important in my opinion is you’re 100 percent ready to battle.”

He says he is. Venus says she is.

“There were a lot of positives out there,” Williams said of the defeat. “I mean today was a great match. It was great to have the crowd behind me. I’m excited to get to my next matches, and sad it had to end early here.”

And, of course, she was questioned as to what keeps her playing.

“I have spoken about this quite extensively in the past,” she said.

Meaning she won’t speak of it again, and truth tell there’s no reason she should. Nor is there any sin in growing old — or continuing to act or play young. Same thing for Federer.