The Slams of the Grand Old Veterans

It’s US Open time. And among the hot favourites to win are: Roger Federer, aged 33 and father of four, Serena Williams, aged 32 and Venus Williams, aged 34.  Some may dispute the last mentioned name but if you have watched Venus play in the North American hard court season, you’d know that she’s back and that alone is enough to threaten competition.  

That’s not all, though.  Mirjana Lucic Baroni, who, you might recall, beat Monica Seles and Nathalie Tauziat en route to the 1999 Wimbledon semis, is through to the third round.  If she does beat World No.2 Simona Halep, I dare say that while mainstream media might term that an upset, a lot of regular tennis watchers wouldn’t be overly surprised.  Peng Shuai, 28, beat world no. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska too.  In the men’s circuit, while Federer is the only remaining grand slam champion in the draw from the 30-somethings club, Tommy Robredo and Feliciano Lopez plod on.  Interestingly, Robredo is scheduled to meet rising star Nick Kyrgios in the third round.

That match could tell us a lot about how this battle of the thirty somethings versus the emerging stars will pan out.  But, meanwhile, just to put things in perspective, Pete Sampras was 31 when he won his 14th and last Grand Slam at the US Open in 2002, having been dismissed all too easily in the previous two US Open finals by then hot talents Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt.   Steffi Graf was just short of 30 when she won her last Slam at the French Open in 1999.  Both retired, for all practical purposes, that same year, perhaps realising it would be a fitting swansong not a moment too soon to avoid being shown up by upstarts with younger limbs.  Among Sampras’s rivals, only Andre Agassi played on well into his 30s.  But he was never ranked in the top 5 again after 2003 either and Agassi had serious endurance so Federer has already begun to rival that kind of longevity.  Goran Ivanisevic and Patrick Rafter fought out an epic duel for an elusive Wimbledon title in 2001 where Ivanisevic prevailed and neither got another shot at the title.  The very next year, it was Hewitt v/s David Nalbandian at Wimbledon and by 2003, Gen Next had more or less taken over notwithstanding intermittent challenges by Agassi.  

So how and where did tennis get back to allowing middle aged veterans to have respectable if not sensational runs in the slams?  Think back to when Martina Navratilova trounced Graf in the 1991 US Open final. Or Jimmy Connors going all the way to the semis in the same tournament at the age of 39. Given all we hear about the ever increasing physicality and athleticism of tennis, one would have thought that veterans would eased out the exit door smoothly without a moment to lose.  Instead they are hanging around and helping ATP and WTA respectively to draw crowds to the slams by cashing in on nostalgia and star power.  And hey, if the next big thing of women’s tennis Eugenie Bouchard does indeed get drawn against Venus or Serena,  um, you can complete the rest of the sentence.  So why bother?

So is it that with increased attention to fitness, players are able to remain in good shape longer than before?  I remember John McEnroe himself explaining his loss of form since 1985 as down to the fact that his limbs kind of gave away and he lost a bit of pace.   In 1985, McEnroe was 26.  At the age of 26, Federer still dominated the tour quite comprehensively, winning three slams in that particular year (2007).  Djokovic and Nadal too were in their prime at that age.  

While that could certainly be a factor, another could also be the racquets.  A common apprehension expressed in tennis circles is that modern racquets favour brute power and will leave room for only gigantic super athletes in the tour.  That might hold true in terms of the amount of running required, but in terms of strokemaking I would say it has the opposite effect. Today’s racquets have made it much much easier to generate serious pace on the ball and without necessarily having to hit very hard.  Earlier, a former champion out of touch would have found it difficult to re-enter the fray.  A Lucic coming back and threatening players much younger than her (she ousted young ‘hope’ Garbine Muguruza in the first round at The Open) was out of the question.  

I can add my personal experience of learning tennis at the ripe young age of 28 to this.  I am a horrible athlete, my shoulders are pretty weak too.  And I found that even I could hit the ball fast enough that the guy on the other side would find a riposte difficult…and that’s just with a Wilson Advantage.  In that case, modern equipment would help the older set keep up with the young.  Especially since they may know more about strokemaking.  

Which brings me to the last part of the write up.  What stood out in the way Peng dislodged Radwanska was the former’s strokemaking.  She just hit the sweeter strokes, time and again.  It wasn’t even particularly epic hitting or anything.  She was just going for much more daring shots that Radwanska was hesitant to attempt and she had the technique to pull it off.  Players from an older generation would have grown up using much more ordinary racquets.  Even the racquets they used in their early years on the tour would be much inferior to the equipment at their disposal now. This would have forced them to learn more technique to be able to pull the trigger and make a winner and also make sure more of these shots landed in than not.   They were trained to move well, transfer their weight better (you will see the older players lean into their shots more nicely when, perhaps, it ought to be the other way round), and hit the ball sweetly with adequate accuracy.  And that is why any time Serena decides to really focus on her task, she seems to blow away the competition with disconcerting ease.  Even if she gets older, the young aren’t getting better soon enough to trouble her.

Perhaps, the advantage offered by good racquets pampers younger players too much and they can get to the highest level with a possibly weaker foundation than their predecessors.  I don’t know, I cannot say for sure and it’s not for me to anyway.  What I do find a bit puzzling is that the big draws at the biggest events in tennis, the slams, continue to be the thirty-somethings with the late-twenties (say Djokovic and Sharapova in this case) getting somewhat more grudging acceptance.  Did somebody say tennis was a young man/woman’s sport?   Here’s hoping that Kyrgios will in fact have a great run at this year’s Open and prove that it still is, very much so.




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