Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pro players no longer the retiring type

Master of ceremonies Brad Gilbert poses with James Blake at the
$100,000 RelyAid Natomas Challenger in Sacramento last October.
Blake won the singles title at 32 years old. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Until recently in professional tennis, hitting age 30 was a death knell.
   That is, unless your name was Connors, Sampras, Agassi or Navratilova.
   You lost half a step, which was fatal against an army of young, fast, hungry players.
   Today, though, many players remain active and even excel in their 30s. Retirement age has been pushed back three to five years.
   Tommy Haas, 34, of Germany became the oldest player in 30 years to beat the world No. 1 when he stunned Novak Djokovic 6-2, 6-4 tonight in the fourth round of the Sony Open in Miami.
   That's only the latest example.
   Three of the eight men's and women's semifinalists in this year's Australian Open were in their 30s: Roger Federer (31), David Ferrer (30) and Li Na (30). Serena Williams (31) would have made it four if she hadn't been upset by 19-year-old fellow American Sloane Stephens 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 in the quarterfinals. No matter. Williams, who hurt her back in the eighth game of the second set, last month became the oldest woman to reach No. 1 in the world.
   In a first-round men's match in Melbourne, 31-year-old Jarkko Nieminen of Finland upset Haas, seeded 19th, 8-6 in the fifth set before losing in the second round.
   Then there was Kimiko Date-Krumm. The 42-year-old Japanese became the oldest player to win a match at the Australian Open when she crushed 12th-seeded Nadia Petrova 6-2, 6-0 in the first round. Date-Krumm went on to reach the third round in singles and doubles.
   Only five years ago in Melbourne, no men or women in their 30s reached the fourth round. Only four -- Vince Spadea (33) of the United States, Stefan Koubek (31) of Austria, Virginia Ruano Pascual (34) of Spain and Ai Sugiyama (32) of Japan -- gained the third round.
   The SAP Open in San Jose on the ATP World Tour has featured more than an eight-fold increase in the number of players 30 or over in the main draw of singles in the past five years. One-quarter of last month's field, seven of 28 players, were in their 30s. The oldest one, Haas, reached the final. In 2008, Max Mirnyi of Belarus was the only "senior citizen" in the 32-man singles draw, and he had turned 30 only six months beforehand.
Benjamin Becker of Germany was seeded first
in the Sacramento Challenger at 31 years old.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   Four players in the 32-man singles draw of the $100,000 RelyAid Natomas Challenger in Sacramento last October were in their 30s. Benjamin Becker (31) of Germany and James Blake (32) of the United States were seeded first and second, respectively. Blake won the title, and countryman Bobby Reynolds (30) reached the semifinals. Rik de Voest (32) of South Africa lost to Blake in the second round. In the inaugural (2005) Sacramento Challenger (won by de Voest), only Eric Taino had reached his 30th birthday, which came only seven months earlier.
   What's going on?
   "Good question," de Voest said. "I'm not quite sure."
   Blake, a Harvard alumnus who reached a career-high No. 4 in the world in 2006, also is mystified. He hazarded a few guesses before concluding: "I don't know. Guys just really want to keep playing."
   Reasons often cited are better nutrition, fitness and post-match treatment. As renowned coach and commentator Brad Gilbert said, "Guys are taking better care of themselves."
   "I think now that tennis has become an all-year sport, people are doing a much better job of staying in shape and doing much more nutrition, fitness and supplement(s)," Gilbert said.
   Said Becker: "Oh, I don't know. Maybe they know it's a great job to have and they want to stay in tennis as long as they can.
   "For me, an example is Tommy Haas. He works very, very hard -- harder than some young guys coming up. He's maybe somebody to look up to because at 34 years old, he's still doing his off-court stuff that nobody else sees except the players and his coach. It's pretty impressive, and that's the reason he can play so long."
   Becker, returning from a torn groin muscle, lost in the first round of the Natomas Challenger to then-20-year-old American Daniel Kosakowski. Becker traveled with a physiotherapist/fitness coach for the first time that week.
   "I had some injuries (in 2012), more than I had before," explained Becker, who ended Andre Agassi's career in the third round of the 2006 U.S. Open. "I was actually out almost all (of 2011 because of two operations on his left -- non-playing -- elbow), so now I'm getting to the point where it's very important to have somebody who actually knows my body."
   Players unanimously say the game has become more physical, and therein lies the key.
   "The courts are getting slower, and the balls are getting heavier, so there are more rallies," said Becker, who turned pro in 2006. "It's not like it used to be with serving and faster hardcourts. It's getting more physical than even when I started. You have to be in better shape, and you have to be faster and do that for a longer period of time."  
   It seems paradoxical. Wouldn't a more physical game favor younger players?
   "No," said Becker, the 2004 NCAA singles champion from Baylor in Waco, Texas, "because it takes time to (prepare) your body to be ready for that challenge. There are no more teenagers that come up and be a sensation like Boris Becker (who won Wimbledon in 1985 at 17). It's really tough for guys to come up at 18, 19 years old and have a body to endure the hours on court, to go through the practice sessions and the matches, and do it many times during the week, not just one match. ... "
   Instead of careers lasting from age 16 to 30, they often extend from 21 to 35. 
   "I also call it the 'Andre effect,' " said Gilbert, who coached Agassi to six Grand Slam titles, an Olympic gold medal and the No. 1 ranking, all in singles. "People saw that Andre was still doing great in 2005 at 35, and I think he opened a lot of guys' eyes that you can play (well) in your mid-30s."
Rik de Voest, 32, of South Africa
said advances in string technology
have helped make the game more
physical. Photo by Paul Bauman
   It all started with Sampras' 6-7 (2), 7-6 (9), 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 victory over Goran Ivanisevic in the 1998 Wimbledon final. Ferocious serves on the slick grass dominated the match; rallies were almost nonexistent. Meanwhile, many in the crowd and worldwide television audience fell asleep.
   Petrified by the prospect of lower TV ratings -- i.e. advertising revenue -- tournament officials made the surface slower. That allowed baseliners such as Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian to meet in the 2002 Wimbledon final, won by Hewitt. The rest of the world followed Wimbledon's lead.
   Advances in string technology also have made the game more physical.
   "You can hit a ball harder and create more rotation with the strings on the ball so that it doesn't go out," said the slightly built de Voest, who outlasted strapping U.S. prospect Rhyne Williams, 21 at the time, 5-7, 7-6 (3), 6-4 in the first round of the Sacramento Challenger.
    Longer points put a premium not only on conditioning and mobility but on experience and strategy. On any given point, players must make split-second decisions on whether to keep the ball in play or go for a winner. Older ones have a better sense of when to play it safe and when to pull the trigger.
   "As you get older, you get a little wiser," said the undersized Reynolds, who eliminated another powerful American prospect, 20-year-old Jack Sock, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4) in the opening round of the Sacramento Challenger. "You kind of realize how to play the game of tennis rather than just going out there and hitting balls. It's a lot more about placing your serve in order to get the next shot. It's more like a chess game, and I think it takes time to realize that."
Bobby Reynolds, 30, was worn out after a
7-6 (6), 6-4 (4) victory over fellow American
Jack Sock, 20, in the first round of the Sacramento
Challenger last October. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Excellent conditioning helps, but a more physical game inevitably means more injuries. That means more forced vacations, allowing players to recover physically and mentally from what amounts to a 12-month grind every year and extend their careers.
   In addition to Benjamin Becker's elbow operations, Haas has had numerous major operations. Blake missed much of 2004 with a broken neck, suffered when he hit his head on a net post in practice, and a virus. Rafael Nadal recently returned from a seven-month layoff following a knee injury and virus. Date-Krumm retired for 12 years (1997-2008).
   Legal supplements also could play a role, but presumably they help younger players, too.
   Most pros agree that playing tennis beats getting a job in the real world -- if there are any.
   "You have guys now that are 30 and still in unbelievable condition and still have a lot of love for the game," said Reynolds, who attended prestigious Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., for three years before turning pro 10 years ago. "It's tough to give it up. What else do I want to be doing other than going out here and leaving it all out on the court?"
   No. 22 Baylor def. No. 15 Cal 6-1 in Waco, Texas. No. 1 singles: No. 71 Julian Lenz (B) def. No. 44 Ben McLachlan 6-3, 6-4. Records: Baylor 13-4, Cal 8-7.
   No. 67  Santa Clara def. No. 55 Tulane 4-3 in Santa Clara. No. 1 singles: Dominik Koepfer (T) def. No. 63 John Lamble 6-7, 6-1, 6-1. Records: Santa Clara 12-6, Tulane 11-5. Note: Sacramento's Matt Kecki, a senior transfer from four-time NCAA defending champion USC, lost at No. 4 singles and No. 1 doubles for Santa Clara.

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