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The vintage game: has the longevity of tennis players increased?

tennis Updated: Jul 15, 2015 09:19 IST
Aditya Iyer
Aditya Iyer
Hindustan Times
Roger Federer

Martina Hingis (L) and Sania Mirza (R) pose with the winner's trophies. For Mirza, it was a maiden women's doubles title at a Grand Slam although she has won three mixed doubles at the majors. It came 12 years after she turned Pro. (AFP Photo)

Roger Federer's stellar run at this year's Wimbledon, with his outstanding performance in the semi-finals against an obviously outclassed Andy Murray, has left many pundits scrambling for answers as to how the World no 2 is displaying a level of play and form that men a decade younger than him would be hard-pressed to manage.

There is an assumption in tennis that a player's career peaks around 28-29, and that the post-30 year mark is one of decline, generally reserved for aging gracefully out of a game that has never seemed quite as full of talent as it does now. This seems to hold true when the careers of legends such as Bjorn Borg or Boris 'Boom Boom' Becker are seen in hindsight; the former retired at the height of his powers at the mere age of 25, while Djokovic's coach, whose Wimbledon success the Serb matched on Sunday by winning his third trophy in London, left the game at the age of 28.

Sweden's Bjorn Borg, who won five consecutive Wimbledon titles, retired at the age of 25 (AFP Photo)

Yet Federer's run, though remarkable especially when one considers he first announced his arrival to the top of the men's game in 2001 when he beat idol Pete Sampras on Centre Court, and that, at 33, had he won against Djokovic he would have been the oldest champion in the Open Era, is by no means unique.

Consider his countryman, Martina Hingis. Federer was unable to best the Serbian World no 1, and conceded a lot of careless break points during Sunday's match,but his compatriot was able to succeed in her matches, winning both the women's doubles with India's Sania Mirza, and the mixed double's with the equally venerable Leander Paes.

The latter pairing underscores how the game has changed over the years, with the longevity of tennis players seemingly increasing: at 34 years old, the sprightly Hingis (whose comeback is truly a joy to witness after her half-hearted attempts in the mid-2000s) seems like a child when one considers her partner is 42, and shows no sign of stopping his dominant grasp of the mens' doubles' circuit.

Wimbledon also saw the return of another familiar face, with 33-year old Serena Williams continuing to show why she might be the greatest tennis player of all time by clinching her 21st Grand Slam after dismissing Spain's Garbine Muguruza in a two-set match which showed the American had not slowed down with age. Her victory is all the more remarkable when you realise how long she has been playing for, winning her first Grand Slam as she did at the tender age of 17 in the 1999 US Open.

The oldest man to become no 1 was American legend Andre Agassi. The 8-time Grand Slam champion reached the top of the game after an amazing comeback in 2003 after winning the Australian Open at the age of 33-years and 13 days. He managed to stay at the top for a total of 101 weeks over a career than spanned two decades.

Andre Agassi deposed Australian Lleyton Hewitt in 2003 to become World no 1 at the venerable age of 33 (AFP Photo)

What about another American legend, Jimmy Connors, who underscored his brilliance at the game with an astonishing run at the 1999 US Open, reaching the semi-finals at the age of 39? Longevity in the men's tour was not merely restricted to the North American continent; Spain's Andreas Gimeno, for example, achieved his career-high by winning the 1974 French Open at the age of 34, a mere three years before he retired.

Billie Jean King retired at the age of 40 with 126 titles to her name (AFP Photo)

And then there is perhaps the most astonishing player of all, the legend Billie Jean King, who won her last title when she was 39, a year before her eventual retirement.

So it might be that Federer, when he said on Monday that he still feels he can triumph at the most prestigious tournaments that the men's game has to offer, was not simply being optimistic.

And as he continues his quest for that elusive 18th Grand Slam, all the while displaying the effortless grace and elegant play that catapulted him to the top of the game more than a decade ago, fans and opponents alike will continue to be amazed.

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