After Day Three, she recalled earlier this year, “I was dying!” She phoned her husband and told him Rodriguez was “crazy” to demand as many hours sweating in the gym as practicing on court. She even contemplated retiring.
But today, a full year into the regimen, the 31-year-old Li boasts greater strength and stamina, as well as a more potent serve and aggressive tactics. On Friday, she’ll face a fellow 31-year-old, top-ranked Serena Williams, in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.
By all accounts, both women are in the best shape of their lives at 31 and, as a result, playing the best tennis of their careers.
While exceptional athletes, to be sure, Williams and Li aren’t necessarily aberrations at the top ranks of women’s tennis today. Instead, they reflect a trend in which pro careers blossom later and last far longer than they did two or three decades ago, when teenagers such as Tracy Austin, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis won the U.S. Open women’s title before turning 18.
Of the eight women to reach the U.S. Open’s quarterfinals this year, a record five are 30 or older: Williams, a four-time champion; Li, reveling in her best showing in the event to date; 30-year-old Daniela Hantuchova
, 31, who defeated
, 30, Wednesday to reach the semifinals of a major for the first time.
Williams was the last player under 18 to win the U.S. Open, claiming the first of her 16 major titles at age 17, in 1999.
Today, three weeks shy of her 32nd birthday, she is crushing everyone in her path, sailing into the U.S. Open’s semifinals without surrendering a set and competing in doubles with her older sister Venus.
There are multiple factors driving the new longevity in women’s tennis.
Chief among them, many believe, is the Women’s Tennis Association’s decision, in 1995, to limit the number of pro tournaments that teenage girls may enter, effectively delaying the start of the rigorous grind in store.
Under the so-called “age-eligibility requirements,” 14-year-olds are limited to competing in eight pro tournaments. The permissible number of events gradually increases each year until age 18, when all limitations are lifted.
The move was prompted by concern over the high burnout-rate of promising youngsters who turned pro in their middle-school years, often pushed by parents with grandiose dreams and scant patience.
A 2004 study conducted on the 10-year anniversary of the age-limits rule found that pro careers were lasting 24 percent longer.
The increased prize money and endorsements in women’s tennis has also extended pro careers, Martina Navratilova believes.
For starters, today’s pros can afford to hire first-rate athletic trainers and physical therapists to help keep them in shape and recover from injury. Moreover, the money in itself is a compelling reason to keep playing.