To be sure, Federer and Williams are the most dominant players of their generation, if not the best ever, so it’s foolhardy to draw generalizations from their success. But on the matter of longevity, they’re emblematic of a trend at the top ranks of tennis, which is increasingly populated by players who have extended their careers to peak at ages when top pros a few decades ago had long since retired.
At this year’s U.S. Open, four of the men who reached the round of 16 were 30 or older: Federer,Spain’s David Ferrer and Americans Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick.
And Thursday afternoon’s most compelling match was the gut-spilling, five-set quarterfinal between Ferrer and Janko Tipsarevic, who are playing their best tennis at 30 and 28, respectively.
On the women’s side, Williams’s dominance has surprised no one. With her 31st birthday looming Sept. 26, she has steamrolled every challenger in recent months when coveted trophies were at stake, winning her fifth Wimbledon in July, claiming singles and doubles gold at the London Olympics in August and storming into the semifinals here without surrendering a set.
But few anticipated the strong run of 29-year-old Roberta Vinci of Italy, who upset the tournament’s No. 2 seed, Agnieszka Radwanska, 23, in straight sets to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. That’s more than twice Tracy Austin’s age (14) when she won her first pro tournament in pigtails and pinafores. And it’s 13 years older than Austin was (16) upon reaching No. 1 in the world, only to have her promising career effectively ended at 20 by a serious back injury.
Asked why she felt she had reached her prime at her age, Vinci replied: “Well, probably because I’m 29. I’m not young. I have a lot of matches behind me, a lot of experience.”
It’s not as if past generations didn’t boast the occasional defiant lion who turned back the clock. The 39-year-old Jimmy Connors was cheered by aging duffers everywhere for his fist-pumping charge to the U.S. Open semifinals in 1991. Andre Agassi burnished his Hall of Fame legacy with his late-career resurgence, winning two of his eight majors after turning 30 and staving off retirement until 36. And Martina Navratilova, who won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, competed in doubles until reaching 50.
Among the first tennis champions to recognize the value of a structured fitness program, Navratilova says she is thrilled to see more players on both the men’s and women’s side extending their careers. She cites many factors as driving the “successful aging.”
“Everybody is getting better care; that’s the bottom line,” Navratilova said in a telephone interview. “It’s not that the bodies are that much better. We have better nutrition at an earlier age. And even though they’re hitting the ball harder and playing on harder surfaces, they can stay ahead of the curve with better training.”