Tuesday April 24th, 2012

Liezel Huber, Lisa Raymond

Lisa Raymond (left) has enjoyed a surge of good results after teaming up with Liezel Huber, including grabbing the doubles title in Indian Wells. (Getty Images)

Over the course of her 19-year career, Lisa Raymond has firmly planted herself in the record books as one of the greatest doubles players to have played the game. Now at 38 years old, she's proven that she's still capable of rewriting the history books. On Monday, she became the oldest woman to hold the No. 1 ranking in either singles or doubles in the history of the WTA. This isn't her first time sitting atop the rankings -- this week is her 118th career week in the No. 1 spot, putting her sixth on the all-time list, and making her the only woman to hold the co-No. 1 spot with three different partners (she previously held it with Rennae Stubbs and Sam Stosur) -- but Raymond admits that it's a whole lot sweeter this time around.

"I think if anything, to be able to get back to No. 1 at my age and after a not so great past two years, to get back on it and to really work hard and achieve this probably means more to me now than it did when I first achieved the No. 1 ranking years ago," Raymond told SI.com. "This is probably the most special."

Last ranked No. 1 in July 2007, Raymond fell off the grid in 2008 and 2009 due a lack of focus. Struggling in her personal life and noticeably overweight and unfit, the modern game was passing her by. On a tour where player entourages consisted of trainers, coaches, and physios were now the norm, she was stuck in a mental and physical rut. If she were a singles player, she may have just kept plodding along, enduring loss after loss until she finally burned out and quit the sport. But there's an inescapable accountability in doubles: if you go down you drag your partner down with you. So leave it to then-partner and good friend Stubbs to intervene and give Raymond the wake-up call she needed.

"I was still playing, obviously, and I was struggling," Raymond recalls. "I had some things in my personal life that weren't great and that reflected a lot in my professional life. We lost a match at Indian Wells and she took me aside and said 'What are you doing? What are you doing with your life?' It was tough for me to hear and it was difficult for Rennae too, because she's such a good friend. But it made me really have to make a lot of changes, reflect, and take a good long look at myself and if I wanted to keep playing. And if I did want to keep playing I had to refocus and get back on track."

After some soul-searching, Raymond realized she wasn't ready to hang up her racket. The desire and passion for the game was still there, but if she was going to rededicate herself it was going to be with the goal of being of being the best, not just stay afloat. After all, this wasn't just an issue of getting fitter. As the women's game has evolved into one revolving around unprecedented power, Raymond has had to evolve with it. Where she was once a pure serve and volleyer with soft hands at the net, Raymond had to tweak her forehand to hit it heavier and improve her volleys to be able to deal with the powerful groundstrokes coming at her.

"If I wanted to stay out here and compete at this level and try to be the best I had to get better and improve, because the game is more physical now than it's ever been," she said. "The caliber of tennis is just unbelievable now. Everybody is just hitting such massive groundstrokes, big returns, big serves. For me, I've had to change my game. My first volley now is better than it was five or eight years ago. I've had to do that."

Her fitness improved and her game changed to get ahead of the times, but Raymond knew there was one last piece of the puzzle she needed to get back on top: the right partner. As chance would have it, America's top-ranked doubles player, Liezel Huber, had acrimoniously split with long-time partner Cara Black right around the same time Stubbs was giving Raymond a kick in the pants. They finally hooked up in time for Charleston in 2011, though the partnership didn't yield immediate results. In their first four tournaments, they couldn't put together back-to-back wins. Raymond and Huber both say that despite the slow start, neither of them doubted their partnership could succeed. They just needed to put in the hard work.

"Basically we had to find our identity as a team. We both knew what each was bringing to the table, but we had to find how that was going to work as a unit," Raymond recalled. "A lot of hours on the practice courts, a lot of playing random tournaments that we didn't want to play but we knew we had to play the matches. It didn't happen overnight and it took a lot of hours, but we finally got there."

They finally got their first taste of success, making the semifinals of Roland Garros in 2011 and their results continued to improve from there. They captured their first title together later that summer in Toronto, setting themselves up perfectly for a dream run at the U.S. Open. There, in front of family and friends, they beat the defending champions, Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova, in a thrilling three-set match that was decided by a tie-break. It was her third U.S. Open title, sixth doubles title overall, and given how hard she had to work to get there, Raymond says it was the greatest win of her career.

The pair have carried over their 2011 success in 2012. Always the perfectionist, Raymond admits 2012 "could have been better," still obviously feeling the sting of their two tough losses in Australia, where they lost in the Sydney final to Katarina Srebotnik and Kveta Peschke 13-11 in the third despite having match points, and their controversial quarterfinal loss to Elena Vesnina and Sania Mirza at the Australian Open. But it's hard to criticize a team that bounced back to win 17 straight matches, capturing big titles in Paris, Doha, Dubai, and Indian Wells along the way.

It used to be that discussing an older player's age was tantamount to bringing up that dreaded "R" word: retirement. But in the era of 41-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm still competing on the tour, Venus and Serena Williams showing they're still two of the game's best in their 30s, and Slam titles being racked up by players like Sam Stosur, Francesca Schiavone, and Li Na, age is treated as a badge of honor. Talking about a player's age used to mean they were old and washed up. Now it just means they have experience.

Five bonus shots

Favorite current WTA player to watch: Agnieszka Radwanska and Stosur. "Aggie has such unbelievable feel at the net. Her hands are amazing. Aggie I love for her feel and Sam I love for the power."

Five albums you would want with you on a desert island: Adele "21", without question. I love Lifehouse "No Name Face", for no good reason other than it's depressing and sometimes I love that stuff. Definitely David Gray, White Ladder, for sure. I love Snow Patrol "Final Straw", they're awesome. I'm gonna old school and go with Counting Crows, "August and Everything After". That just totally shows my age right there. And Alanis Morissette "Jagged Little Pill".

Guilty Pleasure: Cupcakes. "My favorite cupcake is a cookie dough cupcake. There's a cupcake place in New York called Molly's Cupcakes and they have the best cupcake. It's called Cookie Monster."

Dream doubles partner: Todd Woodbridge. Greatest win of her career: The  2011 U.S. Open doubles title. "Just the circumstances, obviously the special day, everything that I've been through and to be able to do that in New York with my family and friends there was special."

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