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In tennis, 30 isn't what it once was


Roger Federer and Serena Williams were born within seven weeks of each other in 1981. So often they've been our barometers on the professional tours, giving clear signals as to how the sport is progressing and what it takes to be on top. It's just that they're feeling a bit ancient these days. In contrast to storied eras of the past, this is no time to be an over-30 tennis player.

Put it this way: The Champions Series, featuring the likes of John McEnroe, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras on a nationwide tour, is for players over 30. It seems to mark a kind of expiration date. At the NBA's All-Star weekend (when the league used to have a legends exhibition) or a baseball old-timers' game, the former greats tend to be closer to 50 -- even 60, in some cases. Not in tennis. Federer could retire from the tour and join McEnroe's bunch at will.

Will Federer or Serena ever win another major? Some say no; they're on an irreversible descent. Others foresee a few last hurrahs. But it's remarkable to find them under such scrutiny, especially in light of the game's glorious history.

Bill Tilden, the man largely responsible for America's attraction to tennis in the 1920s, was a viable, often unbeatable player well into his 40s. Pancho Gonzalez, believed to be the finest pure talent of them all (and likely the most passionate), dominated the original pro circuit in his 30s and engaged Charlie Pasarell in an epic Wimbledon first-rounder at the age of 41, winning a two-day affair by scores of 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. The incomparable Rod Laver was 31 when he won his second Grand Slam, in 1969, becoming the last man to do so. The most recent U.S. Open celebrated Jimmy Connors and his stirring run to the 1991 semifinals at the age of 39.

Others who continued to look very familiar in Grand Slam singles after turning 30:

Billie Jean King: Won both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

Martina Navratilova: Two Wimbledons and one U.S. Open (and she was still playing majors at 48).

Chris Evert: Two French Opens -- and reached the semifinals in 11 other majors.

Margaret Court: Won the Australian, French and U.S. Opens the year she turned 31.

British heroines Ann Haydon Jones and Virginia Wade: Both 31 when they won their cherished Wimbledon.

Pete Sampras: U.S. Open.

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Roy Emerson: French Open.

John Newcombe: Australian Open.

Arthur Ashe: Wimbledon.

Simply put, it was common to see great players not only compete into their 30s but also dominate the competition. Watching the great Ken Rosewall play such fine, effortless-looking tennis into middle age, one couldn't help but savor his unfettered love of the game. With the onset of the turbulent 1960s, though, came the age of tennis "burnouts," players prematurely derailed by drugs, obsessive parents, conflicting interests or the opulent tennis lifestyle. There were great riches to be made, enabling players to make a fortune and move on.

The game itself became more demanding, with the arrival of metal rackets, specialized strings, the two-handed backhand, superior athletes, big-hitting baseliners and the evolution into a more physically demanding sport than ever before. Watching old films and videos, even matches as recently as 20 years ago, it's almost comical to compare the speed and pace to today's streamlined version.

And so, for innumerable reasons, we find that many of the all-time greats -- McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Steffi Graf -- won their last majors before turning 30, if not retiring outright. Andy Roddick turns 30 next year, and he has spent years attacking the game with a fervor reminiscent of Jim Courier, who recently told him, "I ran myself into the ground. I overworked myself and I was done by 27, 28. You're heading down the same path. You need to pull back a little bit."

The last man to win a major after his 30th birthday was Agassi, at the 2003 Australian, and now the focus is on Federer, who has gone seven Slams without winning -- an epic drought, by his standards.

"The aging factor does play its part in all this," Mark Woodforde, the Australian doubles specialist who had success well into his 30s, told CNN. "How your body recovers after longer matches. How you mentally recover. Believe it or not, your ability to weather the storm becomes unstable.You become more irritated, on and off the court, dealing with situations. I reckon you also become more nervous in matches when the big moments arrive.

"For someone [Federer] who will be remembered as [arguably] the greatest, will he be satisfied playing second fiddle to Rafa [Nadal], Novak [Djokovic], [Andy] Murray and others as he moves into his 30s?"

It seems undeniable, on both the men's and women's tours, that the day of the teenage world-beater is gone. The game's intensely demanding nature requires maturity, physical strength and experience. As such, you'd think that perhaps players would stick around longer, upholding the great tradition of over-30 accomplishments. But it hasn't worked that way. Prime-time careers are growing shorter on both ends. We've seen some throwback moments on the women's side -- Francesca Schiavone and Li Na were 29 when they won the 2010 and '11 French Opens, respectively -- and Navratilova recently predicted to The New York Times, "You will see more players excelling between the ages of 25 and 30 than from 20 to 25. Everything's getting older. I don't think you'll see people win Slams at 35, but 30 is not the cutoff point that it used to be."

Serena will be a fascinating test case. Opposing players marvel at her ability to take time off (injured or not), show up at a major and literally play her way into top shape during the tournament, peaking by the final weekend. That becomes a more difficult proposition with age, but Serena gave every indication of having worked out extensively -- under the watch of noted trainer Mackie Shilstone -- over the past two years. She appears quite willing to put in the work, and she was playing well enough to be considered a heavy favorite (even if it didn't work out that way) at this year's U.S. Open.

Then again, she's Serena. She could retire tomorrow or win five or six majors over the next few years. It's a venture into the great unknown, and in that, she shares something with Federer. Just remember that if they stand in a Grand Slam winner's circle, as thousands cheer, it will hardly be without precedent.