We've known for years that the workforce in professional tennis is growing older, and this was thrown into sharp relief at the Olympic tennis event earlier this week when Ryan Harrison's ill-advised tantrum was dismissed as youthful indiscretion. He's "only 20," you see.
20? Boris Becker, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier had won Majors by then. Andre Agassi was already a disappointment at that age. Steffi Graf had won a Golden Slam -- all four Majors and an Olympic gold.
Another example of the greying field was seen today at the Olympics -- a number of fathers, husbands, wives and mothers acquitted themselves well on the courts. Roger Federer, who turns 31 a week from today and is the father of twin 3-year-old girls, is the oldest player left in the men's draw and also the prohibitive favorite to win gold. Looking more like a player in the prime than one four years removed from senior tour eligibility, he recovered from a shaky start and beat Denis Istomin to move on to the quarterfinals.
Federer was less successful in doubles as he and Swiss countryman Stan Wawrinka (a 27-year-old father) fell to the Israel team of Andy Ram (32) and Yoni Erlich (35), who are both married men. As that match ended, the top seeded women's team, Lisa Raymond (39) and Liezel Huber (36) closed out their win.
It was a decade ago that Lleyton Hewitt won the Wimbledon singles title and was No.1 in the world. But at the Olympics, he needed a wild card just to get into the main draw. He may have lost a step of quickness, but, at age 31, he hasn't lost his taste for combat. He won the first set against Novak Djokovic on Centre Court today and came within a few points of springing an Olympic upset. The better player ended up prevailing, but Hewitt's performance offered a firm response to those who ask, "Why is he still out there?"
Simultaneously, Hewitt's one-time fiancée, Belgium's Kim Clijsters, 29, was rolling on Court 18, knocking out Ana Ivanovic of Serbia. A wife and mother, Clijsters will play only one more event before retiring, and if her health holds up, she may win a medal.
Venus Williams, the oldest player in the singles draw, fell 7-6, 7-6 to Angelique Kerber of Germany. When I spoke with her maybe ten minutes after the match, she brought up the possibility of playing in the 2016 Olympics without prompt. She'll be 37 then.
Pushed for explanation as to why the top players keep getting older, the discussion usually shifts to technical talk about strings and rackets, and the physical sport requiring a full body. But it's something more than. Experience matters. And when you have elite talent, have a job you find enjoyable and challenging, and are happy with our compensation level, why wouldn't you want to lick the bottom of the bowl?
"Even though I came up short, matches like this remind you why you're still competing," says Hewitt, expressing sentiment that player after player echoed.
Like most subcultures, tennis is obsessed with youth and minting Next Big Things. We love talking about Young Guns. But at these Olympics, we've seen that muskets are powerful and accurate, too.
? With singles, we go right by the rankings and everyone is in on their merit. With doubles, you need a partner. So what happens when you're from country X and there is no suitable comrade? The example often given is Cara Black, a terrific player from Zimbabwe, a country with something other than a deep pool of tennis talent. If she had to miss the Olympics because there were no suitable partners, it wouldn't be fair to punish her in the rankings.
? Good question! Nope. Only the big locker rooms are being used. The members keep the "seeds" enclaves. Again, I always get a kick out of this. You're in this intense one-on-one combat. The rains come. And suddenly you repair and regroup in the locker room -- a few feet from your opponent.
? Indeed. Tennis isn't the only sport in which men and women actively compete together. But I would submit it's the biggest.
? No one is an apologist. But a) he's only 20. (That was supposed to be a joke.) B) Too many players, American especially, have been fire-proof as it were, lacking in passion, content simply to be living the good life of a full-time pro. It shouldn't be an either/or but given me Harrison's ambition (however unfortunately it sometimes manifests itself) over others' nice guy complacency.
? Thanks. I hope you mean the tennis is warm-up for the Housewives of OC. Not a guy named Worthhime (sp.)
? H Peter Josiger, Sao Paulo, Brazil: "To the gentleman from Kentucky who criticized the authorities in Halle for naming an Allee instead of a Strasse after Roger Federer: An Allee is not "frenchified" but the German name for a Strasse flanked by trees."
? Neil Grammer of Toronto: "Jon, totally agree with you on the topic of 'worst player to...' as being fair game. That's what makes sports chatter fun. We often forget how amazing the "worst' player is relative to the rest of humanity. As a former varsity squash player, I thought was good until I hit with the then #10 player in the world and realized he could easily beat me wrong handed while spotting me match ball. Once you have that perspective, not only is it fair having a 'who's worse' discussion but it gives us weekend warriors some much needed schadenfreude. My vote, btw,is still the always popular Chris Lewis.
? Charith of Bangalore, India: "Jon, lets face it, if Serena Williams were to frolic around the court giving high-fives to every opponent that she lost to in a major final, she wouldn't be a fourteen-time winner; and most definitely, her fourteenth major wouldn't be thirteen years after her first one; and certainly not as a woman who will be turning thirty one next month -- a feat last accomplished by Martina Navratilova: winning a major in three different decades, and as a woman past thirty."