Tennis' aging field: Federer, Venus and Serena Williams reach Australian Open final
- Five reasons why older players are still able to compete at a high level, after three players over the age of 35 advanced to the Australian Open finals.
MEBLOURNE – As it was written: “Don’t worry about the world ending. It’s already tomorrow in Australia.” Yet the 2017 Australian Open has been themed by the retro, not the futuristic. Six of the eight semifinals in the men’s and women’s draw were 30-and-over. For perspective, the age of eligibility on tennis’ Seniors Tour is 35.
The average age of the remaining competitors only went up on Thursday. Venus Williams, 36, out-battled CoCo Vandeweghe and reached her first major final since 2009. She then, endearingly, celebrated in a way at odds with her age. Her sister Serena, a stripling at 35, followed up by beating 34-year-old pup, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. When Serena plays at the level she betrayed today, it’s like playing chess against the computer. You won’t win. You just hope to compete well.
Roger Federer, also 35, did his part to arrange the Fed/Nadal final anticipated by so many—not least those whose bonuses rely on ratings. Federer played well when he needed it most, took advantage of the fast court (again) and beat Stan Wawrinka for the 19th time in 22 meetings. For good measure, the Bryan Brothers, age 38, closed in on their seventh Australian Open, reaching the final.
But why is the field aging? Why are players able to compete at this level into their 30s? Here are five explanations:
1) “The sport has never been more physical.” It's become tennis’ unofficial slogan. What does this mean? Full physical maturity is required. So that will impact the average age. The notion of slinky teenagers competing with men in a best-of-five format is almost laughable. Later arriving guests are late to depart.
2) “The sport has never been wealthier.” What does this mean? Players can afford to bring nutritionists and physios with them on the road. They can afford hotel suites and private jets. They benefit from modern medicine and state-of-the-art treatment. Surely this plays a role in reducing wear and tear and encouraging longevity.
3) The tournament schedule and requirements are lax. The days of top players entering 20-plus events a year are no longer. Serena played only seven tournaments in all of 2016. She, Federer and Nadal all took off the fall. After this event, some players won’t play again until March. Know how keeping the odometer down adds years to your car? Same for these sensitive instruments.
4) The aforementioned players are really, really good. So much so they can overcome historical trends.
4b. They’re still hungry. The have different motivations (alltime records in Serena’s case; Federer’s enjoyment of being Federer; Venus’ sheer love and admission that she’s unsure what comes next.) But each WANTS to continue.
We’ll see how the rest of the weekend plays out. This we know: Federer, Venus and Serena….they would kick ass on any senior’s tour.
“If" Wawrinka were to win this Australian Open, does he move into the Big 4? Or do the privileges of knighthood afford Andy a little more time to defend his position?
• Note that I writing this before the men’s semifinal is completed. I’m still on the Murray bandwagon. Two Olympic golds have to count for something. And Murray has won more than double Wawrinka’s prize money. But take nothing away from Stanislas. Over the last three years, he’s won more majors than Murray, Federer and Nadal combined.
I realize there's not a perfect way to handle the second week of scheduling at the Slams (although Wimbledon comes closest) but the Australian Open definitely handles it the worst. On the men's side one finalist gets an extra day of rest than the other finalist. Meanwhile, the women are relegated to the day sessions for both the quarterfinals and semifinals. Is there much discussion from the players and/or media on this or is it a "it is what it is" situation?
P.S. Also, I have an LLS for you: Grigor Dimitov's coach Dani Vallverdu and Tottenham's manager Mauricio Pochettino
—Blake R., Denver, Colo.
• Yeah, scheduling is inherently problematic. Throw in television, night finals and time differences and it gets worse. The women get zero days—fewer than 24 hours—between the quarters and the semis. Yet the winner of Thursday’s Federer/Wawrinka match gets three full days.
My gripe is more macro: the first few days are absolutely chaos, of the blissful variety. You cannot keep up with matches. By the second Monday things slow to a crawl. Like so many issues in tennis, problems and double-standards are easy to come by. Solutions, less so.
As disappointing as that loss was for Goffin if he can consistently make the quarterfinals in Slams that will be a successful career for him and exceed most if not all expectations people had for him.
• It’s funny, I thought Benoit Paire would give Dominic Thiem a better match. Then, I thought Thiem would give Goffin a matter match. Then, I thought Goffin would give Dimitrov a better match. So it goes. The current debate: is Goffin more like David Ferrer or more like Gilles Simon? Regardless both are admirable players who never won a major. I fear Goffin is headed for the same fate.
While watching the Australian Open, I have had these questions that fall outside of the story lines of the draw:
1) For the top pros, how long do they typically use a specific racquet frame: just for one match, one tournament, a few months, a year? If they retire them quickly, going through a lot of frames, why?
2) Watching the ball kids (something I have always wanted to do), I have been wondering what sort of interesting rules they are taught to follow, e.g., maybe no eye contact with players or others we might not realize are part of the training.
3) Commentators periodically mentioned the difference between the significance the players put on the year-end championships versus the fans. This is true for me too—I watch the majors (plus some Indian Wells) consistently, but rarely any of the year-end finals. I wonder if the fact that the majors bring the whole elite tennis world together—men and women—for one meet is one of the differences (along with the fixed locations, perhaps) and if there is discussion about the ATP and WTA coordinating their championships into a single, larger event to elevate the fan awareness/focus.
—John H. Campbell, Portland, Ore.
1) Totally depends. I’ve heard stories on both ends. Serena is famously “unpicky” about her gear. When she won here several years ago, she allegedly used one racket for all seven matches. Other players will switch early and often. I’m told that Lendl is credited with the era sensitivity. He would switch rackets every X games because string tension was dropping.
2) There’s a whole protocol to working as a ball kid. I’m always amazed at how many pros were ballkids in their youth. (Including Federer.)
3) Coordinate? Tennis? For the fans’ benefit? Hahaha.
I noticed that Venus and Serena were not courtside watching each other's quarterfinal matches and I recall seeing them watching each other at past Grand Slams. Is this because they are so deep in the tournament they're trying to stay focused? Because they might face each other? Thanks.
• I seem to remember Venus in the stands for one of Serena’s earlier matches. But remember: they played on alternate days so I suspect this was just a matter of logistics.
Good to see Andrey Rublev in the Aussie Open draw. Is there any other player you know who shares a name with a film? Jon, I'm disappointed in you.
How could you overlook such classics as: “Tsonga the South,” “Bring Me the Head of Caroline Garcia,” “Vania King's Speech” and lest we forget the small screen, "McHale's Navy." Not to mention the fact that there were 1940's to 1950's American movie stars named Rogers and Crawford and Davis and Williams and Day.
—Patrick of La Verne
• Well played. “Roger and me.” “Valley of Nadal.” “Venus in Fur.” Anything produced by David Geffen, er, David Goffin….more suggestions welcome.
Snapshots from the Semifinals