Age Is Served
Veterans dominated the first week of the Australian Open, proving that teen phenoms are no longer all the rage
This is an article from the Jan. 28, 2008 issue
IT MAY have been the eucalyptus. It may have been remnants of the pepper spray that subdued a knot of particularly rowdy Greek fans during a first-round match involving their countryman Konstantinos Economidis. But it assuredly was not the smell of teen spirit wafting over Melbourne Park last week. The 2008 Australian Open has been an adults-only affair—which gives it something in common with most tennis events nowadays.
It wasn't long ago that professional tennis was the province of the young. This, after all, was the sport that accommodated Jennifer Capriati's professional debut at age 13. A decade ago, Martina Hingis was a tart-tongued 17-year-old defending her Aussie Open title. Yet on Monday, after four rounds of play Down Under, only one teen remained in the women's draw—not surprising given that none currently are ranked in the WTA's Top 10. The "graying of the field" is even more apparent on the men's side. While there were only seven teenagers in the main draw, only one of whom survived the second round, 15 thirtysomethings made the cut, including 35-year-old Fabrice Santoro, who had the misfortune of facing Roger Federer, age 26, in Round 2.
For the women, this trend is due in part to successful legislation. In the wake of several high-profile burnout cases (see: Capriati), the WTA limited the number of events that players under 18 are permitted to enter. Not only has the rule dodged legal threats but, simply put, it's worked. Even the most precocious phenoms are only gradually eased into the Big Show.
Also, for both the women and the men, the increasing physicality of tennis has demanded a mature body. Donald Young, the 18-year-old American, may have dazzling talent, but until he fills out a frame that's generously listed at 160 pounds, he's susceptible to getting blasted off the court—as he was in his first match in Melbourne, against the 6'3", 220-pound Michael Berrer, a 27-year-old German.
Perversely, tennis's current injury-o-rama may also be pushing up the average age of players. You'd be hard-pressed to name a player who hasn't spent a considerable chunk of a recent season on the sport's equivalent of the injured reserve list. Annoying as it must be to spend months away from the circuit in rehab, this enforced rest appears to add time to the back end of players' careers. Not for nothing are Monica Seles (34), Mary Pierce (33) and Capriati (31) all contemplating comebacks after missing much of the last four years with foot, knee and shoulder injuries, respectively.
Likewise, after reaching the top 20 in 2004, American Mardy Fish has battled a seemingly endless string of injuries. Rested and finally healthy, he reached the third round in Melbourne—taking apart 11th-seeded Tommy Robredo of Spain in the process—and is optimistic about his prospects. "I'm 26, but I can tell you this: My legs don't feel 26," he says. "In tennis mid-20s used to mean you were getting old, but now it means you're hitting your prime."
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Even as he cracked the ATP's top 40 this year, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was known mostly for his remarkable likeness to the young Muhammad Ali. So remarkable that other players would joke, "What's up, champ?" Tsonga might soon earn that honorific for his tennis. The 22-year-old Frenchman cruised into the quarterfinals with a string of impressive victories. In the fourth round, Tsonga beat Richard Gasquet, his wildly talented, wildly erratic countryman who has often overshadowed Tsonga. In this, Tsonga's fourth full year on the circuit, his gifts have coalesced nicely. The former junior champion hits the ball with enough power to be a force on fast surfaces, but he is sufficiently patient and speedy to make inroads on clay. As he says, "I just try to be—I don't know ... complete, no?" Yes.