The Older the Better

Brian Baker's run in the first week of Wimbledon was just one example of a big trend in men's tennis: Age is actually in a player's favor
July 09, 2012

It's so easy, in the case of Brian Baker, to wonder what might've been. He flashed sterling junior credentials and great promise before injuries derailed him for six years, and his comeback-sealing run into the fourth round at Wimbledon showcased a heady and vexing all-court game. "I didn't see any solution," said Baker's third-round victim, 55th-ranked Benoit Paire of France. "I've never felt so lost on court. He was returning everything, hitting the baseline. He was too fast, hitting the ball too early for me."

Such talk would be grist for a "next great American" feature—if Baker weren't 27, an age that in tennis used to mean past one's prime. "Of course I had moments where [I was] like, Man, what could I have done if I had been healthy?" said Baker, who has had three hip surgeries, plus Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. "But once I stopped having those thoughts, I started doing a lot better."

Besides, the game's shifting demographics make Baker seem to be right on time. This year's Wimbledon men's field was the oldest in history (chart). Its thunderclap moment—the second-round upset of two-time champ Rafael Nadal—was wrought by a relatively wizened unknown, 26-year-old Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic. Once the land of teen arrivistes such as Nadal, Mats Wilander and Pete Sampras, tennis is now no country for young men.

Why? Bigger paydays, more powerful equipment and an unprecedented attention to fitness have made it easier for oldsters to hang on. Some also believe that coaching in the junior ranks has been declining and that the typical teen body can't stand up to the physicality of today's game. But, says Boris Becker, the onetime wunderkind who won Wimbledon at 17 in 1985, "the physical is not the reason. It's mental. Tennis is a bigger sport than it was 20 years ago. Players take longer to accept what comes with it. Sponsorship, money, international coverage—sometimes you take longer talking to the press than playing the game. That affects younger players, makes them scared."

If the No. 1 player sets the tone for the tour, it only makes sense that Novak Djokovic didn't start coming into his own until he was 23. This weekend the bottom half of the Wimbledon draw will produce a first-time finalist. None of the possible quarterfinalists in that half was under 23, and no one was calling them old. "Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, he's 27 and he's maturing," Becker says. "Before, he didn't know what to do with his power. Now he's smarter. If he's not playing well, he doesn't go crazy with his shots; he's playing more percentages. Andy Murray, also—at 25 he's playing much smarter than he played two, three years ago."

Baker, of course, has a body clock unlike anyone else's. "Twenty-seven is older," he says, "but since I haven't put all that stress on my body? I'll have four to five more years to keep on playing out here." A year ago the Tennessean was unranked; after Wimbledon he will be ranked at least in the high 70s, with a top 30 game in hand. He has nowhere to go but up—and no plans to go anywhere else.

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DROP SHOTS PERFECT SCORE

Something rare and curious occurred at Wimbledon last Saturday: For the first time since the Open era began, in 1968, a player at a Grand Slam event played a set flawlessly. Kazakhstan's Yaroslava Shvedova won a "golden set"—24 straight points—in beating Italy's Sara Errani 6--0, 6--4. Then something even more rare and curious occurred: Almost no one really cared. Sure, there was some reaction. "At Wimbledon in the third round?" said Hall of Famer Tracy Austin. "Against the French Open runner-up? It's out of this world." But after that, the tennis equivalent of a perfect game evoked a collective shrug. "If you lose a set 20--18 in the tiebreak, it's the same," Errani said. "You lost the set." Shvedova, who would lose to Serena Williams on Monday, didn't even know what she had accomplished until well after the Errani match. "I don't think it's that big a deal," she said. And Austin knew the term golden set only because the only other pro to win one—Bill Scanlon, in 1983—brings it up whenever he sees her. Who can blame him? All too quietly, he (and now Shvedova) achieved one of sport's unthinkables. It should matter more.

Where the Boys Aren't

The graying of men's tennis since 1990 was evident during Week 1 of Wimbledon, where the average age and the number of players over 30 were record highs and the number of teenagers tied the alltime low.

Source: HeavyTopspin.com

PHOTONIGEL WALDRON/ACTIONPLUS/ICON SMINEVER TOO LATE Because of injuries Baker is only now coming into his own at 27, and he feels he has many years left to play. PHOTOFACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/EPA/LANDOV PHOTOTOM WARGACKI/WIREIMAGE/GETTY IMAGES PHOTODAVID WALBERG CHART

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)