“Flushing Meadows: The Fountain of Youth?”
Published: Monday, September 3, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 3, 2012 18:09
Judging by the number of “weekend” tennis players on Kent courts, it must be U.S. Open time again. With one week of the fortnight already through, some of the stuff I have seen is pretty interesting.
From Belgium’s Kim Clijsters and China’s Li Na getting beat by Laura Robson, Britain’s first women’s tennis talent since Virginia Wade in the 1970s, to Novak Djokovic fist-pumping to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” after beating Brazilian Rogerio Dutra da Silva in the second round, it has been a pretty good week.
The biggest news from Flushing Meadows, home of the U.S. Open since 1978, came on Thursday, when American tennis hero Andy Roddick, who won the 2003 Open, announced he would retire from tennis after the tournament.
Now 30 is not old for a tennis player, especially at the U.S. Open. In 1969, Australian legend Rod Laver won both the U.S. Open title and his second Grand Slam (winning the Australian, French and U.S. Opens plus Wimbledon) at the ripe old age of 31, an age where Roddick will be spending time on a beach with his supermodel wife, Brooklyn Decker.
The U.S. Open has proved to be a boon to players that many people have written off as being “too old to compete.” In 1974, Ken Rosewall, the Australian nicknamed “Muscles” for his lack of them, went all the way to the finals. He played the best young player at the time, 22-year-old Jimmy Connors, who was fresh from winning Wimbledon. Connors beat Rosewall in straight sets, 6-1, 6-0, 6-1.
The boxscore does not do Rosewall justice, for it is more amazing that he even got to the final at all. Having gone pro at 22 in 1956, he could not play in the U.S. Open until 1968 (the Slams were closed to everybody but amateurs until 1968). For 12 years, Rosewall and some of the other players like Laver were shunned, forced to play in front of 100 people or less in exotic, dangerous places, every night, all because they made money.
So to come back to be at the top at an age when most athletes (Roddick being the prime example) have already sprinted off to their beaches earns my respect. Over that fortnight in 1974, Rosewall played some of the best players at the time and fought his way through seven rounds to get to the final.
Seventeen years later, in 1991, Jimmy Connors, now the 39-year-old elder statesman of tennis, got into the Open, as a wild card. In the fourth round, he played American Aaron Krickstein in a four hour, 41 minute, five set match on Connors’ birthday. Connors won the marathon, 3-6, 7-6 (10-8 tiebreaker), 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4 tiebreaker).
Connors mastered the audience and used the crowd to his advantage. At one point during the match, he looked into the TV camera and said, with a disgusted look on his face, “This is what they come for, this is what they want.” Sure enough, he delivered, going on to face Paul Haarhuis from Holland, taking him in four sets, 4-6, 6-7 (3-7 tiebreaker), 6-4, 6-2. Connors lost, however, in the semis to rising American star Jim Courier in straight sets.
How many of these stars of today will play on into their late 30s or even their 40s? Clijsters retired from singles after beaten by Robson, and she is only 29. Pete Sampras retired at 31. To quote one of the greatest sportswriters of all time, Motorsport Magazine’s Nigel Roebuck, “It is not easy to have a hero younger than oneself.” Soon, all my U.S. Open heroes will be gone, and I will not be able to look at the younger generation as role models.
Do I think I will see Djokovic dancing to “Call Me Maybe” at 36? No. But do I think I’ll see Roger Federer winning at 36? Yes. Federer, a man who values his tennis history and the men who came before him (check out him and Laver at the 2012 Australian Open on YouTube), could still be playing (and winning) at Rosewall’s age. As long as he enjoys his tennis, something that looks like it cannot be said for other players, Federer could be playing for a long time to come.