By Ben Fisher, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.
TORONTO - For much of the Open era, tennis has been a young man’s game. So many of the game’s most iconic moments have come off the racquets of players barely old enough to drive, like 17-year-old Boris Becker (1985 Wimbledon) and 19-year-old Pete Sampras (1990 US Open).
But the sport’s tide seems to be turning, with a dozen 30-somethings in the top 50, led by the ageless world No. 1 Roger Federer. On the other end of the spectrum, the teen ranks current boast just one top-50 player – No. 48 Bernard Tomic.
It isn’t just the Swiss living legend who is enjoying a career upswing in his fourth decade on the planet (he turned 31 on Wednesday, the same age that Sampras finished his career at in 2002). Among the other over-30 who rank alongside Federer in the top 50, one is a fellow top five (David Ferrer), one as finally answered fitness questions that plagued him through much of his career (Mardy Fish), one is coming off an Olympic medal (Julien Benneteau) and several simply still possess the game to succeed at the ATP level even past their prime (David Nalbandian, Mikhail Youzhny, Feliciano Lopez, Jarkko Nieminen, Jurgen Melzer and Nikolay Davydenko).
Then you have Tommy Haas and Radek Stepanek, two competitors (and third round Rogers Cup opponents) entering their mid-30’s (Haas is 34, Stepanek is 33) at a time when their game is improbably on the rise. Both men find themselves free of injury and producing their best results in years.
"If you’re still having success, still believe in yourself and your body allows you to play at 32, 33, 34 and you feel like you can still do well, why not keep going?" said Haas. "You know it’s going to be over at some point. You’re not going to play in your late-30’s, early-40’s anymore, […] so you might as well enjoy it while you can and make the best of it."
The trend seems to run counter to conventional wisdom, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be explained. At a time when the sport has never been more physical and the top athletes have never been better conditioned, players are slowing the age curve by keeping their bodies ready for the grind.
"I think it’s the way sports are now, not just tennis," suggests Stepanek. "Athletics is on a much higher level than it was before, and then there’s all the new stuff which has come into the game, like the racquets, balls and everything."
Stepanek, who credits his ability to maintain a high level of play into his 30’s with his "old-school" game, has seen his ranking bounce from No. 70 in April of 2011 back up as high as 23 earlier this year (choosing the Olympics over defending his 2011 Washington title set him back to his current No. 40). Haas, meanwhile, makes that climb look modest, entering 2012 outside the top 200 and working his way back all the way to his current No. 25.
"I think it’s really a matter of your own goals, your mental state, what you want to achieve, do you still love the game, do you still want to grind – doing all that stuff that comes with it off the court," said Haas. "If you want to play with [the game’s elite], you really have to dedicate yourself off the court and try to get to a certain fitness level so you have a chance."
In other words, maybe there’s isn’t anything mystifying or mysterious about it, after all. These players have sustained their success and extended their careers simply by putting in the hard work.