Playing the old favourites at Wimbledon

  • Queen of the court: Serena Williams in action during last year’s Wimbledon Championships in London (Photograph by Tim Ireland/AP)

    Queen of the court: Serena Williams in action during last year’s Wimbledon Championships in London (Photograph by Tim Ireland/AP)

  • Chuck Culpepper

    Chuck Culpepper

What seemed landmark then seems quaint now. On September 8, 2002, 31-year-old Pete Sampras solved 32-year-old Andre Agassi in a four-set US Open final, and what outlandish ages. What longevity. What endurance. What wily elderliness.

What pups they were. Now comes a Wimbledon 17 years later in which almost everyone on the planet with a scintilla of the tennis chromosome agrees the men’s champion will come from one trio — 32-year-old Novak Djokovic, 37-year-old Roger Federer or 33-year-old Rafael Nadal. Atop that, an alluring question in the women’s bracket involves a No 11 seed for whom today, tournament day No 1, will be her 13,792nd on earth: 37 years, nine months, five days.

You know the player.

“I would have said in January, if there was any grand slam she’s going to win, it would probably be Wimbledon,” 18-times grand-slam tournament champion Chris Evert said of Serena Williams on an ESPN conference call.

When Agassi won the 2003 Australian Open at 32 years, eight months, 28 days, he became the third-oldest male grand-slam champion at the time. Now Federer and Nadal have combined to dock him to seventh, with Djokovic, freshly 32, figuring to help dock him more. When Sampras won that US Open at 31 years, 27 days, it placed him fourth all-time. Now, he is outside the top ten and sinking as age becomes ever more a boon.

In 1999 and 2009, one male player in the top 25 topped 30 years. In 2019, it is 12. The women’s top 25 features only three, but those include the defending Wimbledon champion (Angelique Kerber) and the queen of Open era champions (Williams). Any Williams win from here would break the grand-slam age record of 35 years, four months and two days, set at the 2017 Australian Open by ... Williams.

As a result, this Wimbledon arrives as a test tube for a peculiar brand of pressure, one that seven-times grand-slam winner John McEnroe described on the same ESPN call as Evert: “Of course, as you get older, at least for me, I felt that was more pressure, because you realise the window is closing,” he said. “You don’t know how much longer you’re going to be doing it. So you end up feeling like, ‘Oh, I’d better do it now.’”

Or, as Agassi put it after winning that 2003 Australian Open: “Really overwhelmed with it because, like I’ve said so many times, as you get older, you sort of realise so quickly how these moments pass. You want to make the most of them.”

That is a heap to hurl on to anyone who has played all of seven matches since January, as has Williams, but if an argument can be made for anyone doing just that, it would be Williams.

As Evert put it: “The prediction is so hard because we haven’t seen her play, and we haven’t seen her practise, and we don’t know what her frame of mind is. So, I mean, if you don’t know those three things, you don’t know anything except her past, which has always been — she’s always been a champion.”

Williams was last seen exiting the French Open in the third round before she told reporters on Saturday at Wimbledon: “Yeah, I was just dealing with some bad injuries all year, and you know, so I just haven’t had enough match play, quite frankly. So I finally feel like I found some good results in Paris. I stayed there, saw some good doctors and, yeah, I’m feeling better.

“Obviously, I haven’t had the best time and preparation that I normally would have. I’ve had a good week and a half, but I have been really just mentally training and physically training for that time, here, I’m just going to do the best that I can now that I’m here.”

After a pause: “I know how to play tennis.”

All of it makes her a fascination even sparklier than usual when she starts off in a bracket against three other former Wimbledon champions, plus Ashleigh Barty, the top seed and recent winner of the French Open. For backdrop, revisit Williams’s season: an Australian Open win over a No 1 player (Simona Halep), a quarter-final, one of the most shocking losses in world history from a 5-1 third-set lead and four match points against Karolina Pliskova and, since then ...

She has had nine matches scheduled since January. She has withdrawn from two. She has retired from one. She has lost one in the normal, match-point manner — to Sofia Kenin in the French Open third round. She has won the other five, but here were the rankings of the victims: 48th, 63rd, 64th, 83rd, 238th.

From that, one wins Wimbledon?

One might say yes, if it’s Williams, who won the 2007 Australian Open from a ranking of 81st and reached the Wimbledon final last year from a ranking of 181st, just ten months after giving birth.

“If you had to pick five players that you thought, ‘OK, who’s going to win it this year?’ you’d still put her in there,” McEnroe said. “You might even put her in there even down to four players.”

“Top three, for sure,” Evert said.

On the men’s side, such closing-window pressure seems not to matter. The past ten grand slams have gone resolutely to Djokovic (three), Nadal (four) and Federer (three). So have 31 of the 38 grand slams in this dying decade. When Nadal won the recent French Open per custom, he became the sixth-oldest male grand-slam champion at 33 years and six days, yet it hardly seemed to occur within any kind of career fumes.

“I think it’s a very special situation, because we have three of the — or maybe the three — top players [ever], all at one time in their generation,” said Dominic Thiem, the Austrian, who remains 25 years old, as if that’s supposed to be helpful. “They take amazing care of their bodies, and they play kind of economics, so that’s why they are up there in their thirties.”

To catalogue what is bubbling beneath the trio, fourth-ranked Thiem has been to the fourth round once in five Wimbledons, No 5 Alexander Zverev once in four, No 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas once in two. There is No 8 Kevin Anderson, the finalist last year and in 2017 in New York. He is, of course, 33.

“I don’t know, I guess definitely nowadays with all the stretching and, I don’t know, silly elastic bands and stuff we do, maybe we can extend our playing days,” Federer said in late March after he defeated John Isner — then 33, now 34 — for the Miami Open title.

Besides silly elastic bands, he cited bigger prize money, which abets more economic scheduling, better travel options, better diet, better sleep by living “maybe not such a rock‘n’roll lifestyle that maybe guys were doing back in the Seventies and Eighties.”

Use those silly elastic bands, forgo that rock‘n’roll lifestyle and take amazing care of the body, and, boom, along comes a Wimbledon that no man younger than 32 can win.

Chuck Culpepper covers national college sports, as well as some tennis, some golf and some international sports for The Washington Post. He has written previously for Sports On Earth at USA Today, the National (Abu Dhabi), the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The Oregonian and, beginning at age 14, the Suffolk Sun of The Virginian-Pilot

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Published Jul 1, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Jul 1, 2019 at 8:06 am)

Playing the old favourites at Wimbledon

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