January 24, 2009

Cheers to the Vets!

Today I turn thirty.


And while I've always been jealous of the scrappy teenagers who could come out on the tennis courts and eke out wins against top-ranked players -- and moreso of the ones who could handily beat well-seasoned opponents -- that envy is even more palpable now.

But us older players still have some spunk, and a couple showed their stuff in Australia this week.

Thirty-six year old Fabrice Santoro returned for his seventeeth Australian Open and notched victories over former #1 Juan-Carlos Ferrero and seeded German Philipp Kohlschreiber before he ran into a wall against Andy Roddick. The zany Frenchman previously proved he was no has-been and recaptured the hearts of fans everywhere when he took my dear James Blake through five emotional sets and three and a half heart-pounding hours at the 2007 U.S. Open. And with two titles last year Fabrice has shown that he's not going to leave the game quietly.

Veteran Ai Sugiyama tried to follow up her semifinal appearance in Sydney with more success in Melbourne. Ranked #26 in the world, she's not exactly an underdog, but she hasn't been a huge force in a major -- at least not in singles -- in years. At this year's Australian Open she dropped her first set to Nathalie Dechy before rebounding for the right to meet -- and unfortunately lose to -- top-seed Jelena Jankovic in the third round. Again, her top-thirty seed suggested that this match-up was inevitable, but I'm sure Ai was still happy to come through.

Gorgeous German Tommy Haas has been ranked as high as #2 in the world and has eleven singles titles to his name -- this time last year he was a stone's throw from the top ten. But a shoulder injury in 2007 and allegations of being poisoned during a Davis Cup match against Russia pushed him out of the top fifty for the first time in nearly five years. In Melbourne he put together back-to-back wins for the first time since last August, rolling through the man who dispatched Dmitry Tursunov in the first round. Against Rafael Nadal in his third match, Haas's comeback was stalled -- though, I believe not quite ended. He's rallied before, climbing from a four-digit ranking in 2004 all the way to #17.

The greatest story of this year's Open, though, might be that of Japan's Kimiko Date-Krumm who, at 38, was the oldest player in the main draw. She turned pro in 1989, before players like Caroline Wozniacki or Alize Cornet were even born. She once made it to the semifinals in Melbourne -- in 1994 -- and acheived a career-high ranking of #4 the next year.

But that was pretty much the last we heard of her for a while -- she hasn't played a Grand Slam since 1996, when she lost at the first round in Flushing Meadows.

Kimiko returned last year, playing a handful of ITF tournaments and even scoring three titles. She played a few tour matches in Japan and a round in Auckland earlier this month. Before the Australian Open began she fought through three qualifying rounds, beating two players half her age and one in her twenties, to earn the right to play in her first major in a dozen years.

In her first round match Kimiko put up quite a fight against twenty-three year old Kaia Kanepi, who faced a slightly stronger opponent than she might have expected. They split the first two sets, 4-6, 6-4, and took the third to fourteen games before Kanepi eventually claimed the victory. But the stats were close -- Date-Krumm had a better first-serve percentage, but lost more points on her second try. She won over three-quarters of her net point attempts, but made fewer winners and unforced errors. In two hours and fifty minutes, she scored only eleven fewer points than Kaia.

Maybe it wasn't quite the return she'd wanted, but Kimiko Date Krumm definitely reminded the tennis world of her name. And I'm hoping this isn't the last we've heard of her.

So good luck to the veterans, if not at this tournament then certainly at others -- I hope to see you out there for many years to come!

In the meantime, I'm off to celebrate the last few hours of my twenties.



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