June 4, 2011

Better With Age

For a professional tennis player, at least for the ladies, it used to be that your golden years came before the age of twenty.

Chris Evert won her first Grand Slam at the ripe old age of nineteen. Tracy Austin was seventeen. Then Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova all added to the record books as they set the champion's age bar lower and lower.

But it's no big revelation that the game has changed since then. As women became stronger and the game got faster, it became harder for the youngsters to handle the big strokes of the veterans -- the last teen to win a Major was Sharapova in 2006 and the last six Slams have had both finalists over the age of twenty-five.

So maybe we shouldn't be surprised that the two ladies who played the French Open final on Saturday have a combined age of sixty years and almost three months. But unlike some of the veterans who've been playing and winning for the better part of the last decade, Francesca Schiavone and Li Na have practically just emerged on the tennis scene and are really playing the best ball at what used to be considered their twilight years.

The defending champion has been around the game for over a dozen years, but just won her first title the week of her twenty-seventh birthday -- a smallish tournament in Bad Gastein where she was the top seed at #31 in the world. Last year was the only multi-trophy year of Schiavone's career, as she won the championship in Barcelona just before her breakthrough in Paris. She hasn't made a final since then, but with a win over former #1 Jelena Jankovic and a stunning comeback against the youngest player in the top fifty, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, she was certainly getting her footing back on the terre battue.

Her opponent Saturday was similarly inexperienced in the title rounds. Having played her first Grand Slam final just four months ago in Australia at the age of twenty-eight, Li Na was another journeywoman on Tour. She'd won a tournament here and there, one in her native China in 2004, but the real coups came last year when she stunned Venus Williams in Melbourne and rocketed through Maria Sharapova in the Birmingham finals. She backed it all up when she rebounded from 0-5 down to Kim Clijsters in the Sydney championships and pulled out that win. Though she went a long stretch in the spring without winning a match, in Paris she notched three consecutive wins over players who'd had stunning clay court seasons.

So after decades on the circuit these two had certainly earned the right to play for this Major crown. It was just the second title match each had contested, and neither had been considered a favorite to get here. But as the match progressed you could see the fight in both of them. Li had a break chance in the first game, and converted four games later to secure the first set. She kicked off the second by winning two straight games, but was a persistent Schiavone drew even and nearly turned the momentum entirely in her favor. But Li stayed calm -- something she had not been able to do in Melbourne -- and took control of the tiebreak with some of the most impressive tennis I've seen. In less than two hours, she'd become the French Open champion and the first Asian to ever win a Major singles title.

You might worry that these players may be peaking too late in their careers -- with so much young talent out there, surely they won't be able to keep up forever. But both ladies have proven just how tough us older folk can be. Like a fine French wine, they age well. And it makes me optimistic not only about the state of tennis today, but about what it will be for years to come.

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