October 25, 2012

Nearing the End

There sure seemed to be a lot of veterans in action on the men's Tour this week. More than a handful of thirty-plus players took to the court, and one very special one said good-bye for good. And that makes me wonder how many more will throw in the towel in the months to come.

Nikolay Davydenko has been trying to stay relevant for much of the last three years. After peaking -- in form, at least -- at the 2009 year-end championships, he struggled to come back from a wrist injury the next season and, despite some decent wins this year, he hasn't won a title since Munich last year. His ranking has straddled both sides of the top fifty for the last twelve months, and the one-time world #3 has only won one match at a Major in 2012. He had a promising start this week in Basel, taking out fourth-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka in his opener, but hit a stumbling block today against fellow veteran Paul-Henri Mathieu. Having missed the entirety of 2011 with a knee injury, the Frenchman saved five of six break chances to make his second quarterfinal of the year, but his win might have meant more for Davydenko. It was his seventh loss of the year to a lower-ranked player and keeps him from trying to improve a 0-9 record against top-ten players this season. Unless the Russian is able to turn those stats around soon, it might not be long before he's pulling the retirement switch.

Lleyton Hewitt has been making similar bobs in and out of the power game recently. Having battled one injury after another for years, he's only just climbed back into the top hundred for the first time since last June. But the two-time Major winner has pulled off wins over Marin Cilic, Milos Raonic and Andy Roddick this year, and with a run to the Newport final in July he's shown he's still hungry for a title. This week in Valencia he too kicked off his campaign with some fireworks -- he needed just two sets and less than two hours to dispatch fourth seed Juan Monaco, and with always tricky Philipp Kohlschreiber out with his own opening round loss, things looked good for the Aussie to advance. But qualifier Ivan Dodig had other ideas -- firing off ten aces the world #110 survived a second set surge from Hewitt and closed out the decider with three breaks of serve. Lleyton might not be down for the count quite yet, but he'll need to raise his game to new level in the upcoming season if he's going to make another push into the sport's elite.

And while these guys may be running on fumes, one veteran decided to call it a career this week. Juan Carlos Ferrero announced last month that Valencia would be his final tournament, and immediately you could see the tennis world mourn. The thirty-two year old Spaniard and 2003 champion here had a couple comebacks since he first hit the scene. He reached his first Grand Slam final ten years ago in Paris, returned the next year to win the title and was a runner-up in New York later that season, pushing him to #1 in the world. A sickness and injury-plagued 2004 took him well out of the spotlight -- he didn't win another title until 2009 in Casablanca -- but he didn't give up there. From out of the top hundred, he climbed to #14 less than a year later, claimed four more trophies in the next two years and reached at least the fourth round of three Majors. He struggled with more injuries the last year and a half, and with just five wins on the season, it seemed time to go. JCF put up a fight against countryman Nicolas Almagro in his first round in Spain, actually getting a solid seventy-plus percent of first serves in. But his younger, sprier counterpart was able to get the better of him, and fans were forced to say good-bye to the graceful star.

Whether they play on or have already called it quits, no one can say any of these guys didn't fight 'til the end. Wherever they stood or stand in the rankings by the time they formally retire, we've seen them put in some big results throughout their time on Tour, and the titles and the records may not do justice to what they've accomplished. Unfortunately this is not a career anyone can have forever, and we will eventually see all these guys go. And what they've left behind shows just how great they are.

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