Of the eight men who made it to the quarterfinals of 2009 Roland Garros, half were over age 25. Of these, Nicolay Davydenko and Fernando Gonzalez are both 28. Tommy Robredo and Roger Federer are only a year younger at 27. And Robin Soderling, the tournament’s memorable darling, will himself turn 25 later this year.
The remaining three quarterfinalists were all 22 or under. Gael Monfils and Andy Murray are both 22. And Juan Martin Del Potro, at 20, was the baby of the lot.
But judging from the outcome of this Slam -- which I have been so busy celebrating that I am only now getting around to writing about it -- one could reasonably conclude that this was no tournament for young men. In the end, an Old Ball won.
I am invoking of course the “New Balls Please” campaign initiated several years ago by the ATP, possibly in recognition that the older players (namely Agassi and Sampras) were about to retire, and that something had to be done to encourage the “New Balls”, then trousered by the likes of Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, and James Blake.
I never kept track of this campaign so I can’t comment on whether or not it was a success. What I remember thinking at the time was that it seemed somewhat ageist and that the WTA would not dare to emulate it with a “No Grandmas Please” campaign. I was honestly surprised that outspoken commentators like John McEnroe did not speak out against the “New Balls“ campaign. Or perhaps he did and I missed it. [And, in defense of the ATP, I much prefer their current and non-ageist "Feel It" campaign].
Trust me, I understood then (and understand now) the need to encourage new players so that a sport keeps growing. But the campaign at the time impressed me as kind of tasteless, with its meta-message of ‘out with the old, in with the new’. I found it not only disrespectful to the Old Balls but I felt that it promoted a message of youthful arrogance that players like Roddick for instance did not at all need.
It has also always bothered me when fans start calling for a player’s retirement after said player goes through a dark period of losses. I mean the person is already suffering enough from the awareness that he is not doing well, do you have to rub it in by asking him to retire? This will always be one of my problems with the Internet and with the way folks use it to be simply mean, spiteful, and cruel. But I digress.
And why exactly should a player retire at say 30? Where is it written that a professional tennis player cannot choose to continue to make a decent living by playing his sport even if he (or she) ends up ranked outside the top 100’s? Surely players on their way up can benefit from the experience and knowledge of older players still hanging around the sport? Can you imagine if other professions adopted a similar attitude? You would never have any kind of apprenticeship, no passing on of knowledge, no modeling of professional behavior, and no respect for the elders of the profession.
But 25 is considered by many to be old in the world of men’s tennis. By age 25 Bjorn Borg had already retired, an old man ready to embrace a lifestyle not defined by the pressures of professional tennis. Indeed, some say that if you haven’t won a Slam by age 25, there’s every chance that you probably never will. In the Open Era, Pete Sampras had already won the US Open at age 19. Michael Chang brought home the trophy for Roland Garros at age 17. And Boris Becker won Wimbledon also at 17.
If this holds true statistically, then time may be running out for Davydenko, Gonzalez, and Robredo. On the other hand, Roger Federer just won his first French at the ripe old age of 27. That he dominated a number of younger men along the way to his historic achievement of a Career Grand Slam probably makes this victory encouraging for Old Balls everywhere.