Watching Jennifer Capriati and Gustavo “Guga” Kuerten becoming recently and tearfully inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, I found myself thinking about the whole business of generational transition. I am referring of course to the inevitable movement of tennis time from one generation of players to the next generation of younger upstarts nipping at their heels. We all age; we all get supplanted. It is the natural order of things, both within and outside of the world of tennis.
It is her hell-bent defiance of this that makes us cringe at the ghastly sight of Madonna unveiling her almost 54-year-old stank nipples on stage, or pretending to shoot a gun at her audience even as the rest of us remain wracked in consternation and grief over the senseless actions of a Colorado killer. Age is supposed to bring with it the twin gifts of wisdom and grace. The refusal to accept the reality of aging, of transition, only makes one look pathetic.
Watching Capriati at the ceremony, all grown up and crinkly round the eyes, it was poignant to recall the days when she represented tennis youth and potential. Today she is a woman, but apparently one still struggling to find self-definition away from a sport that she wasn't ready to relinquish. Sometimes we are forced into accepting the reality of finitude long before we are psychologically ready to do so. Guga seems to have adapted better to also being forced out of the sport by injury – not that you can ever really tell what Guga really feels. His easy-going nature has always functioned like a mask.
But several recent matches also got me thinking about the psychological aspects of generational transition. The first was the match between Serena and Coco Vandeweghe at the Bank of the West tournament a week ago. Another has been the delightful experience of seeing a resurgent 34-year-old Tommy Haas give both Cilic and then Monaco more than they ever expected to handle in Germany. And then there was the finals between Tipsarevic and Bellucci at Gstaad.
And it would be fair to point out that there is a larger age gap between the 30-year-old Serena and the twenty-year-old Coco, than between 28-year-old Janko and 24-year-old Thomaz. It would even be fair to dispute whether Bellucci is from a different generation of tennis than Tipsarevic, given their relative proximity in ages. But I believe he is. Bellucci turned pro in 2005. Tipsy has been a pro since 2002. That's a lot of years in the world of tennis. At 24 Bellucci can still safely be categorized among the next generation of promise. In their finals, Tipsy looked like an Old Fart who had no idea what hit him.
At one point during that match, as Tipsarevic was about to serve, someone in the audience made a loud noise. Instead of stopping the movement and starting over, Tipsarevic continued to serve, calmly. When he lost the point however, he then decided that it was the audience member's fault and sent a tennis ball flying into the crowd. It was a dangerous and stupid thing to do. Given his years of experience on the tour, he should have known better. But like I said, age doesn't always bring grace or wisdom.
Sometimes age brings only the painful awareness of decrepitude, the knowledge (and sometimes, resentment) that the person on the other side of the net is fresher, younger, fitter. Tipsarevic seemed always to be keenly aware of the younger Bellucci. When the latter finally missed a deep forehand, Tipsy held up an index finger to his box, apparently signaling that that was the first time that his opponent had missed that particular shot. Perhaps he was also pointing to an implicit explanation for his pending straight sets loss. If I were his coach I would have told him to be less focused on his opponent, pay more attention to his own game, and let his opponent keep track of his own damn points.
Between Serena and Coco, I noted no such hypersensitivity in Serena's body language. In Coco's non-verbals, I detected only that she was thrilled to be there, in her first tour final, motivated to do her best. But the commentators were having a field day celebrating Coco's amazing achievement. You'd think that a 20-year-old making it to her very first tour final was a bigger deal than Serena winning her fifth Wimbledon, her 43rd singles title, and cementing her status as World #1. The way the commentators were carrying on about Coco, it seemed as if they were desperately hoping for an unseating, a declaration of transition, a movement from one generation of women's tennis to the other.
And don't get me wrong, I am as proud of Coco as the next person. This Lucky Loser who made it all the way to the finals of Stanford and the 69th ranking in the world, deserved much accolade. But it was a little too soon to pass the torch. That was a little premature. Serena isn't going anywhere just yet.
Sometimes transitions just need to wait a few moments longer. Both Federer and Serena, now in the prime of their 30's, seem to still have some dominating to do. And Haas, at 34, has resurrected his career phenomenally. Dude is just not yet ready to go into that dark night. And really, sometimes the next generation just needs to chill for a few moments more. Their time will come, guaranteed. Serena, Haas, and Federer can't play tennis forever. They will one day be replaced by the Cocos and the Monacos.
But instead of always looking so eagerly to the future, sometimes we just need to just pause for a moment and appreciate the awesomeness of the present while it is still here, while it is still with us, vibrant, lively, age-defiant. Because, too soon, this present, late-blooming, will become the past, celebrated forever at the International Tennis Hall of Fame.