As Tennis’s Ageing Wonders Triumphed, the Australian Open Became Ageless

But in a world where women’s sport continues to be denied equal attention, it is a shame that this Australian Open will be associated with the battles among men with women remaining on the sidelines.

Roger Federer at the 2009 US Open. Credit: bosstweed/Flickr, CC BY 2.0 (tennis)

Roger Federer at the 2009 US Open. Credit: bosstweed/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

There lives a maverick named Ernests Gulbis. The Latvian is currently ranked 149 in the world but only a few years ago, he enjoyed a brief time in the top ten. His upsurge was down to a surprise appearance in the 2014 French Open semifinals. Gulbis was always considered to be a character but his erratic behaviour was mirrored in his on-court performances too.

A year before his breakout move, the outspoken tennis player did something for which he is likely to be most remembered for. Actually, he said something. A period that was widely regarded to be the golden age of tennis was dismissed as boring by Gulbis.

“I respect Roger (Federer), Rafa (Nadal), Novak (Djokovic) and (Andy) Murray but, for me, all four of them are boring players. Their interviews are boring. Honestly, they are crap… war, blood, emotion. All that is missing in tennis, where everything is clean, and white with polite handshakes and some nice shots, while the people want to see broken racquets and hear outbursts on the court.”

Sacrilege, said many tennis observers. Everything they held dear about the sport was trashed in the matter of few minutes. It was not that they had to agree with what Gulbis said. But it annoyed them that he may have had a point; albeit one which was expressed in poor taste. Even the object of Gulbis’ admonitions, Roger Federer could not bring himself to disagree with the Latvian. “I understand what Gulbis said. He is partially right. Our interviews are often boring. But it’s the machine. We often have to give too many interviews. Also, if you criticise others, you get torn apart by the others – so that’s why we all are nice to the others, although tennis doesn’t lack for characters.”

A master of comebacks

Gulbis’ argument only hinted at his disenchantment with the playing style in fashion. There were other, older voices that were voicing their discontent in more explicit terms. Sample, Pat Cash’s words to the journalist Kevin Mitchell for the latter’s book Break Point. “There’s an argument that this generation of men’s tennis is boring and I think it’s a valid one. It’s not boring to see two great players like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic compete in a final. What is getting mundane is watching the same tactic in every single match of every Grand Slam for the last five or six years…  It’s taken a lot of the skill out of tennis,” said the former Australian player.

Indeed, as tournament organisers pressed on with slowing of the courts, aggressive play did not bring the gifts it would have in the past. This is why it has been remarkable to see the resurgence of players who were considered to be on the decline for a while, at this Australian Open. Only one semifinalist each on both men’s and women’s singles competition was below the age of 30.

When Roger Federer met Rafael Nadal on Sunday, he became the oldest man in 42 years to play a Slam final. His return from a six-month injury layoff has been nothing short of spectacular. It could be argued that he entered every match from the round of 32, except the quarterfinal, with a reasonable apprehension that he could lose. Instead, Federer defied the odds while demonstrating a flourishing, aggressive style.

Nobody could argue that his tennis is boring at the moment. Aided by the courts at Australian Open which have been sped up by organisers, Federer has attacked opponents in a style that he dearly values. The 17-time (and now 18) Grand Slam winner was brought up on a healthy diet of serve-and-volley tennis and he relishes the opportunity to step up on the court. Interestingly, it has been Pat Cash’s wish to see Federer go back to the serve-and-volley days before he retires. The Swiss player may have finally found the conditions which allow him to display his much-loved wares, albeit not in the complete form.

For the first time since the 1968 French Open, three players over the age of 30 were among the semifinalists in the men’s section. The other person to defy his age is Rafael Nadal. In fact, it’s not just the barriers of age that the Spaniard has overcome. A host of injuries and a career-threatening decline have been challenged by Nadal too.

The 2009 Australian Open champion has built up a glittering career on his ability to adapt to the myriad hurdles thrown in front of him. It would be difficult to divide Nadal’s career into different parts, for it is nearly impossible to ascertain when he made the transition from one level to another. His sudden bursts of resurgence have rarely been anticipated. Not surprisingly, his greatest rival Federer could not hold back his admiration for Nadal in an interview last month.

“The thing is Rafa’s always been unbelievable at comebacks. He’s one of the guys who’s done it the best and the most almost. Every time he came back, he was always in the mix again to win big tournaments and be really, really difficult to beat and be one of the favourites, even on his weaker surfaces.”

A sidelined star

So it has happened again. But is this part of a wider resurgence in men’s tennis of thirty-somethings? Probably not. It will be quite something else for older players to sustain this level for an entire season. But that does not dilute the significance of their achievement. In fact, it provides us with a valuable insight.

Seen in the current context, Gulbis’ much-discussed comments seem like the ramblings of a wild child. Now that the tennis world has had another chance to sample the brilliance of Federer and Nadal, the yearning of those “boring” days is full of meaning. When men’s tennis was boring, it was pretty good. It is only richer for the continued presence of players who established the lofty standards.

But then, there was another story at this Australian Open. It was not just about the oldies revolution on both sides, but of an ‘old’ female player who is yet to know the full pangs of decline. On Saturday, Serena Williams won her twenty-third Grand Slam singles title. Nobody has won more ever since professionals were allowed into the fold.

If you think too much has been said about the Federer-Nadal final, then not enough has been uttered about the magnificent Serena who continues to make us wonder if there will ever be a day when she will not be a force to reckon with. After her victory over elder sister Venus, the American became the oldest ever world number one. Despite being handed a tough draw in Australia, Serena achieved her latest success without dropping a set.

The final on Saturday was historic for another reason. The combined age of the two Williams made it the oldest Slam final ever by more than five years. If you consider surprise semifinalist Mirjana Lucic-Baroni’s fairytale run, this may seem like a backlash from the old ones.

It took 19 years for Lucic-Baroni to win another match at Australian Open but when she did, it was only Serena who could stop her in the semifinals. The Croat, now 34, overcame serious personal issues and a five-year absence from Grand Slam tournaments to come this far. In a tournament full of tales worth recalling, her upsurge probably is the best story.

But if we are to discuss the stories that arose during the last two weeks, how could one not mention the losing finalist, Venus Williams? At 36, she is the oldest woman among the top 300 players on the circuit and it was her first Slam final in Australia after 14 years.

Although the past few years have seen her live in the shadow of Serena’s success, it needs to be remembered that she has played on despite her battles with an autoimmune disorder called Sjögren’s syndrome (which affects the moisture-producing glands of her body). Despite the physical limitation, Venus has been a constant presence on the tennis circuit. She has battled the top players and beaten most of them from time to time. As one heard her talk gracefully after the final, it was a reminder of the pleasures which tennis has seemingly forgotten.

Indeed, as remarkable as the Federer-Nadal story is, it is difficult to make a case that it eclipses the complex tales told by women in this tournament. But in a world where women’s sport continues to be denied equal attention, it is a shame that this Australian Open will be associated with the battles among men with women remaining on the sidelines.

But that should not take away anything from the biggest joy provided by this tournament. As the ageing wonders found their place under the sun, the ongoing Australian Open traversed to the realm of agelessness. Even though the tournament finished on Sunday, the contests witnessed in Australia will live long in memory. It has been a tournament for the ages.