Just months ago, we were reveling in how well the aging champions of the ATP were playing at the high level in which the under-30 players still performed. Tommy Robredo was nothing less than inspirational at the French Open, Roger Federer was still the defending champion at Wimbledon and Tommy Haas was rocketing up through the rankings again at age 34. And they weren’t the only 30-somethings still counting coup.
Although it’s impossible to pin this down too accurately, the high point for this theme may have been hit a week ago in Beijing, when 32-year-old Lleyton Hewitt met 35-year-old Tommy Haas in a first-round match, awakening a rivalry that lay dormant for an incredible nine years. Alas, it was not just a sort of high-water mark; it may be remembered as the moment the ageless warriors jumped the shark. Things haven’t been so great for the over-30 set since then.
Let’s start with the two Tommies, Haas and Robredo. Robredo, 31, retired with a wrist injury during his second-round match in Beijing against Fabio Fognini, and Haas’ back was so sore this week that just Thursday he gave Juan Martin del Potro a walkover in the third round. Neither Robredo nor Haas has won a match since the US Open.
The fate of the two Tommies, both of whom were susceptible to injuries long before they entered their third decades, underscores how the combination of history and age makes it impossible to take anything for granted.
David Ferrer’s case is a little more interesting. The diminutive Spaniard is 31, and his age has been easily overlooked because he’s been such an able, consistent competitor. He’s been in the top six since the middle of 2011, and as high as No. 3 this year. But Ferrer has been taking some strange and unexpected losses, culminating with his failure Thursday in Shanghai against Florian Mayer.
Although he was a French Open finalist, Ferrer won just one match in the two big hard-court Masters 1000 events before the US Open. He hasn't been beyond the quarterfinals since, and he’s defending 1000 champion points at the Paris Indoors.
Most fans and pundits love the "Little Beast," but he's always made his way mainly with his remarkable work ethic. And I’m not talking about the hours he puts in on the practice court, although they’re no less impressive. Ferrer's success was built upon superhuman concentration and consistency, day-in and day-out. But those faculties are among the first to go with age. Older players are almost always capable of playing their best tennis, sometimes even for a few matches. But as Ferrer is learning, older players just can't grind like they once did, and he’s got little to fall back on if you take that away.
Jurgen Melzer is 32, and the former No. 8 was on the verge of falling out of the Top 50 earlier this year. He had a heroic -- and utterly unexpected -- win in Winston-Salem in mid-August, but since then he's won just four matches going into Shanghai, and he’s struggling to hold onto his No. 25 ranking.
Then there’s the big kahuna of the over-30 set, Roger Federer. He's 32 now, and the illusion that he can parachute into a few tournaments a year and bag a major and a couple of Masters a year has been shattered for good. Federer has been in crisis since Wimbledon, and is still living off the ranking points he earned last year. He lost to Gael Monfils on Thursday in Shanghai (goodbye, semifinal points), so he’s won but one match since he was bounced from the US Open in the fourth round by fellow senior citizen Robredo. Federer has a boatload of points to defend through the rest of the year.
And then there’s Hewitt, who was awarded a wild card into Shanghai and then lost his opening match to Andreas Seppi. All in all, it’s been a grim period for these admirable veterans since the US Open, with a particularly bad few days. It appears that we've been living in a wonderful false paradise for a good part of this year, but there really is no beating Father Time, is there?