Wimbledon: In women’s tennis, turning 30 seems to have become desirable. In fact, the older you get, the better your game is expected to be. Forget retirement; seniors are having, literally, a ball.
Nine and 11 years, respectively, after winning their first Wimbledon titles here, Serena and Venus Williams are still touted to keep the Wimbledon trophy as their rightful family heirloom. Venus turned 31 on 17 June, and Serena—who returns to the women’s tour after a year—is 29. The Williams have won the singles titles nine times in the past 11 years. Their opponents fear them now as much as they used to before.
Li Na of China and Francesca Schiavone of Italy both won their first Grand Slam titles after they turned 29, in 2011 and 2010, respectively. Belgium’s Kim Clijsters—with her one-and-a-half-year-old baby in tow—came back after a two-year layoff at the age of 26 to win her second Grand Slam, the US Open, in 2009. She won again last year, but is not participating in this year's Wimbledon.
Woman power: (from left) Francesca Shiavone, Venus Williams and Serena Williams are among the older players but they are strong title contenders against younger challengers such as Maria Sharapova. Reuters.
Not long back, players nearing the 30s were considering retirement. Former world No. 1 players Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario retired at 30, Monica Seles played her last professional match at 29 and Gabriela Sabatini retired at 26. Nine-time Wimbledon singles champion Martina Navratilova was the only one to buck that trend; she retired at 47.
The average age of women’s tennis players in the top 10 rankings last year was 26.3 years,up from 22 in 2007 and 21.4 in 1990. The average age of the top 10 seeds at Wimbledon this year is 25.4 years.
One of the side effects of champions getting older is also a wide open field on the women’s side. While the top four ranked male players look to be the favourites to pick up the title, on the women’s side, there is no clear answer.
An open field
“There are a lot of opportunities for the title. But we have to treat (every match) as if it’s the final of the tournament and you can’t underestimate your opponent at any point in the draw,” says fifth-seed Russian Maria Sharapova, who beat Anna Chakvetadze in the first round at the All England Club on Tuesday. “Yes, a whole load of women can win this time, but I think you could say that in many different situations,” adds the 2004 Wimbledon champion.
“There are quite a few girls who can take the title. Again, grass is a bit different surface, so it’s all about who serves well and returns well at the key moments,” adds world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.
Li Na, the reigning French Open champion who has also entered the second round at Wimbledon, says the game has become more physical, so stronger and more mature players stand a good chance of beating younger players. “Players with a lot of experience and strong mental ability have a better chance. Everything has to be (put) together,” says the Chinese No. 4 seed, adding that younger players “are not so strong like us”.
Possibly, increased competition
Some experts believe having a wide field is good for tennis. Conchita Martinez, the 1994 Wimbledon singles champion and now a professional commentator, says: “You can look at it both ways. A wide field is also good for tennis because it means there is so much competition. Of course, it’s tough for younger players to win because older players still have a chance to win. But tennis moves in cycles. Sometime back, women’s tennis was concentrated over a few top players and men’s tennis was wide open. Now it’s the other way around; it’s a cycle.”
She recollects coming away impressed with young players such as Bojana Jovanovski of Serbia (19), Julia Goerges of Germany (22) and Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic (21) at the Mutua Madrid Open, a clay court tournament played in May where she was a commentator. Martinez is currently a commentator for a host of TV networks, including Euro Sports and Canal TV.
Ironically, though, the top-ranked Wozniacki is the youngest player in the Top 10, at 20 years and 11 months. Though she hasn’t won a Grand Slam yet, she’s won at many other events on the women’s tour. In 2010, of the 79 matches she played, she won 62, winning six titles; the most by any woman last year. In 2011, she has already won five titles. The Dane made it to the second round of Wimbledon with a straight set win over Arantxa Parra-Santonja on Tuesday.
Martinez adds: “Wozniacki is young and she is winning a lot already, even this year. She is close to winning her first Grand Slam title. You have to be consistent at a Grand Slam tournament to win seven matches in a row and be focused for two whole weeks. But I think Wozniacki can do it.”
The Williams factor
When it comes to Wimbledon, though, the Williams sisters have a distinct edge due to their track record. Which is why Serena, though she hasn’t played for a year, gets seeded No. 7 here and battled hard for a three-set first-round win on Tuesday.
Nick Bollettieri, founder of the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy based in Florida, US—who has coached tennis stars such as Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Mary Pierce and Monica Seles—points to his heart and says, “Something happens there, to Serena and Venus when they play Wimbledon.” His point is justified by this statistic—last year, Serena played in just five tournaments before she won Wimbledon.
Though Bollettieri feels the magic can recur, he prefers to wait and watch this time around. “The question is, can Serena, after such a long layoff, do it again, even though it’s in here (pointing to the heart)? We’ll have to see; everyone’s watching.”
For now, the ladies mean business and no one’s going home yet.