Monday, January 21, 2013

Tennis’ Late Bloomers

By Angus Saul

Tennis is a sport where you have to be young to succeed, or so we are always told. You need to start learning very young and make the transition to the bigger stage as quickly as you can if you are ever going to reach the top.

Most notably, there has always been a "rule" that stated if you hadn't won your first grand slam by the time you were 21, you wouldn't go on to win any more. Rafael Nadal won his first at 19, Novak Djokovic at 20, and Roger Federer at 21. They have all gone on to win many slams.

But there are a fair few who buck that trend.

The most notable of all these exceptions is Ivan Lendl, who won his first grand slam at the fifth time of asking at the 1984 French Open, at the "advanced" age of 24. Down two sets and a break, it looked like an inevitability that John McEnroe would win yet another slam, and his first French Open title. However it was not to be, as Lendl's experience allowed him to battle back, take control, and ultimately win.

The next big exception is Tim Henman. As a youngster, "Tiger" Tim showed exceptional talent, with a consistent serve, and solid, stylish play off both sides and was, for a time, the best volleyer in the game. Henman was the classic Brit, with his serve-volley style of play, and his quick feet made him exceptionally good on the grass courts of Wimbledon and fast indoor courts. He never reached a grand slam final, but was very consistent at a high level, reaching six grand slam semifinals, and was ranked among the top players for a long time, particularly towards the end of his career, where, under the guidance of Paul Annacone, he began to master the clay courts, and truly challenged on all surfaces. He won his only significant title, the Paris Masters in 2003, at the age of 29.

Now for a current player — Janko Tipsarevic. Tipsarevic seemed to be a safe bet for a grand slam champion when he turned pro, not long after winning the 2001 Junior Australian Open, but he did little afterwards, and for many years failed to shine. He only broke into the top 20 at the age of 27, but sharply rose to break into the top 10. Now sitting ranked 9th in the world, just one spot off his career high of 8, he is hitting his prime not too long before he reaches 29 years of age.

Austrian left-hander Jürgen Melzer was for a long time known as the best man not to get past the third round of a grand slam. It was not until he was 29 at the French Open in 2010 that he broke his duck, going all the way to the semifinals before losing to eventual champion and then four-time champion Rafael Nadal. His greater achievements came in doubles play, however, as he went on to win the 2010 Wimbledon men's doubles a month later, along with the 2011 U.S. Open men's doubles and the 2011 Wimbledon mixed doubles at the age of 30.

Mardy Fish is another who capped off an average career with a sparkling finish. Fish had always been struggling to find consistent performances, and his game was too flawed to provide much difficulty for world-class opposition, but in 2011, he shed the bulk of weight that had hampered him throughout his career and put together a string of performances of sharp-serving and heavy-hitting that took him to a career high of 7, a month before his 30th birthday. His greatest achievements will surely be seen as his qualification for the World Tour Finals, and overtaking Andy Roddick as the No. 1 ranked American.

And of course, how can this list be written without tagging on the name of Andy Murray? For years he was touted as the best player never to win a grand slam. He reached three major finals without victory, and it always appeared as though he did not have enough firepower in his arsenal to make that final step. But 2012 brought the appearance of the man at the top of this list, Ivan Lendl, who had failed to win in his first four finals.

With Lendl as coach, Murray's game became more aggressive, and, after having reached the Wimbledon final and again failing to jump the last hurdle, there was a watershed moment, and Murray could not look back. Four weeks later, he thrashed Roger Federer in straight sets on the very same court in the Olympics to win the gold medal, and then went on to outclass Novak Djokovic in five grueling sets in the U.S. Open final to win his first major title at the age of 24. From this position, and at this age, only Lendl has gone on to win any more slams, but time is on Murray's side as his game continues to improve, and any potential successors seem few and far between.

Finally, how can this list be complete without the best Croatian to play the game? Goran Ivanisevic is the greatest example of a late bloomer in tennis. His early career was promising, but every time he came close to that elusive major title, it slipped through his fingers. In terms of grand slam achievements, he was in much the same boat as Murray for the majority of his career. He reached three Wimbledon finals without winning and was, at that time, the best player yet to win a slam, and, at almost 30, and ranked 125 in the world, it looked as though it would never happen. He had been ranked as highly as No. 2, at the age of 22, but never made the final step. He had saved his best till last, however, as he accepted a wild card into Wimbledon, before resolutely beating anyone in his way, en route to one of the most memorable Wimbledon finals to date. Just two months shy of 30, and he made his last achievement his best.

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