Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30? Think Again
“Don’t trust anyone over 30!”
That was the rallying cry of the 1960s American counterculture movement, raging against the Establishment. The System. Entrenched Power.
The two Golden Oldie Tommies — Robredo and Haas — are not part of the power structure in men’s tennis. Roger Federer, on the other hand, is. Yet, those three men — while living on different sides of the tracks — all created very special memories in the first week of Roland Garros. They proved that, yes, you can sometimes trust someone over 30. Grandpas might not be agents of the counterculture, but they’re cool in both senses of the term — they’re composed under pressure, and they’re the life of the party in Gay Paree.
This being a Federer fan blog as well as a general-service tennis blog, we’ll make sure to emphasize how the old-man narrative at Roland Garros in 2013 magnifies Roger’s legacy. Our story begins, though, with Robredo.
Robredo’s Marathon Mastery
It’s been 86 years since another man forged two-set comebacks in three successive major tournament matches. In the 1927 Wimbledon tournament, Henri Cochet turned the trick. One would think that in light of all the amazing comebacks registered over the decades in men’s tennis — think of Pancho Gonzalez over Charlie Pasarell at Wimbledon in 1969, or Novak Djokovic rising from the dead against both Andreas Seppi and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga last year at Roland Garros — SOMEONE would have won three straight five-set matches after losing the first two sets in each of them. Yet, no one did… not in 86 years.
Not until Tommy Robredo took center stage in Paris this past weekend.
Keep this in mind about Robredo: He had to take more than a year away from the sport due to a left leg injury that required surgery. Robredo, who has made multiple major quarterfinals and spent some time in the top 10, dropped to No. 470 in the world rankings 12 months ago (a statistic courtesy of ATP tennis researcher Steph Trudel). Of all the people who would figure to break this 86-year drought, Robredo resided at the bottom of the list. He had to fight off four match points — two as a receiver of serve — to defeat Gael Monfils on Friday. His Sunday comeback against gack-prone Nicolas Almagro completed one of the most marvelous feats in modern-day tennis… not because Robredo lacks talent, but because the Spaniard’s absence from the sport had not exposed him to the grind of the majors and the five-set gauntlet that is part of them.
Robredo wasn’t much of a factor in the clay-court tournaments that preceded Roland Garros. It’s not as though he possessed a full supply of match play that prepared him for extended five-set combat. He did this on the fly, and from a position of relative obscurity, without having any momentum to catapult him into this tournament. His achievement is truly remarkable.
Like a Haas, Like a Boss
Whereas Tommy Robredo’s tennis career was interrupted by a leg injury, Haas — as you might know — has seen his hard-luck career get derailed by not just his own injuries, but injuries suffered by his parents in a motor-vehicle accident. Haas has needed to step away from tennis for at least three extended and separate periods of time. He has needed to care for his parents; rehab a shoulder injury; and rehab from a hip injury. A black cartoon raincloud has hovered over his career. Yes, he has allowed some winnable matches at majors to slip through his fingers, but one can only wonder how Haas’s tennis life might have unfolded had he not been so frequently visited by adversity.
When Haas lost 12 match points in the fourth set on Saturday to John Isner, the German-American — forced into a fifth set — had to feel miserable. Who wouldn’t? He didn’t play poorly on 10 of his 12 match points — Isner simply served bombs on most of them — but he double faulted when handed a match point late in a fourth-set tiebreaker. That kind of failure can and does linger in the mind of any athlete. Haas was broken in his first service game of the fifth set, and when he fell behind Isner, 4-1, the match — while not over — certainly pointed to an Isner victory.
Haas, a tormented player who conducted a lot of open verbal dialogues with himself during Saturday’s third-round match, insisted on fighting to the very end. He got a look at a break point when trailing 4-2 and converted it to get back on serve. Later, at 5-6, Haas saved a match point on his own serve. Finally, at 8-all, Haas broke Isner, and when he held one game later to take the match 10-8 in the fifth, a number of accumulated demons had been banished.
Haas, with his movie-star looks, could easily transition to other less strenuous careers. He could spend more time away from the court with his wife, Sara Foster. He could put his body through so much less wear and tear. Yet, Haas has chosen to climb the mountain at 35 years of age. He’s not a top-tier contender at majors (the same goes for Robredo), but something deep inside him is pushing him — to compete, to persevere, and, most of all, to win a lot of high-stakes tennis matches. He is looking to the center of his very being. When he looks there, Haas sees a lot of fire left.
The Great Federer
One of the paying customers at Court Philippe Chatrier on Sunday evening in Paris was Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays The Great Gatsby in the latest movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic. The last line of Gatsby, shown in the film, is as follows:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
When a great athlete advances in years and loses the full-flight quickness that once characterized his peak years as a professional, it is so easy to travel into the past, to reminisce about days gone by, when legs were young and first steps to the forehand corner came easily. It is so easy for fans of Roger Federer to recall the halcyon days of 2006 and 2007, when the wine flowed and the wins piled up and the band played a ceaselessly merry tune. Today, it is so much more of a grind for Federer to win at the highest level.
He’s won “only” one major since the 2010 Australian Open. Rafael Nadal (2010) and Novak Djokovic (2011) announced their presence as the two ATP players immersed in their best years, performing at the height of their powers. Federer has to settle for being “only” the third-best player in the world, “only” a semifinalist on most occasions at majors. He played bravely and well against Andy Murray in the semis of the 2013 Australian Open, but was beaten by a younger player who was simply and unquestionably better. It’s not that Federer has declined — he really hasn’t — but that the competition is aged 26 and 27 while Gramps/Pants/Granny Smith/Woger-With-A-Chewwy-On-Twop is approaching his 32nd birthday. It’s simply more of a climb these days. Success still arrives, but at the expense of more effort from an older body.
It’s so natural to want to think about the past, especially when almost everything that could possibly be achieved in any kind of profession has in fact been attained. Federer’s won the Grand Slam. He’s won 900 matches. He’s won seven Wimbledons. He’s reached 23 straight major semifinals and now 36 major quarterfinals. He’s made 10 straight major finals. He’s reached 40 major quarterfinals, 33 semifinals (with a chance for 34 on Tuesday), and 24 finals. His name already litters the ATP record books, especially in the Open Era. He doesn’t need to hit another tennis ball to prove anything to his fans or to the wider tennis community.
Yet, he continues.
He continues to fight like a junkyard dog, gutting out another comeback from a two-sets-to-one deficit in the early rounds of a major. Though pushed yet again by Gilles Simon at a major (hello, 2011 Australian Open second round), Federer once again managed to find solutions in a fifth set against his fellow Frenchman. (Federer is Swiss, but please — he is loved as a native by the Paris crowds. He’ll meet Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in an all-French quarterfinal.)
Federer the problem solver continued to find the right assortment of shots in the right moments. He continued to hit clutch serves when the pressure of the match reached its zenith at 5-3 in the fifth. He faced his nerves, which brought him so close to an exasperating loss of serve at 5-3 and raised the possibility that he would lose yet another match after failing to win match point. He withstood all the pressure, all the heat, that comes with being a target for the competition.
He made another major quarterfinal, earning the right to say that he has not missed the round of eight at a major for nine full years.
Nine. Full. Years. (Imagine a golfer finishing in the top 8 of each and every major tournament for nine full years without interruption.)
Nothing can or should diminish what Tommy Robredo and Tommy Haas have done this past week at Roland Garros. Comparisons between or among similar feats should not reflexively be seen as diminishments of one feat; they can and should be seen as elevations of the other.
What Robredo and Haas have done the past few days stands on its own merit. The two members of the thirty-something crowd have won legions of new admirers while becoming even more beloved by longtime tennis diehards. The hunger and passion Robredo and Haas displayed — both during and after their victories — moved a lot of people very deeply, showcasing tennis at its inspirational best.
Yet, with all of that having been said, it is certainly worth noting that Robredo and Haas arrive at their passions quite naturally: They’ve never made a major-tournament final. The elusive quest for supreme glory is something that looms before them, a long-denied prize that might never be captured but is still worth chasing.
Roger Federer? He’s won just about every prize imaginable, Davis Cup being an exception. He’s prevailed in just about every kind of situation in tennis, Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros being the one fundamental exception. Federer has had none of the bad luck Robredo and Haas have suffered. He is not impoverished in terms of achievements and successes the way Robredo and Haas are. Yet, his level of fight is just as substantial, his hunger just as evident.
Roger Federer comports himself and plays his sport with a distinct Old School flair. He’s not a member of the counterculture. Yet, he’s a man over 30 who can be trusted even more than Mr. Robredo and Mr. Haas. You see, Robredo and Haas are producing pieces of one-time magic that are unlikely to be reduplicated. They’re making the second week of a major with guts and guile, winning by the skin of their teeth and fending off all manner of challenges from without and within.
Roger Federer? He’s been getting to the second week of a major for nine full years, competing more like a starving artist than a man who — monetarily and professionally — has accumulated a king’s vast riches.
Tommy Robredo and Tommy Haas are very, very special tennis players who have added to their legacies of achievement.
Roger Federer is, shall we say, Specialerer.
The Special-est, you could say.
The man over 30 who should be trusted by anyone and everyone in tennis.
I close with another quote from the era of The Great Gatsby.
In 1931, The Sporting News said this about the sport that sustained the United States through overwhelmingly tough times in the first third of the 20th century:
Great is baseball — the national tonic, the reviver of hope, the restorer of confidence.
We human beings need uplift from outside sources. We need pick-me-ups from people and cultural beacons and social occasions that inspire us, excite us, and introduce us to new horizons of possibility.
For the tennis player, the solo athlete, this inspiration has to come primarily from within. Therefore, a variation on the Sporting News quote is something that applies both to Mr. Federer and to our own (tennis) imaginations at the same time:
Great is Federer — the enduring tonic, the reviver of hope, the restorer of confidence.