Women's tennis elite older and wiser
NEW YORK -- In 1999, if you had come to the US Open for the women's semifinals, you would've been watching teenagers. That's when Serena Williams won her first US Open title at age 17. Fourteen years and many miles later, Williams is there again at age 31, on the leading edge of a semifinal field that has three women over 30.
It's the first time five women over 30 reached the quarterfinal in the Open era, including eventual semifinalists Li Na and Flavia Pennetta, both 31 -- and it's emblematic of a tourwide change.
"If you look across the board, 28 is the new 23," said Dr. Malcolm Conway, a sports injury specialist who works with player Bethanie Mattek-Sands and other athletes. "You don't see the 17-year-old popping up anymore. The reason, I believe, is the game has changed in terms of power and strength. It's a whole different game; women are training differently and harder."
Watch footage of old tennis matches, before the racket heads expanded and wood became outdated, and they were slower, more tactical affairs -- marked by lofty moon balls and angular net play.
Now, men and women sit deep behind the baseline, absorbing heavier balls and drilling them back with equal force. Yes, some women grunt now, but it requires a lot more energy to return a 110 mph first serve. Height is an advantage now, and so is size. A 5-foot-6 player like Martina Hingis struggled to keep up once the era of the power game arrived.
"The sport became so much more physical, and on another level that everybody's taking care much more of their bodies to be able to play longer," 24-year-old Victoria Azarenka said. "You know, there is so much more introduced fitness, nutrition, you know, all those components that women and men are paying so much more attention to. So I think that's a great thing if we have longer careers. You know, the longer, you know, people can play tennis, that's great."
Women like Mattek-Sands are dropping gluten and dairy, Venus Williams is a vegan (who occasionally cheats, she admits). These two and many others follow nutritional plans to improve their performance. They lift weights or work with trainers to improve endurance and avoid breaking down.
But there are other, more practical reasons there aren't as many teenagers on tour.
At age 16, Hingis was the youngest player to be ranked No. 1 in professional women's tennis. The year was 1997, and Hingis defeated 17-year-old Venus for the US Open title. Over the next few years, Williams would be asked why she didn't play enough tournaments if she hoped to threaten Hingis for the top ranking.
"In the end, after all that's finished, I'm going to be left with myself," Williams answered in 2001. "No one else to take care of me. So I do what makes me happy. Playing more tournaments, playing less, whatever is best for me."
Nothing is admired like hard work, and Williams and her sister Serena's approach to their careers stuck some as a hobby more than a full-time job. But the way Hingis sees it now, maybe the sisters were on to something.
"They were careful in their careers that they didn't overdo it," Hingis said after a doubles match, the beginning of a planned comeback. "I played a lot, singles and doubles and everything."
Hingis has already retired twice, while Venus and Serena continue to play at their own pace.
After the reign of the teen queens, and a few instances where young players (or their parents) had some notable stumbles in the spotlight, the WTA instituted rules in 1995 to limit the number of tournaments they could play. Now, a 14-year-old can only play eight tournaments, gradually increasing each year until a 17-year-old can play 16 events.
In the wake of these changes, the WTA has found evidence that careers have lengthened to an average of 15 years, and premature retirements, defined as women under the age of 22, are down 6 percent.
"You start later, too, so they're still hungry," Hingis said. "I think it's all about being hungry, it's so important to be hungry and motivated about the game."
Daniela Hantuchova, a 30-year-old quarterfinalist, finds it a little humorous that she is always being asked about her advanced age, when if she weren't a professional athlete, she'd still be called a young woman.
"We always feel so much older in the tennis world than we do in the normal life," Hantuchova said. "I'm so happy there's so many girls of my age and older around. I think we keep pushing each other. I think it's great for our generation. I mean, I'm actually pleased with it, that I'm able to compete at the highest level and really enjoy it."
So why does she think so many of the teens she played with are still playing professionally?
"I think it's the experience," Hantuchova said, "that we've been through so much, we know exactly what to do. Sometimes we don't do it, but we know what we should be doing."
Now, instead of being asked about when she will play more, Venus gets asked about when she will stop playing altogether. And her answer isn't really all that different from the kind of response she gave 12 years ago: It's all about what's right for you.
"Everybody has their own idea when they're ready," Venus Williams said.
It's a philosophy that has added years to her career already.