There's been a lot of talk in recent years about the aging of professional tennis, about how a game once dominated by kids in their late teens and early twenties is now seeing players reach their best much later in their careers. The chief explanation has been that elite tennis has increasingly become physical, a sport for fully mature bodies. But that has always been a somewhat unsatisfying answer.
Tennis is a mental game, a thinking person's game -- we all know that. John McPhee showed us just how much that's the case in his classic book "Levels of the Game." Yet for years it seemed that talented teenagers had an edge mentally because they were too young to worry, too innocent of the hardships of the tour and the world to think about how special it was to be playing on Philippe Chartier or Centre Court. They just went out there and swung away. If the ball was going in on that particular day -- like in 2004 when a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova faced Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final, for example -- that was it. You had a teenage champion.
But the days of a stringbean Sharapova blasting Serena off the court, or a pimply Michael Chang out-toughing Ivan Lendl at the French Open, are gone, relics of a dead era.
These days, experience counts. We've seen that with Tommy Haas's return to the Top 20 after years of injury problems, and we've seen it with the nearly 30-year-old Francesca Shiavone winning her first major -- and only her fourth career title -- at the 2010 French Open. We've seen it, of course, with Roger Federer's continued excellence, year in and year out.
This week at the French Open we saw it with 28-year-old Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a career journeywoman, knocking off 2011 Roland Garros champion Li Na.
"I think you can get smarter," Mattek-Sands said after the upset victory.
Mattek-Sands has always been known as a goof, a happy-go-lucky puppy romping mindlessly around the lowlands of the WTA tour. But that was then. The American recently revamped her diet, training and motivation. She is a true believer in the power of advancing years. "There is an instance where you might not be trying hard enough, and then there is a point where you are trying too hard," she said of the psychological tug-pull of playing the game. "You have to find that happy medium in the middle, and that's where you play your best tennis."
How did Mattek-Sands beat the hard-hitting, more athletic Li, ranked more than 50 spots ahead of her? By using her noggin' -- and by keeping it all in perspective.
"I just was playing every single point, and I think that's what I have improved on this year mentally ... every point is a new point. I have a plan and a purpose each point. You know, I know where I want to hit my serve and where I want to hit my return. I know basically my game plan. I can't control what my opponent does, but everything that I can control I try and control."
The 31-year-old and much more accomplished Federer would second all of that. Last week, the 17-time major champion insisted that he's a better player today than he was in 2007, when he was almost certainly stronger and faster. "I feel like I'm a more complete player today," he said. "Although my game hasn't changed much, my experience would allow me fewer mistakes and the ability to deal with challenges a little bit easier."
Top-notch junior tennis players, take note. You might want to consider going to college, after all. Older and wiser, that's the new thing in elite tennis.
Fans should take note, too. If you're a backer of 28-year-old Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or 28-year-old John Isner or, heck, 31-year-old Tommy Robredo, don't give up hope. The best still might be ahead.
-- The Oregonian