Monday, September 15, 2014

Respect your elders

What began as a trend on the WTA tour is now a theme: The "veterans" are still around and they're kicking your ass. And in the recent case of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and Venus Williams, they're kicking each other's asses. Lucic-Baroni is the latest of the "whatever happened to?" players who has played her way into the spotlight, starting with her U.S. Open run to the round of 16.

The 32-year-old Lucic-Baroni won the Australian Open title with Martina Hingis in 1998, when she was just 15 years old. The year before, the Croatian player had won the first WTA tournament she had ever entered, the Croatian Bol Ladies Open. Lucic-Baroni defended that title the following year.

In 1999, Lucic-Baroni reached the semifinals of Wimbledon. And then, she just faded away. Not that she lost interest or became physically hindered: Lucic-Baroni was dealing with a history of child abuse, financial problems, and all the terrible things that accompany those issues.

In 2007, Lucic-Baroni returned to the tour, and in 2012, she made it to the third round of Wimbledon, upsetting 2013 champion Marion Bartoli along the way.

At this year's U.S. Open, Lucic-Baroni began by beating formidable new Spanish star Garbine Muguruza. But that was just the warm-up. The Croatian player went on to upset 2nd seed Simona Halep in the third roundm byt she then lost a three-set match against Sara Errani in the round of 16.

It was a very emotional run for Lucic-Baroni, since it was the best showing she'd had at a major since her 1999 Wimbledon run. But who among us thought that she'd follow her Flushing Meadows moment up with her first singles title in 16 years? I didn't. But that's just what she did. Lucic-Baroni defeated top seed Venus Williams in the final in Quebec City. In doing so, the Croatian player set a new record--formerly held by Kimiko Date-Krumm--for the longest time gap between singles titles.

Williams is 34, Lucic-Baroni is 33. (Serena Williams, who won the U.S. Open, is also 33.) Venus Williams recently remarked, when asked about her age, "According to Kimiko, I have another decade." True. Date-Krumm, who retired from an excellent career somewhat early and then returned to the tour to do some impressive showing off, is 43. "Some of the players," she said last year, "their mothers are older than me."

29-year-old Jelena Jankovic's career has been revived, to some extent; last year, she returned to the top 10. This year, she made it to the quarterfinals of the French Open and the round of 16 at the U.S. Open. 32-year-old Flavia Pennetta reached the semifinals of the 2013 U.S. Open and the quarterfinals of this year's Australian Open, as well as the quarterfinals of the 2014 U.S. Open. 29-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova--unpredictable at any age--reached the quarterfinals of this year's French Open (she's a former champion).

Doubles is another matter. The great Martina Hingis recently came within a hair of winning the U.S. Open doubles title (with Pennetta).

Older is not necessarily "better," but older is definitely to be feared. It's no longer a surprise when an older player--especially one who has already had a great career--breaks through for a second time. Sam Stosur is 30; Li Na is 32. They could retire from the sport soon, or they could both win more majors.

Given my personal history as a late bloomer in many categories, I am enthralled with the new culture of age on the WTA tour.


Sabey said...

It's a lovely development indeed! Maybe Nicole Vaidisova will be one of the great comeback stories too.

Diane said...

I never got into Vaidisova; I think I kind of picked up on how ambivalent she was about competing. But I'm open to the "new" Vaidisova!