Serve and Volley

Old Men, Young Men

Which is better, youthful energy or mature experience -- or is the question stupid?

By 8.1.13

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They called a rain delay just as the third set was beginning on Stadium Court at the William H. G. FitzGerald Tennis Center, home of Washington, D.C.’s annual tennis classic, which has gone through a number of name changes and is currently known as the Citi Open. It was not at all certain the interruption favored Tommy Haas, who has 10 years on his adversary and is the oldest competitor here.

A few years ago it was all the rage among sports writers to insist tennis had become a “young man’s sport” and you were over the hill at 25. In fact, the vogue had started with teenage girls in the 1980s and it should soon have been belied by what was happening to these abused children, but nothing sticks in journalism like a mistaken idea that is widely held.

It is perfectly banal to remark that very young players can get to the top of the tour when they are exceptionally talented. That is what happens when you are exceptionally talented. In widely diverse fields, names like Bobby Fisher, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Steve Jobs confirm the astute intuition that if you are very good at something, it shows.

Tommy Haas was a great player as a young man at the turn of the century, and he has fought back against accidents and injuries that would put an end to most careers -- in any field -- to show, in the past two years especially, that toughness and talent are not necessarily ephemeral wonders of life’s springtime, but, on the contrary, in many cases become even more so as autumn approaches. Haas, who plays under the nationality of his birth, German, but who is a naturalized American like his father’s childhood buddy Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former governor of California and motorcycling hobbyist, and who lives in Florida with his American wife, had a good run here last year, losing in the final to Kiev’s own Alexandr Dolgopolov.

One of the more mindless debates in tennis circles lately has been whether Roger Federer, who dominated the first decade of this century, is on the wane. Federer has been playing extremely well by any measure in the past two years, as he has entered his 30s, except the measure of his own earlier years. Does this mean he is washed up? How can such a moronic question even be posed, when he reaches the quarter finals of practically every tournament he enters (except, most notably, the recent Championships at Wimbledon). How many players in the Tour reach the quarters almost every time? So it is a foolish question.

Bill Tilden and Pancho Gonzales, two of the most legendary athletes in American sports history, played well into their 40s, meaning they played several years beyond age 40 and they played the game well even then, that is to say the competitive, top-level game, of course. I have not mentioned women in this dispatch, but it is well known to even casual followers of sports news that Serena Williams, who is Federer’s age, is the best (most winningest) player on the feminine side of the Tour, and who is to say she will be pushed down any time soon even as far as Federer, which would not be saying very much since the Swiss champ remains No. 5 world wide. If the herd of independent minds in the American sports-writing industry would stop looking at trivia and ask why we cannot even have one player ranked in the top 10 -- and suggest some interesting answers -- they might make a useful contribution, not only to their news organizations but to the whole discussion of what to do about an aging America in a globalized world where our enemies have populations overwhelmingly younger than ours.

Haas has had a good season, consistently getting into the final eight and winning a title at Munich. At the French Open, he had one of the most remarkable runs in history, befitting an athlete who twice has won “Comeback of the Year” awards. He beat John Isner in a marathon match that saw him come from behind in the fifth set, then he beat Mikhail Youzhny, and finally lost to Novak Djokovic in the quarters. Though he double-faults more than the average player at his level, he has a big serve, often hitting both first and second at 125 mph or thereabouts. He has an elegant one-handed backhand and never fears attacking at the net, from which he smashes and makes soft drop shots with equal facility.

Has he lost anything over the years? Speed? Control? Passion? Unlikely. If anything, he may be better, notwithstanding the physical damage from which had to recover. At any rate, the match-up against Tim Smyczek demonstrated that in a contest of experience vs. youth, it all depends on who is on the court.

Earlier in the day, two other so-called older players, the popular American Mardy Fish and the popular Frenchman Julien Benneteau, battled it out on Grandstand 1, wherein the Californian -- who like Haas has battled physical ailments and deserves prizes for resilience and guts -- played an old man's game against the young man’s game the man from Bresse, which is in eastern France near Lyon, tried to use against him.

An old man’s game, of course, is a figure of speech in this case. You would not want to be at the receiving ends of one of Fish’s aces, nor have to run after his bullet line drives. But he plays, as he did in beating the Australian qualifier Matthew Ebden in the first round, a shrewd game of movement, pushing the other fellow all around the court, controlling the pace of the point. Benneteau thought he would wear Fish down quickly with hard forehands, but all they did, apparently, was give the Yank a clear sense of what to expect and sustain a better counter-strategy.

Against Tommy Haas, it might have been predicted that the much younger Tim Smyczek, who has not played in many tournaments, would be both intimidated and out-played on the tactical level, but he showed that the astonishing energy and exuberance that he brings to every point has an edge, and a sharp one, of finesse. He also possesses mental toughness, a quality less experienced players sometimes lack, as he showed in overcoming a disappointing second-set failure in his first round match to roar back in the third. Would he do the same against Haas? Haas, after dropping the first set, fell behind immediately in the second set and did not recover until he managed to pull even in the eighth game. The momentum was then entirely on his side, but then the rain came.

They waited for the weather to change, and either they finished last night or it will continue this afternoon, and either way you can find out what happened by looking up the results. The important thing to note here is that yes, America is a young nation and yes, we prize youth and value it, though too often for the wrong reasons and in the wrong ways. The fact is, Tommy Haas and Tim Smyczek need each other: and you can generalize from that on a whole range of public policy questions, social questions, and even spiritual questions. Tennis is indeed about life.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.