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The Older the Better
July 09, 2012
Brian Baker's run in the first week of Wimbledon was just one example of a big trend in men's tennis: Age is actually in a player's favor
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July 09, 2012

The Older The Better

Brian Baker's run in the first week of Wimbledon was just one example of a big trend in men's tennis: Age is actually in a player's favor

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It's so easy, in the case of Brian Baker, to wonder what might've been. He flashed sterling junior credentials and great promise before injuries derailed him for six years, and his comeback-sealing run into the fourth round at Wimbledon showcased a heady and vexing all-court game. "I didn't see any solution," said Baker's third-round victim, 55th-ranked Benoit Paire of France. "I've never felt so lost on court. He was returning everything, hitting the baseline. He was too fast, hitting the ball too early for me."

Such talk would be grist for a "next great American" feature—if Baker weren't 27, an age that in tennis used to mean past one's prime. "Of course I had moments where [I was] like, Man, what could I have done if I had been healthy?" said Baker, who has had three hip surgeries, plus Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. "But once I stopped having those thoughts, I started doing a lot better."

Besides, the game's shifting demographics make Baker seem to be right on time. This year's Wimbledon men's field was the oldest in history (chart). Its thunderclap moment—the second-round upset of two-time champ Rafael Nadal—was wrought by a relatively wizened unknown, 26-year-old Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic. Once the land of teen arrivistes such as Nadal, Mats Wilander and Pete Sampras, tennis is now no country for young men.

Why? Bigger paydays, more powerful equipment and an unprecedented attention to fitness have made it easier for oldsters to hang on. Some also believe that coaching in the junior ranks has been declining and that the typical teen body can't stand up to the physicality of today's game. But, says Boris Becker, the onetime wunderkind who won Wimbledon at 17 in 1985, "the physical is not the reason. It's mental. Tennis is a bigger sport than it was 20 years ago. Players take longer to accept what comes with it. Sponsorship, money, international coverage—sometimes you take longer talking to the press than playing the game. That affects younger players, makes them scared."

If the No. 1 player sets the tone for the tour, it only makes sense that Novak Djokovic didn't start coming into his own until he was 23. This weekend the bottom half of the Wimbledon draw will produce a first-time finalist. None of the possible quarterfinalists in that half was under 23, and no one was calling them old. "Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, he's 27 and he's maturing," Becker says. "Before, he didn't know what to do with his power. Now he's smarter. If he's not playing well, he doesn't go crazy with his shots; he's playing more percentages. Andy Murray, also—at 25 he's playing much smarter than he played two, three years ago."

Baker, of course, has a body clock unlike anyone else's. "Twenty-seven is older," he says, "but since I haven't put all that stress on my body? I'll have four to five more years to keep on playing out here." A year ago the Tennessean was unranked; after Wimbledon he will be ranked at least in the high 70s, with a top 30 game in hand. He has nowhere to go but up—and no plans to go anywhere else.