Roger Federer and 6 Tennis Greats Who Still Won Majors Past Their Prime

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistMarch 23, 2012

Roger Federer and 6 Tennis Greats Who Still Won Majors Past Their Prime

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    Two years have passed since Roger Federer's last Grand Slam win, and his supporters are growing restless.

    Does the maestro, at age 30, still have enough game to win seven consecutive best-of-five matches over the course of a fortnight, against predominantly younger and fresher players?

    Every superstar player is nudged from his peak into the limbo of last opportunity before descending into retirement. History shows that Father Time is often harsh, seldom allowing aging heroes to dip into the Fountain of Youth.

    We will examine the years following the transitional 70s, when the advent of the Open era served as a cradle for professionalism while doubling as an extended retirement community. Aging stars such as Ken Rosewell and John Newcombe successfully prolonged their careers before being weeded out by the brave new world.

    Most stars such as Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg and Jim Courier were never able to capture another Slam after falling from the top. There are various reasons for each of their stories.

    But there is precedent to hearten Federer in his mission for more Grand Slams.

    Here are six tennis greats who still won a Grand Slam in their twilight years.

No. 6 Thomas Muster

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    Thomas Muster does not fit the criteria as a legend who recaptured his peak, so we are bending the rules. It's just that his remarkable run on clay in 1995 deserves more than a footnote to an otherwise excellent but not superstar career.

    Muster was the spiritual godfather of Rafael Nadal, a fiercely competitive left-handed player who became invincible on clay.

    He was the first clay-court player to hit each forehand as hard as humanly possible, and fans could feel and hear the force of every crushing stroke.

    He looked and played like an ultra-competitive father who shows up one weekend at a tennis club and proves his manhood by destroying competition half his age.

    In 1995, at age 27, Muster obliterated opponents on clay. He compiled a 65-2 record on the surface, including 40 straight wins and a French Open beat-down of finalist Michael Chang. He finished the season with 12 titles and the No. 2 ranking behind Pete Sampras.

    Muster was able to reinvent himself following a good career. His first eight years resulted in 23 titles, but his last three years netted 21 titles. Had he been able to peak earlier he may have won several Slams.

No. 5 Goran Ivanisevic

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    Goran Ivanisevic was Andy Roddick's parallel of the 90s, a snake-bitten star who had never lived up to the expectations of those who thought he would win multiple Slams.

    A lanky figure at 6'4", Ivanisevic was the prototypical power server. He possessed an effortless motion that fired left-handed bullets past his helpless opponents.

    Paradoxically, his smooth serve was supported by occasional, awkward net play. He played from the baseline, but was often exposed by better players.

    He lost his first three Wimbledon finals appearances, once to Andre Agassi and twice to Pete Sampras. He may have lost his best opportunity to win Wimbledon in the 96 semi-finals when he lost a five-set heart-breaker to Sampras.

    With the sun setting on his career and two months from his 30th birthday, Ivanisevic staggered into 2001 Wimbledon as a wildcard entry.

    And then he won his only Grand Slam title with a five-set classic over Patrick Rafter.

    Ivanisevic may not have had his storybook career, but he was a star who finished with a Wimbledon title after his peak years had departed.

No. 4 Pete Sampras

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    By the time Pete Sampras reached his 28th birthday in 1999, his body was breaking down. He had suffered a herniated disc in his back, which would plague him some in the next few years. Tendinitis would bite at his right knee and shin.

    Sampras would win his last Wimbledon title in 2000, before getting blown out by hot new stars Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt in consecutive U.S. Open finals appearances.

    By the 2002 U.S. Open, the grey-bearded Sampras seemed more fitted for a wheelchair than a Grand Slam encore.

    His third round five-set victory was bitterly criticized by defeated opponent Greg Rusedski in an article by Selena Roberts of the New York Times.  "I'd be surprised if he wins his next match...He's not the same player," he said.

    Sampras, of course, gathered his strength and marched through, among others, Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi to win his record 14th Grand Slam in his last appearance as an active player.

    At least he had almost seven years before Roger Federer blew past his Slam total.

No. 3 Jimmy Connors

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    Jimmy Connors is a tale of four careers:

    There was the dominant 1974 season of winning three Grand Slams against primarily elderly champions from the pre-Open era.

    Next came his athletic peak, a good, but frustrating time in which he was clearly out-shined by a growing field of talented players including Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. He won two Grand Slam titles in eight years.

    At age 29-30, and with his best years behind him, Connors' career was in large part rejuvenated by the retirement of Bjorn Borg. He added the Wimbledon title against McEnroe, and two U.S. Open titles against a young Ivan Lendl, who was fighting his own demons in learning to win Slams.

    Finally, Connors was able to hang around with occasional success including his unforgettable run to the semi-finals of the 1991 U.S. Open.

    His third stage was impressive, but Borg leaving the tour opened the door for him. It would be as if Federer no longer had to contend with Rafael Nadal.

    Hopefully, Connors was gracious enough to send Borg flowers and Christmas cards.

No. 2 Andre Agassi

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    Which Andre Agassi is better?

    In one corner, attired in neon pink with flowing locks of hair, Image Agassi 1990-95. He possess great reflexes and footwork, and can hit off the rise perhaps better than any player in history. To his credit, three Grand Slam titles in seven appearances.

    In the other corner, dressed in a white shirt and bald head, Comeback Agassi 1999-2001. He is more cerebral in working a point, and has an improved focus on life. His tally reads four Slam titles in five attempts.

    We will assume that Comeback Agassi is still part of his peak, as if the lost years of 1995-1998 were not just a transition or bridge:

    Agassi still had more left in him, from age 32-35. Although he lost the aforementioned 2002 U.S. Open final to Pete Sampras, he still won his final Australian Open title a few months later.

    Perhaps just as amazing, was one final run at Roger Federer in 2005, even taking a set and bringing plenty of fight. If only his back and body could have held up longer.

No. 1 Boris Becker

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    Boom Boom Boris Becker was burned out following his Wimbledon loss to compatriot Michael Stich in 1991. He was not yet 23 years old.

    The former Wimbledon sensation who had won three of its titles in the 80s also had a U.S. Open and Australian Open title to his credit.

    His career was then side-tracked by personal problems including taxes and marriage.

    So it stood to reason that Becker had time to make a comeback. He was in part revitalized by Nick Bollettieri, Andre Agassi's former mentor, and was able to get to the Wimbledon final in 1995 before bowing to Pete Sampras.

    But Becker found the right opponent in the 1996 Australian Open in finalist Michael Chang. Becker was on his game and blitzed Chang to hold his last Grand Slam title.

    Five years between Grand Slam victories is amazing, but he was still only 28 years old.

Postscript: Roger Federer

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    Roger Federer still has the talent and skills to put together a few more runs.

    It will be increasingly important for him to obtain a favorable draw and quickly handle the matches he should win.

    It will also depend upon the level of his two rivals, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

    There is plenty of optimism that 2012 could be a perfect storm of great tennis and opportunity for Roger Federer.

    Maybe even Father Time will stand by and clap.