Tennis fans usually remember the amazing runs of a 17-year-old Boris Becker at Wimbledon in '85, or a 16-year-old Martina Hingis in 1997.
While these exciting youngsters offered a new style of play that would define the next few years of tennis, it has been equally exciting to cheer for the aging athletes.
Players who are no longer as dominant as they were in their teens or early 20s still have the motivation, hunger, and passion for the game to compete at the highest level.
After all, not many survive the wrath this sport has on both mind and body. Even legends like Borg, Edberg, Becker, and Wilander lost their touch after 27, and retired before 30.
Let's look at some of the most amazing victories in tennis achieved by athletes who, given their age, were never expected to win, yet gave their everything for it.
There have been many such games played, but in my opinion, these 10 matches highlight the times which these warriors stepped up their game and produced scintillating stuff.
Steffi Graf bt. Martina Hingis (4-6, 7-5, 6-2)
1999, French Open Final
For a woman who had achieved almost everything that a tennis player yearns for, the last few years had been very difficult for Steffi Graf. She had not been in a grand slam final for two-and-a-half years and had missed most of the past seasons due to injuries.
Now, at the age of 30, hardly looking like Grand Slam material anymore, Graff would meet Martina Hingis in the final at Roland Garros.
Hingis had cruised through to the finals and was the favorite to win the title, especially given that the mentally and physically spent Graf had battled through many three setters.
The predictions looked spot on at the end of the second set until Hingis settled into an argument with the umpire, losing her concentration. At this moment, Graf got her forehand running and was able to cruise through the latter half of the match.
Those 2 hours and 24 minutes proved once again that Steffi Graf was indeed the queen of tennis.
Pete Sampras bt. Andre Agassi (6-7 (7), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5))
2001, US Open Quarterfinal
The rivalry between the two men started in 1990 in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., when the 19-year-old Pete Sampras beat 20-year-old Angre Agassi in the finals of the U.S. Open.
They were the youngest and most improbable finalists of the tournament, and showed tennis fans who their future champions would be.
Fast forward 11 years to 2001, where both Sampras and Agassi are nearing the end of their careers. At 31 years old, they were the oldest players to participate in the U.S. Open.
Though neither was as dominant as in his prime, and the decade-long rivalry had taken its toll on their bodies (though Agassi was still much fitter and athletic than Sampras at this point), the stage was set for these two men to meet in the quarter finals.
In three-and-a-half hours of one of the most exciting matches of the decade (one of my friends quoted that he needed more toilet breaks than the players!), neither player broke serve, and the two were separated by a string thinner than that of a tennis racket.
The match was decided by four tie-breaks, with Sampras narrowly squeezing out a victory to advance to the semis.
Pete Sampras would move on to meet Lleyton Hewitt in the finals, but was so exhausted after this match that he had no energy left to compete with the young and fresh Australian, who would go on to win the 2001 U.S. Open crown.
This quarterfinal match was arguably the finest spectacle of tennis by its two beloved elders.
Martina Navratilova bt. Steffi Graf (7-6 (2), 6-7 (6), 6-4)
1991, US Open Semifinal
No player can boast a tennis record after 30 years of age similar to that of Martina Navritalova. A woman with unparalleled passion for the game, she continued playing tennis right up until her late fourties.
However, one contest that remains fresh even today is when the 34-year-old Navratilova showed immense character to beat Steffi Graf in an evenly contested match during the '91 U.S. Open semi-finals.
Graf had been the undisputed queen of women's tennis for the last four years now, and had literally owned Navratilova. Martina had failed to beat Graf since the 1987 US Open final and had been beaten in her previous four attempts.
Showing the athleticism of a teenager, Navratilova relentlessly attacked Graf on serve, and did not give Steffi an inch to hit her fearsome forehand. After a closely fought three set encounter, Navratilova emerged victorious.
After the match, Graf's coach admitted that "a 34-year-old woman showed more guts than Graf did".
Arthur Ashe bt. Jimmy Connors (6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4)
1975, Wimbledon Final
This Wimbledon final is cherished by historians and fans alike.
On one side was Arthur Ashe, who at 31 years of age was never included among the elite in men's tennis. On the other side, was the fresh, energetic, and arrogant Jimmy Connors, the world's best player at the time, was fresh from an incredible year in 1974.
Hardly anyone gave Ashe a chance to stop Jimmy from winning his second Wimbledon title. But Ashe, always known for his fighting spirit, had other ideas. He knew that trying to outhit Connors would be playing into the wolf's claws, so instead he contended by hitting softer, more finessed shots.
Connors never found his rhythm, and even though he took the third set, he knew that he had merely delayed the inevitable, as Ashe marched the road towards his only Wimbledon title.
Andre Agassi lt. Roger Federer (3-6, 6-2, 6-7, 1-6)
2005, U.S. Open Final
In 2005, 24-year-old Roger Federer was a five time Grand Slam Champion and the world's No. 1 player. He was on the road towards becoming "The GOAT," fresh from his victory in Wimbledon and vying to defend his U.S. Open title from the previous year.
Andre Agassi was 35-years-old and in the twilight of his career. His last major win was almost three years back, and he had been worn down by three hard fought five-setters when he met Federer in the '05 U.S. Open final.
Not many would have given Agassi a chance. But, given his dedication to fitness, he was able to play some powerful tennis on that day, which will forever remain etched in the memory of Flushing Meadows.
After losing the first set, Agassi tamed Federer, making him run around the court on both sides and forcing Federer into errors uncharacteristic of the champion, thus dominating the second set.
Not long after, the overwhelming favorite was staring at a possible upset as the match was tied 1-1, with Federer down 4-2 in the third. The veteran Agassi ran out of gas in the fourth set, only after giving Federer a run for his money.
Due to this amazing feat, we keep this match among the best contests by the elderly, even though the elder statesman lost the match.
Jimmy Connors bt. Mikael Pernfors (1-6, 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2 )
1987, Wimbledon Fourth Round
Jimmy Connors' name will forever remain in history as the game's fiercest competitor. There cannot be a greater testimony to this fact than two of his miraculous victories.
The first one came in 1987. The 35-year-old, battling a knee surgery, was staring at the jaws of defeat after being comprehensively beaten in the first two sets and down 4-1 in the third!
But, the fighter that he is, Connors employed his usual fist-clenching antics to work up the crowd into his favor, showing his never-say-die attitude and winning the contest in a thrilling five setter.
Connors said after the match, "My ego was hurt. So I decided to fight even harder!".
Ken Rosewall bt. Cliff Richey (6-8, 5-7, 6-4, 9-7, 7-5)
1971, Wimbledon Quarterfinal
No list of aging champions would be complete without mention of Ken "Muscles" Rosewall.
For Rosewall, age had no bar, as is evident by the 40+ titles that he won after the age of 30. During the Wimbledon matchup of 1971, Cliff Richey, a U.S. Davis Cup star, was riding a dream run until the quarterfinals.
He looked on course to reach the semis, leading Rosewall by two sets and a break. However, Rosewall, the crowd favorite, brought all of his skills into play to strike back with a marathon 4-hour match, resulting in his victory over the young Richey.
So, impressed was Richey that he jumped the net to hug his opponent and walked down the court with his arms around Rosewall's shoulder.
Rosewall, even at 37, was so fit that he quipped to the younger players that were ailing with back injuries: "I'm older than some of the other fellows, so I don't get back trouble".
Jimmy Connors bt. Aaron Krickstein (3-6, 7-6 (8), 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4))
1991, U.S. Open Fourth Round
By 1991, Jimmy Connors had already run a long hard road with 18 years of tennis, winning eight grand slams and now approaching his forties. Though his strength, fitness, and reflexes had all left him, his competitiveness had not.
Already exhausted after winning the first round of the '91 U.S. Open in a five-setter, Jimmy found himself facing stiff competition from Aaron Krickstein, a man 15 years younger than him!
Jimbo, the sentimental favorite of the New York crowd, battled through a wrist injury in a topsy-turvy match in which the winner was hard to predict.
Despite his 100+ unforced errors, Connors found a way to win the match after a four hour slugfest. Connors had proven once again that he was one of the fiercest of fighters in the sport.
Pancho Gonzales bt. Charlie Pasarell (22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9)
1969, Wimbledon Second Round
It is a shame that Pancho Gonzales, arguably the best tennis player ever to embrace the game, never got a chance to contest the grand slams at the peak of his prowess.
By the time the open era began in 1968, Pancho was already in his 40s, and his best years were behind him.
Despite his age, he holds the credit for playing the longest match in Wimbledon history at five hours, 12 minutes and 112 games! Pancho lost the first two sets and the crowd went against him after he repeatedly tried to force the umpire to call the day off due to bad light. But he shrugged off the crowd and saved several match points en route to his victory.
Jimmy Connors said about Gonzales, "If I had to choose someone to play for my life, it would be Pancho Gonzalez".
Considering that the comment comes from the most stubborn fighter of the game, it speaks volumes about Pancho's ability.
Agassi bt. Baghdatis (6-4 6-4 3-6 5-7 7-5)
2006, U.S. Open Second Round
It was a very tough job in choosing the No. 2 and No. 1 match.
There are many reasons why I chose to consider this match as the very best display of tennis by an elder statesman:
1. Tennis has become much more about power and it requires higher athleticism skills than it required in 1969.
2. This match was played in the scorching heat and humidity of New York while the win by Pancho was played on the cool lawns of Wimbledon.
3. Pancho won the game over two days (interruption due to bad light), but Agassi had to compete the match in one day.
However, all the above reasons are minuscule when you consider that Agassi had skipped most of the 2006 season due to serious back injuries. Even during the U.S. Open, he played with serious back pain which required him to take cortisone injections after each match.
Despite this, Agassi showed the determination to compete for the full distance and wanted to win no matter what.
Andre Agassi is definitely the best "old" tennis player in the history of the game.