From the Monte Carlo Masters and the Barcelona 500, the clay season has been fanning out through Europe to Portugal, Germany and Serbia before it converges again on road to Madrid, Rome and Paris—surely one of the most glamorous swings in the tennis calendar.
The youthful and zesty Rafael Nadal is stealing the headlines wherever his feet hit the red-stuff, and a swathe of young names—Milos Raonic, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Grigor Dimitrov—are attempting to carry their own new stories from hard-court success to clay-court renown.
Amid the brouhaha, though, there has been room for the occasional story about new-but-old faces breaking into the top 10: Mardy Fish and Jurgen Melzer step forward.
And in the space of barely a week, the tour has also quietly welcomed back three 30-somethings from injury, each with their own decade-long story to tell: Juan Carlos Ferrero, Tommy Haas and Fernando Gonzalez.
The upper echelons of the men’s tour, in fact, suggests that 30 is a surprisingly good age in a sport that has come to expect success before a player has barely moved beyond his teenage years. After all, Rafa won three Masters titles and a Major at 18.
Novak Djokovic won his first Masters at 19 and another—and his first Major—at 20. Juan Martin Del Potro reached a Masters final at 19 and the WTFs at 20. He took his first Major before his 21st birthday.
But take a look at the longest, most consistent and arguably the most successful career amongst active players: Roger Federer.
He won his first Masters at 20 but the next at 22; his first Major at 21, another at 22 and the next at 23. And six years on, in his 29th year, he was still winning. And he is not the only one showing that success is not the exclusive prerogative of youth.
Almost a third of the top 100 players are in their 30th year or beyond and, of the four in the top 12, three of them are enjoying some of their best form in the prime of their lives. Take a look.
Fernando Gonzalez, aged 30, ranked 516 (though soon to benefit from protected ranking)
Fernando Gonzalez, a former world No. 5, was at 10 in the rankings a year back when he won both of his rubbers in Chile’s Davis Cup match against Israel.
After a second round exit at Roland Garros, however, he needed time out for rehab before trying to make a tentative return on the American hard courts, but he was forced to retire in his opening match at the U.S. Open and underwent hip surgery in October.
If there was any good news for the 30-year-old, it was that he escaped knee surgery as well, and made it back into full-time training within just five months. He initially worked with Chile’s Davis Cup team and players at the ATP Challenger in his home city of Santiago before travelling to California to join up with a new coach, Horacio Matta.
Gonzalez won the first of his 11 titles in 2000, and has been a finalist in a further 11 events, including two Masters and the Australian Open. With such a long—and often fiery—career already on the table, he is now pragmatic enough to concede that, this time around, his campaign will be different:
“It will be symbolic because I feel it will be the beginning of the end of my career.”
But he does have one particular target to act as an incentive: the 2012 Olympics. He won a bronze medal in 2004—with a gold in the doubles—and won silver in 2008. National success once more would crown a 13-year career perfectly.
The start of this final phase began well with his wild card entry to the Belgrade Open. He opened with a win and, though he lost in the second round to Feliciano Lopez, the two men played powerful, swinging tennis of the highest quality.
Gonzalez was delighted with how he felt: “I was running, I was sliding, I felt really good on the court.”
He looked pretty good, too, as his famously fearsome forehand began to fire off some outright winners and the single-handed backhand produced both down-the-line drives and drop shots by turn.
The Chilean had another piece of good news in Belgrade, too. He has been awarded a wild card for Roland Garros.
Nicolas Mahut, aged 29, ranked 87
If proof was needed of the stamina and mental strength of the older player, it was captured in the most talked-about match of the 2010 Wimbledon.
Nicolas Mahut, a qualifier in the draw, was one half of a record-breaking, heart-breaking match on Court 18 that began on opening Tuesday and finished two days later after 11 hours of play.
He was up against No. 23 seed John Isner and the men were forced to stop at two sets apiece due to bad light, and they commenced the final set at 2pm on Wednesday.
More than seven hours later, bad light brought what was already the longest match ever played to another halt, deadlocked at 59 games apiece. While Isner looked fit to drop, Mahut looked the fresher by far and, had the light not given out, he seemed capable of playing a good hour or two more.
Mahut slept just a few hours before returning to the practice courts on Thursday, ready for the match to resume at 3.45 pm.
The end came eventually in Isner’s favor, 70-68. Both men had broken the record for most aces in a match—Isner 113 and Mahut 103—and after 181 games, they had served just 31 double faults between them.
Mahut, though, was serving second and so had, arguably, the more difficult job: He served 65 times to stay in the match. On the last occasion, he failed.
Mahut had already won a 24-22 final set to qualify on the day before this epic first-round match began. Little wonder that, when it was over, he looked as though he could walk away from tennis and never return.
He did return, though, to battle his way through three more rounds of qualifying at the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, through numerous Challenger events and through two tie breaks in losing to Robin Soderling in Marseille this year.
So Mahut is clearly not ready to give up, but he will forever be remembered for one of the gutsiest losses recorded on a tennis court.
100 Florent Serra (30)
93 Michael Berrer (30)
92 Rainer Schuettler (35)
90 Ricardo Mello (30)
89 Michael Russell (32)
86 Igor Kunitsyn (29)
84 Robert Kendrick (31)
83 Julien Benneteau (29)
80 Filippo Volandri (29)
Juan Carlos Ferrero, aged 31, ranked 70
The evergreen Juan Carlos Ferrero, world No. 1 for two months back in 2003, returned to the tour in Barcelona a week ago for the first time since major surgery last October.
The motorbike-addicted Spaniard won titles every year from 1999 to 2003, including four Masters and the French Open. He reached a final in every one of his 12 years since turning pro, including the U.S. Open, the Masters Cup and Cincinnati, so his talent was not simply confined to the red stuff.
But there followed a string of injuries. In 2008 alone he pulled out of Roland Garros and Wimbledon with leg problems and, at Flushing Meadow, it was his shoulder.
After 2003, it would be another six years until he claimed a title, in Casablanca in 2009, and that marked the first step in a major resurgence. A new fitness regime, and ambitions to once again reach the top 10, reaped rewards.
Ferrero won titles in Umag, Buenos Aires and Costa do Sauipe, reached the final in Acapulco, the semis in Stuttgart and the quarters in Monte Carlo and Hamburg, all of which took him into the top 20 for the first time in more than two years. 2010 turned into his best season since that chart-topping 2003.
Then once again, the U.S. Open brought progress to a halt. Ferrero succumbed to left knee and right wrist surgery and, turning 31 in February, he might have called it a day and turned his attention to his many other tennis interests.
He jointly owns, with David Ferrer, the Valencia 500 tournament and he runs the JC Ferrero Equelite Sports Academy that he set up in 2001 to promote young tennis talent.
But no, he’s back: And his return in Barcelona was more than encouraging. He reached the quarterfinals, eventually falling to new top-10 entry Nicolas Almagro.
The result took him a modest seven places up the rankings to 70 but, if his 2010 surge is anything to go by, that could be just the beginning for one of most elegant clay-courters in the business.
73 Olivier Rochus (30)
68 Benjamin Becker (29)
67 Radek Stepanek (32)
64 Lleyton Hewitt (30) (for more on Hewitt, see David Nalbandian at 23)
63 Victor Hanescu (29)
Ivan Ljubicic, aged 32, ranked 32
Ivan Ljubicic, popular with players and fans alike, is a gentle giant of a man with a sublime single-handed backhand and a serve to die for.
There was, therefore, barely a dry eye in the house when he celebrated his 31st birthday in 2010 with his first ever Masters title at Indian Wells after 12 years on the pro circuit.
The gruelling hard courts, though, took their toll and he retired in Miami, fell early in Monte Carlo and dropped out of Rome.
But by Roland Garros, he was ready to thrill the fans again in a four-and-a-half hour win over Fish, no spring chicken himself, 10-8 in the fifth set. And more wins came in the autumn with a semi-final run in Beijing and Stockholm and a final finish in Montpellier. Ljubicic finished 2010 at his highest ranking in over three years.
After a semi-final finish in Rotterdam this spring, though, he managed just one win in four tournaments, and dropped back from 14 to 40.
But on the clay of Monte Carlo, he began to turn things around, beating both Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych in straight sets to earn a quarterfinal place
In the latter stages of his win over Berdych, however, the veteran Croat needed treatment to his big-serving right shoulder and, against his next opponent, Nadal, that could mean only one result.
This was Ljubicic’s 12th Monte Carlo—his favorite event because he can go home to his family in the evening!
He said, after his defeat by Nadal, that he aims to carry on playing for as long as he stays pain-free and enjoys his tennis. So it seems as though his 411 win tally—and perhaps his title tally of 10—may yet continue to grow.
58 Jarkko Nieminen (29)
49 Xavier Malisse (30)
43 Potito Starace (29)
41 Juan Ignacio Chela (31)
40 Nikolay Davydenko (29)
37 Feliciano Lopez (29)
David Nalbandian, aged 29, ranked 23
David Nalbandian had a special “something” right from the start.
Two years after turning pro, he was a finalist at Wimbledon and went on to reach the semis of the other three Majors. He also won the World Tour Finals in 2005, beating Federer. Indeed Nalbandian is one of the few men to beat Federer and Nadal in the finals of two consecutive Masters: Madrid and Paris in 2007.
In 2009, while struggling with injury, he almost beat Nadal again at Indian Wells but, soon after, he succumbed to hip surgery. He rejoined the tour in January 2010 but was then thwarted by strained abdominal muscles before he had played a single competitive match.
In March, he played a tie-winning match in the Davis Cup and a month later took the opening set against Nadal in Miami—in only his eighth match in 12 months. A fortnight later, he took the world Nos. 13 and 23 out of the Monte Carlo Masters, but a pulled hamstring prevented his entry to the French Open and Wimbledon.
Then came Washington, only his fifth tournament of the year, but he played it like a man who had wagered his life on the outcome.
He won the first three matches for the loss of just nine games, battled past Gilles Simon in a tough three-setter to reach the semi-finals, and then dismissed Marin Cilic with a wonderful demonstration of attacking tennis. He won the title by beating Marcos Baghdatis.
Next up were Ferrer, Tommy Robredo and Soderling in Cincinnati before he lost to the eventual winner Murray in the quarters. It took the Nalbandian win-loss record for the year to 20-5: not bad for a man who had missed most of the previous 18 months with injury.
And his reward, helped by a final finish in the opening event of 2011 in Auckland, was a rise from 153 to inside the top 20 in six months.
Next came one of the matches of the Australian Open. It was against Lleyton Hewitt, and it jumped off the page from the moment the draw was made.
Lleyton Hewitt, like his opponent, had needed hip surgery in 2008, but returned in 2009 to finish in the top 25 for 10th time in 11 years.
In that resurgent year, he first won his 27th title—Houston—and then he beat Del Potro at Wimbledon, going on to reach the quarters where he lost a five-set marathon to Andy Roddick.
By the end of the year, he was 23 in the world but then he required right hip surgery after 2010’s Australian Open.
By the summer, he had taken another momentous step in beating Federer for the first time since 2003 to take the Halle title. Yet again, he faced injury—this time his hand—and did not play beyond September.
That, then, was the back-story as these two 29-year-olds replayed one of the most memorable matches ever seen in Melbourne in the quarterfinals of 2005. That one went to five sets—10-8 in the fifth—before Hewitt lost to Marat Safin in the final: The 2011 rematch did not disappoint, either.
The two men alternated sets, had break points aplenty and the Argentine led by a break in the fifth before Hewitt broke back to level at 5-5. But in the 16th game, Nalbandian wove a certain kind of magic as the clock ticked past 1 a.m. and four-and-three-quarter hours to seal the match with the sweetest of cross-court lobs, 3-6 6-4 3-6 7-6 9-7.
The win came on top of five straight matches in Auckland for Nalbandian, and it proved to be a match too far: He retired in Melbourne’s second round.
Still the set-backs come. Hewitt succumbed to foot surgery at the start of March and Nalbandian, too, has been under the knife for a groin injury he aggravated in the March Davis Cup tie.
Both aim to be back for Roland Garros because both seem to have had their passion to play sharpened rather than dulled by so much injury.
During his successful return last summer, Nalbandian explained that his long absence after hip surgery had made him realise just how much he missed tennis and that he did not intend to waste a single moment of the rest of his career.
Whenever either of them makes it back, it won’t be a moment too soon.
28 Albert Montanes (30)
24 Michael Llodra (30)
Mardy Fish, aged 29, ranked 11
It was one of the stories of last summer. After coming close to retiring at the end of 2009, Mardy Fish embarked on a new training regime to try one last time to fulfil a few ambitions.
He lost 30 pounds, reached the finals of four tournaments in under three months—one of them a Masters—and won two of them.
He finished third in the U.S. Open Series and rose from a ranking of 108 in March to 16 by the end of the year, as high as he had ever been in 10 years on the professional tour.
And still the remodelled and inspiring Fish broke new ground as the U.S. hard courts beckoned this spring. He made the semis in both Memphis and Delray Beach, and then played effortlessly through the Miami draw to the semi-finals.
By now, he had become America’s new top-ranked player, overtaking Roddick for the first time in their careers, but he now had the misfortune of meeting Djokovic.
On paper, Fish’s chances of progressing were slim—he had failed to beat Djokovic in their last five meetings—but in this his third semi-final of the year, he had managed to take some impressive scalps: Richard Gasquet, Del Potro and Ferrer. And in the opening stages, the outcome did not look a foregone conclusion.
Djokovic was not moving with his usual fluidity and admitted afterwards that he was “lucky not to go a break down.” However, play was halted for an hour’s rain break at 2-2, 15/30 on the Serb’s serve and, when he returned, he broke Fish’s first service game, and went on to an impressive 6-3, 6-1 win.
But it was for Fish that the pencils were sharpened for the record books. In the middle of April, he became the fourth oldest player to make his top-10 debut—indeed one of only four players of 29 or more ever to do so, and one of the others is still there: see Melzer!
Fish is not at his best on clay but thrives on grass as well as hard courts. Last year’s opener at Queens marked the start of his resurgence, the first of four finals. It seems that was, perhaps, just the beginning.
Jurgen Melzer, aged 29, ranked 9
Jurgen Melzer’s last 12 months is a story of gradual maturation, gradual growth in confidence and gradual progress.
After years of hovering around the no-man’s land of 30 to 40 in the rankings, he began his move upwards from 30 at the start of May 2010 by incremental steps, not once moving back. Since last July, he has monthly reached a new personal high, and matched it with an equally strong presence in the doubles rankings.
He was making a relatively slow start to 2011 until he got his feet on the clay at Monte Carlo. There, it was perhaps surprising that he got the better of Almagro in straight sets. The Spaniard, also newly in the top 10, had already won titles in Brazil and Argentina and reached the final in Acapulco this spring.
However, Melzer had his opponent on a piece of string with his varied and creative left-handed shot-making. But better was to follow when he ran out the shock winner, for the first time, over Federer in the quarterfinals to take himself to his first Masters semi-final.
Melzer certainly had good reason to be confident against his next opponent, Ferrer, who he had beaten twice in the previous year, including a straight sets win at Roland Garros. This time, though, he happened to meet a Ferrer enjoying an Indian summer of a career himself—as the next slide shows.
The Spaniard was outstanding in his progress to the final, and—sadly for Melzer—walked all over him again in Barcelona.
Now Melzer approaches the phase where his flowering began last year, reaching his first Major semi-final at Roland Garros and beating Djokovic in five sets on the way.
He went on to take Nadal’s scalp later in the year in Shanghai. Last but not least, he won his home tournament in Vienna and was named Austrian sportsman of 2010.
Melzer has put his improvement down to building up a strong support team with coach Joakim Nystom, a physical trainer and a new conditioning coach. But Melzer has always had a great game and strong tactical nous. Now he has something else: the confidence that he can win.
David Ferrer, aged 29, ranked 6
When David Ferrer assessed his career at the start of 2010, he almost decided to call it a day. He had not won a title since June 2008, and in 2009 he won just two tour matches after the U.S. Open.
Then he had a dreadful start to 2010, losing his first match in Auckland and winning only one match at the Australian Open—to a man forced to retire injured.
For a man who had reached an ATP final in every year since 2002 bar one, and who reached the final of the Masters Cup of 2007, it seemed like his career was on the slide. From a high of No. 4, he was struggling even to stay in the top 20. With the slump came what seemed a devastating loss of confidence.
But Ferrer is a nothing if not a grafter. He gave himself the year to turn things around and, boy, did he do so. He won titles in Acapulco and Valencia, made the finals of Beijing, Buenos Aires and the Rome Masters, and the semis of the Madrid Masters, Bastad and Kuala Lumpur.
He earned enough points to take part in the WTFs for the first time in three years and it meant the world: “Last year I was watching the final on TV. I am so happy to be playing in London this year.”
And things have gone from good to even better. After winning Auckland, he reached his second ever Major semi-final in Melbourne and won in Acapulco. He tore apart the competition in both the Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona before losing to Nadal and is enjoying a 30-month high of No. 6 in the rankings. His win-loss on clay is 13-2, but his hard-court stats are not too shabby either: 12-4.
But it is the style of Ferrer’s improvement that impresses. He has always had an unquenchable work ethic and a never-say-die attitude on court. Now, he is working at a more all-court aggressive game, using the serve and volley, transitioning to the net, and producing ripping backhands.
Against Melzer in Monte Carlo, he played a near error-free master class of precision ground strokes, drop shots and passes as clean as a whistle. He even gave Nadal a run for his money in the final.
In Barcelona, though, the odds turned against him when he walked into the final with strapping to his left calf and Nadal took control from the off.
But Ferrer can still look at his year so far and know that he has came closer to Nadal than anyone else on the red dirt.
Roger Federer, aged 29, ranked 3
Some things are hard to get the head around. Roger Federer as world No. 3. Federer without a Major to his name. And, of course, Federer turning 30 in under four months’ time.
Yet he has been No. 3 before: for 11 weeks last summer. And he was No. 2 for not much short of a year between 2008 and 2009. He won a Major in 2010, just as he had in the previous seven years. And his dips coincided with either illness or injury: His worst year of 2008 it was glandular fever; He took time out with back injury early in 2009; He followed the Australian Open in 2010 with a lung infection.
Once his run of 23 consecutive Major semis fell at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, though, it was talked of as the beginning of the end. No player could be expected to maintain the fitness, focus and desire to continue at the top level through a decade.
Federer thought otherwise. He took on a new coach, hit the courts with a vengeance and with an unalloyed desire to turn his year around.
After Wimbledon, he won 29 out of 33 matches in seven tournaments. From the final in the Toronto Masters, he went on to claim the Cincinnati Masters title. After a semi-final exit at the U.S. Open, he reached the final of the Shanghai Masters, and won his 64th and 65th titles back-to-back in Stockholm and Basel, and then made the semis in Paris.
By now back to No. 2, Federer’s match-packed six weeks between Shanghai and the WTFs in London stacked up 23 matches—and he looked as fast and fluid in beating Djokovic and Nadal in the last event as he had in his opening wins over Djokovic and Soderling in China.
And for a man apparently on the slide towards the autumn of his career, he has started this year much as he started the last three—losing to a thus-far unbeatable Djokovic and his nemesis Nadal. Only his loss to Melzer in Monte Carlo might raise an eyebrow, but the Austrian is riding a high, and such losses have happened before.
After Federer's win in Stockholm last autumn, where he became the only active player to reach 900 matches on tour, 12 years after his first, he said he felt a 1,000 matches to be well within his reach in the next two years.
So while Federer may no longer be the unquestioned No. 1, he races towards 30 as fit and determined as ever, and will still have the measure of many a younger man.
Tommy Haas, aged 33, unranked
Finally, a word about the eldest of the three 30-something storylines that have converged in the space of a single week.
Along with the powerful and pugnacious Chilean Gonzalez and the stylish, Spaniard Ferrero, there was the welcome, albeit brief, return of an elegant German, Tommy Haas after a 14-month absence.
His history bears many similarities to Ferrero’s. Once No. 2 in the world, Haas proved his huge talent early, winning a first title at 20 and a first Master’s at 22.
But his career was bedevilled by injury. He had broken one ankle just as he made the transition from junior to senior status. Within a year, he broke his other ankle. In the run-up to the Sydney Olympics, he suffered a bulging disc in his back yet went on to win a silver medal.
Haas’s progress was then brought to an abrupt halt after an accident nearly claimed the lives of his parents and left his father in a coma. He would spend much of 2002 taking care of his family, and went on to miss most of 2003 when a serious shoulder injury required surgery.
In 2004, he surged back from outside the top 1,000 to No. 17, earning the ATP Comeback Player of the Year award, but in 2005, there was a twisted ankle in the first round of Wimbledon, a wrist injury in 2006, and torn stomach muscles during Wimbledon 2008. More rehabilitation of his troublesome shoulder finally dragged him back down to the 80s.
Then, in 2009, at the age of 31, he rose more than 50 places between Easter and June, a period topped by his 12th title—his first on grass—in Halle.
The green shoots of this 2009 success first appeared in his outstanding performance against Federer in the fourth round of the French Open where it took a near-superhuman effort from Federer to turn around a two-sets deficit in one of the matches of the tournament.
But in the middle of 2010’s spring hard court season, at 17 in the rankings, injury forced Haas from the tour and into dual surgery—first on his right hip and then on his right elbow.
Not surprising, then, that Haas’s return in Munich this week was a cautious one: He took part only in the doubles to assess how his 33-year-old body felt. He and Radek Stepanek lost in a 10-8 tie-breaker, but it was valuable opener before he migrates to the singles tour in a few weeks.
His ambitions, though, are modest: “If I can stay healthy and play a little bit, it would be great if my daughter could maybe see me play…at least a couple times, to see what I actually did before I stopped.”
He, Gonzalez and Ferrero add up to just six years short of a century, yet between them, there still seems to be quite enough desire to see them through to the full 100.