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Tennis's comeback stories: Age is just a number

2013 Sony Open Tennis - Day 9

It was in the early 90s during my teenage years that I started getting seriously hooked onto tennis. Back then, I was fascinated by the arrival of a new teenager on the scene. I was 15 when Martina Hingis turned professional in 1994. I was in absolute awe and amazement at the prospect of a 14-year-old taking on the best in the game on the biggest stages. Soon thereafter, Hingis went on to break almost every youngest-ever record in the book. And she wasn’t the only one. The Williams sisters and Anna Kournikova soon followed.

I was 17 when a 16-year-old Lleyton Hewitt announced his arrival by beating Andre Agassi on the way to winning his hometown ATP event in Adelaide. From then on, I always looked ahead to the arrival of a young new prospect in the game.

In those years, my world was confined to my school and my little neighbourhood back in South Mumbai. Taking on the bigger guys on the court and off it in life seemed a scary prospect. But these teenagers seemed to face their bigger opponents on the court and the elements (the media, the sponsors, life in general) with such confidence and ease.

It’s been close to twenty years since. I am currently in my early 30s and still seriously hooked on to tennis. The only difference nowadays is that I find myself rooting for the veterans rather than the teenagers. Sure, it’s still exciting to see a 19-year-old Sloane Stephens defeat Serena Williams or a teenaged Bernard Tomic make the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. But what really inspires me these days are the veterans. The resurgence of a 34-year-old Tommy Haas and the comeback (is it still a comeback if you are four years into it?) of 42-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm egg me on to go after my own personal dreams.

Tommy Haas has been as high as no. 2 in the world in 2002 and has had more than his fair share of injuries and lay-offs. The German has had five surgeries on different parts of his body and completely missed the 2003 season and then again did not play between February 2010 and May 2011. However, in the past 15 months, Haas has found a new lease in life and fortunately managed to stay healthy as well. The German won the Gerry Weber Open title last June, beating Roger Federer in the finals. He reached two more ATP finals and the quarter finals of two Masters series events – earning his way back into the top 20 and winning the ATP Comeback Player of the Year (2012) award for the second time in his career.

Haas has continued to impress in 2013 – reaching the finals in San Jose and then the semi-finals in Delray Beach. And on Tuesday, he stunned the world’s top ranked player Novak Djokovic in straight sets to reach the quarter finals of the Sony Open Tennis in Miami. Just eight days shy of his 35th birthday, the German became the oldest player ever to defeat a world no. 1 and it also marked just the second time in his career that he has beaten a top-ranked player. Not surprisingly, Haas was delighted at the win, “This is what I play for. These are the moments I appreciate the most, going on those big stadiums, big stages, playing against the best people in the world. Playing against someone like Novak and coming out on top at this time of my career, it’s unbelievable.”

Like Haas, 42-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm has been surprising critics with the level of play she has been able to sustain after coming back to the sport at the age of 38 in 2008, 12 years after she first retired from the game in 1996. The Japanese wonder woman is currently ranked no. 78 in the world, having gone as high as no. 46 in 2010. While that may be far off from her best ranking of no.4 in 1995, she continues to compete on the circuit, enjoying the challenge of beating girls half her age.

Date-Krumm has had her share of big wins in her second act. In 2010, she scored wins over top 15 players including Li Na, Samantha Stosur, Shahar Peer, Maria Sharapova and Dinara Safina and just a few months back in January at the Australian Open, she knocked out the 12th ranked Nadia Petrova.

A few years ago, many would have scoffed at the thought of a 35-year-old being ranked in the men’s top 15 or a 42-year-old competing regularly on the WTA tour. But Tommy Haas and Kimiko Date-Krumm have shown that if you dream and believe, nothing can hold you back. They have proved the old (pun intended) adage that Age ain’t nothing but a number.

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