Okay, try getting your mind around this one: Roger Federer may be the next Martina Navratilova.
I don't mean he has plans to appear on the ultra-popular Dancing with the Stars television series, which will feature Navratilova in its upcoming contest—although that wouldn't be an entirely futile enterprise somewhere down the road. If ever there lived a guy who plays tennis the way Fred Astaire danced, it's The Mighty Fed. The plain fact is that right now, Federer is still too busy dancing on the stars.
Navratilova decided that advancing age was no barrier to success in tennis, and she had the genes to back up her call. She broke the unspoken (and seemingly biologically determined) taboo against winning tennis matches and tournaments after the age of 40, and received a wild card into Wimbledon in 2004 at age 47 and eight months.
Okay, any lucky geezer could, theoretically, get a wild card into Wimbledon if he or she knew the right people. The difference is that Navratilova could still really compete at that level. She proved it when she won a match, routing Catalina Castano of Colombia, 6-0, 6-1. She lost to WTA newcomer Gisela Dulko in the next round, but took the match to three sets. She remains the oldest player of either sex to have won a match at Wimbledon in the Open era.
Federer is pretty good at breaking records, although that one appears safe—for now.
But the record Jimmy Connors holds with Ken Rosewall as the oldest man (at 39) to appear in a Grand Slam semifinal in the Open era? Not so safe.
It isn't Federer's talent that makes it seem like he may be re-defining longevity in the men's game, it's his attitude. He posted a straight-sets rubout of John Isner in the Indian Wells final yesterday, after which a reporter, presumably referring to the fact that Federer is still in the mix at the top, asked if people suffer from short-term memory loss:
"It's more the age that people always talk about right now. So I think that stands out to me. Some don't understand how you can play tennis at 30 years old, which is shocking to me, because normally that's still when you're young enough to play some of your best tennis. I think I'm showing that since I turned 30 in August last year. That's basically where my run began."
I wondered what Federer had been drinking in the locker room before he met with the press that made him say, ". . . normally, that's when you're young enough to play some of your best tennis."
So let's have a look at where some of the other great players were, on the form chart, in the months following their 30th birthdays, keeping in mind that Federer is No. 3 in the world and rapidly closing on the Top 2. He's 39-2 (with six titles, including the ATP World Tour Finals) since turning 30 a few weeks before the last U.S. Open.
John McEnroe: He was barely clinging to a spot in the Top 10 when he turned 30 in February, but he worked his way up to No. 4 in the ensuing months. He then suffered a dispiriting loss to Paul Haarhuis at the U.S. Open. McEnroe won three titles the year he turned 30, and two more in the following two years.
Ivan Lendl: The former No. 1 was ranked between Nos. 1 and 3 for the entire year after he turned 30 in February of 1990. He won titles at Toronto, Milan, Queen's Club, and Tokyo, but lost in the semis of Wimbledon to Stefan Edberg and the quarters of the U.S. Open to a young upstart whom he had helped mentor—Pete Sampras.
Pete Sampras: Shortly after turning 30 in August, he lost the U.S. Open final to Lletyon Hewitt. He had fallen to No. 10 in the rankings. By the time Indian Wells rolled around, Pete was down to No. 13. He would never get back into the Top 10 and struggled, sometimes mightily, before he capped his career with his final Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open—not long after turning 31.
Andre Agassi: He was No. 1 when he turned 30 in April of 2000, but his ranking began to fall in the months thereafter. By the end of 2000 he was down to No. 8, despite making it to the final of the season-ending championships (losing to Gustavo Kuerten). But Agassi would bounce back. He won the 2001 Australian Open and completed the bi-coastal U.S. double, winning Indian Wells and Miami. Agassi kept going strong until 35 (he was past that age when he won his last pro singles title at Los Angeles and made the U.S. Open final—losing to Federer). Agassi retired in 2006.
Jimmy Connors: What can you say about a guy who reached the U.S. Open semfinals at age 39? He was still in his competitive prime when he turned 30 during the 1982 U.S. Open, and happily battling McEnroe and Lendl—and winning more than his share of those confrontations.
I must admit, I was somewhat surprised by the longevity of Federer's rivals in the record books, which suggests that while the age of 30 undeniably is a milestone (by popular acclaim, if that's the right term), it isn't quite the turning point some make it out to be.
In fact, it appears that if anything, longevity is often talent-related, in which case Federer has every reason to set his sights on Jimbo's record, after which—who knows? You never know where those dancing shoes will take you.