Old Boys, Old Girls

When Jimmy Connors, at the age of 39, chuntered and ranted his way to the semi-finals of the 1991 US Open, it was an authentic cultural event. Writers and filmmakers continue to lionise Connors’s run to this day, describing it variously as an “improbable,” “unforgettable,” “indelible” rebuke to the dying of the light. Ken Rosewall’s victory at 37 at the 1972 Australian Open was so remarkable he felt almost embarrassed by the achievement. “It’s not good for tennis generally for me to still be winning,” he said at the time.

Survey the schedule for the quarter-finals at Wimbledon this year and it’s plain that the nimble early middle-aged no longer have the capacity to amaze in tennis. Novak Djokovic, the 30-year-old world number two, played Sam Querrey, 29, but the players’ ages drew little, if any, comment. Everyone got excited about 34-year-old Gilles Muller’s run to the quarters, but it was a shallow rush, quickly dissipated, and probably had more to do with the novel spectacle of the spaghetti-limbed, balding, dour Muller — a 1940s gendarme miscast as an athlete in the early 21st century — playing and winning professional tennis matches than any wonderment at his defiance of the ravages of time. Roger Federer, whose stretching of the possibilities of the sport deep into his 30s long ago ceased to be an object of marvel, sailed into the semis, then the final, unperturbed. Venus Williams, who with her sister has done for the women’s game what Federer has done for the men’s, did much the same.

Tennis — the sport Bjorn Borg quit at 26, which refused to yield a major for John McEnroe past the age of 25 or Martina Hingis past 18, and from which Pete Sampras dragged his dadbod into retirement at 31 — is no longer the domain of young men and women; it’s a place for old boys and girls. It’s no overstatement to say that Querrey, at an age when previous generations of tennis professionals were already arranging their plot on the retirement pasture, has his best tennis years ahead of him. Stan Wawrinka’s career didn’t get going until he hit 29. Federer, a player much of the tennis-watching public would probably be happy to see dominate the men’s game for another decade, has committed to playing to the age of 38 at least. And Hingis, of course, remains a happy, grimacing presence on the extended buddies’ tour that is the professional doubles circuit.

Why do these players bother? Money, travel, fame, the adulation of the crowd: these are all plausible explanations. Quite possibly there are no better options. If you’re a retired tennis player, what do you do with the rest of your life? For Andre Agassi, the answer has been: establish a national network of foundation schools for underprivileged children. For most other players, it’s: keep playing tennis. The champions tour offers a year-round glimpse into tennis’s recent and less recent past, Grosjeans and Philippoussises and Henmans and Haarhuises monkeying for sparse, nostalgic crowds on a loop extending to death. For players still able to hold their own among the pros, it’s not hard to see why resistance to joining this exhibition of the senescents may be acute.

The extension of childhood deep into the fourth decade of life is not exclusive to tennis, of course. If Donald Trump can describe his 39-year-old son as a “young man,” Roger Federer, at 35, is barely out of his teens. Tennis careers are lengthening at the precise moment in which whole generations of thirtysomethings in the developed world, unable to afford to buy property and dependent to varying degrees on their parents, are finding themselves locked in a permanent pre-adulthood. Though millionaire tennis professionals have a vastly different experience of this permadolescence than the paycheck-to-paycheck rental hordes, they’re both animals of the same species, taking decades to find themselves and explore their potential in a reality unchained from debt by either extreme wealth (for the tennis pros) or extreme distance from wealth (for the rest of us). A culture which, from the 1970s onwards, turned the precocious, hyper-articulate toddler into a sitcom trope now finds itself with a glut of nominal adults who are still, essentially, children. (Full disclosure: I’m one of them.) This is no bad thing. After all, who among us really wants to grow up? We’re all caught in a personal Bildungsroman that refuses to stop bildung.

In his tennis old age Rosewall — taciturn, self-effacing, boringly responsible — acted like an adult, whatever the fundamental silliness of his gagne-pain (chasing balls around a court for a living; how ridiculous). Connors played his late career revival differently, in the style of a revanchist David Lee Roth tribute act, but the routine was only compelling because Connors knew his time was up; it was an isolated insurrection against the laws of nature, not the start of a generational shift in attitudes to aging and responsibility. The permadolescents of today’s ATP tour, on the other hand, dress, talk, and act as if they are still children.

No one better expresses the new middle-aged adolescence — a coming of age that keeps coming — than Tommy Haas, whose career is synonymous with unrealized potential — the necessary condition of pre-adulthood. Nous sommes tous Tommy Haas? Maybe not, but it’s not far off. Haas’s childhood idol was Thomas Muster, a man who quit the game at 31. But at the age of 39, Haas himself is still finding his way, still chasing after fluorescent balls in a hot pink t-shirt every day. Haas competed in the first round at Wimbledon on a wildcard. He lost in four sets, to the surprise of no one; the match went mostly unremarked.

Haas’s best days as a player came 15 years ago, at the 2002 Australian Open. His round of 16 match against Roger Federer in that tournament is worth watching again, and spending some time on here. By the start of 2002, the Sampras-Agassi twilight had set over the men’s game but no young player had managed to stamp the dawning era as his own. The Australian Open that year had an exploratory, interstitial feel to it, and even the reigning number one — home-country hero Lleyton Hewitt — seemed a mere placeholder in the top spot. Federer, then 20, and Haas, 23, were two of the most promising members of the new generation; their meeting in the fourth round at Melbourne Park had the allure of an early skirmish in the post-Sampras-Agassi wars of succession.

Courts were appreciably faster then, favoring the mix of baseline power-hitting and rushing net-play of which both Federer and Haas were enterprising practitioners. Compared to the attritional muscle game of today’s titans — the Djokovic-Murray axis — Federer-Haas 2002 skips along with the lean grace of a Preston Sturges comedy. Prowling the court in a slick, billowing black shirt and ponytail, Federer — this Swiss Steven Seagal, the authentic period costume obsessions of his middle years still a sporting eon away — spends the first set snarling and throwing rackets and meeting fault calls on his service games with sarcastic “Yeah, rights.” Many of his shots strafe the lines just wide or just long. Federer was still, at 20, around three centimeters away from the player he would eventually become; the Ozymandian sneer was in place but the cold command was yet to come.

Haas, by contrast, whistles at the change of ends, sings to himself between points, and plays with his sleeves rolled up. What there is in his game: a patissier’s daintiness as he constructs points with fine, fizzing slice backhands; a hunchy, beavering intensity; ambition, as he mixes reachy drop-shots and improbable passes; power, as he repeatedly finishes Federer off with the marshal strop of a backhand down the line or a forehand cranked across court; simple enjoyment of the game. What there isn’t in his game: complexity; torment; the mewlings of a dark genius struggling to break free. He’s every inch a Tommy, not a Thomas or even a Tom: genial, untroubled, boyish. If Federer hadn’t been called Roger his parents would have had to find some equally serious-sounding name for him; Cornelius, perhaps, or Willhelm or Manfred. But Haas could only ever be a Tommy.

Haas coasts through a tiebreaker to claim the first set, then both players have a costume change before reappearing for the second and third sets in matching oxblood shirts. Federer and Haas, both at the beginning of their professional careers, both ponytailed, both in the same color shirts: Haas goes on to win the match in five sets, but from this moment his career will diverge sharply from the path laid out for his opponent. Federer is on his way to being the greatest player of all time, Haas on the road to becoming a perpetual “if only.” To adapt a line T.S. Eliot once used to describe Jean Cocteau, Federer plays brilliantly that night but seems to be rehearsing for a more important occasion. Haas plays brilliantly — and again in the quarter-finals, when he overcomes Marcelo Rios, and again in the semis, when he succumbs in five sets to Marat Safin at his gangster roll peak — but spends the next 15 years attempting to recreate the act.

This is no knock on Haas; not for nothing has he been called the unluckiest player of his generation. A few months after his meeting with the future GOAT in Melbourne he’ll reach the rank of number two in the world, but from that moment it’s all downhill. First his parents have a serious car accident and he takes months off from the game to look after them. Then, on his comeback later in 2002, he suffers a shoulder injury which keeps him out of action for 16 months. Then, back on the tour, he breaks his ankle; he breaks it again; his shoulder requires further surgery; his body keeps breaking down. He has a decent run in 2007 and returns to the top 10, but injuries intervene once more. 2009 is another good year but a hip operation in 2010 keeps him on the sidelines for 14 months. 2012 is the final year of resurgence, victory over Federer in the final at Halle its crowning achievement, and then, from 2013, the long farewell to professional tennis begins — a farewell that should end, so Haas tells us, some time this year.

As the years accumulate, the possibilities recede. But Haas, just as much as Federer, was the future once. That this generous talent never quite made it to the very top of the sport is no fault of his own. That he has kept chasing the dream deep into his fourth decade, however, makes him a dutiful Ferdydurke for infantilised times. Adolescence stretches to the horizon; adults are becoming extinct; hope and nostalgia mingle into one. Haas may not be his generation’s best player, but he is the most emblematic — a monument to what might have been, and what we might all still, idealistically, unrealistically, become.