Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 26, 2017

Turning Back The Clock Down Under

Like most sports tennis at the professional level is a young person’s game. So it’s really no surprise that the winner of the women’s singles title at the U.S. Open was a precocious 17-year old, or that the Wimbledon championships went to a 20-year old woman and a 21-year old man. Nor was it shocking that the victor among the men on the French Open’s clay courts was another teenager who turned 19 just a couple of days before clinching the championship. Of course, that was the 1999 U.S. Open, the 2000 and 2003 tournaments at the All-England Club, and the 2005 French.

Those were the tournaments at which Serena and Venus Williams, Roger Federer, and finally Rafael Nadal each won their first Grand Slam title. The days when the word precocious would be used to describe any of them have long since passed, yet after an amazing fortnight of play on the other side of the world, the Williams sisters and Federer are finalists at this year’s first major, the Australian Open; and while most of America sleeps Thursday night Nadal will face Grigor Dimitrov in the tournament’s remaining semifinal for the chance to join them. If he wins tennis fans will see something exceedingly rare – a Grand Slam event in which all four finalists are in their thirties.

If Nadal completes the foursome the Australian Open finalists will have a combined total of 60 Grand Slam titles, with the number certain to rise to 62 by the tournament’s end. But despite that gaudy record, and the certainty that all four players will find themselves in the Hall of Fame once their playing careers are over, their presence this deep in the bracket ranks between a surprise and a complete shock.

With 22 Grand Slam titles including Wimbledon last year, and six separate stints as the top ranked woman player, Serena Williams earning a spot in the finals was the best bet of the four. But even it was no certainty. After an upset loss to Karolina Pliskova in last year’s U.S. Open semifinals Williams took an extended break to nurse an injured shoulder back to health. She went four months without playing a competitive match, and abandoned both practice and training for much of that time. Not surprisingly the 35-year old looked rusty upon her return at a tournament in New Zealand earlier this month, where she lost in the second round. But in Melbourne she has yet to drop a set or even be forced to a tiebreaker. If she beats her sister in the final she will reclaim the number one ranking from Angelique Kerber.

If many fans foresaw Serena making it to the finals, virtually none would have predicted a match against her older sister. At age 36, Venus Williams became the oldest Australian Open singles finalist in the Open Era when she defeated fellow American CoCo Vandeweghe in Thursday’s first semifinal, 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-3. With 7 major titles of her own Venus’s career has had plenty of high points, but few of those have been recent. An autoimmune disorder that was initially diagnosed in 2011 sapped her strength and limited her ability to compete. She fell out of the top 100 in the rankings and as she moved into her thirties fans understandably began to assume that her career was essentially over.

But Venus refused to quit, fighting through both the diagnosis of Sjogen’s syndrome and other injuries. She returned to the winner’s circle in 2014, then added three more victories in 2015 and one last year. For the last two weeks she has played like the 26-year old Venus rather than the decade older version that she really is. Now she is into a Grand Slam final for the first time since 2009. The two have met 27 times, and while Serena holds a 16-11 edge overall, Venus could pull even with her sister at 9-9 on hard courts if she scores an upset victory.

On the men’s side Roger Federer’s run to the finals has been every bit as stunning as Venus Williams’s in the women’s draw. The Swiss master, owner of 17 Grand Slam titles, hadn’t played since Wimbledon. He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and suffered a back injury early in the 2016 season, then came back too soon from both. At age 35 and after months of rehabilitation, fans had every reason to doubt that Federer would play deep into his first tournament back.

Seeded a lowly 17th, Federer was certainly helped when top seed Andy Murray was bounced in the fourth round, opening up his side of the draw. Still he had to defeat 10th seed Tomas Berdych, 5th seed Kei Nishikori and 4th seed and fellow countryman Stan Wawrinka to reach the finals. When a Wawrinka backhand sailed just long to give Federer a 7-5, 6-3, 1-6, 4-6, 6-3 victory after more than three hours on Thursday, the winner looked as much relieved as triumphant. Federer is the oldest man to reach a Grand Slam final in more than four decades, since 39-year old Ken Rosewall at the 1974 U.S. Open.

Soon enough Federer will know whether he’s to face Dimitrov, a 25-year old Bulgarian, or his old rival Nadal. The Spaniard, seeded 9th, is on his own path back from a long period of injury and doubt. He missed a large chunk of the 2014 season with a wrist injury, and then struggled with his form in 2015. His fourth round U.S. Open loss was his best Grand Slam performance in 2016, making it easily his worst year at the majors in more than a decade. But now he is through to the Australian Open semifinals, where he is the favorite against the 15th seed Dimitrov.

Should Nadal win tonight, the finals at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne Park will feature four future Hall of Famers with scores of Grand Slam titles, each of whom has been ranked number one in the world. It will also feature four players that in a young person’s game border on being ancient. But against long odds, the stars have aligned at the Australian Open. So don’t anyone tell Serena, Venus, Roger or Rafa that they are someplace where they don’t belong.

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