Tennis serves lesson for the ages

August 31, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW YORK -- Stefan Edberg is old, quite a feat considering that his 29th birthday is five months away. It is a cautionary tale for anyone aspiring to earn a living playing tennis.

Three years ago, Edberg was No. 1 in the world. Two years ago, he won his second straight U.S. Open. Today, at 28, he is old. Still plenty good, one of the world's top players, but very much an old pro. Fighting creaks and doubts. Sounding a lot like someone on the way down, however gradually.

What happened to his professional middle age? Simple, he didn't have one. Men's tennis players don't anymore.

In a sporting age when baseball and football players chase big dollars well into their 30s and golfers don't begin reaching their primes until their temples go gray, tennis has become fiercely unforgiving of age.

"When you're 24, 25, 26, that's the best time of your career," Edberg, the father of a 1-year-old and the fifth seed in the Open this year, said after beating Lars Jonsson in a first-round match yesterday. "It's just nature. Tennis is a game where most of the work is done with your legs. Once your legs go, you're finished in this game."

Finished at 30? It was not always thus. Rod Laver won a Grand Slam at 31 a quarter-century ago. Ken Rosewall won the Open at 36 the next year. Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon at 32 in 1975. Their experience mattered.

But in the past two decades, as the sport has turned to oversized rackets, never-ending seasons and globetrotting schedules, experience has become almost a shortcoming in the face of youthful energy and spirit. The fuse on the average career has grown shorter. As younger and younger players find themselves financially set for life and under more and more pressure to produce, they burn out in a hurry.

It's a kid's game now -- and probably forever. Check it out: Only one of the past 46 men's Grand Slam titles has been won by a player who was 30 or older. (Andres Gomez, 1990 French Open.) It's to the point where oldies aren't even playing anymore, much less winning. Of the 128 players in this men's Open draw, only five are 30 or older.

"There's a lot of young guys out there," Edberg said.

The women's game is similarly lacking in age wrinkles -- the vast majority of the top players are 25 or younger -- but it is a distinctly more forgiving place. Chris Evert was a champion into her 30s, as was Martina Navratilova. Three of the four semifinalists at Wimbledon this year were 30-plus. That will never happen again in men's tennis.

Jimmy Connors was the exception, a street fighter who stayed relevant until he was 40 because he was mentally tougher than everyone he played. But Connors was a genetic freak among today's players.

"The tour just gets younger and younger," Edberg said. "Players are peaking earlier and earlier."

That's not to say that Edberg is washed up at 28. He could win his third Open in four years here, particularly now that Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic are out. He is lean and fit, a portrait of freshness. His elegant serve-and-volley game is operating smoothly again after a slump in 1993. "I've been playing good tennis lately," he said.

But his more distant future is where the ill winds blow. He was ranked No. 1 in 1990 and 1991, No. 2 in 1992, No. 5 in 1993, probably No. 5 again this year. It is impossible not to see what is happening: The same thing that happened to Ivan Lendl and is happening now to Boris Becker. A slow tumble, almost imperceptible at first, but relentless.

"Recovery time is where you begin to have a problem," said Edberg, who has twice won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. "We play almost year-round now, every day, so you just don't have time to recover from injuries. Or from playing so much. That's what gives you trouble as you get older. That and the mental part of the game. Staying tough. That is very hard."

He acknowledges all of this casually, not the least bit defensively. Here, clearly, is the antithesis of the average American athlete resisting age as though it were death itself.

"You can't stay No. 1 forever," Edberg said recently. "Other people come along. I'm still OK. I'm still out there."

A reporter asked him yesterday if there was anything left that he wanted to do that he had not accomplished. He smiled. It was a question for an old man. That's what tennis has made him: An old man at 28.

"I still want to win tournaments," he said. "That's what I play for. I feel I have another Grand Slam win in me."

Maybe so. But he had better hurry.

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