Arthurs and Bjorkman having a senior moment
Someone must have forgotten to tell Wayne Arthurs and Jonas Bjorkman the over-35 tournament begins next week. A combined 71 years old, the two players will clash in the third round of Wimbledon.
WIMBLEDON, England -- Wayne Arthurs had what you might call a senior moment after his second-round upset of Spain's Tommy Robredo, the No. 11 seed.
First, a couple of fellow Australians greeted him in front of the locker room with a personalized wheelchair. Then the 36-year-old Arthurs, the oldest man in Wimbledon's singles draw, couldn't remember striking his second and final match point when reporters quizzed him. For the record, it was a backhand winner scooped from his shoe tops.
At least Arthurs will get to pick on someone of his own vintage in the next round. Sweden's durable Jonas Bjorkman, a year younger than Arthurs, also advanced to set up a battle for the aged.
"I don't think we're allowed to play before Monday because the over-35 (tournament) doesn't start until next week,'' Arthurs joked. But it's clear he's been reinvigorated by his two triumphs in what he originally said would be his last appearance here. He hinted Thursday that he might reconsider.
It would be a mistake to lump the two men together based on birthdates. Bjorkman is the 19th seed here largely based on his scintillating trip to the Wimbledon semifinals last year. More recently, he reached the round of 16 at the French Open and cruised to the semifinals at the grass-court tune-up event in Nottingham last week.
The amiable Bjorkman, who works part-time with Aussie doubles legend Todd Woodbridge, said he'll keep playing as long as his ranking and his body stay healthy.
Ranked 195th, Arthurs had to come through qualifying to make the main draw in the tournament he said he holds dearest. He has some experience with that, having tried to qualify for a Grand Slam singles event 16 times before succeeding. He routinely gobbles anti-inflammatory medication for his various aches and pains, and a strained hip resulted in a scary incident in the only other event he's played this year.
A pain-killing injection caused Arthurs' right leg to go numb early in his third-round match against Mardy Fish at the Australian Open. Arthurs wept as he bid farewell to the crowd in his home Slam.
"I was probably close to calling it a day in Australia,'' he said. "It's just the circumstances weren't right for me. And coming back here was -- always been my favorite tournament, and it's been a good decision.''
Both Bjorkman and Arthurs are fathers of young children. The only Slam that Bjorkman missed between the 1993 U.S. Open and now was the 2003 Australian Open, which he skipped to be present for the birth of his son, Max.
The sight of Arthurs' 15-month-old daughter, Amber, helped him dig out of an impossibly deep hole in the first round here when wild card Thiemo De Bakker of the Netherlands had him down by two sets -- both tiebreaks -- and led 4-2 in the third.
"There was a moment where I actually saw my daughter and thought, she's going to be the only one that's sort of happy, no matter what happens, even though I wouldn't be happy, and it sort of calmed me down,'' Arthurs said. "It sort of got me through.''
They're also both top doubles players and are standard-bearers for the increasingly rare serve-and-volley game. Bjorkman said he thinks the style helps them overcome the age gap. "When we play our best tennis, it's still possible to beat these guys,'' he said, referring to younger players, which these days means just about everyone else in the field.
Martina Navratilova knows a thing or two about longevity in the game, having won her last title -- mixed doubles at the U.S. Open last year -- little more than a month before turning 50. She said playing serve-and-volley tennis is a double-edged sword.
"It's amazing they've been able to stay healthy, because it takes a lot more out of you coming to the net and putting the brakes on all the time, the stop-start is a lot more demanding,'' said Navratilova, who is working here as a commentator for the BBC. "It works for them in one way but not in another.''
She said she expects to see more players sticking around longer, not only in tennis but other sports as well. "Some players used to quit too early because they were supposed to,'' she said.
Navratilova adds: "At 30, you do start losing a little bit, but you gain so much in other ways you can make up for it. It's a trade off. Are you gaining more than you're losing? Can you live with what you're losing? We're living longer and the prime is longer, too. So much is mind over matter. The ball doesn't know how old you are.''
Arthurs' serve still earns him a tremendous number of free points and has enabled him to remain competitive; he won his first ATP singles title two years ago. He had an astounding 41 aces in his five-set match against De Bakker, and led all men through the second round with 55 (Gael Monfils of France was second with 52).
He didn't need to pull the trigger quite as much to defeat Robredo in straight sets, but said his feeling of urgency in each match is the same.
"You want to win so bad at the end of your career because it is the end of your career that it's hard to get yourself to do the things that you know you should be doing, and those are the two things that I struggled with so far,'' Arthurs said Thursday. "I was much better today, and hopefully it's going to be even better the next match.''
Bjorkman has won four of their six previous meetings -- including the final in Nottingham in 2002-- but they haven't played since 2004. They're the same age as many of the prominent retirees duking it out on Jim Courier's over-30 Outback Champions Tour and Courier said the door will be open to them when they're ready.
"I'm obviously very happy for those guys -- I played against them on the circuit and I'm very proud of them,'' said the 36-year-old Courier. "Most guys stop playing because they don't feel they can play at the top level or they just don't want to deal with the grind any more. You have to give credit to these guys for still being out there grinding.''
Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who is covering Wimbledon for ESPN.com.
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