Commentary

These old men anything but grumpy

Originally Published: June 30, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Lleyton Hewitt looked awfully spry when he surprised 20-year-old Juan Martin Del Potro in the third round here.

Afterward, Hewitt sounded old -- positively ancient -- talking about the cranky left hip that required surgery and cost him more than six months of playing time.

"It comes with age," Hewitt said. "You get a lot more niggles. You've just got to do the recovery. It seems like you've got to ice a lot more spots on your body these days than I had to eight, 10 years ago."

The 28-year-old Australian smiled; he's truly happy to be here. On Wednesday, Hewitt plays Andy Roddick in a Wimbledon quarterfinal, but he is hardly the only non-grumpy old man left in the elite eight. Thirty-one-year-old Tommy Haas plays Novak Djokovic, and Juan Carlos Ferrero, 29, meets Andy Murray.

Oh, and 30-year-old Ivo Karlovic takes on Wimbledon favorite Roger Federer.

In the condensed metrics of elite tennis, the competitive sweet spot for a male player is in the range of 22 to 26. After that, historically, there is a sharp drop-off, which makes their achievement even more impressive.

The three elders have won a combined 1,375 matches, 51 titles and more than $40 million in prizes; Hewitt and Ferrero were both once ranked No. 1, and Haas was No. 2. But even though they have competed in a collective 31 Wimbledon tournaments, not one of them will be favored. Haas, if he so chose, could the play senior tour right now. Ferrero is eligible next February, and Hewitt is only one year behind him.

Why does this year's Wimbledon event resemble an AARP meeting?

"I don't know why," Ferrero said. "Some tournaments happens some things like this, and you don't know why. I cannot answer that question really good."

Said Roddick -- who is a mere stripling at 26 -- "I'm happy to see guys like Juan Carlos get through, and Tommy. I mean, they've battled some serious injuries. To kind of get back there and get back deep into a major is good to see."

The most unlikely survivor is Spain's Ferrero, the aptly named "Mosquito." He won the 2003 French Open and was a top-5 player for three consecutive years (2001-03), but finished outside the top 50 for first time in a decade, since 1998, the year he turned pro. Ferrero, currently ranked No. 70, is the first wild card to reach the quarters here since 2001 champion Goran Ivanisevic.

"I would like to repeat what he did," Ferrero said. "But, of course, it's a little bit difficult yet to say. I'm pretty happy about the wild card, and about the game that I'm playing."

Haas is in his 13th season as a professional and healthier now than he's been in years. He missed the entire 2003 season after rotator cuff surgery, but nearly every part of his body has been visited by injuries -- including his shoulder, hip, back, elbow, ankle and even stomach. When the German is healthy, he is very, very good; he has finished at No. 12 or better five different times.

It's tough enough to win a major at any age, but when you hit 30, it's virtually impossible. The last 30-something male winner at Wimbledon? Arthur Ashe in 1975.

"Age is really just a number in many ways," Haas said. "But obviously, I know that I am 31. I have a little bit more miles in my legs than maybe some other players that are younger than me. Once you're out there, I think you leave that all behind and just go out there and compete and try to win."

Haas has been playing the best of the aging trio; he took Roger Federer to five sets at Roland Garros, and he won the Wimbledon warm-up tournament in Halle. Being forced to the sideline so many times, he said, gave him even more motivation to keep playing.

[+] EnlargeJuan Carlos Ferrero
Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty ImagesJuan Carlos Ferrero is a win away from reaching his first Wimbledon semifinal.

"If you would have told me maybe even two months ago that I was going to maybe get to the quarters of Wimbledon, I wasn't going to be that sure about it," Haas said. "This is so far a fantastic run, no matter what happens from here on out."

When his hip started aching last year, Hewitt kept grinding because that's his nature. He eventually gave in and had surgery. He finished outside the top 25 for the first time since his rookie season and failed to win a title for the first time in 11 years.

This is Hewitt's 15th career Grand Slam quarterfinal but his first in three years. In the fourth round, he suffered a thigh injury early and fell behind two sets to none before rallying to beat Radek Stepanek. Hewitt lost only five games in the final three sets.

"Right at the moment I'm just taking it match at a time," Hewitt said. "You go out there and you trust what you do. Yeah, that's why I've tried to play a lot more tournaments the start of this year to get back in that groove of playing a lot of matches.

"I've always been fit enough and hungry enough to keep fighting and that never-say-die attitude."

After undergoing surgery last August, Hewitt considered retirement.

"Playing with the pain that I was playing with, for six or seven months last year," he said. "It wasn't much fun going on the court and not feeling 100 percent. So it was in the back of my mind.

"It probably hit home more when the U.S. Open was on last year after I'd had surgery. I was sitting back at home, just twiddling my thumbs, changing nappies and stuff, not doing a whole lot. I was really missing being at the U.S. Open."

So Hewitt committed to the arduous rehab and, like Haas and Ferrero, lifted himself back into the game. Champions all, they still believe they can win at this level.

"Yeah, absolutely," Hewitt said. "There's been some patches this year where I've played extremely well. If draws open up and the body feels good, there's no reason why I can't put a bit of pressure on these guys."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.