It’s becoming clear that in the world of professional tennis at the moment, crossing the 30-year-old threshold is no longer a cue for retirement but a sign of greater success on court.
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A decade ago, Andre Agassi reaching the US Open final at 35 was an anomaly. In 2014, a feat like that would hardly raise an eyebrow.
There are three over-30 players in the top-15, led by Roger Federer, who at 33, is ranked No2 in the world, and it seems like competitors are getting a second wind in the latter stages of their careers. Spaniard David Ferrer, 32, lies comfortably at No10 while his countryman Feliciano Lopez has hit a career-high ranking of No14 this past season, also aged 33.
The trio are just a sample of tennis players who have brought some cool to the commonly-dreaded 30-and-over age bracket.
Lopez, a tall Madrileno with a booming serve, a beautiful grass court game and handsome looks that drove Andy Murray’s mother to nickname him ‘Deliciano’ is currently at the peak of his 17-year career and he’s raring to go higher.
A title in Eastbourne, a runner-up showing at Queen’s Club, and two semi-finals at ATP Masters 1000 events in Toronto and Shanghai made for an impressive second half of 2014 and a first appearance in the world’s top-10 is now within his reach.
He’s aware of how long he’s been around the tour, but he feels it is the experience he gained along the way that has helped him reach new heights this year.
“I was very fortunate that I didn’t have injuries during my career,” Lopez told Sport360º ahead of his debut match against Murray at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC) today (Thursday).
“I had such a long career, I started playing professionally very young, and I was very lucky in terms of injuries. Because this is the most important thing. You’ve seen many players who can’t play one whole year because they get injured quite often. I feel very fortunate in that regard.
“Obviously I knew I needed to be very strong, and I need to take care of my fitness part more maybe in order to extend my career because I’m getting old and there’s so many young players coming up.
“I think that I have more experience and I know how to manage situations on the court maybe a little bit better than I did when I was younger. A few things put together to make it possible.”
Lopez, a three-time Wimbledon quarter-finalist, has had little to no rest this offseason. After contesting 65 matches on tour in 2014, wrapping up his season in Paris-Bercy on October 30, the Spaniard was invited to the ATP World Tour Finals in London as a second alternate, following the withdrawals of Grigor Dimitrov, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Ernests Gulbis, who were all in line ahead of him for the spot but opted not to take it.
After London, he immediately flew to India, where he took part in the Champions Tennis League, an IPL-style pan-Indian team competition that visited six cities in the subcontinent. That ended on November 26 and Lopez quickly returned to Spain where he began his preparation training for 2015.
“Basically I didn’t have any time to rest,” admits Lopez. “It was almost like one season together with another.”
Many have questioned the players’ decision to take part in exhibition matches during the break between seasons, especially with them constantly complaining about the length and intensity of the tour calendar. Still, rest or no rest, Lopez stands by his choices this year.
“I think everybody can do their own thing,” he says. “For me it was a great chance. I didn’t know about going to London before, but at the end, three players ahead of me in the Race pulled out so they gave me the chance to be there. So, it was like a present. Because to take part in the Masters Cup (ATP Finals) for me was an unbelievable opportunity and I wanted to do it.
“But on the other hand, it was a week that I didn’t take off. I think everybody can do what they want. You have the chance to rest, you also have the chance of going to India.
“There aren’t so many players that have the chance to go to India. But for me, personally, it was a great experience.”
He says his training block in Marbella went well and as he enters 2015, he is eyeing a spot in the top-10 – an exclusive club he is yet to step into.
“I have a good chance to be in the top-10 in the first part of the season because I don’t have so many points to defend until June. But I don’t want to become obsessed with that,” states Lopez.
“It’s true that I have a great chance for the first time in my career to reach the top-10. I’m going to try my best to get there, but if I finish in the top-15 by the end of next year it’ll be a great season.”
One thing that will certainly make 2015 a great one for Lopez is his upcoming marriage to Spanish model Alba Carrillo. The pair are set to get married in July, which will prevent Lopez from representing Spain in their Davis Cup Group I second round.
Spain suffered a shock relegation from the World Group in 2014 and have since gone through turbulent times. The Spanish tennis federation replaced Carlos Moya with ex-WTA player Gala Leon as the new Davis Cup captain – a decision which sparked controversy, with many players challenging her credentials.
It fueled a sexism debate as well, which Spaniards, including Rafael Nadal, insisted was a false accusation. Lopez blames the federation for all the drama but believes it’s time to focus on the future and on getting Spain back into top-flight tennis.
“First of all we are united, all the players are together, which is the most important thing when you want to achieve something,” he says. “We think that the federation they haven’t been very honest with us, and the way they managed things and did a few things, in our point of view, was not the right way.
“That’s why we talked to them, and we told them already, and now it’s time to be together and get back to the World Group. We fought so much for our country, we gave our best always, and we’ve been very polite and honest with the federation, so we want the same from them.”
Making his MWTC debut
I’ve heard it’s a beautiful tournament. The players say that the organisers take care of the players really well.
The best players in the world are taking part and it’s a great opportunity for me to challenge them and be there for the first time, it’s exciting.
Facing Andy Murray, who leads him 9-0 head-to-head
He has very good hands, he returns really good, so players like him, I don’t really like playing against them.
Andy’s very talented and it’s always been difficult for me to play against him and hopefully in Abu Dhabi I can beat him for the first time. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s true that my record is so bad against him but there’s always a first time for everything.
What he’s most excited about doing in Abu Dhabi
I’m really excited that I’ll get to practice there in the sun because it’s been really cold in Madrid. So, I wish I could be there and enjoy the beautiful weather.