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.
– Writers' choice: A year of epic encounters and feelgood finals
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.
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He gets knocked down and he gets up again. Those aren’t just the lyrics to Chumbawamba’s 1990s hit ‘Tubthumping’ but a
reference to Rafael Nadal’s constant battle with his own body.
Scattered between the 14 grand slams he’s collected over the past nine years are a stream of injuries suffered by the Spaniard,
each of which has prompted him to launch one successful comeback after the other.
Since his breakthrough French Open victory in 2005, the 28-year-old has been forced to miss five majors as well as the London 2012 Olympics due to injury.
In 2014, he sustained a back problem at the Australian Open in January, injured his right wrist to miss the US Open in August, and ended his season by having an appendectomy in November.
His doctor Angel Ruiz-Cotorro later revealed that Nadal was to receive stem cell treatment on his spine, in an attempt to put his back troubles to rest.
With Nadal set to open his 2015 campaign at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi on Friday, the world awaits
yet another resurgence from the Mallorcan.
“I did a lot of treatment on my back since Australia last year,” Nadal told Sport360.
“Some worked for a few weeks, other ones for a little bit longer… one didn’t work. We always tried to fix the things we need to fix to be competing at 100 per cent.
“In general, the feeling physically is okay and I hope to be ready to compete well in Abu Dhabi and Doha and Australia.”
Nadal’s doctor explained last month that he was about to place stem cells in a joint his spine to regenerate cartilage and produce
an anti-inflammatory effect. And while the world No3 is believed to have received the treatment already, he refused to confirm it or discuss it in any detail.
“To talk about that you have to talk to the doctor. Because I am not ready to talk about these kind of things as I don’t have the whole information,” he explains.
“I had different treatments on my back and I am not able to talk about all of them as I don’t have the information on all of them.
They were done with different doctors and sometimes it worked well and sometimes not. And in the case of my back, it was tough to find the real thing that helped me, and I hope that the last one would be a positive one.”
Nadal concedes that 2014 was a tough year for him, but it is one he still considers a success having captured four titles including a ninth French Open crown, along with an appearance in the Australian Open final.
“It wasn’t a negative season in terms of all results, it was a negative season in terms of mentality because it was hard for me to
accept that I wasn’t able to compete for the whole year,” he adds.
Despite the mental challenge last season posed, Nadal does not allow his physical issues to overwhelm him.
He says: “I’m a very happy guy. I have a great family around me, a lot of friends, and in Mallorca I enjoy the family, friends and I
enjoy the life. I’m not thinking about my injuries every minute.
“I’m thinking about all the positive things and how lucky I am to be where I am and all the things that life gives me. Many people are in a much more negative condition than me. So I’m happy and I can just say thanks to life for all it’s given me.”
One more thing life can give him in 2015 is a mind-boggling 10th French Open title.
Nadal’s nine triumphs at Roland Garros is already a record, but there’s no denying that reaching double digits at a single event in singles is a special feat – one that no man has ever achieved and which only one woman, Margaret Court, has managed to accomplish (she won 11 Australian Opens in the ‘60s and ‘70s) in the history of the sport.
But chasing history does not appear to be on Nadal’s priority list.
“For me the 10th isn’t more important than the ninth, than the eighth, than the seventh or than the sixth. Seriously no. It doesn’t matter. Nine is a great number. I love the number nine. It’s not a pressure for me to try and win the 10th. I don’t see this extra
pressure for the 10th,” he asserts.
He also sees the recent maiden grand slam victories of Marin Cilic and Stan Wawrinka, along with the rise of players like Milos
Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov, as a natural and inevitable process.
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Last year saw some new faces reach the finals of the bigger tournaments and many feel that 2015 season could be the most competitive in recent years.
“It’s always been competitive but the real thing is that Roger (Federer) is 33, I’m 28, Novak (Djokovic) is 27, Andy (Murray) is 27,
so we’re not going to be here forever,” Nadal said.
“The new generation wants to win tournaments too and that’s the real thing. It’s natural. During all these years in the history
of tennis, the same thing has happened. Nobody is there forever.”
While the rivals he has mentioned have all added to their teams ex-champions in the form of new coaches over the past few seasons (Murray hired Ivan Lendl then Amelie Mauresmo, Federer is working with Stefan Edberg while Djokovic has Boris Becker) Nadal has stuck to his familiar formula, being coached by his uncle Toni.
Asked if he sees himself making any changes in the near future, especially with Toni spending more and more time coaching his
own children, Nadal said: “I never changed anything in my team during the whole of my career and that’s going to be the case for the next couple of years probably.”
And his biggest goal for 2015? “To be happy,” he quickly responds. “I have much more than I ever dreamed to have in terms of career, in terms of life. Tennis is a very crucial part of my life today but life is much more important than tennis in general.”
On why he keeps coming back to MWTC
"It’s the perfect place to start the season. It guarantees that I’ll play two matches and that’s important for me and I’ll see if that year can start, after a long time without competing, can start well and I’m sure that these two matches in Abu Dhabi will be very positive for my preparation."
On what he would borrow from his fellow MWTC players
Novak Djokovic – Backhand
Stan Wawrinka – The powerful shots, and backhand
Andy Murray – The control of the ball
Feliciano Lopez – Serve
Nicolas Almagro – Backhand
Andy Murray conceded his humiliating exit from the ATP Tour Finals was a suitably downbeat way to end one of the most difficult years of his career.
Murray's hopes of salvaging a frustrating campaign by winning the prestigious season-ending event for the first time were shattered as Roger Federer thrashed the Scot 6-0, 6-1 to hand him the joint worst defeat of his career.
The 27-year-old's second defeat from his three group matches was more than enough to condemn him to a premature exit from London's O2 Arena and bring the curtain down on an 11-month tale of woe.
Only once before, against Novak Djokovic in Miami in 2007, had Murray taken such a beating, and on that occasion he had the excuse of being less than 100 percent fit.
To his credit, Murray refused to play the blame game after being blown away in 56 minutes by Federer.
"It's very disappointing. I would have hoped to have done a lot better but when he's extremely loose like he was tonight he was able to try some shots he might not in other situations. Everything he tried came off. He has the ability to do that," Murray said.
"After tonight it's quite clear I'm quite a long way from that level. I won't be able to tell you if it's affected my confidence until I start the new year. But it's not a nice way to finish the year.
"I know I'm going to have to put a lot of work on the tennis court, a lot of work on my game, if I want to start the season with an opportunity to win in Australia."
An emotional season had clearly taken its toll on Murray.
He had battled a longer than expected recovery from last year's back surgery, suffered a surprise split with coach Ivan Lendl, then controversially hired former women's number one Amelie Mauresmo, lost his Wimbledon title in tame fashion and briefly fell out of the top 10 for the first time in six years.
Even after winning three low-key tournaments in the last six weeks in a successful bid to qualify for the Tour Finals, he still finished the year without a win against Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
He knows that record will have to improve dramatically if 2015 is to be more fulfilling.
"The first three or four months were hard. Going through surgery isn't easy. Maybe I didn't appreciate that so much at the time. I found it quite frustrating at the beginning of the year," Murray said.
"Obviously in the middle of that period I switched coaches and stopped working with Ivan. It was a difficult time.
"Then after that I had a couple of tough losses at the French Open and Wimbledon when I didn't play well. Tonight is another example of that.
"Mixed in with those matches was some good tennis. The last six weeks were good but yeah it's been a hard year."
The pain of being embarrassed by Federer on home ground will linger throughout the off-season and Murray, who failed to reach a Grand Slam final this year, made it clear he is determined to use that angst to fuel his bid to return to peak form.
"I'm not going to try and forget about it. When I think about what happened I'll try and use it positively, as motivation for the off-season, to make some changes to things," he said.
"I would normally take a break now but I also need time to work on things. I'll try to get back on the practice court sooner than I would have done.
"A lot can change in tennis in a matter of weeks and months.
"I'm not happy to finish the year with that result but over five sets I tend to play better tennis and I hope come Australia I'm a much better player."