We're human beings, and we'll take our encouragement where we can get it. So if an elegant tennis tournament in Paris wants to hint that we're still evolving against the scourge of aging, who are we to harrumph?
Long had we considered the idea of age 30 as a signal of tennis decrepitude, until about a year-and-change ago when that idea started to crumble.
Over the weekend at Roland Garros, it croaked.
By now, 30 counts as routine. It's unspectacular. Maybe 35 is the new 30.
It goes way beyond Serena Williams, 31, stretching her best-ever win streak to 28 by turning her first four foes into yard mulch, losing 10 games in eight sets. Not since the 1982 U.S. Open had a Grand Slam tournament hit its quarterfinals still carting along four men who had seen their 30th birthdays. Thirty-one years on, the 2013 French Open pulls up beside, with Roger Federer, David Ferrer, Tommy Haas and the historic Tommy Robredo all qualified for the quarters.
For much of the young century it seemed that to get that far at 30-plus, you had to be either Andre Agassi or some excellent novelty story. Agassi hit 30 in 2000 then went to an astonishing 14 more Slam quarterfinals, eight semis, four finals and two wins. Example of novelty: We all swooned in 2006 when Jonas Bjorkman reached the Wimbledon semifinals at 34. We all swooned because we all should have swooned. It achieved coolness that an admirable sort like Bjorkman fought his way to that moment.
It just didn't happen all that regularly. Across the 40 men's Grand Slams of the last 10 years, the first 35 featured 19 Slams with zero 30-year-old quarterfinalists, 14 with one and only two with two, both at Wimbledon, which made sense under the old aging guidelines, Wimbledon being easier on decrepit bodies.
Well, the last five have gone two, three, two, two and four.
Of course, it did help that Federer turned 30 in August 2011. The onset of that prompted some people to anticipate his decline, and that prompted Federer to bristle that some people anticipated his decline. His decline has not come. If he remains a level off his form of the middle of last decade -- the best form most anybody ever saw -- that does not count as a decline. That counts as microscopically slight fade.
Clearly it is against the law in four countries -- Australia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States -- to stage quarterfinals without Federer. It probably violates zoning ordinances. It might be akin to smoking indoors, or worse. When he whooshed from two-sets-to-one down to beat Gilles Simon on Sunday in an all-France fourth-round match -- oh, sorry, a Switzerland-France fourth-round match -- it pushed Federer into his 36th consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal. The last time he did not reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal, the winner of the tournament was Gaston Gaudio. If you knew that, you might be as nuts as I am.
Further, did you know that David Ferrer turned 30, some time ago? That happened in April 2012, and Mr. Ferrer has been the kind of exemplary 30-something who might make us all grunt harder at the gym. When he whisked through the South African Kevin Anderson on Sunday, he made his sixth straight Slam quarterfinal, surpassing the total (five) he made in the 36 Slams before that. If you want to get more technical about it -- and I do -- he has reached the fourth round 12 times in a row, astounding consistency given what's out there on the courts threatening to waylay you.
What happened on the weekend in Paris, though, surpassed Federer, Ferrer and our prior expectations of people over 30.
Robredo, who famously (or not) slipped to No. 471 in the world last year and missed five months with an uncooperative hamstring, just completed something that hadn't been done since 1927. He became the first man since Henri Cochet 86 years ago to win three straight matches from two sets behind. Against Gael Monfils, he saved four match points. Against Nicolas Almagro, he trailed by two sets and by 4-1 in the third. There was a time -- and we all remember it -- when all that grit on clay would have seemed beyond a 31-year-old body savaged by hitting balls between lines ever since childhood.
In this fitness age, that time is no more.
What Haas did, though, might count as the new novelty. After all, he's 35. And at 35, it took Haas 13 match points to complete the four-hour, 37-minute, third-round strife with the American John Isner. How would most people react to the unsuccessful pursuit of 12 match points to bring about a 10-8 fifth set? I'm not sure, but I would want my options to include euthanasia. A man of many career comebacks -- sheesh, he reached an Australian Open semifinal last century -- Haas fought on through even from a 4-1 deficit in the fifth.
Someone asked how.
"I don't know," Haas said.
Using our new definitions, we could say it did help him to be so young.