Age shall not weary the over 35s who won hearts, grand slam trophies and big prize money at the 2024 Australian Open, writes Senior Correspondent Mike Osborne
Australian Open champion Jannik Sinner and two-time grand slam winner Carlos Alcaraz may be the fresh young faces of tennis but the sport’s older generation are still smashing winners and barriers.
While 22-year-old Italian Sinner and Spain’s baby-faced 20-year-old Alcaraz are poised to take over from the big three legends Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, the Australian Open also proved a very happy hunting ground for over-35 champions.
The men’s doubles at Melbourne Park was won by Australia’s Matt Ebden, aged 36, and his 43-year-old partner Rohan Bopanna, who is now the world’s number one doubles player.
Likewise in the women’s doubles, Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei, aged 38, teamed with Belgian Elise Mertens, her junior by a decade, to take out the Australian Open title. The women and men doubles champions individually pocketed $365,000 in prize money for the victories.
Hsieh collected two titles in Melbourne by also winning the mixed doubles with Polish partner Jan Zielinksi, who is 11 years younger. While prize money for the mixed double is a lot less, they still earned $82,500 each for their impressive efforts.
The almost-40s also want it to be known that they aren’t ready to hand over all the silverware to the next generation just yet. Roger Federer won his last grand slam at the age of 36 while Rafa Nadal is still chasing titles aged 37. And of course 10-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic, who lost to Sinner in the semi-finals this year, is at 36 considered the greatest of all time and still wants more.
“I still have high hopes, you know, for other slams, Olympics. It’s just the beginning of the season,” the world No.1 said after bowing out in Melbourne.
”The fire is still burning. I think that’s what allowed me to be where I am and achieve the things that I have achieved.
“At the end of the day, I’m not playing anymore because I need more money or I need more points or whatever. I just want to play. I really enjoy the competition. The drive is there.
“I feel while being No.1 and still on top of the game, I don’t feel like leaving tennis in that position. When I feel that I am not able to compete at the highest level with the guys and be a contender for a Grand Slam title, then I’ll probably consider going into retirement.”
Likewise Bopanna, India’s doubles dynamo, believes he is playing the best tennis of his life aged 43.
“As long as I’m enjoying and playing my best tennis, I don’t see there is any reason to really stop at the moment,” he said, adding that the key was managing his ageing body.
“I think the recovery is a huge aspect of where I’m really focusing … there are days when I tell my coach that I don’t want to practise.
“From the first day I landed here (in Australia), every single day I have been in the ice bath. I think that is a number one recovery for me, which really helps all the inflammation in the body.
“I have stopped going to the gym. I really do specific kinds of work for my body. I do a lot of yoga.”
Taiwan’s Hsieh at 38 is also focusing on maintaining her physical health to ensure her longevity in the game, giving up singles because she doesn’t want it to impact her doubles triumphs and earning capacity.
“I’m still thinking the doubles is really fun, and I have a great partner, I want to enjoy more in tennis, not to get an injury and retire,” she said.
“So I try to slow down and play less tournaments and try to manage the fitness and (hope) the body will be more healthy on the court.”
Bopanna’s doubles partner Ebden – who is on target to play doubles for Australia at the Paris Olympics and possibly mixed doubles with Storm Hunter – says some of the younger guns are “ageist” and critical of the “old men” of the tour.
“I have the oldest partner on the tour,” says Ebden. “Guys say: ‘Oh, he’s so old, too old’. I’m like: ‘Watch how the guy plays tennis.’ What does age have to do with it? He’ll inspire whole Indian generations.”
Being a mature-age hero in the world’s most populous country does bring some benefits for Bopanna, who’s mates with India’s cricketing icon Sachin Tendulkar.
“I think it’s always nice when you, you know, receive congratulatory messages from another legend,” Bopanna said after the 50-year-old Tendulkar congratulated him on his AO doubles victory.
“I think it’s amazing that he follows tennis for a long, long time. He’s a dear friend. I met him a bunch of times. Had dinner with him a couple of times. I’m really happy and thankful for that message.”
Michael Osborne has been a journalist for more than four decades including 35 years with the national news agency Australian Associated Press, rising from junior reporter to Editor.
He was AAP Editor for 11 years and served four years as Head of Sport and Racing. He was also posted to London and Beijing as AAP’s Bureau Chief and Foreign Correspondent.