Fabulous at 30: Cara Joins the Club

Tennis is often seen as a young woman's sport, but some players just seem to get better with age.

Published February 20, 2009 12:00

Fabulous at 30: Cara Joins the Club
Cara Black, Liezel Huber

LONDON, England - The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour's band of traveling thirtysomethings just keeps on expanding, with two esteemed graduates this week. Zimbabwe's Cara Black marked the milestone on February 17, to be joined by Frenchwoman Nathalie Dechy on February 21.

Both players have had cause for celebration of late. Former world No.11 Dechy reached the quarters of the singles at the Open GDF SUEZ in Paris last week; in January, the two-time US Open doubles champion won the Auckland doubles with Mara Santangelo, was runner-up in Sydney with Casey Dellacqua, and also made the final of the Australian Open mixed doubles, playing with Israel's Andy Ram.

Black and regular doubles partner Liezel Huber had a great week in the French capital too, winning the 23rd title of their illustrious partnership; now all that remains for the two is to convert that success to the claycourts of Roland Garros in June, and they'll have won all four Grand Slams together as well.

With 47 doubles titles to her name, Black celebrates her 30th birthday during her 85th consecutive week as the doubles No.1, a status she has shared with 32-year-old Huber for the past 67 weeks. In total, Black has held the top spot for 103 weeks in three separate stints stemming back to October 2005; she is just the fifth woman in Tour history to surpass the century mark, along with Martina Navratilova, Natasha Zvereva, Lisa Raymond and Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario.

These days Harare-born Black is famed as one of the world's best doubles players, but she won the 1997 junior Wimbledon and US Open titles, and on the Tour rose as high as No.31 in singles in 1999. Her sole singles title came at Waikoloa in 2002, but she was also runner-up at Auckland in 2000, has been a semifinalist a further four times and quarterfinalist 11 times. This week, of course, Black is more focused on trophies than birthday cakes, for she and Huber are the No.1 seeds in the doubles at the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships.

"Yes, it's the big 3-0 but the birthday celebrations will have to go on hold for a while," said Black, younger sister to former ATP touring pros Byron and Wayne. "My husband (former Australian Rules footballer Brett Stevens) might have something up his sleeve that he's planning. His birthday is in a couple of days too, so we usually have a joint celebration. I think we'll definitely do something after this week."

As it happens, though, the Dubai tournament's official players party was held on the evening of Black's birthday, giving many of her friends and colleagues a chance to pass on their congratulations.

Veterans With Va Va Voom

Of the current doubles Top 10 on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, seven are 30-plus: as well as Black and Huber - who has become a lynchpin of the US Fed Cup team since being granted a US passport in 2007 - there's Japan's Ai Sugiyama (No.3), who reached the final of the Australian Open a few weeks ago with Daniela Hantuchova; Lisa Raymond (No.5), Kveta Peschke (No.7), Virginia Ruano Pascual at No.8 and Rennae Stubbs at No.9. Between them they boast a truckload of major doubles crowns - and continue to prove that net reflexes and tactical smarts don't evaporate the minute the roaring twenties draw to a close.

Inevitably, though, speed and endurance fade, and with top-flight careers well underway in their teens and the game played at seemingly ever-increasing intensity, longevity at the very top in singles is a different proposition. The last time two 'thirtysomethings' contested the singles final of a Grand Slam was way back in 1986, when Chris Evert beat Navratilova to win the French Open (Evert was 31 at the time; Navratilova was in her 30th year but actually a few months shy of the actual date). Still, plenty of players continue to make breakthroughs in their autumn years on the Tour.

At the grand old age of 31, Thailand's Tamarine Tanasugarn reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon last year, while at the age of 33, Sugiyama remains very much in the thick of things, reaching the semis in Sydney last month, before giving Jelena Jankovic a real workout in the third round of the Australian Open. And then there's evergreen Patty Schynder, who turned 30 in December, at the end of a season in which she reached two Grand Slam quarterfinals - just as she had a decade earlier - and collected her eleventh career title at Bali.

Elsewhere, 34-year-old Jill Craybas continues to represent the US with distinction at Fed Cup, and at the age of 38, former world No.4 Kimiko Date Krumm is winning matches an incredible 12 years after she retired from the Tour.

And the prospects for the club are looking pretty good too: Amélie Mauresmo - who hits three decades in July - beat three Top 10 players on her way to capturing the 25th singles title of her career in Paris last Sunday, and if the Williams sisters and Elena Dementieva can keep up their current form for another two or three years, ladies of a certain age might once again be seen lifting major singles titles.

After all, Navratilova was 33 when she won the last of her 18 Grand Slam singles titles at Wimbledon in 1990 - and pushing 50 when she won the doubles at Montréal with Nadia Petrova, and the US Open mixed title with Bob Bryan to close out her career in 2006. But perhaps more realistic inspiration is to be found in the story of Jana Novotna - who was twice a runner-up before she finally won Wimbledon in 1998, just a few months shy of her 30th birthday.

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