January 7, 2017 5:39:23 am
Lying in the shadow of the centre court, courts one and two of the SDAT Tennis Stadium are meant for matches of lesser significance. The marquee players take centre-stage at the Chennai Open, while qualifiers and lower-ranked contestants are pushed to the fringe.
A certain Mikhail Youzhny toils on those outer courts. He’s ranked 57 in the world right now, still has the technical skills that once took him to number 8. The one-handed backhand — powerfully driving the ball towards any corner of the court — still leaves the audience in awe.
A few days earlier, another former world number 8 Jurgen Melzer, now 35, started the tournament in the qualifying rounds — a level well below his stature. He’s currently ranked 307 because of a long injury layoff, but was once a semi-finalist at the French Open.
“That’s just how the game is. You have to go through those stages. There’s nothing for free,” says the Austrian.
It begs the question, what keeps veterans like Youzhny and Melzer, who have played in the biggest arenas in the sport, motivated enough to play in lesser tournaments – with half-empty stands. Especially since one of the competition’s local favourites, Somdev Devvarman, announced his retirement at 31 due to diminished hunger to continue.
“This is something new for me,” says Youzhny, a two-time US Open semi-finalist. “When you’re 18-19, you play in a Grand Slam on centre court with top players, you don’t think about it being special. You think it’s normal. But when you’re 34, and you experience that, you understand that this is the greatest moment in your life. And that’s for any tournament.”
At the beginning of 2016, Youzhny had dropped down to 127 in the world. He sought refuge on the Challenger circuit, winning three of the four tournaments he entered. “You can always look back and say ‘yes, I played two semi-finals at the US Open, reached the top 8’, but that’s old. It’s much tougher to try and come back. To take a step back to take some steps forward. You must decide if you’re ready to continue, if you’re ready to fight. I decided I wanted to still try and play because I enjoy it.”
Melzer, too, signed up for Challenger events, playing six singles events and five doubles. His ranking had dropped significantly since he underwent shoulder surgery for an injury he had picked up in 2014. While most his age would have given up on the singles game, the Austrian decided to continue with the grind.
“I wanted to finish my singles career on my own terms,” says Melzer, who beat then world number 14 Roberto Bautista Agut in his home tournament in Vienna.
“I know I’m not going to become top 10 again. I’m that realistic. But it’s those wins when you play in front of your home crowd and beat somebody like (Roberto) Bautista Agut you still enjoy. It’s not going to happen every week, but you work for those moments when it happens. And you enjoy them even more.”
For a lot of the veterans in the sport, tennis is their livelihood. They take up the sport early in their childhood, and is the one thing they know they are good at.
“Money, money, money,” says Dudi Sela, when asked about his motivation to continue playing after 15 years on tour. He laughs at his light-hearted quip, yet continues in the same vein. “I’ve got two kids at home, so it’s tough to live at home. It’s a financial situation. But it’s a good life, so I try to stay healthy and play well,” he says after making it to the quarterfinals of the Chennai Open.
In 2016 alone, the 31-year-old Israeli earned close to $350,000 in prize money, and has made a total of $3,056,423 throughout his professional career – in which he reached a career-high of 29 in 2009.
At this stage, there are no set goals for the veterans in terms of rankings, or titles. What’s left is to see how far, and for how long, they can push themselves.
“The goal now is to see what else I can do. And if I can do it,” says Youzhny.
There is nothing more left for them to prove anymore. For years, they have lived the life of the elite, jet-setting tennis stars. Now they want to enjoy it till it lasts.
“It’s just that love for the game, doing something that you’re good at. It’s just that once you hang up the racquet on the wall, it’ll be a different life. So far, the older players who have stopped have advised me to play as long as I can. So the day I wake up in the morning and feel like it’s done, I’m going to retire,” says Melzer.
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