On September 28th, the Japanese Kimiko Date Krumm celebrated her 44th birthday. A few days earlier she was facing Victoria Azarenka in the first round of the Tokyo tournament, and even managed to win the first set. A unique case of longevity? No. Top 10 of the veterans who stayed the longest on the men and ladies tours.
1. Arthur Gore, retirement at 54
It's been a long time since the name of Arthur Gore has been forgotten. Yet the Briton with a moustache is a tennis hero and a double record holder: one for the oldest player in history to have ever won a Grand Slam tournament (Wimbledon in 1909, he was 41), and the more informal, of historical dean of the tour. Legend has it that he would have left the tour in 1922, after reaching the canonical age of 54. Imagine, it’s the current age of Yannick Noah and Ivan Lendl!
2. Martina Navratilova, retirement at 49
Martina Navratilova's life is a novel. Born in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War, quickly considered a prodigy of the yellow ball, she is now a US citizen and an activist for the homosexual cause. But she is first and foremost an exceptional athlete who had an extraordinary long career. Retired for the first time in 1995 (while she was already 39 years old), she made her comeback five years later, essentially in doubles, and kept expanding her prize list. At almost 50, Navratilova put an end to her life as a player after a last mixed doubles final at the 2006 US Open, with her compatriot Bob Bryan. And a victory at the end.
3. Ken Rosewall, retirement at 46
In the 80s, there was a famous Japanese manga called "Hokuto no Ken". Nothing to do with the Australian tennis player who is yet a superhero in his own way, relentless competitor who remained on the amateur and professional tour for over 30 years! He hung the racquets at 46 in 1980, and is now seen as one of the greatest champions of the sport as well as one of the most underrated. The price of discretion and modesty off the courts...
4. Pancho Gonzales, retirement at 46
In 1999, Sports Illustrated magazine asked its readers: "If the fate of the Earth was threatened, what athlete would you like to see save humanity?" Answer: Ricardo Alonzo" Pancho "Gonzales, highlander of the courts, a warrior armed with a racquet for nearly a quarter century. In 1972, then aged 44, he faced Björn Borg, 16, in a tournament in New York. The age gap between the two adversaries was 28 years, a record that remains unmatched.
5. Thomas Muster, retirement at 44
Lumberjack once, lumberjack forever. When in 1989 at only 21, the Austrian got his leg crushed by a car, many believed that he would be done with tennis for good. But Muster then became 'Musterminator" and came back on the tour stronger than ever, just months after the accident. Did he think that he was invincible? Fact remains that after having ended his career for the first time in 1999, he announced his return to the tour in 2010 with a sensational "Today I'm back from holiday!" The comeback only lasted a year, after a season and a half in Challenger tournaments.
6. Jimmy Connors, retirement at 43
Not easy when you've been a great champion for over 20 years and one of the most feared player of the tour, to leave this exceptional life to start a new one, necessarily less exciting. So forget the last match of Jimbo's career lost against the anonymous Richey Reneberg in April 1996 in Atlanta, and instead let's remember the good years of the American, eight-time winner in Grand Slam tournament, inveterate playboy with an incredibly big mouth.
7. Dick Norman, retirement at 42
On a professional tour, hierarchy is well defined: there are the few champions who compete every tournament to win, then the outsiders capable of strokes of brilliance at times, and finally the mass of undocumented, who content themselves with a few wins in minor tournaments and therefore bonuses. The Belgian Dick Norman was part of the latter category, and he seemed to like it since he decided to end his career only last year, at the venerable age of 42. He was the dean of ATP, quite an honorary title for a player who has spent over 20 years with the pros without ever winning a competitive singles!
8. Billie Jean King, retirement at 40
We all have the famous Michael Jackson's song in mind at the mention of Billie Jean King. The American is an exceptional woman, also famous for the famous "Battle of the Sexes" in 1973 won against Bobby Riggs. Feminist, notorious lesbian, "BJK" stretched her career until after her forties. She remains the oldest tennis player to have won a WTA tournament: it was in Birmingham in 1983 and she was 39 years and 7 months old.
9. Rod Laver, retirement at 38
"Rocket" Rod assumes the honorary title of greatest tennis player of all time. See instead: 200 singles career titles, including 11 Grand Slam tournaments (!). He's the only player to have succeeded in achieving the Grand Slam twice (1962 and 1969), defining moments of a career that has not been shaken by the transition to the open era in the 60s. He played his last major tournament at Wimbledon in 1977 before permanently hanging the racquets. His opponents could breathe a huge sigh of relief.
10. Andrés Gimeno, retirement at 36
Born in 1937, the Spanish player Andres Gimeno played his first Grand Slam tournament at Roland-Garros in 1956 at barely 19. Later, much later, in 1972, he won on the same Parisian clay the only major trophy of his long career that he officially ended two years later, at 36. How do you say selflessness in the language of Cervantes?