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Robredo, Pennetta leading way post 30

By Chris Pike
19 January 2014 06:10AM EST

TOMMY Robredo and Flavia Pennetta are two shining examples as two why tennis players can still find career-best form beyond 30 while another 30-plus year-old Serena Williams continues to dominate.

It wasn't too long ago that 30 was considered automatic retirement age for tennis players but a host of veterans in career-best form into their 30s are showing that's no longer the case.

Taking a look through the remaining 32 players left in the Australian Open on both the men's and women's draws, and you will see that five men and three women are all 30 or beyond.

Of those, Frenchman Stephane Robert, Spaniard David Ferrer and Tommy Robredo, German Florian Mayer, American woman Serena Williams, China's Li Na and Italian Flavia Pennetta are either in career-best form or very close to it.

French world No. 119 Robert is into the Australian Open fourth round despite being aged 33 and having never previously advanced beyond a Grand Slam second round throughout his career.

He has been a professional since 2009, but has never been ranked higher than No. 61 and now at age 33 he is having the best run of his career in Melbourne. If he hadn’t stuck at it beyond 30, he wouldn’t have got to have the memorable run that he is currently enjoying.

World No. 3 Ferrer has found the best, and most consistent form of his career also since turning 30.

Over the past two years in Grand Slams, the Spaniard has made a French Open final, three semi finals and four quarter finals. If he makes the Australian Open quarter-final this year, it will make nine straight Grand Slams where he has at least reached that far.

If he retired at or around 30, he would never have made a Grand Slam final and finished his career with just the one semi-final.

Perhaps, the best example in the men's draw, though, is Spaniard world No. 18 Robredo.

The 31-year-old had amassed a good career for himself up until the end of 2012 when he could have understandably retired, but instead he decided to continue to give his career everything and the results have been remarkable.

The naturally-gifted and gritty Spaniard has been on the ATP Tour since 2001 and in 43 Grand Slam tournaments up until the end of 2012 he had made five quarter finals.

However, in 2013 he managed that feat twice at the French Open and then the US Open which included a stunning victory over the great Roger Federer.

Now the Spaniard is in the middle of another outstanding Australian Open winning his way through to the fourth round having record terrific wins over Lukas Rosol in five sets, Julien Benneteau in four and Richard Gasquet in four.

German Florian Mayer is another who has now reached 30 and could very well be in the form of his career to start off 2014.

So far this week at the Australian Open, he has beaten Denis Kudla, Mikhail Youzhny and Jerzy Janowicz to reach the fourth round and if he manages to make the quarter-final, it will be just the third time he has done so and the first time anywhere except at Wimbledon – where he did so in 2004 and 2012.

Far from being ready to retire, Mayer looks capable of heading into the best sustained run of form of his career as he heads towards turning 31 in 2014.

In years past, 28-year-old Stanislas Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga might have been nearing retirement, but instead it appears each are closer now than ever to winning their first Grand Slam tournaments and that could certainly continue for at least three or four more years.

Taking a look at the last 16 women left in the 2014 Australian Open and while sure there are rising stars like Eugenie Bouchard (19), Sloane Stephens (20), Garbine Muguruza (20) and Simona Halep (22), there are 30-plus year-old veterans showing the way.

Serena Williams is aged 32 and while she has been a star since winning her first Grand Slam in 1999 at the US Open, she could very well now be as consistent as ever as she slowly heads towards her mid-30s.

She could have comfortably retired at the end of 2011 after a tough year and had a career that would have seen her a lock for the Hall of Fame, but since turning 30, Williams won two Grand Slams in 2012, another two in 2013 and now is the clear standout woman player as 2014 begins.

China's Li Na is also heading towards her 32nd birthday and playing as well as she ever has as the world No. 4 tries to add a second major title to her resume.

Perhaps, the best story on the women's tour in recent times has been the resurgence of Italian 31-year-old Flavia Pennetta.

Pennetta turns 32 next month, but the world No. 29 has now equalled her best ever Australian Open performance by making the fourth round and that is on the back of her career-best performance at last year's US Open.

Even though her remarkable run at Flushing Meadows was ended in the semi finals, she had reached that far in a major for the first time in her career and now has continued on that terrific form to start 2014 despite being at an age where most of her peers have thrown it in and accepted their lot.

Australia's Casey Dellacqua also turns 29 next month but arguably is in the best form of her career and has the chance to make her first Grand Slam quarter-final at an age where plenty of other players might be considering a premature retirement.

Likely because of the nature of tennis being an individual sport with players starting young and basically playing all-year round, playing beyond 30 has been a relative rarity throughout history.

There have been the remarkable stories of young retirements like two-time US Open champion Tracy Austin aged 21, Swiss Martina Hingis aged 22, Belgian Justine Henin aged 25 and Swede Bjorn Borg aged 25, those were more due to burnouts from players who started as young teens.

However, compared to the longevity of athletes in other sports, particular team sports, retirements of greats such as Pete Sampras (31), Boris Becker (31), Michael Chang (31), Andy Roddick (30), Steffi Graf (30), Jim Courier (30) and Stefan Edberg (30) all could have been premature.

Certainly when you look at the form of players such as Serena Williams, Li Na, Pennetta, Robredo, Ferrer and even Federer right now, there's no reason to suggest those players couldn’t have kicked on and added to their already remarkable careers.

Williams has now won 17 Grand Slam singles titles closing in on the 22 won by German legend Graf, but there's little doubt that Graf certainly could have headed well into the 20s if she played on beyond 1999 when she was already the reigning French Open champion.

However, with the early retirement of Graf and other high-calibre female players, it provides the opportunity to Williams who remains as dominant as ever in the women's game heading towards her 33rd birthday to continue to break record after record.

While it is exciting seeing young players burst onto the scene, there is very little better than a feel good story of a veteran player like a Robredo or Pennetta finding the best success of their career at a late age as a reward for their hard work, dedication and persistence.

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