July 13, 2024

Open Court

MORE TENNIS THAN YOU'LL EVER NEED

As a talented generation ebbs, Simon and Gulbis battle in Cherbourg (pics)

If nothing else, the stubborn persistence of tennis players never ceases to amaze.

Front and centre in that endeavour was Juan Martin del Potro, who finally made it back on court this week after years and years of surgeries and rehabs.

That he took the court most likely to say adiós was almost incidental, although no less saddening.

But the match at the Cherbourg Challenger Thursday between former top-10s Ernests Gulbis and Gilles Simon has us looking back to the Australian Open, where they were two of several persistent players still going out there and trying to win.

(Gulbis prevailed, 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 and is into the quarterfinals in Cherbourg).

Many moons ago, when Gulbis was ranked No. 12 and Simon No. 30 and both were seeded at the US Open, they got together for a pre-tournament practice at Flushing Meadows. Thursday, they met in the second round of a Challenger.

Simon, owner of 14 ATP Tour titles, was ranked a career-best No. 6 back in 2009. And he’s been a solid top-30 player for the vast majority of his career since then.

At 37, his ranking is down to No. 124. Still, he made the trip Down Under to try to qualify at the Australian Open. He played a Challenger in Traralgon the week before.

In his 16th trip, it was Simon’s first time in the qualies.

And in the first round, he ended up on the losing end of a 6-3, 1-6, 6-3 loss to Edward Winter, a young Aussie ranked … No. 1768. Winter, at 17, is just 5-foot-9 and must it must have felt to Simon as though he was playing his son.

Gilles Simon at the 2008 US Open

Gulbis can’t take the heat

And what of Gulbis, at No. 10 back in 2014 but barely hanging in there at No. 261 now, who didn’t even make it into the qualifying by much?

Still only 33, the Latvian didn’t even make it through the first round of qualifying in Melbourne.

Down 6-7 (5), 2-6, 1-3 and struggling physically in the heat (and mostly, humidity) that day, he retired against Gastao Elias, a 31-year-old ranked No. 203 whose peak of No. 57 game in 2016 (and who was a highly-touted junior back in the day).

Here’s what it looked like.

Gulbis played 12 ATP or Grand Slam events in 2021, mixed in with eight Challenger tournaments.

He lost in the first round of qualifying in Australia and at Roland Garros, and then the final round of qualifying at both Wimbledon and the US Open. But he never made a main draw.

In those ATP Tour events he got into one directly, qualified and lost in the first in another, won a round in qualifying in a third – and lost in in the first round of qualifying in the other eight.

And yet, he persists.

Ernests Gulbis at the 2010 Australian Open

Dudi RETURNS!

Another blast from the past – an even bigger surprise – in the qualifying was Israel’s Dudi Sela.

Sela, who turns 37 in April, is ranked No. 385 (and almost all of those points are nearly three years old, from the first part of the 2019 season, because of the COVID rankings)

But he also would have had a protected ranking to get him into the qualifying.

His only tournament in all of 2021 was the qualifying at Wimbledon, where he beat a young British wild card in the first round and then lost to Yasutaka Uchiyama in a tight one. But that earned him nearly $19,000 US. So definitely worth the trip.

Sela played six tournaments in 2020, before the pandemic stoppage. And he lost all six of his matches.

In the end, the trip to Australia (the 14th of his career), even with the 6-3, 6-2 loss to the burly Mario Vilella Martinez of Spain in the first qualifying round, was worth more than $18,000 US. Again – well worth the trip.

Throughout the part of the match we watched, Sela was … serving and volleying like a demon. But you wouldn’t expect to see him again.

Sela at the 2009 Rogers Cup.

And what of Kamke and Kohlschreiber?

The man with the bulletproof hair looks as good as ever, as he turns 36 in May.

Kamke made it to the final round of qualifying, losing to much-younger countryman Maximilian Marterer in the final round of qualifying.

It was his 14th trip to the Australian Open.

And he’s continued on, going to the U.S. to play the qualifying of the Columbus Challenger.

Even at 36, Kamke is as fast as ever. His foot speed and court coverage remain world-class.

Tobias Kamke at the 2010 Australian Open.

As for Philipp Kohlschreiber, who is … 38 (!!!!) and ranked No. 136, he was able to get into the main draw with a protected ranking just inside the top 100.

He won his first round, then got just four games against Roberto Bautista Agut in the second round.

Philipp Kohlschreiber at the 2010 Australian Open

It was Kohlschreiber’s 16th Australian Open. And he’s never had to qualify. All the way back 2005 for his debut, he was already ranked No. 105 in the world.

Kohlschreiber too, is carrying on his merry way; he lost in final round of qualifying at the 500 event in Rotterdam this week.

An entire generation slowly ebbing

As much talk as there was about del Potro this week – and about when the “Big 3” will hang them up – there is an entire generation of very good, interesting players who are slowly walking off into the sunset.

We include Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in that group, as Tsonga has returned to play in the last few weeks.

Meanwhile, 40-year-old Feliciano Lopez continues to play with a ranking of No. 10, even as he’s tournament director in Madrid).

And his longtime doubles partner Fernando Verdasco – 38 and ranked No. 201 – is grinding it out on the South American clay as we speak, using a protected ranking of No. 77.

Lopez peaked at No. 12; Verdasco hit No. 7.

They appear to be a pretty dogged bunch.

So we might not know exactly WHEN they will have played their final matches. But they’ve been a diverse, interesting crew for a lot of years. And there won’t be nearly as much attention paid when they do wrap it up.

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