After nine Wimbledon titles, there's no telling why Martina Navratilova would feel a need to prove herself at the All England Club again. She hasn't played a singles match there for 10 years.
"Every silver lining's got a tough of grey. I will get by. I will get by. I will get by. I will survive."
"Touch of Grey"
The Grateful Dead
Martina returned briefly to the tennis circuit in 2000, but mostly got pushed around. At the French Open earlier this year, she was bounced in the first round. The woman, remember, is 47 years old.
But a surprising thing happened at Wimbledon this week: Navratilova won. In fact, she dominated. Her opponent eked out only one game in two sets. She hasn't won the big platter yet, of course. But not bad for a player biologically old enough to be a grandmother (or, in some parts of our state, a great-grandmother).
Over the weekend, while crowds at the U.S. Open cheered raucously for Phil Mickelson to repeat his winning performance at the Master's, some of the announcers clearly seemed to favor the 48-year-old Fred Funk. Had Mickelson not overshadowed him, the graying Funk would have emerged as everyone's sentimental favorite.
In pro basketball, meanwhile, the court leader in Los Angelesand a lone voice of maturity crying out in the vast wilderness of egotismwasn't Shaq, wasn't Kobe, but the truck-driving, country-music-listening, 40-year-old Karl Malone. Seeking his first championship ring at the end of a Hall of Fame career, Malone took a whopping pay cut to join the Lakers. Though injuries finally sidelined himas they never had beforeKarl not only played well, he furnished a positive role model on a team that could have provided long-term job security for a squad of psychologists.
Down in Texas, Roger Clemens, who unretired from the Yankees to join the Houston Astros, has been the league's best pitcher so far at age 41. He still possesses the five-alarm fastball that travels the 60 feet, six inches to home plate around 95 mph. Amazingly, more than two months into the season, Clemens finally suffered his second loss last week.
Though the NHL gets less attention, don't forget another grizzled quatragenarian, Dave Andreychuk, who at 40 captained the Tampa Bay Lightning to their (and his) first Stanley Cup.
All of these oldsters and many othersfrom Bruce Matthews, Doug Flutie and Lance Armstrong to the Atlanta Braves' Julio Franco, still hitting around .300 at age 45capture our imaginations because we expect them to be enormous underdogs.
Youth, someone wrote, must be served, and no one believes it like we Americans, we purveyors of the most youth-dominated culture in the history of the world. We seem to believe less in growing old gracefully than in trying to avoid aging altogether. We try to prolong the appearance of youth with hair weaves and tummy tucks and cosmetic surgeries that stretch faces tauter than a painter's canvas. We seem to accept the idea that old means inferior. Old means obsolescence.
So it is uplifting (psychically, at least) when a Navratilova or a Clemens or a Malone dominates all the strutting whippersnappers. Especially to aging boomers, it affirms that, with rigorous discipline and conditioningand it's no coincidence that all of these aging champions are among the hardest trainersolder athletes not only can compete but also win. Their triumphs somehow simultaneously indulge our vain fantasies of perpetual youth while reassuring us that growing older is not the end.
We hope that, along with these messages, Martina and Fred and Julio will help teach our society another needed lesson: the value of the wisdom and experience that come with age, for which the raw talent of youth is no substitute. The veteran's accumulated wisdom trumps the rookie's heft and spring. Mind trumps body. Fire and drive trump flash. Persistent tortoise trumps unfocused hare.
"Old age hath yet his honor and his toil," Tennyson wrote 160 years ago. "Though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are." And as this summer's old dogs have shown us, that can be mightily good.
All of which is to say to Martina this week: You go girrrl. You go.
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