Midnight gym sessions were the key to Ivo Karlovic’s French Open preparations.
For a 40-year-old with two kids to look after, 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. was the only time that Karlovic could get away to work on his fitness.
The late-night work paid off when Karlovic produced a 7-6 (4), 7-5, 6-7 (7), 7-5 victory over 37-year-old Feliciano Lopez in the first round Tuesday in a matchup that set a record for combined age between Roland Garros opponents for the Open era.
What’s more is that Karlovic became the first man in his fifth decade to compete in singles at a Grand Slam tournament since Jimmy Connors at the 1992 U.S. Open.
“It means a lot,” Karlovic said. “It’s in the record books as the oldest one and everything. … Right now, any match I win I’m happy — if it’s against older guys or kids — I just like to win.”
In an era where Roger Federer is still thriving at 37 and top-ranked Novak Djokovic and 11-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal are still dominating tennis in their early 30s, matches like the one between Karlovic and Lopez could become the new norm.
Serena Williams also is 37, and her return from pregnancy last year prompted the WTA Tour to add more rankings protection for players coming back from having babies.
Bob and Mike Bryan, who turned 41 last month, beat the Spanish pair of Pablo Carreno Busta and Gerard Granollers in doubles Tuesday for their 20th win in their 20th first-round appearance in Paris.
A combined 77 years…The oldest match in Roland-Garros history. Thanks for playing @feliciano_lopez & @ivokarlovic.#RG19 pic.twitter.com/ymTiMcsHC4
While top players used to retire in their late 20s and early 30s, sports science has contributed to longer careers.
“I’m spinning. Everyone is getting to the gym an hour before practice now,” said Bob Bryan, who returned to action this year after a hip resurfacing with a metal implant last August.
“They’re doing bands, they’re rolling on those foam rollers, and there’s light weights. That’s all changed from when we were on the tour” (years ago), Bob Bryan added. “Same thing after the practice sessions, everyone goes to the gym. The stakes are higher, the prize money has gone crazy. There’s just more people playing tennis now, competition has become fierce and no one is going out to have a beer after a match. Everyone is really professional.”
The advanced age of players has also meant many more kids on tour. All of the Grand Slam tournaments have nurseries for players’ children.
“We’re all talking about how we’re sleeping and what stroller you have, ‘How’s the crèche at this tournament?’ So the topic of conversation has changed,” said Bob Bryan, who has three kids. “It’s all about babies.”
With his ranking down to No. 95, Karlovic still had direct entry for the French Open but he would have had to go through qualifying if he wanted to enter warmup tournaments in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome. So he decided to stay home in Miami with his wife and kids instead — a 3-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son.
“I was with my kids every day,” he said. “It was really, really nice. I’m happy that after my career I will have that every day.”
But family time made it difficult to focus on tennis.
Karlovic hit every day after dropping his daughter off at preschool, then played with his son and rested before his daughter came home and he had to drive her to other activities. Finally, when the kids went to bed at 11 p.m., he could escape to the gym.
“I’m happy because there is a gym that is open in the night,” Karlovic said.
Lopez also had to limit his clay-court preparation. He couldn’t play in the Madrid Open because he took over as tournament director of his home event this year and ATP Tour rules forbid him from playing.
Still, Lopez extended his record of consecutive Grand Slam tournaments played to 69 — a streak that began in 2002.
Both Lopez and Karlovic have gray in their beards — and Karlovic’s hair is predominantly silver. They each performed plenty of stretching when they walked onto the court for the pre-match coin toss.
Karlovic spread his feet wide apart and shifted his weight from side to side to limber up his 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) frame, while Lopez lifted his knees to his waste to stay loose.
In the end, Karlovic’s 35 aces were the difference.
Afterward, Karlovic kept on getting asked why he keeps playing.
“I’m winning still,” he replied. “So why not?”