By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- When looking through the rankings or tournament draw sheets, it is clear women’s tennis is a game filled more and more with younger players.
There are six teenagers currently ranked in the top 20, and some of the game’s biggest stars have taken to retirement before or in their mid-20s, including former world No. 1 players Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, who retired abruptly just last year at age 25. Others, like former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, have taken time off to have children.
But that is not the trend for all players. Just look at Jill Craybas.
At 34, an age when many pro athletes – men or women – are considered on the tail end of their careers, Craybas is playing as good as or even better than ever.
Thinking about her age is not something Craybas does very often, and with a diligent workout regime that has kept her extremely fit, feeling 34 is not something she does, either.
“I definitely feel I am playing well. What has been good is that my coach and I have taken the direction that you can always get better and grow and it does not matter how old you are, as long as you take care of yourself,” she said. “The biggest thing is that I feel good. I don’t feel like I am 34 because I think I have done a good job of maintaining my fitness, and if I have a little ache or pain, I take care of it right away.
“I think what is good, too, is that I don’t think about the age too much,” she added. “I think if I started to, it might affect me a little bit. So as long as I stay focused on what I want to do and what I want to work on, that is the most important thing.”
This weekend, Craybas is playing in her fifth career Fed Cup tie for the U.S. against Argentina in Surprise, Ariz., and she is the most experienced and oldest member of the team. As a testament to the great state of her game, she is also the U.S. team’s No. 1 singles player and its highest-ranked singles played at No. 75 in the world.
In fact, in the singles rankings, she is the oldest player ranked in the top 75 in the world. She is also ranked No. 49 in the world in doubles and represented the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics as a late addition to the team.
Craybas’ career seems to be peaking still, having reached a career-high ranking of No. 39 in singles – a feat she achieved in 2006 – at age 31. In 2008, she reached her second career WTA Tour final at Pattaya City (she has one career WTA Tour singles title) and also won two doubles titles at Istanbul and Tokyo.
However, also unlike many players starting on the tour today, Craybas is a college graduate and did not start playing on the WTA Tour until she was 23. She graduated from the University of Florida in 1996 and was NCAA champion.
Starting professional tennis at a later age may have helped her longevity in the game – which has no end in sight.
“Some people retire when they are 23. I started a little bit later (on the tour). I still feel that I have a few years ahead of me, which is good,” Craybas said. “I don’t really put a time limit on (her career). I wait to see how I feel at the end of the year. Tennis is great because you can stop whenever you want to. You don’t have to say, ‘I am retiring whenever.’ I reevaluate at the end of the year, and as long as I am still enjoying it and healthy, I feel like I would like to keep going.”
And retiring is nothing Craybas has ever come close to or ever seriously considered yet. She is not married and does not have any kids, although having a family is something she definitely wants someday – but not just yet. She hears some comments about having a limited time left in order to have kids from her doctor or her mother occasionally, but while still playing solid tennis, it is something that is going to wait.
“Obviously times have changed, and women are having kids when they are older,” she said. “I have to keep my faith in that because I am not ready to finish quite yet. It is in the back of my head. I would like to have a family one day.”
Craybas usually competes from January through the first week of November each year, and there are definitely times it gets tiring and she needs some breaks. But as a whole, those times do not come close to outweighing her love of playing and competition and how much fun she has doing it.
After leaving Surprise, Craybas next will compete in Memphis, then Mexico before heading back to the U.S. for Indian Wells and Miami.
A native of Providence, R.I., Craybas now resides in Huntington Beach, Calif., and she has had the same coach, Raj Chaudhuri, for nine years. The two of them work together to come up with new exercises in the gym and stretches to keep training interesting and Craybas fit. In the gym she will do a variety of exercises, from sprints on different cardio machines to free weights to Swiss ball workouts to stretching.
“We keep it fresh and new all the time pretty much, otherwise it wouldn’t be fun,” she said. “And Raj is great, too, because he is always looking online for new things to try out. He says I don’t complain too much, so if I really hate something, he doesn’t make me do it that much. Usually I am pretty good at doing what he asks me to do.”
As part of the U.S. Fed Cup Team in Surprise, Craybas already knew Liezel Huber and Julie Ditty, as well as Future Fed Cupper CoCo Vandeweghe, with whom she has trained in Southern California. She had the opportunity to get to know 17-year-old Melanie Oudin a little better, as well as Julia Boserup, another Future Fed Cupper.
The team has worked great together in practice during the week and has been getting along extremely well.
Playing Fed Cup is important to Craybas as an opportunity to represent her country, and it is something for which she will always make time. For the first tie of 2009, it is also an opportunity to play under a new captain in Mary Joe Fernandez.
“I feel I always want to be available for Fed Cup because it is such a unique situation, and it is a lot different from playing tournaments on the tour,” she said. “It is just a great opportunity, and it is an honor to represent your country. My first reaction was just excitement (when she was named to the U.S. team). I played under (former U.S. Fed Cup Captain) Zina (Garrison), which was great, and with Mary Joe as the new captain, it was something fresh and new, so that is always fun to look forward to.”
Oudin, Vandeweghe and Boserup are all teenagers, and being around younger players is something Craybas is not only very used to on the tour but something she really enjoys. It also reinforces that age is just a number.
“People mention the age a lot,” Craybas said of herself. “Especially in tennis, I would say on the women’s side -- because the men tend to be on average a little bit older -- but on the women’s side, a lot of girls retire when they are younger.
“But I think that because a lot of the girls I am competing against and hanging out with are younger, it kind of keeps you young,” she added. “It is kind of nice to be around. It is tough sometimes because you are older; sometimes the conversations can be kind of funny. Being around all of that youth is kind of refreshing. It is a sport you can play for a long time if you just take care of yourself.”
And Craybas is a perfect example of just that.