By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
WIMBLEDON, England - Last week, statisticians noted that the first clash between the 40 year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm and the 31-year-old Venus Williams was one of the oldest in Wimbledon history
While doubles players tend to last longer than singles competitors do because there is less impact on their bodies, the fact that Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond are threatening to win Grand Slam titles at the same combined age of 71 is very impressive, especially give the fact that the two Americans only began playing together three months ago and that there are plenty of good young teams out there in a game that is less about finesse now than it is about power and reaction time.
"We are improving with every match and every practice we feel more comfortable with each other," Raymond said. "We are getting better and our results are showing that. We are winning matches more decisively. We've been in Europe for two months and maybe there were some tournaments we didn't want to play, but we needed to. We are starting to see our work come to fruition."
The 34-year-old Huber stopped playing with Nadia Petrova after the tournament in Miami, while the 37-year-old Raymond stopped playing with Julia Goerges at the same time. The two had faced each other across the net plenty of times before, but never had a good opportunity to pair up.
According to Huber, it was meant to be.
"The key from the get-go was to be honest and to have good communication whether it's smallest thing or something big." Huber said. "If I feel a little nervous on a point I'll tell her or if I feel lazy I tell her, too. It's only been a couple of months but it's one of those partnerships that feels like it can be a long one. But we have to keep working hard regardless of how many titles we win."
Both women have been through the WTA treadmill, so when their results didn't come early or easily they were willing to keep their chins up. The took a first round loss in Charleston, a second round loss in Stuttgart, and then fell in the first rounds of Madrid and Rome and in the second round in Brussels.
Finally at Roland Garros, things began to click and they reached the semis, knocking off fifth seeds Maria Kirilenko and Victoria Azarenka before going down to Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina. They then reached the semis of Birmingham and the final of Eastbourne, where the bested fellow Americans Bethanie Mattek- Sands and Meghann Shaughnessy before falling to Katarina Srebotnik and Kveta Peshke.
The duo are being coached by Huber's husband Tony, who was able to step back and analyze their strengths and weakness and what might work for them without panicking. They knew it would be process.
"If we don't have a match we go and work on something, because where we are in our careers and age it's important know that you keep improving,' Huber said.
In the third round of Wimbledon, Huber and Raymond bested the team of German Angelique Kerber and U.S. teen Christina McHale, whose locker sat next to Huber's. McHale and Huber had been on the same Fed Cup team and get along well, but the day before the match, Huber said that McHale seemed uncomfortable talking to her. McHale already had her game face on.
Went they went on court, so did Huber and Raymond who came off with a 6-1, 6-0 victory. Raymond showed no sympathy for the kid until she got off court.
"I've been playing up and comers for the last 18 years, so afterward maybe I'd talk to whomever is coaching her and say do this or that, but when I'm out there I'm not feeling any mercy," Raymond said.
As Raymond and Huber have grown older, fitness has become paramount. While it's possible to maintain muscle mass into your 40s, is has to be worked on as it's easier to lose it than when you are in your early 20s. Raymond travels with resistance bands and is diligent about using them. A little more than a year ago, she refocused on fitness, hit the gym hard and began to do a lot of cardio. Now she does a lot of sprint work. She felt like she had to lose weight, so she changed her diet, not because of taste, but out of necessity.
"I basically had to cut out half of what I was putting in my mouth and make better choices," said Raymond, who was a member of the last U.S. Fed Cup Team that won a title in 2000. "I'm not going to say that I love eating healthy. I love French fries, cheeseburgers and pizza, but I can't do it, so it's a lot of salads and chicken."
Raymond said she practices less now and when she does, she focuses on very specific things, rather than volume. Huber likes to spend a little more time on the practice court, but no longer engages in four-hour sessions. Like Raymond, she is focused on fitness and has already lifted weights four times during Wimbledon just to maintain her muscle mass. She believes she is faster than she once was and has not lost a step, but did encounter another problem last year when she was lacking energy,
"What I feel like I've lost is the recovery if I had to play matches on back-to-back days," she said. "I would play junk matches, so I told my husband 'I don't want to keep playing if its going to be like this,' so he said ‘Let's add more protein to your diet and do different things.’ And I thought of Kimiko Date Krumm and asked her what she was doing and she told me so now I order this protein powder from Japan that has electrolytes in it and it really works. Now I know if I have a match the next day and lose, that it will be me and not because my body can't recover."
Huber is not one of those women who emphasizes appearance over health and admits that while she is caring a little extra weight, she is doing so because her body demands that she carbo loads.
"I like to eat a lot of carbs because I know that I need a lot of energy, so I force the pasta, bread and cereal," she said. "I need that energy. It works for me and I have a lot of power."
Both Raymond and Huber have title on their minds but they are happy to take the long-term view. Raymond has won 70 doubles titles, including five majors. Huber has won 44 titles including four majors and has also been No. 1. As long as they stick to a plan, it seems like more titles are inevitable. Whether it happens at Wimbledon is up in the air, but the Olympus US Open Series is ahead and they are excellent hardcourt players.
"You can put together the two best doubles players of all time it may not work," Raymond said. "It's just time. It's becoming more instinctual between us, but that's because we put the work in."