Unwilling to Retire, Meilen Tu Looks to Make a Late Statement
WIMBLEDON, England, June 27 — People would ask, with increasing frequency, when Meilen Tu would quit playing tennis. It seemed obvious that her best years were past.
“I was in a slump for four or five years,” she admitted Wednesday.
But Tu, born to Taiwanese parents in California and raised there, never felt ready to leave the sport. And now her playing career is peaking at 29, making her one of the oldest players in the Wimbledon draw and one hoping for a last burst of attention before her career ends.
Only 10 of the 132 women in the singles draw are older than Tu. And only one — Tathiana Garbin, who turns 30 on Saturday — is ranked higher.
“My coach and my family never gave up on me and always said, ‘Look, if you want to step away, you can step away, as long as you have no regrets,’ ” Tu said. “ ‘But if you want to step away because people say you can’t do it and you think it’s too hard, then that’s the wrong reason.’ ”
She worked her way into Wimbledon’s second round by defeating Edina Gallovits, the 73rd-ranked player in the world, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
Tu has loitered on the second tier of women’s tennis for a decade. Her highest year-end ranking was 45th, in 2001, and it fell steadily for several years after.
But she snapped from her funk about a year ago, for reasons she could not explain.
“Maybe I know it’s toward the end of my career, and I’m giving everything I have,” she said. “I don’t know what’s clicked.”
The first Wednesday at Wimbledon, cut several hours short by spurts of evening rain, sprung no major upsets in the draw. Third-seeded Andy Roddick won in straight sets, and No. 5 Fernando González won in four. The four-time defending champion Roger Federer looked to be on his way to an easy victory against Juan Martin Del Potro until rain arrived. Federer won the first two sets, and leads by 2-0 in the third set of the stalled match.
On the women’s side, top-seeded Justine Henin, third-seeded Jelena Jankovic, seventh-seeded Serena Williams and ninth-seeded Martina Hingis passed through with two-set victories. The biggest upset victim was No. 20 Sybille Bammer, who lost to unseeded Laura Granville, 6-1, 6-4.
But the day’s aborted schedule devoid of stirring matches left the story lines spread evenly across the All England Club. And Tu wants nothing more than to add her name to the conversations of the coming days.
She reached a career-best No. 35 ranking earlier this month. She is playing her 29th Grand Slam event but has worked her way to the third round only once, here in 2002. Getting there will take a notable upset; Tu next faces sixth-seeded Ana Ivanovic, a straight-set winner against Melinda Czink on Wednesday.
“It’s grass,” Tu said with a shrug and a confident voice. “For me, grass is jackpot. If you’re serving well and seeing the ball big, anything can happen.”
She has already stepped over a bigger hurdle in her career. Her father, Ching, died of lung cancer in 1999, staggering Tu and throwing her playing career off balance. She devoted her play to his memory and won her only career singles title in 2001. She has not had a year that good until now.
“It’s never an easy thing, even to this day,” said Tu, who speaks fluent Mandarin. “He pushes me in spirit every day, so it’s nice.”
She does not know what she will do when she retires from tennis, although she has pondered becoming a coach to players from the burgeoning tennis market in China or to Asian-Americans like herself, a tennis segment she believes is overlooked.
For now, she is too busy establishing goals, reaching them, and resetting them.
“A couple years ago, I gave myself until the end of 2007 to break into the top 100,” Tu said. “I did that in 2006, after Wimbledon. And I said, well, why not keep going?”
She now wishes to gain the attention of the people who long ago considered her best days of tennis to be expired. Tu is the fourth-ranked American, behind Serena and Venus Williams, and just behind Meghann Shaughnessy.
But she said she rarely, if ever, hears from American tennis officials and has not heard her name mentioned as a possible Fed Cup player.
“I’m not excepting a phone call, but I think when you have someone like myself or other players who are, you know, trying their best and coming back from a couple tough years, you should be acknowledged,” Tu said. “It’s always the same thing. They always come to you when you’re playing well, but then when you have a couple tough years ...”
The thought was left incomplete. Just like her career, so far.