Every sport has it. That guy who continues to perform well even at an advanced age. For football it’s Brady, for basketball it was Jordan (And now it’s looking like Lebron), for baseball, it was Ichiro. In all those sports, you can say that their exceptional performance at their age is due to factors like the team around them or the schemes that they run. But eventually, Father Time will catch up like it does to all the greats (See: Kobe, Griffey Jr.). But in tennis, arguably the most individual sport in the world, we have two all time greats who aren’t just performing well at their age. They are outperforming the entire field. At a time when there’s supposed to be so much young talent in tennis, how are Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer continuing to dominate?
Before we delve into how Rafa and Fed are able to continue their dominance, let’s talk about why great players being great is even an topic of discussion. You may be thinking, “Come on Stephen. They are the two best to ever pick up a racquet. They’re bound to win some tournaments and beat lesser competition”. And you’re right! Great players will always do great things, regardless of age. Griffey still hit some home runs at the end of his career. Kobe put up 60 in his final game. Brady will still be able to throw TD passes when he’s 50. But Federer and Nadal aren’t just doing great things on occasion. They are doing great things every time they step onto the court. After winning at Stuttgart this past weekend, Federer now has three wins this year, including a major (The Australian Open). With that win, he also moved back into the number one spot in the rankings. Doing so made him the oldest number 1 ranked player ever, besting his own previous record from earlier this year. And what about Nadal? While he’s a few years younger than Federer (32 compared to 36), he’s still playing like he’s in his 20s. Recently, he broke the record for most consecutive sets won on clay (50). He’s won four tournaments this year, including the other major (The French Open) and he’s currently ranked number 2. When the average age of the top 10 (Excluding Nadal and Federer) is 27.8, how are they able to keep up?
Like most sports, the best are the best largely due to their mental strength. When you watch some of the next generation of tennis super stars like Zverev, Kyrgios, and Thiem, you see guys who look as talented (Sometimes even more talented) than Fed and Nadal. But, you also see guys with a propensity to implode. Guys who when backed into a corner, cower instead of fighting out of it. Some of these are very visible, outward bursts like Kyrgios and Denis Shapovalov. Others are more internal, like when watching Zverev or Thiem. Some days they look like a number 1 competitor. Other days they don’t look like they belong in the top 100. However, whenever you watch Nadal and Federer, you rarely see them look bad, at least not for a full match. They can be down a set or two or down a couple breaks and yet they stay as calm as ever. They stick to what they know and slowly battle back. It’s this lack of mental strength holding so many talented young tennis players back from winning a major. A perfect example of this is WTA world number 1 Simona Halep. Halep has always been known for having a temper. This temper and lack of mental focus was a big reason why she was 0-3 in major finals. However, she finally got a win at this year’s French Open. Those who watched saw a Halep who was cool and calm the whole match. She stuck with her game plan and eventually came back down a set and a break to beat Sloane Stephens. It’s this mental toughness that breeds champions.
So Who’s Next?
Eventually, someone will have to come onto the scene and be the next great thing. Nadal sustains too many injuries (Due to his aggressive play) to continue putting up this kind of success for much longer. And for Federer, either age or desire to spend time with his family will cause him to leave the sport. So who takes over that number 1 spot? My guess is Alexander Zverev. He’s just turned 21 so he has plenty of time to mature and yet, he already has 8 career titles (2 this year). He’s always the dark horse bet to win a major. Eventually, his maturity will catch up to his talent, producing a very special player.
I don’t think anyone would argue that Federer and Nadal are great because of some of the intangibles they possess. But what if their sustained greatness is something more than just being the best? What if longevity in sports is a result of better medicine and technology? We are seeing it everywhere. Ichiro started the year playing at the age of 44. Drew Brees is 39. Brady was the MVP at 40. Lebron is still the league’s best at 33. Even the average age of the ATP top 10 (excluding 21 year old Zverev) is 30 years old. Just last week, 44 year old Terrell Owens ran a 4.40 40 yard dash! Maybe in a day where medicine and technology is advancing as fast as ever, athletes playing into their late 30s and beyond will become the norm.
-Stephen Brown III (@sbtrey23)