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Why Age Is No Longer A Barrier In Competitive Sports

Indeed, for some champions, age is now part of their 'signature.'

03/08/2017 8:47 AM IST | Updated 03/08/2017 8:47 AM IST
POOL New / Reuters

The world has a fascination for all things "youngest". When Boris Becker won the Wimbledon when he was just 17, the world raved about it for years on end. People still talk about how a 16-year-old Tendulkar braved the likes of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis in his debut series against Pakistan; they also gush about his scintillating century against England to save a test match for India when he was just 17 years old. Forbes publishes the list of 30 under-30 achievers, the list of world's youngest billionaires so on and so forth.

But in recent years, there is a new shift that is pushing the baton from the "youngest" to "oldest" and Roger Federer's most recent win at Wimbledon has given a whole new flavour to brand "oldest."

Roger Federer, 36, is perhaps the greatest tennis player to have ever played the sport with 19 Grand Slam titles including eight at Wimbledon. When he won his last Grand Slam title in 2012, he was 31. Everyone started writing his swansong since 31 is already too old by tennis standards. In an era of power hitting and athleticism, the sublime Swiss was no wonder written off. But he continued playing over the last five years and managed to secure three Grand Slam runner-up positions. In 2016, he gave himself a big break and returned in 2017 to win an epic five-set Australian Open final against arch rival Rafael Nadal. He again took a break from French Open and then, went on to win his eighth Wimbledon title without dropping a set. At 36, he is still going strong.

This is not about the old becoming better than the young but rather how the old sustain their longevity and emerge as the greatest ever in their respective professions.

The year 2017 also saw two women warhorses battling age and odds to deliver some stunning performances. They are none other than the Williams sisters. At 35, Serena Williams won her 23rd career Grand Slam title at the Australian Open and at 37, Venus Williams finished up as a runner-up at Wimbledon fighting not just age but also an autoimmune disease.

And it's not just in tennis that older players are shining. Sachin Tendulkar, one of the greatest cricketers of all time, hung up his boots when he was 40. He played 24 years of competitive cricket, participating in 664 international cricket matches in total, scoring 34,357 runs. He achieved the most improbable feat of scoring a 200 in one-day internationals at the age of 37 and another incomparable feat of hundred 100s when he was 38.

American swimmer Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all time with 28 medals winning 5 golds and a silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Phelps was 31 when he went to Rio when the average age of the rest of the US Olympic Swimmers was 23.3.

Now, I have to present a caveat that all these players are among the best their respective sport ever produced. This is not about the old becoming better than the young but rather how the old sustain their longevity and emerge as the greatest ever in their respective professions. With that caveat, let us explore what leads to the staying power of champions who were written off.

An unquenchable passion

''When you do something best in life, you don't really want to give that up — and for me it's tennis.'' –Roger Federer

In the case of Federer, Tendulkar, Serena and Phelps, it is an unquenchable passion that pushes them to play the sport against all physical and mental odds. Players of this calibre don't see an end in their mind and their talent usually is five–10 years ahead of their peers at their peak. So it takes so much time for them to normalise their skill with the present benchmark offered by players who are one generation behind them. They cannot even think of stopping the game that is so dear to them

Playing with clarity and to their strengths

All these champions start like any other great player to compete and win. After reaching the pinnacle of their sport, they have nobody else to compete with. They have nothing more to prove to anyone and at this point, they transcend the win-loss duality. They are fine with a win and ready to take a loss but most importantly, they enjoy the game without any pressure.

With nothing to prove and nobody to compete against, these champions do what matters most — stay healthy and focus on their strengths.

With nothing to prove and nobody to compete against, these champions do what matters most — stay healthy and focus on their strengths. At this stage, it is not about fine-tuning weaknesses but rather about how to unleash their strengths in its utmost self-expression. This is what made Federer to opt out of French Open, a surface that doesn't favour his style and instead, play at Wimbledon where he can play to his full strength in grass, his favourite surface.

Longevity makes economic sense

Longevity also comes from the money that is available for sportsmen these days. Since each of these sportsmen have half of their lifetime to live, it is also natural for them to attempt o earn as much as they can. Roger Federer led all professional athletes with $60 million (out of a total of 67.8 million earnings in 2016) earned in off-court brand endorsements according to The World's Highest-Paid Athletes 2016 list compiled by Forbes. The Basel native's commercial partners include Nike, Wilson, Rolex, Mercedes-Benz, Credit Suisse and Moët & Chandon.

Forbes

With a massive social media following and good looks, players like Cristiano Ronaldo (55 million Twitter followers) and Virat Kohli (16.5 million Twitter followers), who are in their prime, will do everything possible to stay fit, play well and convert their enduring stardom into economic opportunities as well.

[T]heir relentless push has ensured that they transcend rankings to create the signature title of "greatest."

The longevity demonstrated by these top athletes and stars offer valuable lessons for younger players. These players have also disrupted the rankings published by their respective sporting body. Federer is not the Number1 in ATP rankings and Sachin was not the Number 1 in the ICC rankings towards the end of his career. But their relentless push has ensured that they transcend rankings to create the signature title of "greatest." To break their records is no easy feat. The "oldest" champion tag is fast becoming the signature brand for the greatest players in every sport and we are going to see more of it, thanks to the inspiration provided by Tendulkar, Federer, Serena and Phelps.

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