23 Jul 2019 19:12 IST

Age is no barrier to sports excellence

Sports stars today are an inspiration, helping to bury age-old myths linking age to performance

In the heart-breaker of the match which sealed India’s fate in the ICC World Cup 2019 semifinals this month, the younger top-order batsmen, KL Rahul and Dinesh Karthik were dismissed for one and six respectively. The established greats, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, were gone for a run apiece. The scoreboard read 24/4 and all hope was gone for 1.2 billion people around the world.

But somewhere deep inside their hearts, there still lay a whiff of optimism that things could turn around. Mahendra Singh Dhoni was yet to bat. Never mind that at 38 years old, he was the oldest player on the team. When he finally walked out to the crease when Rishabh Pant, another youngster, fell, TV screens incessantly showed how Dhoni was the single-best closer ever. If he was still batting when a match ended, India had won 47 out of 49 matches in a run-chase. These are astounding figures — and most of them were won after Dhoni reached 30 years of age. Indeed, hopes were dashed only when Dhoni got out after he put together an impressive partnership with Jadeja and victory was nearly in sight. India lost by just 18 runs.

Defying age

Not too long ago, 30 years was the age when professional sportspeople retired. Today, this is when they have plenty of fuel left in the tank and perform admirably. Rohit Sharma, at 32, was the highest run-scorer for the tournament, hitting an incredible five centuries in just nine matches. Aaron Finch, also 32, was the seventh-highest run-getter. Sri Lankan Lasith Malinga, at 35, was his team’s top wicket-taker. Imran Tahir, born in Pakistan 40 years ago and now playing for South Africa, continued to mesmerise batsmen with his leg-breaks, becoming the second-highest wicket-taker for his team.

This senior excellence is not limited to team sports where others can shoulder part of the burden. In tennis, where it is just you out there, 30 is now the age when your career practically takes off. The International Tennis Federation put out a tweet which said that, for the first time, the average age of men in Wimbledon’s fourth-round matches (last 16) surpassed 30 years of age.

 

Both Nadal, 33, and Federer, who turns 38 next month, are each chasing their fifth major title, post-30. Federer came mighty close, losing in a nailbiter against Djokovic, who himself is 32. Serena Williams, who will turn 38 in September, again made it to the Wimbledon final after doing so last year, and to the infamous final matchup with Naomi Osaka at the US Open. Three finals in five majors! Plus, she sports an incredible additional feather in her cap, returning to the tour as a mother after taking maternity leave. Victoria Azarenka, much younger and a mother too, has been struggling to regain her past glory.

The desire to strive

It’s not just the very top tennis players who are doing well. Ivo Karlovic, at 40, is still one of the fastest servers in the game, and hence most-feared. Feliciano López, at 37, made history last year by making the most consecutive main-draw appearances at a major (66). This meant that he had to be ranked in the ATP Top 100 for 17 years straight. López also won the Queens club ATP 500 cup this year. In men’s doubles, which is a little more friendly to aging players, Leander Paes, at 46, reached the semifinals at the Newport Hall of Fame tournament this week.

Andy Roddick, the American superstar tennis player of the early 2000s, who has expressed regret that perhaps he retired too early at 29, is today just 36. He talks about what it takes for professional tennis players to do well: the endless fitness routines behind the scenes each day, the hours spent in the gym on a variety of cardio machines, doing stretching exercises and completing the all-important weight training. Most people would be tired at the end of such a regimen after just a few days. These players have to do this throughout their careers, on top of strictly watching what they eat and drink. They then have to go out into the field or court to perform in front of TV cameras for the rest of the world to see.

 

Don’t forget that the endurance that these players have built is practically not human. At the conclusion of the longest-ever Wimbledon final last week, Federer and Djokovic had spent over two hours playing just the final set, a period during which an entire match often completes, from start to end. Here was a 38-year old man playing against the world’s #1 player for four hours 48 minutes non-stop, and winning 12 more points in the match overall, but still losing the contest. During the post-match interview, Federer said he was physically feeling fine, and didn’t even feel like he had to sit.

Today’s sports stars show that determination, discipline and a relentless desire to win can still bring out the best in them. They are an inspiration for helping to bury age-old myths linking age to performance. Strangely, their achievement is a victory for the rest of us.

Recommended for you