They say that fine wine gets better with age; the older the wine, the better it gets.
Like fine wine, the four finalists at the Australian Open (AO) tennis tournament this year are veterans of the sport. Venus and Serena Williams are 36 and 35 years respectively. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are 35 and 30 years old respectively, and age not withstanding, they showed what a great set of players they are.
They systematically defeated young and upcoming players in the draws, winning six consecutive matches, each in one of the toughest contests of the year, in the blazing Australian heat. Serena and Federer won their respective seventh matches, and were crowned 2017 AO champions.
Unlike cricket or football, tennis is not a sport of numbers. It is a game that pits one player against another, seemingly alone on a huge court, watched by millions with close camera angles that catch every move, grin or frown. It is a game in which nothing except the final result matters.
It is brutal because unlike the early rounds of an ICC cricket World Cup tournament, a defeat means instant elimination. Two weeks ago, the world’s top two players, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, had to face the insult of losing to two unknown, unseeded players in the early rounds of the Australian Open — the first time this has happened since 2007.
But the numbers and the records that these four superstars — Serena, Venus, Federer and Nadal — post would make any person’s jaw drop in sheer awe. Just before the finals, the four had collectively won 60 Grand Slam singles titles; now, the count is 62. (By the way, all the Asian players combined — from India, China, Japan, and Taiwan — have won two singles titles; both by China’s Li Na, a retired female tennis player.)
Greatest of all time
Serena now has more Grand Slam titles than any woman in the Open era, going back to 1969. Federer, with 18, also has the most titles of any man in the Open era. He is the oldest male to win a major in 45 years. Had Nadal won, he would have been the only player in history to have won each major — AO, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open — twice. Among the four, Venus is a laggard at seven titles.
In December 2016, the UK government knighted Andy Murray for his accomplishment of ending the year as the world’s top-ranked player for the first time in his career, and winning three major titles thus far. By this measure, Federer should have been knighted six times over and Nadal, at least four times till now.
Just to be sure, Murray’s and Djokovic’s early exits made it easier for Federer and Nadal to advance, but it still was not an easy path. Both of them curtailed their 2016 seasons because of injuries, and both had few expectations of doing well on their return to a major since recovery.
Yet, they beat spirited contests from players much younger and healthier than them, sometimes playing matches that went on for over three hours and lasted five sets. Federer beat Nadal, Stanislas Wawrinka, Mischa Zverev and Kei Nishikori to win the crown — an incredible achievement given his age. Nadal beat a resurgent Grigor Dimitrov, the dangerous Milos Raonic and the unpredictable Gaël Monfils on his way to the final.
Nadal played for nearly five hours against Dimitrov in the semi-final, and his finals match against Federer lasted over three hours. Both these matches were played in the space of less than 48 hours.
Are they even human?
So what is it about these aging superstars, that makes them so incredibly successful? They appear as human as the rest of us, but their accomplishments show that they are not. What can the rest of us learn from them and apply those lessons to what we do?
Quite simply, it is that these players nurture an enormous hunger to excel. They enjoy winning, the crowds, the spotlight, the handshake at the net and the return to the court to thank their fans. This hunger has not dwindled, though they have nothing left to prove. Federer’s and Serena’s records will likely stay unsurpassed — for several decades, at the very least. Contentment is a word that is alien to them.
It is one thing to desire to excel, but quite another to do what it takes to succeed. The world of tennis is gruelling like no other. The fitness routines of the top players would make most of us shake our heads in disbelief even to just watch, far less perform.
After working out for four to five hours at the gym on cardiovascular exercises, weights and other strengthening routines, players go out and practice on the court for a couple of hours, every single day of the week. And they do this while keeping their diets fully in check.
There is also the painful travel across continents in a season that is continuous for nearly 11 months in a year. Federer famously said that although he enjoyed recuperating for six months in Switzerland last year, he and his family missed the action of the tour and were longing to get back. Nadal’s injuries would have made a lesser player quit, but he is as determined as ever to make a comeback in 2017.
So it all boils down to two things: a hunger to excel, and the intense commitment, hard work and discipline to succeed. If the rest of us could do this even fractionally, the world would be a better place.