Nirmal Shekar

Is No. 18 a peak too steep for Federer?

Roger Federer.  

In sport, there is ageing, there is ageing and then there is ageing. Not all athletes age the same way, just as no two minds work exactly the same way all the time.

Recently I had the chance to revisit an issue that has engaged my attention through four decades in sports writing to try and find a fresh perspective on a subject that is debated all the time; yet, one that is never easily resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Ever since Novak Djokovic dismissed His Royal Highness Mr. GOAT (greatest of all time) at the Australian Open a few weeks ago, the question that has confronted me – thanks to friends who believe I am an expert on the subject, although it is one in which nobody can be certain that he is right — is this: Does Roger Federer have another Grand Slam title left in him?

On the face of it, it is not a mind-bogglingly difficult question to answer for a person who has closely followed tennis for four decades and has covered over 50 Grand Slam championships.

But then, only when you are alone and sit and ponder the question does it strike you that you would be better off telling people that you have no idea if Federer is capable of winning another Major or two.

This is because no matter how deeply involved you have been in the game, no matter all the past examples, no matter the comments made by former players and other assorted experts, you can never be certain that you have the right answer — although taking the easy way out and saying “I don’t know,” is a cop out, for sure.

Different people age differently for a variety of reasons. But in sport, ageing can be looked at from four angles, in the least.

There are sportsmen who have been also-rans for a long time, and who turn out to be also-walks with age. We seldom even care to find out much about them. They are the support cast with minimal attention paid to them even when they are doing their best.

Then there are those who are good — probably ranked in the top 10 for some time — who, with age, find themselves ranked in high three figures and slowly vanish from our sights.

Interesting categories

But the two most interesting categories worth our time are the well known Major winners. They basically age in two ways. In the first are the ones who fool themselves into believing that they can somehow magically recreate their best in their mid-30s and hang around for an opportunity that rarely comes their way.

The last group is the most delightfully spirit lifting. These are men and women who bravely, and with enormous skills, defy the athlete’s greatest enemy — time.

“I read in the Atlanta paper this week that 46-year-olds don’t win Masters. I kind of agreed. I got thinking. Hmmm. Done, thoroughly washed up. And I sizzled for a while. And I said to myself, I am not going to quit right now, playing the way I am playing. I have played too well too long to let shorter period golf be my last,’’ said Jack Nicklaus after winning his last and 18th Major at the Augusta Masters in 1986 at age 46.

While Federer, winner of 17 Grand Slam titles, might agree with the Golden Bear, he would also come to realise that he may not have too much time in which to win his own 18th.

Though he has never talked about quitting or even about pondering the question of retirement with any kind of seriousness, Djokovic has turned out to be his nemesis in recent times and the best chance that the Swiss maestro may have of adding to his impressive collection of Grand Slam silverware will come if and when the Serbian world champion loses early in a Major.

“Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,” wrote Mark Twain.

It is easy to say that confidently if you were a great writer; but athletes age at least three times as quickly — based on their performance, their speed and their reflexes — as do people in most other professions.

We have found out over the last two years that even in a game that is almost entirely mental, age does not let you off easily. This is precisely why Viswanathan Anand’s long experience playing world title matches mattered little when he twice lost to Magnus Carlsen, a Norwegian prodigy about half his age.

It is not just the bones and muscles that age; even the mind does. Years of accumulated wisdom might matter little when an energetic, supremely confident young man forces you to solve a seemingly unsolvable puzzle or two on the 64-square board.

As human lifespan grows longer and training methods, technology and expertise improve, you might expect to see older champions. But the same is true of young world beaters too as they take advantage of these advancements to attain peak performance time and again.

The legendary English cricketer Jack Hobbs was 46 years and 82 days old when he scored 142 for England in a Test match against Australia at Melbourne in March 1929. But the man nicknamed The Master is unlikely to ever turn in his grave as this is a record that might stand the test of time.

No matter all this, it cannot be said with certainty that Federer can never win another Grand Slam before he finally rests on his laurels. Ken Rosewell was 37 when he won the Australian Open in 1972, although in that era the only top players to compete in that Slam event were Australians.

Only a fortnight ago, Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks in US football — NFL or grid iron football as the rest of the world calls it — won his second Super Bowl ring, and the first with the Denver Broncos — at age 39.

Tennis is much less demanding physically — especially if you can play with the graceful, unmatched effortlessness of a Federer.

I, for one, will not write off the 34-year-old Swiss. For I believe the moment the great man gets the feeling that he is no longer a serious contender at the Slams, he will pack up his bags for good.

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