How Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal gave Father Time the slip Down Under
Sports fans the world over were the real winners during an unlikely and breathtaking Australian Open final
He’s right behind us, Father Time is. Eventually he gets us all and nowhere is Father Time more aggressive and remorseless than in the world of sports, where athletes get old young. For the rare and truly gifted, dominance begins to ebb in their early 30s, particularly in a pace-filled game like tennis. Pete Sampras won 14 men’s grand slam titles but was finished at the age of 31. Bjorn Borg won the last of his 11 slams just after turning 25, while John McEnroe was done winning his seven slams at 26. Even the peerless and imperious Roger Federer, who entered 2017 with the most men’s grand slams titles at 17, was 31 when he won his last one at Wimbledon in 2012. Since 1972, the oldest male grand slam victor was 32-year-old Andre Agassi at the 2003 Australian Open. There are a number of reasons why youth is most often served at a tennis grand slam but none more so than the arduous two-week journey to the finish line.
You have to win seven matches over 14 days and for the men, in particular, it’s a debilitating grind needing three sets to capture a match. Small surprise that a 35-year-old Federer came in seeded 17th and was given little chance of winning, as was 30-year-old ninth seed Rafael Nadal. Federer hadn’t even played in six months and grand slams are not where you knock the rust off your game. You come in form or you go home, it’s that simple.
On the women’s side, a similar phenomenon was playing out as 35-year-old Serena Williams met her 36-year-old sister Venus in the final. It’s a story as remarkable as any in tennis considering the age of both women and the fact they learned the game in Compton, California, an area in Los Angeles more famous for hip-hop gangsters than tennis greatness. When Federer and Nadal emerged to play in a dream final, it marked the first time that all four finalists in the men’s and women’s singles were over the age of 30. Unlike her male counterparts, though, Serena has dominated well into her 30s and while she is arguably the best female player of all time, her dominance at an advanced age makes more sense. Serena’s semi-final match against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni was over after 50 minutes. Nadal’s gruelling and wildly entertaining semi-final against Grigor Dimitrov lasted five hours.
You don’t have to be an anti-aging expert to know an athlete in their 30s will hold up much better over a 50-minute period than a five-hour session. This is not an alternative fact, it’s a true fact and merely meant to illustrate how extraordinarily rare and special a Federer/Nadal final was. With 31 grand slams between them, soon to be 32, this was history before a ball was even struck. Both have routinely been classy, scandal-free tennis ambassadors who have managed to carry and grow the sport despite the continued absence of an impactful male tennis player from the United States, the game’s most lucrative market. By any measure, they are the two most popular players in men’s tennis over the last 15 years and both were playing some of the most inspired tennis of their storied careers.
It was all too much, surely the hype would transcend the match itself. But somehow a magical comeback by Federer in the fifth set to win an unlikely 18th slam produced some of the most riveting tennis, and sport, most of us can remember. The points were hard fought with endless jaw-dropping volleys punctuated by sublime winning shots, not unforced errors. In the end, sport, and sport in Asia, were the big winners. The Australian Open bills itself as the Asia-Pacific grand slam and for one day it truly was if for no other reason than the time of day. All over the continent, millions of viewers were treated to the sight of two legends slugging it out in prime time leaving an indelible impression on a young and aspiring generation.
Ever the pragmatic diplomat, Federer understood the history he was part of. “I embraced the fact that it was a big match,” he said, “because it was. But I was trying to play the ball, not the opponent. My coaches told me physically your game is there, at the end it’s mental.” Spoken like a sage veteran who understands what a ravenous old sod Father Time is. Not only does he want your agile limbs, Father Time is coming for you mind as well. But luckily for Roger Federer, and sports fans all over the world, it’s usually well after he gets your body.