Rafael Nadal’s dominance would go on for another five years, while Big Three could play into his forties
The sweeping story of the French Open over the next fourteen days goes well beyond the very obvious question of whether someone can stop Rafael Nadal.
Behind that lies the overarching theme for the men’s competition most of whom will get Grand Slams, with Roger Federer and Nadal tied at 20 each and Novak Djokovic quickly closing at 18.
This is a great time for birthdays in tennis. Nadal turns 35 on Wednesday, while Djokovic (and Andy Murray) turned 34 in the past two weeks. By the end of this summer, Federer and Serena Williams will be in their 40s.
Tennis’ Big Three, including Novak Djokovic, are great athletes and can continue into their forties
39-year-old Roger Federer uses movement so efficiently that he can continue until his fourth decade
The trio dominated the recent Grand Slams
How long will it be before the Changing of the Guard – which has been talked about for so long it’s become a worn-out cliché – finally happens? The disturbing news for the challengers is that, according to several experts, this aging but extraordinary generation will not disappear any time soon.
Giles Stafford, an orthopedic surgeon at London’s Wellington Hospital, has years of experience working with elite athletes and is an avid tennis player herself. He cites the control that individual athletes have over their careers as one of the reasons why they will have a surprisingly long life span.
“A big difference between a sport like tennis and a team like football or rugby is that a tennis player can choose when to come back after an injury,” he says.
In a team sport, there may be reasons to rush back, because the manager has to reinforce the team, or because the player is afraid of losing his place or not getting a new contract. I’ve seen myself shorten careers. These top tennis players can choose just the right time to return. ‘
Of course, no one can beat Father Time, but hitting the 1930s brings pros and cons.
“ You would normally expect them to slow down when it comes to explosive speed when they are in their early 30s, but at the same time, their stamina will likely improve, ” says Stafford.
I could see Federer go past 40 because his movement is so efficient. Looking at Djokovic’s body type, he could go on for a long time too. I don’t see Nadal going on that long because of the aggressive and physical way he plays, especially with that great successor.
Unusually, the world-leading trio were all drawn in the same half of the French Open in 2021
‘I would see old problems as a potential problem in all of them. We all have a finite number of cycles in each joint before they start to break down.
Another aspect is that these excellent athletes can compartmentalize pain in a way that is difficult for recreational players to understand. I once performed quite a major surgery on an ex-All Black that lasted over two hours.
To my surprise, he tried to fire himself a few hours later and I had to persuade him otherwise. In plain language, in fact, it was because he was hard as nails. ‘
His Wellington colleague and fellow orthopedic surgeon Andy Goldberg, another avid tennis player and part of the Elite Sports Concierge Service, believes that in a contactless sports fan, don’t be too surprised that careers stretch.
There are plenty of examples elsewhere of maintaining top performances into your late 30s, in football you can watch Cristiano Ronaldo or someone like Teddy Sheringham.
‘Especially in tennis, the improvements and the racket and string technology help, but there are some things that they cannot escape.
As you get older, your ability to use oxygen diminishes. Your bones have a peak mass of 25-35 and after that there is a decline for all of us. Another important thing is the collagens, which strengthen our skin, tendons and ligaments. These get stiffer as you get older and more susceptible. ‘
Andy Murray has had a hip replacement and wears ankle braces, but can still play
Tennis players are definitely getting better at fighting off the onset of middle age. It’s been 30 years since Jimmy Connors stunned the game by making it to the US Open semi-finals just after he turned 39, but the sport has been vastly more physical ever since.
Despite this, there are currently 19 players in the men’s top 100 who are 33 or older.
“We are not all equal, some are just born less vulnerable,” Goldberg adds. These players are titans whose genes are set up to have an incredible physique. Their mental capacity is also greater.
“Andy Murray has had a hip replacement and wears ankle braces, but he’s so determined he’s trying to overstress it.”
He also offers a more prosaic explanation of why they are driven to keep making the sacrifices: “I don’t think when it comes to the issue of longevity, we should ignore the money on offer today. These people are brands and they want to maximize that. ‘
From tennis the view emerges that a career of two decades will be considered more normal.
As a strength and conditioning trainer specializing in rehabilitation, Kieron Vorster has worked for over 25 years with the likes of Tim Henman, Wayne Ferreira and more recently Dan Evans.
Watching Nadal, 34, lift the French Open trophy, could be a familiar face for a few years
“There are big changes in sports science, how players prepare for sleep, nutritional intake, recovery techniques and even things like yoga,” he says. ‘It used to be a shower and a massage after a game and then you went.
Then came ice baths and now you have a lot of players who use leg sleeves that can reach up to the hip, that use compression to get rid of lactic acid. The top players now have entourages with them, including highly skilled specialists who will oversee the recovery.
‘In the 90s, a player might take some electrolytes during a game, now things like sweat and blood are analyzed to make sure they are getting exactly what they need.
“I think it is possible that this change of the guard could take another four years, provided these exceptional players still feel motivated. The boundaries will be pushed, you may see in the future that more players turn into their early 40s and are very competitive. ‘
Tennis is also a sport in which a player is unlikely to run more than a kilometer even in a long set, albeit at high intensity.
“You see people in Iron Man and Triathlons posting their personal best times in their 40s,” adds Vorster. “Of course it’s about genetics, but maybe twenty years of careers are considered average.”
In that case, the sight of Nadal biting the Coupe des Mousquetaires at Roland Garros, a staple of Sundays in early June, is one that might be repeated a few more times.