Age is just a number, or so the saying goes.
If we are being realistic, in the world of sports, age determines almost everything — body development, skill level, IQ, you name it.
But for some incredibly well-trained and also lucky athletes, it does indeed seem like age is just a number.
So let’s talk about a man who is dominating his sport as one of the oldest players, and one who is not named Tom Brady — I’ll save that conversation for next week.
That man is Roger Federer. He is 36 years old, just won his 20th Grand Slam singles title — and for all we know, there are more on the way.
“I just got to keep a good schedule, stay hungry, and then maybe good things can happen. Then I don’t think age is an issue, per se; it’s just a number,” Federer said when asked after the victory about his potential to win more slams.
Federer’s career trajectory, much like Brady’s actually, shows a remarkable second wind. After being so dominant early in their careers, they both had a relative lull followed by another rise to the top. Fed won his first Grand Slam at the 2003 Wimbledon, and the following year, he exploded into the ranks of tennis royalty by winning three of the four Grand Slams in 2004.
Fed continued to dominate, winning two slams in 2005, as well as three during ’06 and ’07.
But after winning 12 majors in five calendar years, his rate of success started to decline, with just four in the next three years. A back injury in late 2008 set what appeared to be this decline in motion, and 2011 was Fed’s first without a Grand Slam title since 2003.
Without a major trophy from 2013-2016, many thought Federer was done winning titles and that he was on his way out. Moreover, the rise of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Federer’s fellow countryman, Stan Wawrinka, put much more stiff competition in his path back to the top.
But we all know what followed ─ the second coming of Federer, along with his rival and clay court kryptonite, Rafael Nadal.
The two have returned to playing an exceptional quality of tennis and have combined to win the last five Grand Slams, including Federer’s win over Rafa in the 2017 Australian Open final. After a medical timeout before the fifth set, Fed famously clawed back from 3-1 down and took five games in a row to win the championship. Fed also took the 2017 Wimbledon title, and of course, this past weekend’s Australian Open.
What was particularly special about the most recent victory in Australia was that it looked like it was Fed’s tournament from so early on. Nadal had to retire in the quarterfinals. Djokovic missed nearly half of 2017 with an elbow injury and lost in the fourth round with noticeable pain in that same elbow. A hip injury has sidelined Murray indefinitely. And Stan, also with a late 2017 surgery, bowed out in the second round of this year’s first Grand Slam.
So Fed’s competition in the final was Marin Čilić, the same man whom Fed reduced to tears in the 2017 Wimbledon final.
Now of course, being lucky because rivals are injured doesn’t mean Federer is necessarily better than them, but it does speak to his longevity. It speaks to the grueling nature of the sport, where even the younger stars may already be facing the twilight of their careers around age 30.
Meanwhile, at 36, Fed is still running the show. Federer is about four years older than all of the aforementioned competitors, and he is still the one on the court during the final.
If anything, the sentiment I’ve held since that fateful 2017 Australian Open has been joy. How lucky can we as fans be to have a second chance to witness the all-time greatness of Roger Federer? Now we play the waiting game until our luck runs out and a new challenger takes the throne.
Take a bow, Roger — you’ve outdone yourself once again.