By Peter Lederman
As we painfully watch our own abilities just to handle the everyday tasks of life diminish, it is understandably poignant to watch those who have conquered their worlds begin to fade. There has never been a more fascinating and clear time to witness this than right now in professional tennis, both men’s and women’s.
For the past two decades (an unusually long time for kings and queens of a sport to reign) there have been 4 names that have gathered almost all the glory: Serena Williams (age 38) on the women’s side and Roger Federer (38), Rafael Nadal (33) and Novak Djokovic (32) on the men’s. I’m going to stick with the men because never before have 3 players, all candidates to be considered the G.O.A.T. (the Greatest Of All Time), competed at the same time and thus against each other.
To win a Grand Slam tournament (there are 4 of these each year usually at the hottest times of the year in 4 different countries) you have to win seven increasingly more difficult matches in a row, winning 3 out of 5 sets, each set taking anywhere from 50 minutes to an hour and a half. You are alone on a court fighting and competing against someone just about as talented and determined as you are for the better part of 3-5 hours. It’s mind bogglingly grueling and unforgiving. You lose and you go home. You break a bone and the life you have endlessly pursued ends.
Well, since 2003 our 3 heroes have ruled the sport, winning 56 out of 67 of these slams. They have dedicated almost their entire lives from age 3 or 4 to pushing their bodies through endless practices and workouts and competitions. They have enjoyed success and adulation beyond anything we can imagine, but they KNOW. They KNOW that it is taking them longer to physically and mentally recover from each match. That a ball they used to reach without thought has become a bit of an effort. They KNOW that somewhere in the world a new version of themselves is growing stronger and will seek them out.
Every couple of years there is a new crop of fresh young talent who play with abandon and without the aches and injuries and weariness of these old men. Yes our GOATS are old, very old in terms of an athlete’s prime life span but it is their spirit to compete, their love of the game and the wisdom they have acquired along the way that gives them at this point just the slightest of edges. Now, every once in a while they lose a match to the blossoming youngsters and the struggle you get to watch is age-old and mythic and probably more tangible than in any other sport or art. Sometimes they play each other, which is epic. Please don’t miss the passing from tennis of the splendid artistry of Roger Federer (who is sitting out till the late spring with an injured knee).
Written by a 74 year old pickleball player who treasures his remaining time on the court.~