Tuesday 20 March 2018 / 03:09 AM


If 2016 was the year of the underdog in sports, then 2017 is shaping as a renaissance for evergreen athletes who are seemingly ageing like Benjamin Button. The year is still fledgling yet is already filled with astounding achievements by those tapping back into the fountain of youth.

During the Australian Open, all four finalists of the singles were aged over 30, highlighted by Roger Federer and Serena Williams winning at the ripe age of 35. This type of success always seemed unfathomable for a sport which conjures prodigies, spawning a string of memorable teenaged champions.

Some of the most indelible memories of tennis have included those outrageously talented at a young age. It has always been an astounding sight to watch, essentially, schoolkids win the most hallowed tennis trophies. It was always so natural and normal witnessing the emergence of a young talent conquering the landscape even before being allowed to drink alcohol or drive a car.

There were obvious reasons why tennis produced such precocious youngsters. To excel at tennis requires dedication at such a tender age manifesting into an early skill-set much like many Olympic sports, which similarly have an early peak for athletes. The prime years for tennis players was always deemed to be in the early-20s; once a player hit 30 it was almost game over.

However, there has been a severe shift in recent times which started a recalibration of traditional thinking. There were stylistic changes in the way the game was played, notably it shifted from a finesse to power game contributing to more late bloomers and resulting in fewer prodigies. But perhaps more pertinently, prolonging careers and safeguarding from burnout, veterans tend to carefully select which tournaments they play to manage the arduous workload of the calendar.

Undoubtedly, the longevity of tennis players is not an outlier but a trend across sports and the results have been gobsmacking. Even in Twenty20 cricket, a frenetic and fast format supposedly ideal for youngsters, has seen veterans excel including 36-year-old Michael Klinger, who made his international debut for Australia against Sri Lanka at the MCG on Friday night.

In the NRL, 33-year-old trio Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk perennially battle with relatively spring chicken Greg Inglis (30) for the world’s best player mantle – to the extent that any other player rarely enters the conversation.

Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback in the NFL, was the MVP in the recent Super Bowl aged 39, where he arguably conjured his greatest ever game. LeBron James, the consensus best player of the NBA, is in his 14th season and yet has shown no slippage, with his statistics in the current season basically the same to that of a decade ago. It has been reported that James spends over $1 million a year to aid his fitness, including a gym at his home and a personal chef. Almost everything he does revolves around ensuring his body is in optimal physical shape. Similarly, Brady is noted as being just as meticulous.

We are seeing across sports those that fastidiously look after their body can ward off ageing and have the type of longevity that seemed unfathomable just a couple of decades ago. No doubt some of the aforementioned superstars – like Brady, LeBron, Federer – rely on their innate resolve and sheer professionalism to keep defying father time – plus their own deep pockets to tap into to go a step further.

Still, even for the mere mortal athlete, a typical career arc has undoubtedly changed and no longer applies in modern sports. Those who look after their body and mind can perhaps now genuinely have a career lasting 20 years.

Primes are being extended; Serena has won 10 majors since she hit 30 and is mimicking her run from the early-2000s when she obliterated the women’s tour. It is easy to envision Brady still winning Super Bowls in his 40s; while LeBron – if he doesn’t suffer a major injury, which his steely physique seems to be able to defy – could genuinely have a two-decade career of continual excellence that has never been seen before in the NBA.

Undisputedly, sports has evolved and there are greater rewards on offer for the indefatigable and the savvy veterans. Pleasingly for sports fans, it means we can marvel at our heroes for longer than we thought was ever humanly possible.

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About the author

Tristan Lavalette

Tristan is a freelance journalist based in Perth. He has written for The Guardian, ESPN and Yahoo Sports. Previously he was a newspaper journalist for almost a decade.

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