Roger Federer is doomed – or so you would think from the coverage of his 30th birthday earlier this month.
The tone of much of it was what you’d expect from a retirement party: “Let’s raise a glass to Roger, because he was great for so long, and now those days are over.” But are they?
Tennis players, like many other athletes, see their performance begin to decline in their 30s. And it would be impossible for Federer to sustain the level of play that, in his 20s, made him arguably the greatest player in the history of the game – 16 Grand Slam titles, more than any other player; 23 major finals reached, again more than any other player; the only man in history to reach the final of each major at least five times; the man who holds the record for the most consecutive Grand Slam quarter-finals reached (29). The list goes on.
Yet as Federer approaches the U.S. Open, which starts Monday, he may be better able to shrug off his age than most other players. (Federer won five consecutive U.S. Open titles in 2004-08.)
“He’s unique in the sense that his game’s so efficient,” Rogers Cup tournament director Karl Hale says. “He will be a threat, for sure.”
Should Federer win the final Grand Slam event of the year, it’s not as if he’d be setting a major historical precedent. Since the open era began, in 1968, a player in his 30s has won the men’s U.S. Open singles final on five occasions.
Rod Laver was 31 when he won the tournament in 1969. Ken Rosewall became the oldest male player to win the Slam in 1970, at 35. It took another dozen years for another fogey to come along and hoist the trophy. Jimmy Connors was 30 when he won the tournament in 1982. And perhaps to prove that older players still have plenty of game, he won it again the following year.
Nearly 20 years later, Pete Sampras became the next, and last, player to win the tournament in his 30s when, at 31, he defeated 32-year-old Andre Agassi in 2002.
Still, there’s no doubt players have lost a step or two by the time they hit their fourth decade, especially considering how young most are when they begin playing seriously in a sport that has barely any off-season.
“Over 15 years of competing year round, it really takes it’s toll when you hit the 30-year mark,” Hale says.
But that said, Hale expects to see more pros playing well in to their 30s for two reasons: One, today’s players have seen enough of the older generation retiring only to return a few years later to know they should savour the game while they can, even if they aren’t playing as well as they once did; second, and perhaps more importantly, there are now better treatments for the aches and pains that beset athletes.
“Training and rehabilitation is getting better and better, so they can stay healthy longer,” Hale says.
Federer is healthy as he heads to Flushing Meadows in New York, where he is seeded third behind relative youngsters Novak Djokovic, 24, and long-time nemesis Rafael Nadal, who is 25 – the two most common ages of U.S. Open winners.
While it’s true Federer hasn’t won a Grand Slam since the Australian Open in 2010 (and winning his 17th major won’t be easy), now that he’s got to fight harder for it than he ever has, watching him try will surely be mesmerizing.