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What's age got to do if you are a champion?

February 13, 2017 10:29 IST

A staggering number of athletes across sports seem to have found their best game in their 30s, 40s, says Shakya Mitra.

Roger Federer

IMAGE: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer after their epic encounter in the Australian Open men's final. Photograph: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

The last weekend at the Australian Open was one for sports nostalgia, with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal contesting the men's singles final and Serena Williams taking on her sister Venus in the women's singles final.

It was the first time since Wimbledon 2008 that both the duos were facing off in the finale of the same event.

But more than the nostalgia and feel good factor was the matter of age.

Federer and Serena are 35, while Venus is a year older and Nadal is a few months short of 31.

Stanislas Wawrinka, who Federer beat in the last four, will turn 32 this year, while in perhaps the feel good story of the tournament, 34-year-old Mirjana Lucic-Baroni reached a Grand Slam semi-final for the first time since 1999.

Their longevity is astonishing.

Federer won his first Slam in 2003 and his victory at Melbourne was his first title since 2012.

Serena, on the other hand, won her first Grand Slam in 1999, close to two decades between her first and her most recent title and with seemingly no real challenger to her dominance.

Sports science and better training facilities have had a big role to play in the success of older athletes.

The 'late' peak being achieved by Federer or Serena is not entirely unfamiliar: Jimmy Connors memorably reached the US Open semifinal in 1991 at the age of 39, while Martina Navratilova reached the Wimbledon final in 1994 at 38.

Andre Agassi played the best tennis of his career from 1999 when he turned 29, winning five Slams till his retirement in 2006.

However, there is a difference between good tennis and peak tennis and this is where Federer and Serena stand apart.

Great players like Navratilova and Connors ceased to remain the dominant forces they once were as they entered their 30s.

Serena has won 10 Grand Slam titles after 30, while Federer's success at the Australian Open should also take into consideration that he spent much of 2016 out with a knee injury.

Advancements in sports science and better training facilities have had a big role to play in the success of older athletes.

Pravin Tambe

IMAGE: Limited overs cricket described as a 'young man's game', has seen some of its star performers in their mid or late 30s, and even in their 40s like spinner Pravin Tambe. Photograph: BCCI

Harwinder Singh Randhawa, director (sports), Guru Nanak Dev University, asserts that age apart, quality has a role to play.

He takes the examples of Carl Lewis and Michael Phelps, who won gold medals in four consecutive Olympics, to suggest that when peak form is attained at a younger age, it is possible to maintain it for much longer.

Pravin Tambe played his first T20 game in 2013 at the grand 'young' age of 42.

Vikram Sharma, a sports medicine specialist, feels proper diet and nutrition along with the right implementation of sports medicine plays a big role in enhancing the careers of sportspersons nowadays.

"Through sports medicine, the body capacity of athletes can be stretched."

Tennis is not alone when it comes to athletes achieving peak form as they get older.

Limited overs cricket, often described as a 'young man's game', has seen some of its star performers in their mid or late-30s, and even in their 40s.

The best example of this is Brad Hogg, who is one of the star attractions of the Big Bash League in Australia, despite being a few days short of 46.

Even in the Indian Premier League, Pravin Tambe played his first T20 game in 2013 at the grand 'young' age of 42.

As they say, age has no limits and sport is no exception.

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Shakya Mitra
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