Tennis’s golden oldies party like it’s 2006

King and queen: Federer and Serena Williams have won a third of all grand slams since 2002.

Roger Federer and Serena Williams won the men’s and women’s titles at the Australian Open tennis tournament this weekend. They both turned 35 last year. Are older champions good for sport?

Championship point at the Australian Open. A fierce Roger Federer forehand swept past a helpless Rafael Nadal.

‘FAULT!’

‘Mr Federer is challenging the call. The ball was called out.’

The two legends of tennis, still full of energy after five sets, looked at the big screen. It showed that the call was a mistake: the ball was in. Federer collapsed to the floor. At the age of 35, he had defied sceptics and a six-month knee injury lay-off to win his 18th grand slam.

Just the day before, Serena Williams had won her 23rd grand slam, a record in the Open-era, by beating her older sister Venus at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. It was the fourth time they had played each other in a slam final.

Both Williams sisters, like Federer and Nadal, had come back from lengthy periods of injury to reassert their dominance. Between them, the four have helped to define tennis for the best part of two decades.

Writing in The Observer, Kevin McKenna said that ‘in one of the most physically demanding sports of all, a gerontocracy has emerged to drink once more the elixir of youth.’ He argued that their victories were all the more remarkable because of advances in sports science that ‘favour younger competitors’.

Both matches enthralled sports fans. Many have grown up following the two famous duels: on one hand the sibling rivalry of the Williams sisters; on the other the captivating contrast between Federer’s balletic elegance and Nadal’s fighting spirit.

Like fights between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier or a match involving Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the weekend’s finals were full of sub-plots. Most fans firmly identify with one or the other player.

And the story of the golden oldie fascinates us all. How is it possible for a 35-year-old to stay physically competitive with someone ten years younger?

Part of it is down to extraordinary dedication and a champion’s ability to adapt. But where are the successors to Federer and Williams? Should we worry that these victories reveal a lack of world-class talent among tennis’s next generation?

Sell-by date

Absolutely, say some. Our response to people in their mid-thirties winning championships should be exasperation, not jubilation. It should worry tennis fans that no young players look set to match the achievements of Federer and Nadal. Sport’s greatest joy is watching new champions emerge from obscurity and beating the old masters.

What a miserable way of looking at it, reply others. It is inspiring to see that age and injury are no barriers to success. By staying at the top for so long, Federer, Nadal and the Williams sisters have ensured that their names will be remembered for all time. That is what sport is all about.

You Decide

  1. Do you tend to support the old masters or the new kids on the block?
  2. Are older champions good for sport?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are interviewing either Roger Federer or Serena Williams. Write down the three questions you would most like to ask them.
  2. Write a 400-word report on the most recent sporting event you watched.

Some People Say...

“Youth has no age.”

Pablo Picasso

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not a tennis fan. Why should I care about this?
Well, because you will be old one day. This story is not really about the intricacies of what happens on the tennis court. Instead it is about how age effects human beings’ sporting ability. Some believe that the added experience outweighs the physical ageing, while others think that there is no substitute for the fitness of youth.
Are these players likely to carry on for much longer?
Probably not, but then again experts said that five years ago. But it is incredibly rare for a top tennis player to continue at the top into his or her late-30s. Federer’s victory is all the more amazing because he is now ranked 17th in the world. Serena Williams, meanwhile, still goes in as favourite to win most tournaments.

Word Watch

Championship point
The point that would decide the winner of a tennis tournament.
Australian Open
One of four ‘grand slam’ tennis tournaments. The Australian Open, along with the US Open, is played on a hard court. The French Open is played on clay, while Wimbledon is played on grass.
Open-era
Before 1968, only amateur players were allowed to compete in the four annual grand slams.
Older
Venus Williams is 36.
Rod Laver
Australia’s greatest ever male tennis player. Laver won 11 grand slams in his career. He was ranked number one in the world from 1964 to 1970.
Federer and Nadal
Despite Federer’s status as the world’s most decorated tennis player, he has always struggled against Nadal, who has won 23 of their 35 matches.
Gerontocracy
A group or society which is governed by older people.
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier
Perhaps boxing’s most famous enemies, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought three times, with Ali winning twice and Frazier once. The two boxed in very different styles, with Ali renowned for his speed and Frazier for his sheer strength.