Pundits rarely acknowledge the harshest way advancing age affects a tennis player who’s turned that critical corner of 30.
Pancho Gonzalez, the towering amateur era figure, declared that the first thing to go is the eyes—the ability to pick up the ball coming off an opponent’s racquet. Others, including John McEnroe, have talked about losing a microsecond of foot speed (although the real issue is less actual speed than reaction time).
A different camp de-emphasizes the elements that might fall under the heading, Physical Decline. They home in on the way an aging champ becomes susceptible to the lapses of concentration and consistency that he consistently avoided through the salad years of his career. Those almost fugue-like episodes of wretched play come out of the blue with no rhyme or reason, and they tend to prove that the formula for greatness isn’t very complicated at all: Given the requisite amount of talent, you just have play close to your peak at all times, and especially so on the most important occasions. And aging players can no longer do that.
If you saw the fourth-round U.S. Open loss Roger Federer took to Tommy Robredo (against whom Federer had been 10-0 against), you might endorse that third explanation for unexpected failure. The Roger Federer who made so many poor choices and squandered so many chances and blasted so many wild errors—43 in three sets—against Robredo was nothing like The Mighty Fed of yore.
But this is what seals it: Robredo himself is hot on Federer’s trail in the race to the rocking chair. He’s just a year and change younger than Federer, yet he played with the focus, nerve, and skill of a 25-year-old. Whatever the difference between the men that day, it clearly wasn’t age-related in any identifiable way.
Recognizing that Federer’s problem in New York had less to do with, say, the power in his 32-year-old quads or the acuity of his eyes than with his ability to focus and bring all his physical powers into concert points to the most destructive power of age, and the way it paints the champion into a corner from which there’s little chance of escape. This has been a growing problem, and one that’s unique to our time and the way the game is organized.
As Federer is learning, he’s at that stage when he could benefit from cutting back his schedule. In 2012, he demonstrated that doing so really improved his chances when he did play. That’s because he existed on a fragile seam. He was still able to play at or near his peak on a consistent basis despite cutting back on his workload in order to keep his mind and body fresh. This year, that seam crumbled like a tightrope beneath his feet. And now a reduced schedule may be harmful to his chances—yet vital to his ambitions to enjoy a long career.
Ironically, the rules of the ATP are set up in a way that is theoretically friendly to aging players, but the rankings are not. Federer is totally exempt from the strict commitment rules governing player participation in the nine Masters 1000 events. He doesn’t have to commit to playing even a single Masters tournament because of a unique trifecta: Federer is over 31 years old, he’s played on tour for at least 12 years, and he’s won at least 600 matches.
Reaching each of those milestones reduces a player’s requirement by one event; reach all three, as Federer did, and you aren’t obliged to enter a single Masters. But even Federer isn’t exempt that old saw about the free lunch. In order to keep his ranking high enough to avoid first- or second-round pairings with elite players, Federer must play—and win—matches and tournaments.
Furthermore, for an aging player, ranking is transformed from milestone into millstone. Federer, or any other champ, might be able to handle being ranked No. 15, or 22, or even 77. But few in this numbers and status-driven era will allow him that luxury. He will be hounded by endless questions about ranking and retirement, enough so to make his life miserable, something the press generally cannot do—protestations to the contrary—to a player in his prime.
Imagine for a moment that the ranking system doesn’t exist (and it wasn’t so long ago that it didn’t). It would certainly help alleviate Federer’s dilemma. But the reality is that the game is so rankings-driven, and it ultimately asks two things that an aging player hoping to conserve his resources can’t really deliver: Frequency of participation and consistency of results.
It isn’t failing eyesight, creaky knees, or even mental fatigue that drives a player out of the game. It’s the demands of the rankings system. In 2014 we’ll probably see if Federer can live with that monkey on his back.