BOBBY HARRISON: Pains of age and decline hit vicariously in athletics

BOBBY HARRISON

BOBBY HARRISON

JACKSON – Roger Federer looked old on Labor Day night and that made me feel real old – ancient.

Federer lost in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Tennis Championship – his earliest departure from the Grand Slam tournament in a decade. At age 32, the Swiss native is far from old in the real world. But in the world of professional tennis, it could be argued that one foot is in the grave and the other is on a banana peel.

Upon cursory glance, Federer looks far from old. He still glides around the court – often looking as if his feet never touch the ground. His game is still one of beauty. But he has been winning fewer and fewer big points and thus fewer matches – hence his shockingly early departure at the U.S. Open.

Through a career where he established the record for most grand slam victories – something Tiger Woods is still chasing in golf with little success in recent years – Federer won nearly all the big points.

His ability to win the big points is in essence what separated him from everyone else and made him arguably the greatest player in history.

Tennis always has been billed as a lifetime sport – something that a person could play for his or her life to stay active and in shape. But statistics tell us that professional tennis players have a much shorter life span than most other pro athletes – perhaps shorter than even football players.

Only 19 champions of the four annual grand slams tournaments since the so-called “open era” of tennis began in 1968 have been over the age of 30. Federer won his last major – Wimbledon – at just under age 31 in 2012. Before then, no other grand slam champ was over the age of 30 since Pete Sampras won at the U.S. Open way back in 2002 at age 31. About the same time, Andre Agassi won a couple of grand slams over the age of 30.

Most of the other grand slam championships won by players over the age of 30 came in the 1990s and prior.

In other words, it is getting harder for older tennis players to win major championships. It appears two things are happening – tennis is constantly evolving with newer players making adjustments and surpassing the veteran players and for whatever reason players losing a little mental sharpness as time goes by. I firmly believe the mental sharpness goes before the physical ability, but maybe it is a combination – a tiny decline in both.

A player can stay mentally at the top of his game for only a brief period of time. Between 2003 and 2010, no one did that better than Federer, but his time seems to have come and gone.

Hopefully, Federer can experience a renaissance and prove me wrong. After all, if Federer is getting old, what does that mean for me?

I played tennis for much of my teens and 20s and remain a huge fan of the game. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, I liked some of the game’s “bad boys,” like Jimmy Connors.

But as I grew older, I appreciated the sheer excellence – near perfection – of first Sampras and then Federer. I really appreciated Sampras, not only for his game, but also for his attitude. He seemed to be a good guy.

Then, he retired about the time Federer was ascending. Federer was fun to watch – his effortless greatness. His game was so unlike my game that was … Well, now is not the time to talk about my game other than to say it was the opposite of the grace that is Federer’s game.

But here at the age of 32, he is on the verge of being a second-tier player.

I have come to the conclusion that I am too old to find another player to root for in tennis.

I have spent most of my adult life rooting for players and teams that fit into certain parameters. I liked Connors when I was very young and rebellious. As I grew older, I appreciated not only Federer’s and Sampras’ tennis abilities, but the humility and respect for others that they displayed.

In football, I have rooted for a Manning as long as I can remember – first Archie and later Peyton and Eli.

I am too old to anticipate rooting for their children.

So, as a lover of sports, I would appreciate it if Federer catches a second wind. After all, Australian Ken Rosewall did win majors at age 37 way back in the 1970s.

And regardless of what happens to Federer, hopefully Eli and Peyton will be around for a few more years.

BOBBY HARRISON is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.