Why Are Tennis' Top Stars Performing Well Late in Their Careers?

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2015

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 27:  Rafael Nadal of Spain and Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic at the net after Berdych won in their quarterfinal match during day nine of the 2015 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 27, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal is back, grinding on clay at Brazil’s best tournament in Rio de Janeiro. Despite career injuries and capricious momentum, Nadal has been one of tennis’ greatest superstars the past decade. His desire and competitiveness are as fierce as ever.

What drives 33-year-old Roger Federer to remain near the top of tennis, even after his glorious sun sinks into the horizon?

Why is Novak Djokovic getting better while his challengers rise up en masse to pluck at his crown?

How has Andy Murray reenlisted as a major contender? Maybe 20 years ago, he would followed the Mats Wilander route from star to journeyman. After all, he had fulfilled his most important dreams. So why does he look like he wants to wrestle the kid next door for his lunch money?

Today’s top stars are more resilient and prepared to succeed at the highest level. Indeed, some of the lesser pronounced stars are still improving well into their late 20s.

Shuji Kajiyama/Associated Press


Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt

Ten years ago, Marat Safin had scarcely blown out the candles to his 25th birthday before he polished off 23-year old Lleyton Hewitt in the Australian Open final. Both players had two major titles, spent time with the No. 1 ranking and seemingly had at least another half decade of great tennis to play.

Nobody knew that their tennis relevance had ended.

The mercurial Safin went supernova. Here was one of the most talented players of the Open era unable to summon up more desire and intensity. There would be no more outbursts, smashed rackets and intermittent vows to return to the top. Within two years he lacked motivation to stay on the tour.

Hewitt paid a different piper. Nobody would question his heart and combative nature. He could hit the streets and bump his slender chest into anyone that crossed his path. "Quit" had never remotely defined a minute of his career. Indeed he is still fighting hard to stay in the the ATP Top 100. Tragically, his body would be wracked with too many blows, never able to bounce back with his youthful form.

STEVE HOLLAND/Associated Press

Safin and Hewitt were highly successful, but symbols of a combustible generation. They burned bright but quickly turned to ashes, falling prey to one kind of setback or another.

Tommy Haas dealt with personal adversity and physical setbacks. Gustavo Kuerten’s hips could not hold up, and Guillermo Coria and Juan Carlos Ferrero were also wracked by injuries.

Carlos Moya lost his desire. Marcelo Rios struggled to manage his life and career. Andy Roddick held on for a nice career but his belief was more often tenuous when Federer took his generation's reigns to ride solo.

These were not new problems peculiar to the likes of Safin and Hewitt, but motifs in a demanding sport that was only increasing its physicality. Father Time ultimately leaves his touch on all manners of casualties.

The current generation is the real outlier.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 08:  Rafael Nadal of Spain holds the Coupe de Mousquetaires as he poses with Novak Djokovic of Serbia after their men's singles final match on day fifteen of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 8, 2014 in Paris, France.  (Photo b
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Nadal-Djokovic Effect

They are not immune to injuries, personal tragedies and setbacks. They have been tested by brilliant rivals and internal questions. Yet, Nadal and Djokovic have more than endured the tests of years into this past half decade of competition. They have set the pace for excellence and raised the bar of physical tennis for the entire tour.

They have continued to hunt down their goals, establish new records and create new challenges.

They have great support teams, modern advantages in fitness and exceptional timing. They understand how to peak at the right time, when to rest and recover and when to answer the gong of war.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 26:  Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland and Rafael Nadal of Spain hug at the net after Wawrinka won their men's final match during day 14 of the 2014 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 26, 2014 in Melbourne, Austral
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Above all, their single-minded determination drives them on. They know how to win and will stop at nothing to bounce back, reset and relaunch themselves onto the Plains of Troy.

"I believe that Nadal and Federer and even Andy(Murray) made me a better player and made me understand what I needed to do to improve my game to get on their level," Djokovic said via ABC.net. "In another era I maybe would be in double figures already but I am a better player as a consequence of being a rival of theirs."

Meanwhile, Murray has followed their lead, understanding that intensity and pain are merely a package deal through failure and success.

There has also been the inspired play of Stanislas Wawrinka, conqueror of Djokovic and Nadal at the 2014 Australian Open. He has played by far his best tennis at age 27-29. Has it actually been an advantage for him to mature into an iron-willed competitor, made possible by the Nadal-Djokovic model?

Veterans like 29-year-old Tomas Berdych and 26-year-old Marin Cilic are making waves. The former has been consistent but insists he is hellbent on winning a major title (His new coach agrees). Cilic broke through with the 2014 U.S. Open title, crushing his final three opponents (Berdych, Federer, Kei Nishikori) as if it were all in a weekend's routine at the local country club.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Credit this generation's more resilient qualities. Unlike Safin and Roddick, they have not had their hopes battered but have hung in and reinvented themselves. More than ever, top players talk about "belief" and "confidence," as if they have been conditioned with their minds as well as their big groundstrokes.

They have risen above a rabid world of super fandom, social media and discussions of legacies. They relish challenges with a modern awareness, knowing that their actions are always on trial. And they do not back down.

Nadal's countenance is still the standard. He grimaces, grunts and urges himself on while imparting sage lessons to his latest victim, Spanish youngster Pablo Carreno Busta.

He is on to the quarterfinals, just another all-important step in the design for a 10th French Open title.


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