Twenty Grand Slams and a better head-to-head history against Daniil Medvedev is all Rafael Nadal had going for him entering the Australian Open final.
Before you think those are adequate allies, he’s ten years older than his 25-year-old opponent, a whole five inches shorter, and has more miles on his now-fragile legs than most long-distance runners, at least more than the Russian.
And yet, five hours and 24 minutes later, Medvedev shrugged as incessantly as a confused child on the verge of tears. He wasn’t grieving the loss, he probably hasn’t yet gotten around to that, he was only shaken by what had happened.
How had he, the future, become a mere bystander to greatness when he was supposed to become it? How on earth did Nadal do what he did?
Nadal won. He claimed his 21st Grand Slam title. No one dared to doubt his spirit, but his legs, his ageing body? On crutches last year and bitting the trophy the next, how?
“The advantages that accrue from experience and maturity are so great that if you can subtract physical decline from the equation, it makes sense that the best players are going to be 35 or 40,” says Sai Prasanna from A3 Performance - a training centre which caters to some of the best athletes in the country.
“And I think that’s going to be more widespread and we’re in for lots more 35 and 40-year-old world champions in the future as well,” he insists.
The truth is even those who reckoned it was time for one (now The One) of the ‘Big Three’ to move over and wave the white flag, couldn’t bear to watch a fall from grace so ungraceful. There was no shame in losing in the finals to someone as skilled as Medvedev, but a wipeout?
No one expected Nadal to give in or give up, and though he has only come from two sets down to win four times in his storied career (last of which happened in the fourth round of the 2007 Wimbledon against Mikhail Youzhny), it didn’t feel right to write him off.
‘Give us a fight if nothing else,’ the fans prayed. And so he answered, to those who weren’t prepared for The End, and to those who said Father Time’s cold fingers would tame the bull.
The scoreline now reads: Nadal: 7. Father Time: 0. That’s seven times Nadal has missed a major, mostly due to chronic tendonitis in his knees, and seven times he has come back.
This phenomenon isn’t isolated to the likes of Nadal in tennis. Roger Federer is 40, and though practically out for the count, he’s still raising hopes of a comeback. Novak Djokovic, at 34, looks like he has at least half a decade of top-draw tennis left in him. Serena Williams at 40 doesn’t look like she is done either, and by ‘not done’, it doesn’t mean participation, it means winning titles and remaining on top of the mountains climbed by few.
“As you age, your growth hormone drops,” explains Ryan Fernando, a celebrity dietician. “Growth hormone is one of those hormones which helps in day-to-day recovery. Until the age of 19 you have growth hormone released helps in instantaneous absorption. Between the ages of 19 and 40 there’s a drastic drop in growth hormone and adequate nutrition plays a key role in improving performance by assisting mitochondrial biosynthesis as well as wear and tear.”
He continues: “For example, the digestive system of Robin Uthappa when he was 19 is not the same as his digestive system now. That means if he ate a tomato at 19 and if he eats a tomato now, the rate of absorption of, say lycopene, is very low. Lycopene is one of those molecules which boosts lung function. So as you get older, the absorption of food is less potent.”
Beyond tennis, football great Cristiano Ronaldo (36), American football legend Tom Brady (44) who retired only last week, basketball icons LeBron James (37), Chris Paul (36) and Anderson (39) and golf superstars Tiger Woods (46) and Phil Mickelson (51)… these are some of the names on the wrong side of 30.
“Ageing elite athletes know something the rest of us don’t and use tools most of us haven’t heard of yet, like brain-stimulating headsets that enhance motor skills (bio-motor abilities) or DNA testing to predict injuries and performance,” notes Sai.
“Most athletes operate under a more holistic notion that working smarter while working harder is the key to longevity in sports. Genetics is a hot area right now. What we know about what genetics tells us about athleticism and how long we’ll be able to keep improving.”
There are thousands of world-class athletes pushing the boundaries of greatness after 30, but before you fall prey to the illusion that 30 is the new 25, it’s not. Sport will always be a journey for the young and an adventure for the old. Perhaps why older athletes are more curious and invested in their evolution.
“Sometimes, especially when you’re an older athlete used to being on top of your game, you cruise through, mentally accumulating information on your opponent and then when you’re needed to push, you know exactly how to because of all the knowledge you have,” says a prominent strength and conditioning trainer.
“Which is why, when I heard about the Nadal win, coming back from two sets down, it didn’t surprise me at all. These athletes are tuned in to delivering at their best when the odds are at their worst. They tap into an adrenaline reserve that we can’t. I have seen this with some of the best cricketers in the world. The worst part is that they can’t explain how this happens or why it happens. They just instinctively do it.”
“It’s like what super athletes like Michael Jordan and Michael Schumacher and guys like them used to do,” he adds.
Evidently, athletes delivering past their sell-by date is not a recent phenomenon, but the frequency of highly-successful ‘oldies’ has grown substantially. “When working with athletes like Virat Kohli and PV Sindhu, we do microbiome testing and genetic testing and this helps us assess them better. Once we have this information, we can customise their diet and ensure they perform at their best,” says Ryan.
Sai skims the surface on some of the things athletes do: “Cognitive training protocols, Virtual Reality training, wearables, sleep tracking, vision tracking and movement tracking. Recovery tools such as Theragun PRO Percussion Massager, Rapid Reboot Compression Boots System, Game Ready Cold and Compression Therapy Unit, Aquilo Cryo-Compression Recovery Pants, Pro-Muscle Stimulator, Pso-Rite Psoas Muscle Release Tool…”
None of this means they can outrun Father Time forever, it only means a rare few earn the right to laugh in his face for a bit longer than others. If nothing else, winning titles at the cost of ageism-fostering youngsters must be thoroughly rewarding.