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Keith Strudler: Roger Federer

 You know what they say in sports. There’s nothing like that 18th title. That’s the mantra right now for tennis star Roger Federer, who’s hoping to do just that in this final week of the US Open. Federer will play Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals, the next match in what has been a relatively simple run towards the event’s final weekend. Federer would be a favorite in both this match and the semifinal, although could face the top seeded Novak Djokovic in the final, if all stays to form. Djokovic defeated Federer in the Wimbledon final earlier this year, which some assumed might be Roger’s last chance, as they say.

At 33 and a lifetime on the professional tour, Federer is essentially a senior citizen of the sport. His chief rivals are five to six years his junior, and he’s no longer the invincible athlete he once was. Where making the finals of a tennis major was once a given for Roger, now it’s an accomplishment. And winning one, of course, would be far more than that. Federer already holds the record for most major victories with 17. That’s three ahead of Rafael Nadal, who many though would easily surpass Federer before his continued string of injuries – including the one that’s sidelined him from this year’s Open.

Few athletes 33 or older can claim much tennis success, at least at the top of the charts. In the so-called Open Era of men’s tennis, beginning in 1968, only five times has an athlete over 32 won a major – the most recent in 1972, before the game’s true athletic evolution. And three of them were by Ken Rosewall, his last at 37 years of age. Since 2000, only twice has someone over 30 won a major, the oldest being Andre Agassi in 2003 at the advanced age of 32. So while 50 may be the new 40 in real life, 30 is definitely the real 65 in tennis years.

There are a whole lot of reasons why tennis is a young man’s game, most obviously the intense athleticism required to both cover the court over potentially five long sets and play what’s commonly known as power tennis, where serves regularly push 140 miles an hour. With that comes continuous injury risk, something that increasingly unavoidable with both age and mileage. And as athletes progress not only in their careers but also their lives, it is naturally more difficult to create the necessary inspiration to be the world’s best. It’s hard to find a 35 year old athlete that’s as hungry as a 25 year old one, when ignorance can be your best weapon.

So all that makes Federer’s current run in this year’s Open that much more urgent and dramatic. If he can’t pull of the improbable, the next time, he’ll be 34, assuming he makes it back. That’s maybe the real truism of the aging athlete. There isn’t always a next year.

But with the bad comes some good. Particularly in tennis, there is no more beloved figure than the senior champion making a final charge. Tennis fans vividly remember Jimmy Connors’ run into the US Open semi-finals in 1991 at the age of 39, where his final match was more New York love affair than athletic contest. Jack Nicklaus went from legendary to immortal in winning the Master’s golf event in 1986 at the age of 46. So even if Federer might need to fight father time, he’ll have all of Arthur Ashe stadium at his back.

He’ll also have an appreciation implausible by his younger opponents, an understanding that this might in fact never happen again. Far too many athletes fail to appreciate the journey en route to the destination. Win or lose, that’s not likely with Roger Federer, who’s fierce competitiveness may have previously overshadowed his ability to see the larger picture. As they often say, youth is wasted on the young – for perhaps one fortnight, Roger Federer may have the best of both.

You’ll hear more than a few commentators suggest that Federer is playing for legacy now, a chance to further establish himself as the best that ever was – and perhaps insulate himself from those yet to come. Maybe there is some truth there. But I’d like to think he’s not playing for forever, but for right now, where he can enjoy what it feels like to be the best a something – not in perpetuity, but right now. Because you know what they say. There’s nothing like that 18th title.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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