Are we in a time warp? How is it in tennis, a sport renowned for physically breaking down its participants over time, that two 30-somethings could still be so dominant?
After all, Roger Federer is 36. He didn’t win a grand slam between 2012 and his breakthrough at the Australian Open this year, and it looked like Rafael Nadal’s career was going to be cruelled by injury after his French Open win in 2014.
And yet Federer and Nadal have completely dominated tennis this year. Not only have they split the four major titles this year, they’ve also combined to win more than half of the ATP’s rich Masters series events so far in 2017.
Roger Rasheed has coached some of the next level stars like Gael Monfils, Jo Wilfried-Tsonga and Grigor Dimitrov who had hoped to have bridged the gap by now.
He has seen first-hand the extraordinary fighting spirit of Nadal and the unique shot-making skill that has defined Federer’s career.
“First of all you are looking at two all-time greats, not just in tennis but also just generally in sport,” Rasheed said.
“They’re two passionate individuals who are committed to playing competitive tennis. Who love it. Mentally they’ve stayed very fresh around the game.”
Rafa and Roger rose without today’s distractions
Both players have managed to re-invent themselves without being substantially slowed by wear and tear, according to Rasheed.
“They’re two athletes who keep projecting themselves and pushing forward and finding better value out of their games,” he said.
In the meantime, the other two great stars of the era, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, have fallen by the wayside due to injury and form. Both are 30.
So, why aren’t there more young stars pushing through to challenge the current status quo?
Rasheed has spent countless hours working with talented young players who have struggled to produce their best on court while coping with off-court issues.
“The reality is it takes longer to become an elite professional tennis player now. It’s not like it was 10 or 15 years ago where you had to be there at 18, 19,” he said.
When Federer was in his teens, his life was all about tennis, but for today’s generation, there are more distractions.
“Social media takes over as well,” Rasheed said.
“That’s part of the sporting package now to understand how you can actually work with that. You’ve got more people getting access to you. There’s a bit of that which creates a bit of instability.”
No one ready to take over yet
So who are the challengers to the two old gentlemen of tennis?
Germany’s Alexander Zverev is already a Masters series winner and has been identified by the likes of John McEnroe as a future world No.1.
Austrian 24-year-old Dominic Thiem is ranked inside the top 10 and is one of few players on the circuit to have defeated Nadal on clay.
Then there’s Australia’s own enigma Nick Kyrgios who is blessed with the physical tools to become a grand slam champion but has yet to master the mental side of the game.
And while Rasheed thinks Murray and Djokovic will challenge the top two again, he says there’s no one ready to consistently beat the old guard.
“The playing pool has definitely changed the landscape in a sense that we’ve got some younger guys who believe they can mix it with these top guys.
“Will it be week in, week out? Not at this stage but it will be at some point,” Rasheed said. “Roger, Rafa, Novak and Andy, they’re still the favourite guys to win seven five-set matches.”
By the time Federer and Nadal are finally past their prime, they’ll own just about every significant record in their sport … but as 2017 has shown it’s far from game, set, match.