Serena Williams Till Fernando Alonso - The Common Thread
The trend is moving away from those hanging onto their careers, to being asked not to hang up their boots quite yet
Serena Williams made an important announcement of intention to hang up her tennis shoes at the end of the U.S. Open. But while she is the one sportsperson above the age of 40 who has arrived at that decision, others like Fernando Alonso and Roger Federer continue to chase history and defy past convention.
Williams, while stating that retirement was a word that did not sit well with her, brought to the fore the issue that divides and polarises sport at the moment. This even as she herself is defying convention playing well into her early 40's and after having borne a child in 2017.
Not many have achieved the level of success that the younger of the two Williams sisters has. Even her sister, Venus Williams, estimated to be far more talented and versatile, could not overpower Serena's progress in the sport. A winner of 23 Grand Slam tournaments, which is a record in itself in the Open era from 1968 and one short of Margaret Court's record of 24 in the women's singles, Williams' age seems to be less of the epoch-making facts, but no less significant.
While stating her intention, she made clear the point that the game is divided across gender barriers. She said, "I am here to tell you that I'm evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me. I started a family. I want to grow that family.
"I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don't think it's fair. If I were a guy, I wouldn't be writing this because I'd be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labour of expanding our family."
She stated a valid point, because with her break between 2017 when she last won a Grand Slam, and 2020 when she injured herself on the slippery grass courts at Wimbledon, and was out of the game for the better part of an entire year, few have been able to come close to challenging the halo consistently enough in her own field, let alone surpassing her efforts.
The women's game even copped some flak during the French Open over the issue of visibility, and the ability to sustain viewer interest over a decent length of time. What Williams has achieved is unconventional in her own generation because it was the likes of Steffi Graff before her who were chasing history in the 1990's with 22 grand slams.
That kind of unparalleled determination is rare across sport, sustained over such a lengthy period of time, made tougher on women tennis players. Williams has been so formidable in a career that has included winning all four Grand Slams consecutively twice between 2002 and 2003. She faced a feisty opponent in her sister Venus, who couldn't stop the younger sibling in her tracks, and who was no match for her.
Between 2008 and 2017, she chalked up as many as 13 Grand Slam wins, including three in 2015 alone, winning the Australian Open followed by the French Open and then Wimbledon. That is a lot for someone who won her first ever singles Grand Slam titles at the tender age of seventeen, beating Martina Hingis in the final of the U.S. Open in 1999.
If Williams' retirement from the women's sport leaves a void, longevity in the men's game has come at a cost. While Roger Federer is pushing past 40, knee injuries have kept him on the sidelines. Thus allowing his contemporaries in the sport, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, to surpass him in his record 20 Grand Slam tally record. Thirty-five-year-old Nadal came through in the final of the French Open to bring his tally up to 22, stretching his already phenomenal record on the red clay to 14 wins.
Federer's last Grand Slam win came in 2018, and yet he continues to exude the aura of being one of the invincible of his generation, even as others have caught up to him. He did squander a couple of Wimbledon final match points in 2019, and he might not want that to be his last famous attempt, going for glory again.
It is debatable whether Nadal could have made that 23. While he did get a reprieve in the French Open semi final when German's Alexander Zverev suffered a freak ankle injury during what was a very absorbing, tense match, he himself could not overcome the abdominal tear that he suffered in the quarter-final which he held onto, to eventually have to give Nick Kyrgios a walk in the semi final at Wimbledon last month.
Meanwhile Djokovic, who had quite the tumultuous wait in the transit rooms of the Australian government system over his non-vaccination status before he was disbarred from participating in the Australian Open, found his groove in the all important Wimbledon final. Beating Kyrgios, Djokovic also found himself still in contention in a year when he thought his career would be jeopardised over participation issues stemming from vaccination related government imposed rules around the world.
The interesting part is that while Nadal and Federer have question marks over their injury status, Djokovic, as of now, is not allowed to play in the year's final Grand Slam, the U.S. Open. The decision was slammed as "bulls***" by none other than John McEnroe with the tournament just around the corner.
While the contentious debate remains over whether vaccination rules must restrict participation, there is an equally controversial subject over whether age must dictate terms for sportspersons.
Fernando Alonso, the two time Formula 1 racing champion, created waves ahead of the summer break as the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend turned out to be quite momentous for him. Surreptitiously signing a deal with Aston Martin, Alonso chose to forgo his unsigned contract with Alpine on the sly.
Alpine did not make bones about the fact that they had signed up the Spanish champion in 2021 on a year-to-year basis, and were reluctant to extend a contract for more than one year at a time. Although Alonso, at 41 years of age, has not come close to a world championship in the two years, has been a thorn in the flesh with the Alpine's baby powder blue and pink chassis under him, alongside his teammate Estebon Ocon.
In a strange turn of events, Sebastien Vettel, who was unceremoniously shown the door by Ferrari in the year of the pandemic, found himself virtually forced to call time on his career after Aston Martin reportedly implored him to make a decision on his future ahead of the break. This now seems to tie the story up nicely about two former champions and the irony of finding younger drivers to fill their giant boots.
While one seat at Aston Martin is reserved for Lance Stroll, the son of the part owner of the team, Lawrence Stroll, Aston Martin gave the impression they were looking for fresher legs.
Ironically, the two year deal with Alonso defies that logic, particularly in a year when the seven time world champion, Lewis Hamilton, has looked more and more his age at 37 years. Hamilton is surrounded by much younger drivers who seem to share a better rivalry and healthy camaraderie amongst them. This has injected new life into the sport this year.
The Cricket Conundrum
Age defying sports milestones exist across the board. Where there has been Adam Gilchrist, there has also been Mahendra Singh Dhoni who might have hung up his boots but not for the drama at the Chennai Super Kings camp over the past two years surrounding captaincy contenders in Suresh Raina, Harbhajan Singh and more recently, Ravindra Jadeja.
Ironically, the Chennai Super Kings did not think it worthwhile to retain Faf du Plessis even as the former captain was left out in the cold by South Africa as well in a rather controversial move.
The highest run getter for Chennai in the last year's edition in the final found his age at thirty-seven no barrier to not only finding a place in another Indian Premier League franchisee, the Royal Challengers Bangalore, this year but also, a vacant captaincy seat in lieu of Virat Kohli who stepped down last year.
Kohli's press for a younger Indian captain other than Rohit Sharma for India has fallen on deaf ears as well. And it would seem that while there is something to age/seniority not being the sole elimination criteria, it might speak more to the point that the cricket board and selectors are not quite comfortable appointing a rookie to the role, yet.
James Anderson is grabbing the headlines this week and rightly should. While it is still quite remarkable for a batsman and even more so, a batsman in the capacity of also being the wicketkeeper for the team enduring the length and span of the game, it is far from common for a fast bowler in the modern era to sustain his hunger for the game as England's strike bowler has.
Anderson may be 40 years of age but is still testing the best in the business as evidenced by tourists, New Zealand and India recently. Even being dropped from the series against the West Indies failed to dent the bowler.
He is at an age when another player or sportsperson around the world might have felt faded and tempted to throw in the towel. But Anderson is back in business against South Africa and the cricket world is at peace. The familiar is far too underrated or so it would seem.
Tom Brady, another virtually immortal figure in the world of sport when it comes to America's National Football League (NFL) finally hung up his boots at the raw age of 44. Having stayed the better part of two decades of his career with the New England Patriots where he was part of the team winning the championship six years, Brady turned up for the Tamba Bay Buccaneers for the last two seasons, even steering them to a championship win in the first.
Announcing his retirement in March earlier this year, the contender for the greatest player had this to say, "There is a physical, mental and emotional challenge EVERY single day that has allowed me to maximise my highest potential. And I have tried my very best these past 22 years. There are no shortcuts to success on the field or in life."
Many sporting anecdotes often have a player contemplate his/her retirement with the words "It is better to quit before people show you the door." Too many players hang on even when they know their legs will not carry them anymore.
But the trend is moving away from those hanging onto their careers and reputations by their fingernails, to being asked not to hang up their boots quite yet. Such is the pedigree developed over time and the steep climb for one still learning the ropes.
As Alonso, the youngest world driver champion in Formula 1 in 2005, put it across to reporters recently, "In the sport and social now, we get confused about the age or the performance that a sportsman can do. This is not Tour De France, or the Olympic Games. This is not football…. It's not how younger you are, (it is about how) quick you are. This is not how the stopwatch works in motorsport."
Not a few sportspersons across the world might agree. Enough said