Updated: March 9, 2021 10:52:04 am
By being the World No 1 for the 311th week in his career, Novak Djokovic has occupied that spot longer than any other player. Roger Federer held the previous record, 310 weeks, after he surpassed Pete Sampras’ tally of 286 weeks back in 2012.
Between the two, Djokovic and Federer have been World No 1 for just under 12 years, and when you add Rafael Nadal’s tally of 209 weeks – or four years – at the top, the Big 3 of tennis have dominated the game for the past 16 years. It’s a testament to their patience and dominance that has seen them claim 58 titles combined over the last 70 Grand Slams.
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And with Federer, 39, now returning to the tour after a year absent because of multiple knee surgeries, to join Djokovic (33) and Nadal (34), there seems no sign that the Big 3 are planning to go away.
But such longevity cannot be based simply on the remarkable talent the three undoubtedly possess. Advancements in sports science, reduced match times and tournament exemptions have helped them prolong their peak at the top of the game.
“There are so many things happening now that can help you prolong your career, especially for the top guys,” says former World No 18 Vijay Amritraj.
“You’re playing shorter duration matches, you’re financially more secure so you don’t have to play both singles and doubles. So you are given an opportunity to lengthen your career for as long as you can manage.”
Has the ATP made any regulations to help older players?
In 2009, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) – the governing body of men’s tennis – added a regulation to the official rulebook under Section 1.08, titled ‘Reduction of ATP Tour Masters 1000 Commitment.’
In a calendar year, there are nine Masters 1000 events – which are just a rung below the Grand Slams. These events are mandatory for higher-ranked players to compete in unless there is an injury concern.
However, according to the ATP rule, players who have played 600 tour matches, have been on tour for 12 years or are over 30 years of age will be allowed to skip one of the nine Masters.
But if a player fulfils all three conditions – just as Federer, Djokovic and Nadal have – that player has complete exemption from competing at the Masters events.
This rule helps the senior players take breaks from the tour in order to recover – something Federer has done regularly for the past few years.
“As you age, the body takes longer to recover and so it’ll be difficult for a player to hit four peaks in a year,” explains Dr Nikhil Latey, physiotherapist and sports scientist.
“Federer doesn’t take part in all four Slams, and since the French Open and Wimbledon are quite close to each other, he prefers one over the other. That ensures he can perform at a high level for the few Grand Slams he plays, and his body can cope with the workload.”
The 20-time Grand Slam champion skipped the entire clay season – including the French Open – for three consecutive years, 2016 to 2018.
How have sport sciences helped players?
“The overall science behind performance and recovery has improved quite a bit – that’s in terms of cryotherapy (ice baths), massages and relaxation, the diet and nutrition,” Latey says. “There’s a lot more knowledge about how to handle all this which allows them to recover well.”
This knowledge and methods, former India Davis Cup captain Anand Amritraj claims, started entering the game towards the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, there were exceptions as players from older generations made age-defying runs.
Legendary Australian Ken Rosewall became the oldest player to win a Grand Slam at the 1972 Australian Open – aged 37; and Jimmy Connors was 39 when he reached the US Open semi-final in 1991.
But as the game started to become more physical – courts slowed down so the average rally-length increased – medical advances became important in helping players recover.
“It slowly started becoming a more scientific approach in the late 80s and early 90s, with Andre Agassi getting in Gil Reyes (his trainer) on board. These players, their approach was much more program-oriented and scientific,” Anand says.
Agassi, who before Federer, was the oldest male player to reach the World No 1 spot when he was 33 in 2003, won the last two of his eight Grand Slam titles when he was in his 30s. He could only stay on court for as long as he could because of the Cortisone injections he would take on his back towards the end of his career.
He’d retire after the 2006 US Open, aged 36, 20 years after turning pro. But by then the wheels for sports science aiding players had already started to turn.
At the 2019 US Open, Djokovic had famously hired a trailer to carry his private Hyperbaric Chamber – an oxygen pod that would help him recover physically after a match. The trailer had been parked inside the Flushing Meadows complex in New York – which had been cordoned off for the chamber.
The focus now has been much more fitness-oriented, with an extensive list of pre-match warmup exercises lasting at least 30 minutes. Gym-work too has been detailed and every muscle has a specific program.
Is tennis more physically taxing now compared to previous decades?
Yes, but matches are much shorter now than what they used to be. In the men’s game, only the Grand Slams are best-of-five set matches, and all sets have tiebreakers. By 2007, the final of all Masters events had switched to the best-of-three set format.
The Davis Cup – which was the last major tournament to adopt the tiebreak – in 1989 – introduced it to the deciding set by 2016. And by 2019, the Davis Cup too had become an entirely best-of-three set contest.
The older generation of players though had to compete in the longer format. And since the prize money back then was not as high as it is now, players had to play doubles as well to earn a living.
“When I won the national title for the first time in 1972, I played a five-set singles match in the semi-final on Saturday and another five-set doubles match with Anand the same day,” Vijay says.
“The next day I beat Ramanathan Krishnan in the singles final in four sets and Anand and I won the doubles final in five-sets. So in two days I played 19 sets. That would be unheard of today.”
Vijay adds: “A singles draw of 32 would have the same players playing the 16-team doubles event.”
Today however, rarely will a singles player compete in the doubles contest.
Is medical science technology available to all players?
Yes, but it’s expensive. Players ranked higher qualify to play at bigger events which offer higher prize money. More prize money allows players to invest in a travelling coach, physiotherapist and trainer. This gives that player dedicated attention from medical experts.
Lower ranked players, who haven’t earned much prize money tend to have a smaller ‘team’ travelling with them – most of the time they travel solo.
The Big 3 can all afford to travel with a full entourage of support staff and family. Djokovic has earned a total prize money of $147,744,252, Federer has won $129,946,683 and Nadal has won $123,843,596 – none of these sums include money they would have earned through sponsorship and endorsements.
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