In Tennis, It’s Not the Years, but the Miles

In a sports world that is tough to understand, Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer give us two disparate examples in a topic we all understand all too well- aging.

As sports fans, we spend a lot of time trying to relate to athletes. We want them to be like us in as many ways as possible. We cling to the ones that remind us of ourselves, whether that’s because they went to the same college as we did or because we simply like the same bands.

The media doesn’t help in this regard, as magazines, newspapers and TV shows are littered with human interest pieces on the athletes we enjoy watching every day.

More often than not, though, athletes are nothing like us. They are in ridiculous physical condition, they have more money than we would know what to do with and they can’t so much as eat dinner out without being hounded for autographs and pictures. This is not something anyone can relate to.

But there is one thing that holds true no matter what your physical condition or vocation.

When it comes to how you feel, it’s not so much the years you have on you, but the miles you have on the odometer.

In tennis, you see examples of this a lot. Right now, the professional tennis tours are seeing an abundance of two types of players.

The first group is a group that has fallen victim to a new reality in tennis. The game is more physical than it has ever been. The tour schedule doesn’t really have an offseason and matches at major tournaments routinely stretch longer than four hours. These players find themselves spending more time on the shelf injured than on the court playing.

The second group includes players that are having great success well into their thirties. With modern training methods, better understanding of nutrition and a watchful eye on how much a player plays, there are more of these players than ever on tour.

For me, the prototype examples of players from these two groups are Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer, respectively.

On the surface, the two players are pretty similar. Both players are 31 years old. Both guys turned pro in 1998. Both players have been the marquee player for their respective nations in Davis Cup play over their entire careers.

Right now, both players are also trying to make the best of the time they have left in their careers. It’s clear that both players are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning.

But that’s just about where the similarities end.

At such a similar point in their respective careers in terms of time, these two players could not be in more different points in their respective careers in terms of expectations and results.

Federer, over the last year, has put together one of the best late-career runs we’ve seen in some time.

In a season that began with many writing him off as a threat to win majors, Federer not only won a major at Wimbledon, but he got all the way back to number one in the world. Going into the 2013 season, there’s no real reason to bet against him having a similar year.

Hewitt had a successful season as well, but success is a relative term. His season was a good one simply because he finished it relatively healthy and he won a match or two at most of the major tournaments. Going into next season, I don’t know that anyone can hope for any more than that.

How we got here is a story of their differences in its own right.

Federer very well may be the most graceful player to ever step foot on court. He hits winners with ease from impossible angles. He always seems to be playing at half-speed and I’m not sure that I have ever seen him break a sweat. He moves so easily that sometimes I don’t think he gets enough credit for being as good an athlete as he is.

Federer might be 31 years old, but with the lack of effort he seems to have to put into each match, it’s not shocking that he has rarely been hampered by injury in his career and that he plays with the energy and movement of a 23 year old.

On the other hand, grace is not a word you would use to describe Lleyton Hewitt. Hewitt makes nothing look easy. All of his points are long and drawn out. Even when he dominates a match, he doesn’t look dominating. He breaks a sweat before the first ball is ever hit. He’s nothing short of a true “grinder.”

It’s this style of play that has caused Hewitt to have to go under the knife several times, including two hip surgeries and two foot surgeries. It’s a wonder that Hewitt can even run at all, much less run around a court for four or five hours against some of the best tennis players in the world. Hewitt might be 31 years old, but with his injury history and his precipitous drop in the rankings over the last few years, you would think that he was a much older player.

Even their motivations to continue to play at a high level come from different places.

Federer has never stopped believing that he is the best player in the game, even when evidence from Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal said otherwise.

Hewitt’s motivation seems to come from simply having a hard head and the “me against the world” mentality that he gets from having played the role of the antagonist for most of his career. He wants to show that he still has what it takes to win at the highest level and that he’s not the unlikable player that many feel he is thanks to his reputation as a testy and hotheaded player.

I’m not sure there are two players more worth rooting for on tour right now, but keeping with the theme, the reasons for rooting for them are very different. You can’t help but get behind one player who continues to be the best in the world against all odds and another who, against similar odds, simply stays healthy and competitive enough to play.

Joe Healy writes for The Fan Manifesto. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_On_Sports. You can follow the entire FanMan team here.



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