It’s fitting that this year’s Australian Open was played out while we slept. It was like a dream, coming peacefully and with grace. And like all dreams, it was utterly unbelievable. Who would have predicted the Williams sisters would meet in the women’s finals and Federer and Nadal in the men’s? The script was too perfect. It was vintage tennis, possibly the final moments of a chapter or maybe the opening shots of an epilogue.
What’s most memorable about Roger Federer’s storied career, which can almost certainly now be described as the greatest in tennis history, is his style. He’s so smooth and fluid that somehow it doesn’t seem like he’s trying at all. That’s why it was such a shock when old age slowed him, half a year gone to a bum knee. Even more shocking was the return. His first Grand Slam tournament back, and he wins it, classic Federer. Of course.
And he was joined by Rafael Nadal. Had Nadal played at another time, he too might be considered the greatest ever. His entire career, he’s been in lockstep with Federer, matching each other every step of the way. He was the other half to the greatest rivalry tennis has seen, and the winner of the greatest match ever played. He’s struggled lately—just like Federer—and changed his coach to get back on track. He’s trying to play the game differently now, a little less forcefully, so that he can play longer. His first Slam finals back, and it’s against Federer. Of course.
Then, there are the Williams. Serena and Venus, long the center of the women’s tennis universe, back again. Serena was never gone, but Venus has battled Sjogren’s Syndrome (an immune system disorder). This is her first Slam final since 2009, and it’s against her sister, just like old times. Of course.
Those four are not alone. Sports always comes in eras, and we’re seeing the end of what was likely the best, across all sports. Last year featured the undisputedly best swimmer (Phelps), sprinter (Bolt) and long distance runner (Mo Farrah) ever, compete in what was likely their final Olympics. Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan retired. Tiger Woods is slowing down, and Floyd Mayweather doesn’t have many more fights in him. David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez hung it up, Peyton Manning left a champion, and Jaomir Jagr, at 44-years-old, was selected to the NHL All-Star game this year, before he’ll likely retire as well at season’s end.
This collective last hurrah might be the effect of improved training and medicine, or it might really be caused by that mythical belief we have in sports, that these guys and gals really can dig into whatever they have left to leave it all on the field. That they’re a little super human. I’ll choose to believe in some combination of all of that, because no matter how much money you’re spending on your body (I’m looking at you James Harrison, with your $350,000 a year), you’ll never maintain greatness without a little extra drive. Federer has it. So do Nadal and the Williams sisters, a need to prove themselves one more time.
Nobody has that drive more than Tom Brady, probably the best comparison to Federer and the greatest quarterback of all time. This Sunday, he’ll play in Super Bowl LI, and he’s playing the best football in his life at 39 with one receiver who played quarterback at Kent State and another who played lacrosse at Penn State. No team can stop him, because of the way he plays the game. He doesn’t force anything. He lets the game happen for him, lets plays live on their own, and knows when to push things along with a perfect 10-yard pass. Brady’s hitches are Federer’s backhand, the pinnacle of precision.
Regardless of whether he beats the Falcons, this will stand out to me as Brady’s greatest year ever. He’s ageless, and that’s something that only sports can afford. Along with Federer, Nadal, and a collection of other elite athletes, Brady’s found a second wind. It’s special to watch. While the younger, faster, and more athletic start taking over sports, and this new generation looks every bit as historic as the one preceding it (Mike Trout and Connor McDavid could be the best ever in their respective games), these few have found a way to thrive. They play smarter now, more methodically. It might be hard to think of them in these terms, but Tom Brady and Roger Federer are this year’s ultimate underdogs. They’re playing the Falcons and Nadal, sure, but they’re also playing against bum knees and draining stamina and less strength and speed than they’ve ever had. And somehow, they’re winning. Who doesn’t love a good underdog story?