How does he still do it?

On Saturday I was called by a researcher from BBC Radio 5 Live. He was interested in how Roger Federer is still able to perform at the top of tennis despite his age.

Since that conversation, Federer has become the second oldest Grand Slam winner in the open era (Ken Rosewall won titles at 35, 36 and 37). However, since 2000, only Sampras (31), Agassi (32), and Federer himself have won grand slams while being on the plus side of 30.

At 35, Federer’s latest win at the Australian Open is exceptional.

So how is he still able to compete in such a competitive professional sport?

The ageing process begins to induce a decline in male physical ability around the early 30’s. Borgest and a team of researchers in Australia highlighted the naturally occurring declines in metabolic, cardiovascular and hormonal systems as the precursors for performance decrements in their review study of 2015. These genetic factors cannot be escaped. And while, in well trained populations, the performance effects often do not become significant until their early 40’s, In the tiny margins of elite sport any decline can become evident very quickly.

What makes Federer’s achievement even more impressive is the nature of tennis as a sport. Whilst endurance capacity has been shown to stand up well via training in athletes in their 30’s, the ability to produce power due to the speed of muscle contraction can begin to significantly decrease in your 30’s (Kostka 2005). As tennis moves towards the power end of the sporting spectrum (we have previously talked about its shift), any drop in this key component would surely impact performance.

There is also a psychological element to ageing. For many, accepting you are no longer capable of the same levels of athleticism is difficult. Others are able to adjust their performances to rely on greater experience and knowledge of the various facets of the game. In this case adjustments, rather than relying on experience or knowledge, are probably the key. I would argue experience and knowledge can have an impact in team sport or against lesser players, but in the upper reaches of tennis, against players with similar levels of mastery, it is difficult to argue that Federer’s ‘experience’ would somehow plug a physical performance gap.

A more plausible explanation is that at 35, Federer is just below the cusp at which focused training, nutrition and other adjustments are no longer sufficient to maintain and manage the inevitable age-related declines. This would fit with Borgest et al (2015) who said “performance has been shown to be maintained until approximately the age of 35 years after which it declines slowly”.

Remember Federer’s well-publicised change of racket size in 2014? The new racket gave him a bigger sweet spot, allowing more room for error. Equipment changes are often a response to physical changes. Was this the first sign that his movement was slowing (which could have been linked to the power insight we spoke of earlier). Did other changes occur in his training and lifestyle to maintain his place inside the world elite? 

In the 5 years prior to 2016, Federer had played an average of 76 matches across 19 tournaments. Due to injury and the need to recover properly, he played only 28 matches across 7 tournaments in 2016. The decision to recover and take the time to develop a fitness programme that could address the specific needs of an ageing body have to be key factors in his victory - that and the early departure of Andy Murray who he was due to play in the quarter-finals.

Federer is clearly exceptional. His Grand Slam win at the age of 35 helps cement his legendary status within the game. To maintain his performance levels takes dedication to a lifestyle many of us couldn’t cope with. To recognise the need to adapt his training and preparation displays a psychological maturity, often missing in others.

Add to this the luck of excellent genetics and you have a 35-year-old Grand Slam Champion.

Roger Federer………..The Greatest of all Time.