Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic at 30: The lessons they need to learn from Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal
The roaring 20s are over for Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. Michael Hincks looks at what the pair must do to carry that fire into their 30s.
The presence of 30 candles on the birthday cake will have done little to brighten Andy Murray's mood, nor Novak Djokovic, who reached the mark seven days after his old adversary.
The milestone comes at a time where the world’s top two are flailing. Neither have enjoyed the best of starts to 2017.
Upon claiming the number one spot from Djokovic last November, Murray has reached one final this season – where he ran out victorious in Dubai over Fernando Verdasco – while the Briton struggled Down Under when crashing out to Mischa Zverev in the last 16 of the Australian Open.
Andy MurrayGetty Images
Djokovic meanwhile, has deeper lying problems. The Serb has struggled for form since he finally clinched the French Open title last year.
Victory at Roland Garros brought with it a career Grand Slam – a fitting achievement for a tireless champion – but following the ultimate high, few foresaw Djokovic's problems ever since.
The Race to London rankings perfectly quantify the struggles of both Murray and Djokovic. Sure the duo remain one and two in the world overall, but their efforts this year see the Briton lie 13th, while Djokovic is just ahead in 7th.
And following a miserly Madrid Open for both (though Djokovic did go on to reach the final in Rome), the pair will now head into their 30s fearing that their best years are behind them.
Novak DjokovicGetty Images
However, they need only look at the top of this year's standings to see that there is hope in the form of a Swiss and a Spaniard.
Reaching 30 usually means the 'veteran' tag precedes your name in print and conversation, but Roger Federer has since proved that it can be replaced with 'Grand Slam champion'.
So not for the first time in their careers, it's clear what Murray and Djokovic must do – they must follow in the footsteps of their (currently) fiercer, and slightly older, competitors.
Of course, they’ve forged their own paths to the top, and with it their own unique styles, but the duo before them laid down a benchmark both on and off the court about what it takes to be a champion in these modern times.
Switzerland's Roger Federer and Spain's Rafael Nadal pose for a photo ahead of the Australian Open finalReuters
Murray and Djokovic have had to battle through it all. They’ve endured countless games at neutral venues where Federer has received nearly all the adulation. Murray has even had to contend with a divided crowd in their two Wimbledon encounters thus far.
But in their careers, so far, one thing that Murray and Djokovic have not done is bow down to this duo. They’ve spoken of their admiration, perhaps more reluctantly you feel from Djokovic, but they’ve never rolled over when facing Federer and Nadal. Most of the time, they’ve even flourished.
It’s what has made them both champions in their own right. It’s how they’ve both reached tennis’ summit.
And now it is clear what Murray and Djokovic must do. Much like they would have done at the start of their careers, they must once more learn from Federer and Nadal in order to usurp them all over again.
Roger Federer embraces Andy Murray after winning their match at the WimbledonReuters
Federer was aided by his injury absence before clinching the Australian Open, but there were obvious signs before his time out that the Swiss was changing his game.
The 35-year-old had already begun to shorten points wherever possible, but his 18th Grand Slam title was the clearest evidence of how you must adapt to the game as you get older.
The Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final of 2008 will stand out long in the memory, it was a baseline tussle between two giants of the game – but what we saw at the Australian Open final earlier this year was a completely different showdown.
Federer stepped in to quell the Nadal forehand before it could take effect, while the former’s service game – which has improved year on year – was enough to make the shortest of points even shorter.
Murray and Djokovic will soon come to accept that a change in style is needed. The pair leave viewers breathless as they dash and stretch to reach the near-impossible, but as time goes by, they will be the ones puffing and panting if they look to maintain their current style.
Somehow, this duo must rediscover that fire in the belly without burning out their bodies.
Djokovic’s birthday next Monday will coincide with the weekly publication of the ATP rankings. And for the first time in its 44-year history, the top five players will be aged 30 or over.
And with this fearsome five continuing to reign supreme over Team NextGen – we have the very real prospect of a player aged 30+ winning each Grand Slam this year.
Federer Nadal Wawrinka Djokovic Murray 2Reuters
That has never happened, and unless Marin Cilic or Juan Martin del Potro can repeat their US Open victories, then it will take a new Grand Slam champion to prevent this from happening.
And while Federer took the Australian Open, Nadal is set to be the French Open favourite. Wimbledon remains anyone’s guess, but currently any 20-something reigning supreme in SW19 would go down as a major shock.
Few would bet against Murray or Djokovic recapturing their world beating form, while it would be foolish the rule out the prospect of either lifting another major trophy.
Federer and Nadal have shown them the way, all they need do is follow.
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