At the recently concluded Australian Open, 82 year- old tennis icon Rod Laver presented the trophies to Federer and Nadal. A good of mine from Malaysia watched the match and the trophy presentation and was moved to send me a list of Aussie greats from the fifties and sixties who are still with us. It is a remarkably long list. Here it is :
Frank Sedgeman …89
Rod Laver … 82
Roy Emerson … 80
Neale Fraser … 83
Mervyn Rose .. 87
Mal Anderson .. 81
Ashley Cooper … 80
Fred Stolle … 78
Bob Hewitt … 77
This is by no means a complete list. Others include Margaret Smith Court ( 74), John Newcombe ( 72), Tony Roche (71) , Colin Dibley( 71) and Owen Davidson (73). The only Aussie players of that era who passed away early are Lew Hoad , who died at age 59 of leukemia, and Ken Fletcher who succumbed to cancer at age 65. I can’t think of anyone else.
When I got this list I marveled at it. What was the secret of the longevity of these players ? But as I thought about it, I began to understand that it was not all that remarkable, that were plenty of good reasons . Here are some:
- Tennis is a non-contact sport. There is no danger of life threatening injuries as in football, wrestling or boxing. Since the players are on opposite sides of the court, there is no chance of collisions as in soccer,basketball or baseball. And because the ball is not being hurled at a player, there is little chance of getting beaned and seriously injured as in baseball or cricket. When a tennis player does get hit ( a rare occurrence), the ball is comparatively soft and doesn’t result in lasting injury.
- Tennis requires a combination of speed, agility, strength and endurance. Players are not oversize, overweight behemoths as in football. They don’t have to be excessively tall as in basketball. They are slightly bigger and taller than the average and the combination of attributes required to play tennis ensures that they are very fit.
- Tennis players do not have guaranteed contracts or signing bonuses. In other pro sports many athletes, unaccustomed to having large sums of money, go berserk. They start spending like there is no tomorrow, acquire a coterie of hangers-on and not infrequently take to drugs or drink as they party. They run through their cash very fast and live the rest of their lives in poverty, lucky to get jobs if at all. The stress takes its toll and shortens life spans. In tennis, on the other hand, the players have to continue to play well to make a good living. They do not get sudden windfalls but their careers are longer and the money comes in regularly.
- Tennis players compete almost year round. In the U.S, football, basketball and baseball seasons last between six and eight months ( including training camp). The extended off-season means plenty of time for players to indulge in their appetites, get overweight and out of shape.. and then go on a crash diet to get fit for the coming season. Not good for their bodies or their health.
- Tennis is a game that can be played almost to the end of one’s life. Many tennis pros continue to be associated with the game even after they retire. They become coaches, run training academies or camps. Even when they don’t, they keep playing for love of the game, often well into their seventies. Tennis doesn’t require much in the way of equipment or facilities and it is not difficult to find another friend or two or three to play regularly. It shows. Did you see how trim Rod Laver looked at eighty-two?
- . Tennis players, in general, have a more stable family life. Because of the almost year round playing season, they travel with their wives and are not subject to the same temptations as , say, pro football or basketball players.Lest you wonder if this applies only to Aussie players, here are some stats about tennis players from other countries. Among those still alive: Vic Seixas 93, Budge Patty 92, Bob Falkenburg 91,Dick Savitt 89 and Tony Trabert 86. Don Budge died at age 84, Ted Schroeder 85 Ellsworth Vines 82, Jack Kramer 88,Bobby Riggs 77 and Fred Perry (England, 85). Almost the only ones who died comparatively early were Chuck Mckinley ( d. 45) Bill Tilden( d. 60) and Pancho Gonzales ( d.67) but they were not the norm. McKinley succumbed to brain cancer. Tilden was dogged by suspicions that he was gay and it ruined his later life. Gonzales had a tumultuous life during which he was married and divorced six times and died in poverty.The reasons then for the longevity of tennis players are no secret. They would seem to be regular exercise, moderation in eating and drinking, stable finances, a fulfilling family life and continued devotion to exercise and fitness even in retirement.
Happily, these are things that we all can do or aspire to.