A Lifetime, Measured in Athletic Careers

The other night I was watching a tennis match featuring Felix Auger Aliassime, the 19-year-old sensation from Montreal who seems destined for big things. When I wasn’t grumbling about the fact that Canada has leapfrogged the USA in developing young tennis talent – yes, this frozen country known for hockey now produces better male tennis players than its much bigger, richer and sunnier neighbor to the south – I got to thinking about how long Aliassime’s tennis career might last.

I figured if the odds break his way he could still be playing on the ATP Tour in 2040 or so. And if I’m lucky enough to still be watching him…well, more on that later.

It’s certainly plausible that Aliassime will still be a competitive tennis player in 2040. Players last much longer now than they used to thanks to better fitness and training regimens, better diets, healthier lifestyles and smarter scheduling. In the old days most tennis careers fizzled out by the time players hit their 30th birthday. But today? Tennis players are not only competitive well into their 30s – many don’t hit their peaks until then, and a few are dominant.

In the women’s game, Serena Williams is still maybe the best player in the world at the age of 38. On the men’s side, the top three players in the world today are the same top three as a decade ago: Rafael Nadal (age 33), Novak Djokovic (32) and Roger Federer (38).

So it’s more than possible that Felix Auger Aliassime could be playing on the ATP tour for the next 20 years, when he’s bumping up against age 40.

Which brings me ‘round to the main point of this post:

If Aliassime does play for the next 20 years, I’ll officially be an old man by the time he retires. Not make-believe old man as in my 50s or 60s, which might seem ancient to teenagers and millennials but is really just the middle innings.

No, I’m talking about genuine, real-life old man, as in my late 70s or early 80s. The kind of age where you qualify for every senior discount and people start calling you “young fella” because it sounds cute and you’re supposed to smile and laugh and be a regular good f******g sport about about it.

So, it hit me that if I happen to be tuned into the TV (or computer or Microchip-Enabled Brain Video) when Felix Auger Aliassime plays his last match, I’ll be doing so as a very senior citizen. I might not even remember the first time I saw him play waaaaaay back in 2019, but I’ll probably mumble something along the lines of, “You done good, kid. I knew ya when.”

The sporting world is like that for some people. They measure their lifetimes by the athletes they watched come and go. There’s the first athlete you remember as a kid, and when that athlete retires 15 or so years later, you’ve grown into a young adult ready to embark on the long slog of post-childhood life. Then another athlete comes along and lasts another 15 to 20 years, and when that athlete retires you’re 40 with maybe a family and mortgage. Then the cycle repeats itself so that you’re 60 when the next athlete retires, and then 80, and then…..

The first time I saw Roger Federer play was around 1999 or thereabouts. There was nothing memorable about it. I had no idea he would go on to become a Sports God who probably can’t travel anywhere in the world these days without being recognized. No, in 1999 Federer was just a good looking young dude with long hair and a wide headband and a French-sounding name even though he was from Switzerland. Tennis wise, he didn’t seem that different from 50 other players.

Federer’s life would go on to change in immeasurable ways over the next two decades, and so would mine. I would chase my dreams and career from the Southeast to the Northeast to the West Coast and then back again, get married (I was a late starter), buy a house (late starter), have kids (late late starter) and move abroad.

Around the time Federer was starting his pro tennis career, baseball Hall of Famer Eddie Murray was winding his pro career down. I first saw Murray play when I was in high school and he was a minor leaguer for the old Charlotte O’s at Crocket (nee Griffith) Park. That was in 1976. A year later, Murray moved up to the Baltimore Orioles, where one of his teammates was Brooks Robinson. It was Robinson’s last year in the majors. When Robinson started his career in the mid-1950s, I hadn’t even been born yet.

So there’s three athletes in a single, uninterrupted lifetime: Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray and Roger Federer. Now maybe Felix Auger Aliassime will make it four athletes in a lifetime two decades down the road, if he’s lucky as a player who avoids injury and burnout, and I’m lucky as a human being who produces a heartbeat and breathes in oxygen.

After that, all bets are off.

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