Helping hand: Sports science, tour rules, greater prize money play a role in Big 3’s continuing dominance in tennis

Three hundred and 11 weeks. That’s nearly six years. You can fit two Olympic Games or two FIFA World Cups in that time. Even a one-way trip to Jupiter, 886 million kilometres away from Earth, can be completed in that time. On Monday, that’s how long Novak Djokovic would have been the World No. 1 tennis player.

He’s 33 now, 34 in May, and overtook the record (310 weeks as No. 1) held by 39-year-old Roger Federer since July 16, 2012, when the Swiss went past the mark set by Pete Sampras. Djokovic will be setting a new mark on Monday, and Federer – who turns 40 in August – will be returning to the tour this week after undergoing multiple knee surgeries last year.

And then there’s 34-year-old Rafael Nadal, who has 20 Grand Slam titles and is the joint record-holder with Federer for the highest number of men’s singles majors. He’s been World No. 1 for 209 weeks – or four years – making it nearly 16 years of the trio’s dominance.

None in the Big 3 is ready to go away. And as former World No. 18 Vijay Amritraj describes this ‘greatest era’ of tennis, there’s a talented and strong bunch of youngsters “pushing on the door with both arms and legs, but the Big 3 still aren’t moving.”

It’s a testament to their desire and dominance that has seen them claim 58 titles combined over the last 70 Grand Slams.

A majority of the great champions from previous generations left the sport around the age of 30. Pete Sampras – whose 14 Grand Slam title tally once seemed unassailable – retired just a month after his 31st birthday.

If the Big 3 had retired a month after their own 31st birthdays, their Grand Slam tally would have been Federer 17, Nadal 16 and Djokovic 14. But changes in sports science, off-court routines and the availability of greater prize money than previous generations have helped them stay at their peak for a longer duration – let alone continue in the game.

“There are so many things happening now that can help you prolong your career, especially for the top guys,” Vijay explains. “You’re playing shorter duration matches, you’re financially more secure so you don’t have to play both singles and doubles. So, you are given an opportunity to lengthen your career for as long as you can manage.”

ATP Rules

Along with sports science, scheduling of events plays an important role in longevity.

“As you age, the body takes longer to recover and so it’ll be difficult for a player to hit four peaks in a year,” explains Dr Nikhil Latey, physiotherapist and sports scientist.

“Federer doesn’t take part in all four Slams, and since the French Open and Wimbledon are quite close to each other, he prefers one over the other. That ensures he can perform at a high level for the few Grand Slams he plays, and his body can cope with the workload.”

But Federer, who skipped three consecutive clay seasons (including the French Open) from 2016 to 2018, would not have been able to opt out of events had the ATP not passed a regulation in 2009.

Section 1.08 of the ATP Rulebook titled ‘Reduction of ATP Tour Masters 1000 Commitment’ says that players who have appeared in either 600 tour matches, played for 12 years or are 30 years or above, will be exempted from competing in any one of the nine mandatory Masters events.

However, if a player fulfils all these three criteria – Federer, Nadal and Djokovic do – “then the player has a complete exemption from ATP Tour Masters 1000 player commitment.”

Meanwhile, the Grand Slams are International Tennis Federation (ITF) events and have no requirement criteria.

Sports science

“The advent of a more scientific approach to recovery has led to the longevity of today’s players,” says former India Davis Cup captain Anand Amritraj.

The higher-ranked players on tour travel along with their own physiotherapists and trainers, as well as their coach, agent and family – all of whom have a role to play in the player’s fitness regimen and recovery.

“You have so many people travelling with them… Now when you hear the speech of a winner or runner-up of a Slam, all you hear about is ‘I want to thank my team,’” says Anand, who along with younger brother Vijay was a Davis Cup mainstay for India throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

“I was talking about it with Vijay the other day, the only team he had was me and I had him.”

The 68-year-old explains that the trend of using sports science started creeping into the sport towards the early 1990s “with Andre Agassi getting in Gil Reyes (his long-time trainer). The approach now is more programme-oriented.”

The American, who before Federer was the oldest male player to reach the World No. 1 spot when he was 33 in 2003, won the last two of his eight Grand Slam titles in his 30s. He could only stay on court for as long as he could because of the cortisone injections he would take on his back towards the end of his career. He’d retire after the 2006 US Open, aged 36, 20 years after turning professional. But by then, the trend of sports science aiding players had gathered added momentum.

At the 2019 US Open, Djokovic had famously hired a trailer to carry his private Hyperbaric Chamber – an oxygen pod that would help him recover physically after a match. The trailer would be parked inside the Flushing Meadows complex in New York – which had been cordoned off for the chamber.

Even the pre-match warm-up routine now is an extensive set of exercises that lasts at least 30 minutes.

“The overall science behind performance and recovery has improved quite a bit – that’s in terms of cryotherapy (ice baths), massages and relaxation, diet and nutrition,” Latey adds. “There’s a lot more knowledge about how to handle all this which allows them to recover well.”

Back in the days of the Amritraj brothers though, running was all there was to fitness training.

“Nobody did any major weight training in those days. Maybe Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, but that was mostly just using a five- or 10-pound weight and raising it over their head or just forward and down a few times. Very minimal stuff,” Anand adds.

“In our generation, parents and coaches said you shouldn’t do too many weights because you’ll get ‘Muscle Bound’ and then you won’t be able to move on the court because there are too many muscles. Essentially, we relied on luck and good genes.”

And massages, which are readily available for players at tournaments, were a rarity.

“The luxury was getting a massage after that, and we had that luxury only during Davis Cup. We had a guy from Calcutta who was, not really a masseur, but basically somebody to just rub the legs.”

Physical now, but shorter matches

The stakes are greater now because of the amount of money involved, and the game has become much more taxing physically. Slower courts make for longer rallies, needing better physical conditioning. There’s also been talk in some pockets about the prospect of doing away with best-of-five- set matches at the Grand Slams.

The finals of all ATP Masters events were cut down to best-of-three sets by 2007.

Back in the days of the Amritrajs though, most matches were best-of-five-sets.

“When I won the national title for the first time in 1972, I played a five-set singles match in the semi-final on Saturday and another five-set doubles match with Anand the same day,” Vijay says.

“The next day, I beat Ramanathan Krishnan in the singles final in four sets and Anand and I won the doubles final in five sets. So in two days, I played 19 sets. That would be unheard of today.”

There were also no tie-breakers back then. The Davis Cup – the last major competition to introduce tie-breakers – only did so for early sets in 1989, and then extended it to the deciding set in 2016.

But the lower prize money meant that to make a living, players had to compete in doubles as well. “A singles draw of 32 would have the same players playing the 16-team doubles event,” Vijay adds.

Former World No. 1 McEnroe won nine men’s doubles Grand Slams along with his seven in singles. Connors had two doubles titles with his eight singles ones.

“If they say tennis is much more physical now, maybe it is, but for a much shorter period of time,” Anand says. “All tour matches now are three sets. And we had long rallies too – 30-40 shots or so. You couldn’t put the ball away with the wooden racquets.”

There’s no denying the talent of the Big 3. But even they have had to rely on the advancement in medical sciences to help stretch the seemingly endless peak of their careers. And now that the trio is back on court together, in these uncertain times, they’re the only constant.